The first time we were invited over for dinner by two missionary couples was about two weeks after we arrived. Shan and I thought it was the strangest thing to receive the following invitation text “We would like you to come over for dinner. Please bring enough bacon to share.” I had never had an invitation contingent upon bacon before but we were pretty hard up for English-speaking friends, so we decided to go. The first problem we encountered was that we didn’t know where to get bacon in our town and the next was that our taxi driver “John Naam” (read about him here) stopped answering our phone calls. We literally spent all day trying to find bacon and then deliberated for about an hour on whether they wanted us to cook it or just bring it raw? We decided to show up with the package of $15 bacon uncooked.
We arrived at the door and handed over the bacon, like a teen handing over a fake-ID, to the bouncer missionary wife guarding the front door. She looked at the bacon, looked at me, and while maintaining full eye contact yells to the other wife “they didn’t cook it”. They rushed to the kitchen to start the job that we had failed to accomplish. We sat through lots of awkward silence and tried our best not to unload the thousands of questions that we had running through our mind.
We kept ourselves mildly composed with our classic 2:1 making-new-friends conversation strategy. 2 parts formalities/indulgences to 1-part needs-based a.k.a. asking the questions that we really wanted to know all along. It’s a recipe in conversation that we developed (probably somewhere in support-raising). It’s like this: you ask two questions only about them, because people love to talk about themselves (like, really let them shine in these questions). This will help them feel at ease when you strike them with what you are really dying to know like:
- “How do we keep mango flies from laying eggs in our underwear so they stop burrowing into our skin?”
- “Is it normal for frogs and feathers to come out of the tap water?”
- “Is constant diarrhea also normal?” *the answer is yes, for inquiring minds
- “Do you want to be my friend?”
Despite our bacon and our 2:1 skills being totally on-point, we were never invited back. In fact, we were never invited to the missionary women’s Bible Study. Not one girl’s night or invitation into the, what we tenderly and naively called, the “mean girl missionary club”. And for several reasons, though painful at the time, this was one of the greatest gifts that God gave me during that first year.
Being rejected (or what I thought was rejection at the time) from the few missionary women in town gave us freedom and time and a desire to push ourselves out of our comfort zone to make friends with Tanzanians. I get it…I wasn’t very good friend material for Swahili-speaking Tanzanians at the time. Who wants to be friends with someone whose language commonality consists of the weather, formal greetings, and how much the bananas cost? Who wants to be friends with an annoying American who passes out burned banana bread to neighbors (read that horrific story here)?
Somehow, I found a few friends who loved me despite me; Mama Mchungaji (our pastor’s wife), my dear friend Zena, Eugene who was still is honest enough to tell us when we make mistakes and many others. They loved us through the most annoying cultural blunders and language barriers. I needed to be knocked off my missionary “sent to serve” pedestal and realize that I was the one in need of being served.
Zena forgave me when I yelled out across a crowd “umependeza kama malaya” (you look beautiful like a prostitute) instead of what I meant to say which was “umependeza kama malaika” (you look beautiful like an angel). And Mama Mchungaji indulged me by letting me “help” her in children’s church. She even let my girls “sing” in the children’s choir; writing out Swahili lyrics by hand and offering to spend extra time helping them learn. It was a blessing to have people love and accept us despite our Americanness.
I am forever grateful for our Tanzanian friends who taught our family and walked with us through our most intolerable times. No one invited us to their country, we just showed up with our luggage (packed with pool floats) and our plans. But despite being dropped in on by foreigners, with open hearts many welcomed us into their lives.
My Tanzanian friendships were blessings, but I was tempted time and time again to look to them for happiness rather than God. They couldn’t fill the void I had…neither could the missionaries. They weren’t meant to. Leaving my wonderful family back home in the States ripped my heart completely open. It felt like I was literally suffocating in my grief. I was broken and desperately looking for ways to patch my pain-filled heart. My idolatry was exposed. Family & friends are good things. They are a gift from God. But even good things can become idols. In fact, isn’t this often how we learn to live with and excuse our idolatry? We excuse it by lying to ourselves about what God wants. We mix up our culture’s obsession with immediate pleasure and gratification, ease and comfort and we add it ever-so-slyly to our theology. We make dangerous statements to excuse sin like “God just wants me to be happy” or “God wouldn’t want me to be without ________.”
Please listen carefully to the way you let yourself talk about, be talked to about, or think about God. He created us. We don’t get to create Him into what we want. I remember before I left for Africa sitting in a service where a pastor’s wife said, “God wants us to be comfortable” and continued to enlighten the crowd that “God won’t call us too far out of our comfort zone because He wants us to feel safe where we are.” WHAT? Have you ever read the Bible? God promises the exact opposite. Followers of Jesus are promised persecution, ridicule, hatred and trials. Jesus said:
“If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours.” John 15:18-20
Yes, God gives us gifts to bring glory to Himself and for us to take pleasure in them, but not to worship them. How can we tell the difference? Two questions are very helpful in exposing this:
· Am I willing to sin so that I can get ________?
· Will I sin if I don’t get __________?
So, there I was, sinning and in despair because I didn’t have my family and I didn’t have acceptance from the missionary wives like I wanted. It was like a direct light was shining down on a place that I didn’t want exposed. I was believing lie after lie. “I deserve this!”, “God, why won’t you give them back?”, “I need to belong!”, “I deserve family and friends.”, “Everyone deserved to feel loved.” were all lies I was telling myself, so I could exploit my mind to make excuses for my sin. I scrambled for months trying to fit in, trying to fill my void, trying to numb the pain.
I finally, by the grace of God, was brought to the end of myself and decided to obey despite my feelings. I decided my only option was to abide in Him (John 15). I decided to stop fighting and rest in Him. I rested, and I read, and I memorized, and I was filled with His Word and His presence. I finally tasted that Jesus was enough, that Jesus was there and could heal my broken heart and everything changed.
Replacing an old idol with a new one was not the answer. Repenting and replacing my idol with Jesus was my rescue. And Jesus did rescue me. He rescued me from being a scared little girl who had a list of “needs” before she could worship and rest and give thanks. God slowly opened my clenched fists which were holding so tightly to what I believed I needed for joy: family, security, community, acceptance, home, feeling needed, feeling valued…all the things I had in America and I had left behind *right there with my Swahili/English Dictionary (story here). My restless heart was finally coming to a rest in my Heavenly Father. For the first time in my life I was starting to feel freedom from my list of needs and replaced it with contentment and a quiet heart finding my joy in Him.
That time can be summed up as a pervasive struggle with God for my heart. Finding satisfaction in Him was the single greatest gift that came from it, but it was not a one-time triumphant declaration of victory. It was war. It is still a war. It’s a daily battle we fight between the flesh and the Spirit. It is a war for our hearts. Our victory lies in Christ’s finished work on the cross, His truth that we have been given in the Bible, and His Spirit leading us.
So, I’m not the new missionary anymore desperately seeking friends. I’m the tired missionary who has spent the last 6 years in the trenches and then saying more goodbyes than I ever imagined. I’m on the other side of “mean girl missionary club” who doesn’t want to love and lose one more time. It’s my battle now to love. It’s my struggle to be open and to welcome others with no strings attached. It’s now my turn to have a heart that fears the sudden loss of yet another friend; another person I’ve shared part of myself and my family with.
I’m on the other side but fighting in the same way I did back at the beginning; and with the same promises of Christ’s presence and goodness and sustaining grace. So, welcome new missionaries! Welcome to this country and to this life. Don’t give up on us who may seem distant. Don’t give up on us when we can’t replace what you had back home. Run to God for your “home”. I can’t make any promises to you other than that our Heavenly Father is enough…and that no one else ever was, ever is or ever will be able to replace HIM.
“Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.”