Home Assignment is hard y’all.
We have been back in the States for a couple of months now, and as truly wonderful as it has been, I’m really looking forward to returning to the other side of the world. And it’s not because I am just travel-weary and romanticizing the place that I have been away from long enough to have forgotten about all the ants in my kitchen cabinets. (Missionaries who complain about America and how much they can’t wait to get back to get back to their simple and wholesome lives somewhere else irritate me almost as much as those of us who think America is the land of all things good and holy. In my opinion, North America and North Africa have about the same number of tally marks under the headings “Awesome stuff” and “Awful stuff”.)
There have been so many long drinks from deep wells in the time that we have been back in the States that have refreshed me. But one of the things that I have been missing about a life far away from here is the availability of spaces in which to be very, very real. And for the past few months, in the shortage of those spaces, I have instead had a vague hungry feeling in the pit of my heart.
For a while I thought that was because my life looks pretty different than it does for a lot of my American peers. I am only popping in for a season. You can’t fit years’ worth of experiences in a single missions committee meeting or coffee date with an old friend. I have found myself sometimes listening to my own experiences told in flashy stories from a pulpit and winced because I know all of the mess on either side of the two minute sermon illustration.
In North Africa, I can’t hide much, even when I really want to. For instance, it is glaringly obvious to everyone that I am a rich person, as uncomfortable as that will always be. It’s not a matter of relativity or something that is either politely overlooked or applauded. It simply is. In North Africa no one will fail to pass up as opportunity to tell me how lovely and fat I have gotten (or how thin and sick I look). There everyone knows exactly how badly I conjugate Arabic verbs or how hospitable I was to my guests or how loudly I yelled at my kids. I can’t hide these things. I stand out in a world where everyone’s lives are already inherently tangled up in everyone else’s.
Some of those examples are a little superficial perhaps. But what’s more is that in North Africa I also live in a community of people who have seen me cry out of fear and anger, who have heard me register my deep disappointment with God’s decisions in conversation with Him, who know how unromantic trying to share the Gospel in a complicated place can be because they see the mess of it splattered all over my life. Even when it’s not comfortable, my raw self in all its shame and glory is pretty apparent.
But flash back to being in the States the past few months and I have sometimes felt like I am walking around in the Facebook timeline world that I peruse from the other side of the computer screen a thousand miles away. Here I can slip right back into the brisk current of just about everything and in the steady swirl of life, I have found myself bobbing around and feeling oddly like an imposter. Whether through accolades or indifference, I have had this growing anxiety that if people actually knew a thousand different things about me they would be so disappointed.Yes. Stepping briefly back into a life I have been away from for a while with a pocket-full of crazy stories no doubt exacerbates that feeling. But the more time I spend with people in my own culture, the more I am convinced that the tension between the desire to be fully known and the terror of it actually happening is not just a missionary problem. Everybody’s life is weird and unrelatable. We all struggle to find safe spaces to let the mask slip and talk about all the scars and imperfections that mar the skin of our souls.
And yet we are so hungry for it.
I tend to think that poets are some of the best theologians. David Whyte is one such poet and these are some of his words that have really resonated with me lately:
“Confession is a stripping away of protection, the telling of a truth which might once have seemed a humiliation, become suddenly a gateway, an entrance to solid ground; even a first step home. To confess is to free oneself, not only by admitting a sin or an omission but to profess a deeper allegiance, a greater dedication to something beyond the mere threat of immediate punishment or the desolation of being shunned. To confess is to declare oneself ready for a more courageous road, one in which a previously defended identity might not only be shorn away, but be seen to be irrelevant, a distraction, a working delusion that kept us busy over the years and held us unaccountable to the real question.”
Confession is not something I do well. Me – a human being equal parts arrogant and insecure. Me – an American woman in 2017. Me – a daughter of the Churches of Christ. There are probably a lot of reasons for this. But confession as an instinct, as a practice, as a posture of my heart, does not come naturally.
Perhaps it doesn’t to you either.
And in that awkwardness there is great loss for both of us.
For the next few weeks I would like to offer up some confessions. Maybe you were already well aware that missionaries are terrified much of the time, that we don’t know how to pray (or in my case, what prayer even is really), that we can be racist and completely lacking in self-control. I really hope you already knew those things. But if you didn’t, or if those are things you struggle with too, please pull up a seat.
Maybe this week we can explore the practice of confession in one way or another. Whether you test the waters through words uttered in your heart to the Father as you drive to work, or words spoken out loud across the table from someone you love deeply. Whether it is confessing a sin or a mistake that deeply hurt someone else, or confessing to the existence of the own crushing pain in your own heart. Whether it is confessing something small, like an unkind word spoken in a hurry or the reflexive smile and joke you use to cover up the disappointment. Or something big, like a long-nursed lie or the fears that control your decisions.
Whatever it is…confess it.
And in loosening our death-grasp on the identities we have painstakingly built may we open our eyes and find each other on the more courageous road.