We have another article in our Lessons Abroad series, and I trust, as always, that it will encourage your faith.
Lord of the Cloud and the Fire,
I am a stranger, with a stranger’s indifference;
My hands hold a pilgrim’s staff,
My march is Zionward,
My eyes are toward the coming of the Lord,
My heart is in thy hands without reserve.
A most appropriate prayer for all Christians, especially for me in my most immediate context abroad. I have successfully lived (that is, survived) an entire year away from my country of citizenship. Lord willing, I will live another year here in the Middle Kingdom, a place that strangely captures your heart. Though certainly still a novice at this whole “living abroad” thing, there are some things I will undoubtedly walk away with in the wisdom graciously given to me by God. So, besides a new language, what have I learned these last 12 months in the mountains of Yunnan?
1. Home is where Christ is
Whether from friends and family in America, or from locals and expats here in China, I get this question a lot: When are you going back home? A fair question, since I have been traveling quite extensively for some time. But I don’t like that question. I don’t like it because it’s wrong. California is not my home. The grand ol’ US of A isn’t either. Nor is it any Christian’s. The Apostle Peter refers to his readers as sojourners and exiles, because they wait eagerly for their true home, a New Jerusalem. Indeed, and so do I. Do I miss America? Some days, very much so. But am I learning and understanding a new language and culture and even experiencing a new normal? Again, yes. But all of this is fluid. Whether I am in California eating Chipotle or in China ordering a bowl of noodles, I am a sojourner passing through this broken world, waiting for the next, where Christ is king and all things are made new. My true citizenship is not defined by what passport I hold, but by who has redeemed me.
2. Cultural roots are deeper than you might expect
Let me swing the pendulum the other direction. As the Lord has sanctified my heart in longing for my true, heavenly home, it has surprisingly come with an increased appreciation for American culture. If you’ve studied culture for any length of time, one of the first lessons is always, “Different doesn’t mean bad.” So, just because another culture does something different than your own culture, it does not necessarily mean they are wrong and you are right. And with that I give a hearty amen. However, as I discover these differences, I can’t help but sometimes prefer my own. And I think that’s okay. I’ve come to love (well, mostly) the culture I was raised in. I love telling students what life is like in California, not because it’s better but because it’s different. As I celebrate their holidays I get to share with them the holidays Americans celebrate and why. So somehow, in all this Asia living, I guess distance really does make the heart grow fonder. We often reflect on all the peoples of the world one day worshiping the Risen King. Each will do so uniquely with their own tongue and cultural expression. I can’t wait to be apart of that, using my own heart language and singing old historic hymns that have shaped our Western Church.
3. Gospel Goodbyes have become a regular part of life
Goodbyes are never easy. And, in fact, rather than getting easier, I believe that the more frequent they are, the harder they get. As a group of expats and I sat in a living room on a recent Sunday morning, we listened to Matt Chandler preach. For a few minutes he discussed these things called “gospel goodbyes.” And, to paraphrase, a gospel goodbye is when one follows the Lord to another physical location sacrificing deep friendships along the way. And indeed, how hard gospel goodbyes are. China was not a whim decision. It was concluded and made clear only after many months of prayer by others and myself. But it came with a price. I said goodbye to my family. I said goodbye to the friends who knew me deepest. I said goodbye to my church and the students I invested my life in. I missed weddings. I’m still missing weddings. And now, as my life has sort of started over, I will one day say goodbye to my local friends and my expat friends, now the people that understand me best. It is likely that after two years here I will never see most of these people again. Not until we arrive home, that is. So why did I do it? Why do I still do it? Why don’t I regret it? Because knowing and obeying Jesus is supreme. The joy of following Christ; the joy of yielding to his will; the joy of surrendering my life and comforts, is greater than any friendship I have here. And he is faithful. He has sustained me.
4. Oh, how sweet his sovereignty is
Uh oh, a Calvinist talking about sovereignty. Here comes Romans 9. Just kidding. Though I unashamedly hold a high view of the sovereignty of God in salvation, the Lord has taught me much about his sovereignty in daily life these last 12 months. I was so busy in college. My schedule was demanding. And that produced a (mostly) productive and efficient lifestyle. Then I came abroad... Today it took me twice as long to get home from school because I got off on the wrong subway stop (and it took me awhile to realize it!). There are many things I still can’t do because of the language barrier. Some days I ask God, and myself “What did I even get done today?” Which, after a few of those in a row turns into, “What did I even get done this week?” Then “…this month?” and so on. One of my biggest fears is that I will waste my two years overseas. The problem with that thought is that it simply is not possible. If the Lord really did lead me abroad—which I am more than confident he did—then none of this is a waste. Because with the same purpose he brought me here he keeps me here. Certainly the sovereign God of the universe did not guide me here only to have me figure it out on my own. No, he is still sovereign over life. Even on the other side of the world he guides my path, he opens doors, and sometimes he even closes them. It is in this my heart rests.
So what have I learned in a year? Well, a lot I guess. Even though I have a new love for the culture in which I was raised, it is certainly not my home. And even in the confusion of feeling unproductive or un-useful after hard gospel goodbyes, the Lord is sovereign still.
Whatever my lot,
Thou has taught me to say,
It is well, it is well with my soul.
Ultimately, this I know. I love Jesus more now than I did a year ago.
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