A week and a half ago, prior to my grandfather’s funeral, as I ate a large family meal in the fellowship hall of the Boyett Baptist Church (no, that’s not really its name!), I encountered a third or fourth cousin, someone I hadn’t seen since my high school years when I’m sure we talked at some Oklahoma-located family reunion. She came to greet me, reminded me of her name.
Then she said: “Last time I saw you, you were going to be a missionary!” She smiled, as if to say, Wasn’t that cute! or Look at you now! Actually, I’m not sure what she meant. What I heard was a dull clang in my gut, a broken piece of me, an unfulfilled calling.
Of course, she couldn’t have known that my claim toward missions as a 16-year-old was not some naïve silliness. I may have been naïve, but it was real. When I was “called” to missions, it was the most authentic encounter I’ve ever had with God: His voice asking me if I’d go wherever he asked, no matter what he asked me to leave behind. My tender heart begged for some other way. And then, months later, like some deliberating heroine in a Jane Austen novel, I gave my Yes.
When I was seventeen, I went on a mission trip to the Amazon. I traveled with twenty other 15 to 18 year-olds by boat along the Rio Negro, moving from village to village, bringing supplies, children’s crafts and bible studies, and an overabundance of American-Evangelical-Portuguese-Tracts. I may have been ignorant, but still, I loved and ate with and played soccer with the dear people I met. For all my faults, I longed for their hearts. I turned cartwheels with the children. I sang songs with them in Portuguese.
One night, toward the end of the ten days we’d spent on the water and in the villages, I stood alone on the edge of the boat, looking over the dark water, stunned by the brilliance of the stars in that vast sky. (I’ve still seen nothing to equal its beauty.) And I asked God for confirmation. I was going to college and I was ready to commit. I was going to be a missionary. I was willing to suffer. (In my mind, suffering included: hut dwelling, kaki short and hiking boot wearing, and non-marriage for the sake of missions.)
I said, “God, just tell me. Please, just tell if I’m supposed to be a missionary.”
That’s when God’s voice broke metaphor all over me. I felt the Spirit whoosh through me as if to say: This. This thing I’m about to say is the Big Thing.
This is what I heard whispered secret in my head:
Micha, look at this river. Look at its depth. See how wide it spreads. My love is like this, as wide as you can see but moving. Always moving. This is what you need to know: Stay in the river. Let it carry you. Let it cover every part of you, head to toe. Dip under it. Swim in it. Float on it. But always choose this river. Stay in my Love.
There will be different boats. You’ll get on and it will move you along. You’ll stop at a village and you’ll get out. Love the people in that village. Give them what you have to offer. And when I tell you to, get back on the boat.
There will be different villages and there will be different boats. You don’t have to worry about those things. What matters in the river, sweet girl. Stay on the river.
That was it. I cried while God spoke those words to me. I knew what he meant. I knew in my gut it was true. And I knew his answer was not specific to my being a freshman in college. I knew it weighed more, cost more. I knew these were words that needed to settle in me.
Friend, every time I’m asked to leave the village I’ve been given, my heart has broken. Every time my plans have changed. I have begged God:
Let me love that college boy! Let me stay with my best friend all my life! Let me go to the mission field in Kenya! Don’t keep me from this! Let me publish these poems! Let me stay in Philadelphia! Let me live in a warmer climate! Let me choose what I WANT for my kids’ lives. Let me give them a yard and a playscape and an affordable preschool experience! Let me live near my family because they need me! Let me write this book on my own terms!
I want to kick! Why? Why do my friends get to stay in ONE PLACE and make friends that last longer than one year? ONE YEAR? This was my plan, God. Austin was supposed to be home for a long time. We were happy here.
When Chris calls me from Austin and I’m at my parents’ house and my kids are running around outside with their cousins and I’m walking over nephews on the living room floor, I hear the Sad Tired in his voice, I take the phone to the bathroom, turn on the heat lamp so no one hears my breath suck in. I know something’s coming.
They want us to move, he says. What he means is if he wants to keep his job, we move. That’s it. The Big They, the ones who make the decisions that change my life. They have decided that I will live in a new town. They have decided that my son won’t learn to say “Yes, Ma’am” like his polite little Texas buddies. (The Yes Ma’am culture is a small one.) The Big They have chosen that we will live in San Francisco…again.
And I cry on the phone with my husband. I say: I’m okay. I’m okay. You know I’ll go wherever you go. You know it.
And when I hang up, I’m sitting on the side of the bathtub sobbing into my hands whispering things to God in incoherent phrases. Like: Preschool! There’s no way he can go to preschool now. I want them to be able to run. I want it to be easy. I want a babysitter so I can write. Oh God, I can’t afford to write this book.
I’m saying: How? And Why? And How can I bear it?
And then I wipe my eyes because it’s so tender and unreal that I can’t speak it yet. I walk out to the kids in the front yard taking turns with the plastic slide and the mini-trampoline and the grown ups on the porch swing.
Eleven months in Austin, I whisper to God in my head. Eleven months. Really? Because I know that the Big Corporate People who make the decisions to move my family are not the ones who choose the boats I get on and get off.
I know. If I asked you leave everything you know and follow me, will you go?
Yes, I whisper to this God who has taken me over and over to somewhere new, who always gives me grace to grieve and grace to set roots with hope. Yes, I whisper.
You know I’ll go wherever you go.
I lean into the river, baptized again. Its current takes me.
* * *
Friends, we’ll be moving back to San Francisco on October 1. But we have to be out of our house in Austin at the end of this month. I have a great big list and a preschool to find for my little boy. Also, I need to write a book. (No big deal, right?)
I’ll be taking a break from the blog for a few weeks while I pack my life here. I’ll still be around and will post sporadically and will be back in action by the first week of September.
And while I press pause for a bit, I’d love your prayers. Every time we move, it hurts me more. I’m a little bit broken right now and grieving this loss for all four of us.
Thanks for the love and support and friendship. I’ll be back soon…