Break Out the Cheese (A War-Time Story) by Eva Petross

Break Out the Cheese (A War-Time Story) by Eva Petross July 4, 2017

Picture1The first time I ever evacuated from a war-zone I left behind a huge block of beautiful cheddar cheese in the fridge. As tanks rolled through town and war planes were minutes from bombing the airstrip we were about to fly off of, I boarded our Cessna Caravan lugging our single suitcase and five-month old daughter literally thinking mournfully, “But the cheese!” Because in that part of the world, cheese was completely unavailable, and weeks earlier I had carried that block in from the outside and hoarded it like it was gold bullion. And I knew I was now leaving it behind to rot or be tossed out by looters to whom it meant nothing.

That was six years ago. This past Christmas, at our home at the edge of a large refugee camp in North Africa, we hosted a small candlelight service with a few likeminded friends and neighbors. Around a campfire that night, after carols and prayers, we broke out the hoard of goodies my parents had brought from America just a few days earlier: summer sausage and Triscuits, M&Ms and Jolly Ranchers. One young woman very new to the field was incredulous. “I can’t believe you’re sharing all this!” she said. But truth be told, I’ve left far too much to mold, thieves and ants. It’s cliché, but I’ve learned the hard way you really never know what is going to happen tomorrow. So, on December 23rd, joyfully oblivious to what was coming in the days ahead, we all ate our fill together that night.

When All Isn’t Calm & Bright

On Christmas day, intense fighting broke out at our front gate and those of us who didn’t flee to the bush with just the clothes on our backs spent two days lying on the floor while bullets whizzed overhead. On December 27th we locked our doors for the last time and were flown to safety by some brave bush pilots. Within days we received word that our homes, and the homes of many others, were completely looted.

We’ve spent the past few months in East Africa, grieving, processing and savoring the community of refugees and missionaries alike here who have also found themselves experiencing loss and disorientation. We are grateful to be rooted in a calling and ministry that does not change even when our geography does. Certainly this kind of setback requires new levels of creativity and flexibility, but even from a distance and through trips back, we see the work of mother tongue literacy, Bible translation and discipleship moving resolutely forward. It’s hard. But it hasn’t stopped.

While we settle into this season that feels a little bit like exile, I find myself thinking about a lot of things. Things we’ve learned and lost and gained and loved and hated over the past eight years of ministry in a hard place. And one of those things I find myself turning over in my mind a lot has to do with letting go and holding on. And if we have learned to do anything well out of all the craziness of life in North Africa it is that.

Traveling Light

Because there are things that we have learned to cling to for dear life no matter what. To grip so tightly no matter how fierce the shaking or how deep the cutting into our hands. Regardless of what country we are in, who our neighbors are, how many times we need to re-buy the kitchen cutlery we are still committed to North Africans (and to two very specific language communities in particular), to literacy and Bible translation in these languages, to Friday Family movie night, a good cup of coffee around three every afternoon, life in community with refugees, family worship before bed, the occasional spontaneous dance party, to Jesus.

And then there are the things that we are learning to simply let go of. Despite the impulse to tighten closed our fingers, we are learning how to release and set free things like our ideas of ideal ministry conditions, dreams of stability and decades in one place, the homemade quilt from my grandmother, several computers, teammates and dear friends, false senses of security and control, and gobs and gobs of stuff. It has to be let go.

Whenever we feel that temptation to hang on a little too tightly to those things we could never keep in the first place we feel scarred hand encircle our own and gently press us to loosen our grasp and to simply let go. And when we feel the frightened temptation to let go of those things that are forming us and others in eternal ways, those same hands wrap around ours and squeeze tightly. Hang on. Keep hanging on.

Losing Life to Find It

Not a single one of us knows what tomorrow will bring, but sometimes I think we experience that in a uniquely acute way here. And so for us, the practice of letting go and holding on has often looked a lot like not taking a moment for granted but rather savoring each one to the fullest. Today, sitting far from North Africa I am so thankful for every conversation, every unexpected guest that I grumbled about, every spontaneous walk to the river, unplanned visit to a friend, baby held, sunset watched, cup of tea, question, and prayer. And while we take the time to grieve the losses along the way, we are also encouraged to see the moments before us right now – the possibilities, opportunities, and people.

So we fasten our grip around the only things we can take with us when we go, and the only things we can really give to those we leave behind, and we face each day with peaceful expectation. Jesus said in Luke 17 that if you cling to your life, you will lose it, and if you let your life go, you will save it. Which sounds a bit crazy. But despite our best resistance to this idea, we are learning that…it’s true.

And on those days when we feel tempted to hoard it up, to delay or to hesitate or to put just a little too much importance on our well-devised plans, we take a deep breath and do what we know we must: we break out the cheese.

Eva Petross is a missionary in North Africa with Pioneer Bible Translators. She, along with her husband and three little girls, lives on the outskirts of a refugee camp in a very politically unstable part of the world. There they are working to facilitate disciple-making, Bible translation and mother tongue literacy among two least-reached Muslim groups. Despite the occasional craziness, they really love what God has called them to do.

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