While in the United States, I had the privilege of meeting with a small group of women who had recently done some short-term mission work in Ethiopia. They were struggling to re-adapt to life back in the United States and felt a deep longing to return to Africa.
However, I actually do not think that they were longing for Africa. I think they were longing for Heaven. Let me explain.
When we leave our home—our place of origin—and go to a place where language and culture are different, we get a glimpse of the greatness of the world that God SO loves. When the smells are foreign, and the clothing is foreign, and the faces and sights and sounds are foreign, we become aware of the fact that we are “other.” We experience what it means to be a stranger.
Then, when we return to our place of origin, we have been irreversibly changed by our travels abroad, and suddenly we feel like strangers in our own home. We no longer think as we thought before. We no longer feel what we felt before. Even the words that come from our own mouth sound strange to our own ears. At that moment, in the place where we feel “other” in our own context, it is easy to imagine that the problem is one of location. We think, The answer is getting back to Ethiopia, where at least I expect to feel like an outsider. Only there, you are “other” as well.
I have come to the conclusion that spending time in a foreign country—not as a tourist, but as one who seeks to understand and engage the culture—awakens in us a heavenly homing device. One that makes us keenly aware that we are no longer able to feel at home in the world. One that reminds us that we are strangers on the earth, destined for life with the Father. We long for a home that has no earthly address. We accept our place as sojourners, travelers, pilgrims, and aliens.
In preparing to meet with this group of women, I asked my son, “After almost five years in France, what have you learned about what it means to live as a stranger?” His answer was profound—I am still learning from it! He said, without even a pause for reflection, “When you live as a stranger, you do not expect people to understand you. Instead, you decide to do your best to understand others.”
My son realizes that those who have not been where he has been cannot be expected to understand what he understands. He, on the other hand, has the privilege of living in both worlds. My son may never be able to explain root beer to a French kid, but he can learn about what French kids drink. It is from there that friendships can blossom.
The deep gift here is that when you live as a stranger, you realize what you do not know. Consequently, it is easy to take the role of student. When you live as a citizen, it is easy to assume that you DO know, and so sometimes you do not work as hard at understanding others.
As citizens of Heaven, we are called to take on the role of student, to seek to understand others, and to not assume that we know. Paul said that to the Greek he became Greek, to the Jew he became Jewish. He sought to understand a person and a culture before he presented the Gospel. This was not just an evangelistic strategy, it was a means of showing love and honor to those whom he was called to reach.
One final note. There may be those who think that I am insinuating that having multi-cultural experience makes one “better” or “holier” than others. I am not. There may be others who would insist that they can fully know or understand these ideas without the multi-cultural experience. I would not agree with that assertion either.
I would not agree, because I know that someone who has fought cancer or lost a child or climbed a mountain has certainly experienced something about God and faith that I cannot understand. God is working to shape each of us into the image of Christ, and He tailors each person’s transformation process to each person’s character, needs, and deficiencies. We must refute the idea that we can all know and understand the same things about God or that we can control the mystery of the sanctification process. We cannot.
We must strive to fully engage where God is leading us and then depend joyfully on the body of Christ. We cannot know it all and experience it all, but God has given us Himself and each other so that we might know the fullness of Christ. It is not a contest. It is futile to play the comparison game. God is at work in each of us. Let us trust Him.
Questions to consider: How do you “strive to fully engage where God is leading” and “depend joyfully on the body of Christ?”
Originally published here on March 17th, 2015. Adapted for Thrive.