She looked at me with her sweet blue eyes and asked this question, “But do you still want to go?” The question surprised me in the moment, and yet I understand why she asked the question. My little sister was seeing me off at the airport and I had tears shamelessly flowing down my cheeks.
Seeing me cry, I guess she began to wonder if I had somehow, at the last minute, changed my mind. All the months of work and planning to return to Uganda, long-term were now a thing of the past, and the new phase of returning to live in Uganda was now my new present.
If I wanted to return and I was so happy to return, she was trying to understand: why was I crying? God had clearly called, gifted, and prepared me for life and ministry in Uganda. I loved the people and many aspects of life there. But, she had also heard about the many hardships of life and ministry and the things I don’t like very much. We had numerous discussions in the preceding days about cultural differences, and the process and daily challenge of living and sharing life with the local community.
I wanted to return, I know the sweet joy and peace that comes from being right where God wants you, and I didn’t doubt for one minute that I was about to head to the place where God wanted me. I knew from previous experience, that would be a place that holds both joy and pain, peace and tension, adventure and drudgery, excitement and frustration, deep friendships and isolation.
The first time a person heads off to into international mission service it’s normal to be giddy with excitement—seeing only the adventure ahead. But once a person has an experience living cross-culturally, the excitement is mixed with the clear reality that a life in another country is a mixed bag. The same things that bring excitement and adventure can also be the things that bring drudgery and frustration.
Transitioning from a busy career working in federal politics where efficiency, long hours, and formality is a way of life into an African culture is a sweet surprise, as the pace of life is much simpler and refreshing. However, in minutes one’s perspective on the exact same thing can change. One minute, I am enjoying sitting on the porch sipping coffee, listening to the birds, and watching the monkeys play. A few moments later this slowed pace is aggravating me. Such as when the internet does not cooperate and I only hope and pray I can get that ONE email to leave my outbox! Or, when I have a whole list of things to do, but at the end of the day I call it success that I merely got a little banking done and loaded minutes unto my phone.
When people hear about life in sub-Saharan Africa, sometimes they struggle to understand why I have sought out this type of a life. “Are you crazy?! Why would you choose to enter a context that holds so much hardship?” And yet, just a few minutes later I may bubble over telling of the joys of life here—lives being changed by Christ, or the simple pleasure of the cooling effect of a boda ride (motorbike) on a hot day. Minutes later we might be talking of conflict and war—yet again—or rodents, snakes, and ants.
So, for my little sister, and anyone else who reads this, I try to explain the concept of paradox of cross-cultural life in sub-Saharan Africa. In our cross-cultural training courses they teach us this concept of paradox, and they begin to indoctrinate us with the concept that we must embrace the idea that things come in pairs. The more we embrace a mixed bag and can express both sides of the coin, the more at peace we will be with the present.
The “expat” community knows the reality of this concept on a deep level. The desire to experience the new, to embrace change—all-the-while missing the old, secure, predictable life. The joys of returning to your Ugandan family, all-the-while missing your family in North America and wishing that somehow these two worlds could be meshed together, that the distance could be made shorter.
The dictionary defines paradox as “something that is made up of two opposite things that seem impossible but is actually true or possible…a statement or proposition that, despite sound reasoning from acceptable premises, leads to a conclusion that seems senseless, logically unacceptable, or self-contradictory…a seemingly absurd or self-contradictory statement that when investigated or explained may prove to be well-founded or true.” (And, if I seem to be having difficulty explaining this concept, I take comfort in the fact that even the dictionary definition of the word seems to contradict itself.)
I wrote in my journal of some of my feelings and reflections on re-entering Uganda: “I don’t know what the coming days and months will hold, but I am convinced and completely at peace He has me here, He has brought me here, He will be with me here, and there are far better things ahead than what I left behind. Thank you, Jesus, for the precious memories of this place, my dear sweet friends—expat missionaries and Ugandan’s alike. Lord, I also thank you for the sad hard memories of this place. If it wasn’t for pain, we wouldn’t recognize joy, would we? God is good and all that He does is good….”
So my dear friends and family, while I miss you and wish that you all could be here with me; while I enjoy the ginger drink here called a “Stoney” all-the-while wishing there was a Starbucks around the corner; know that you are loved and missed. Know that I am incredibly happy to be here. I’m overwhelmed with the joy that God has chosen to send me back to this place. I’m excited to see what God will do in the coming years, embracing the adventure, and yet I’m also needing His strength so very much for the unknown.
I need the Lord’s joy for those moments of frustration. I need His Spirit to empower me in those moments when I feel hopeless or overwhelmed. Yet, I also I experience His joy in those moments when things are full of joy and adventure. I also look forward to the coming days in Heaven when all things paradox will be perfectly resolved. In the meantime our joy is made fuller through tears. We will grow in perspective as we embrace all things paradox. Our hearts are made larger, our hope deeper, as our hands grow bigger holding this big paradox called life.
If you or someone you know wants to take the first step toward career international mission work, consider the Serge missionary Apprenticeship program. It’s a one- to two-year opportunity that helps people discern a call to missions, all the while being in partnership with a long-term mission team and receiving mentoring.