One Month Back in the States

January 12, 2018

It has been one month since we landed back in the United States after 4 months and four days abroad, 126 days. We had quite literally flown around the world from August until December, from the Midwest to Ireland to Greece to Thailand to Japan and then back home. This month has passed just as quickly as all time seems to do in adulthood, but it’s been weird and bittersweet and confusing too, which has made for some days to feel much longer than they should.

You always hear of people going abroad for any reason or any amount of time and of course they come back “changed”, a “different person”, a “better person” etc. This reaction is so classic and expected that if you went on a short-term missions trip to Africa for two or three weeks and you came back and said, “Eh, I was pretty unaffected by the experience” people would be shocked, maybe outraged by your response. But I really would appreciate a person’s honesty if they did say that if indeed that’s how they truly felt. But because it is so classic, and there is no way to put words to experiences that feel so holy, so sacred, so truly out of body, we say, “this experience changed me” and the response is so underwhelming. Sort of like how when I am teaching English to my refugee friends, I have to explain that when Americans ask “How are you?” they don’t actually expect or have time for any longer of an answer than one word, so what was maybe originally a true question of how someone actually is, it has turned into just a greeting, not something we think through the response of anymore. In fact, maybe what has been the single most surprising part of coming home is that after three weeks back and seeing dozens of friends, no one asked about our trip. We’d hang out with people for hours and the topic of the trip would maybe surface for three minutes before the subject was changed, never to get brought back up again. I’m not so much sad about this (because quite honestly I don’t like attention being on me) as I am shocked by it. And what I think the reason for it is not that I have friends who don’t care (because that’s not the case at all. I am convinced I have some of the most loving, sensitive friends in the world), but rather that people see this “life changing” experience you went through and they have no idea what to ask about it. It probably seems too daunting. Meaningful, specific questions about the trip like, “What stranger on your trip impacted you the most?” are easiest to answer, but hardest to ask. Broad, vague questions like “how was the trip?” are easiest to come up with and ask, but the hardest to answer. (I will give credit that in the last one week or so, a few friends have started trying to ask good questions, and it’s been particularly therapeutic for me to think into the answers of them, and I’m grateful for that).

And I think what I’m also learning is that this change we (I) feel has taken place in us so wholly (mostly in spirit and mindset) must be incredibly obvious to our peers when we return home because we ourselves feel it so boldly. But in fact, it doesn’t really look to them on the outside that anything has really changed. I know I’m forever changed, but no one else knows it. Weird, right? Like I know I’m actually a different person than I was five months ago—I’ve seen so many things, gained a greater perspective of my own “smallness” in this world, loved my husband with more fervor than I knew I had in me, knew my God with more intimacy than I knew possible, opened myself up to people so different from myself, welcomed the help of so many kind strangers who were willing to try to speak my language (something I continued to be humbled by time and time again), and experienced landscapes that brought me to trembling at the sight of them—but even then, I’m stopped short by words. There are not words in the dictionary that could quite accurately capture the million small moments that watered the seeds of loving my husband, the moments where we would wake up in bed to the glow of the sun (the same sun that would rise over our friends in Omaha seven hours later) over the snow-topped Julian Alps in Slovenia and Robbie would wrap his arms around me and tell me I’m his best friend before we’d inevitably fall back asleep but this time a little closer together than when we had just woken. Or how do you capture the essence of how strapping on a thick black wetsuit, jumping into the frigid arctic water and learning to surf (freezing saltwater alarming our bare ears every time we biffed it and went under, yet how refreshing the water felt to our warm bodies, how these waves would pull us under in slow motion and I could only hear the sound of my heart beat and nothing else) made us feel more alive, more wholly us, as a couple and as individuals. Or is there a word to embrace the feeling of riding a moped through the fields of Northern Thailand where you are both scared and liberated at the same time for many hours? Is there a word to describe the feeling of being in a small eclectic cafe in Vietnam, the open windows sweeping in a “warm” December breeze and the sound of motorbikes and busy streets buzzing in, being so wholly content to be right where you are and longing to put the whole scene in a jar and bring it home so your loved ones could even experience just one moment of the magic. It is in these moments, and a trillion others, that I am different now because of. Of course not in huge ways, but in a trillion minuscule ways, my heart took on new shape and tenderness because of it all. I am beginning to understand that even if the change isn’t outwardly obvious to anyone now, it will be over time, in the ways I am a wife, in the ways I am a daughter of the King, in the ways I am a sister and a friend, and in the ways I will be a mother one day. And I am content with that thought.

Something that has sort of defined me for a long long time now is my health. If you’re a close friend of mine you could probably almost roll your eyes with how many times I’ve spoken about needing to go to the bathroom, how badly my stomach hurts, or how much anxiety I have about those things. Unfortunately, I have dealt with a very real, very frustrating intestinal disorder my entire life (or close to it. I can remember these issues as far back as 10 or 12 years old). My small intestine doesn’t make good bacteria, like most people’s, thus an overgrowth of bad bacteria occurs and I end up with bad bacteria digesting my foods instead of my intestines which causes unpredictable emergency diarrhea the majority of the days of my life and overall daily stomach aches and pains and anxiety that accompanies that. Some months are better than others but for the most part, I am sick all the time. In fact, I have an absolutely awful immune system that leaves me with strep throat usually two times a year, with a week-long cold about four times a year, and an immune system that makes things in me easily infected (insert story of how I got my wisdom teeth pulled a year ago and was left with a crippling jaw infection that was so painful and brutal (that lasted 42 days and I still have small lumps on my jaw bone from—you can feel them if you ask me hahaha) that the surgeon had never seen anything like it before), and left me in 2016 with strep throat, pink eye, double ear infections, laryngitis and bronchitis all in the span of six days (that sickness left me ill for a full month and I didn’t quite have my voice back for three months). For a healthy person, I can only imagine how annoying I must sound. I often wonder what it would be like to eat with zero consequences, to never stop to think about how my dinner tonight was going to affect my day tomorrow or have anxiety about going to the bathroom a million times during a social situation. But I also spend a lot of time pumping myself up with, “It could be so much worse, Chase!”, “You’re not dying! This is good news!”, and “Just be grateful for the good days. Look how blessed you are in so many other ways!” I cannot deny all of these things are true, but what I have started to change is actually giving myself the right to be upset about it, and having space to be frustrated and discouraged when I need to feel those feelings.

Robbie and I got food poisoning from a food truck in Southern Thailand (talk about classic! Who doesn’t get food poisoning from SE Asia?). Even Robbie, who has a healthy immune system and gut, took about two weeks to fully recuperate from it. I’m sure some of that had to do with still inevitably having to eat foreign Asian foods our stomachs were sensitive to during the healing process. But for me, with my poor health, I continued to be sick after every meal for 2 weeks and then a month and then a month and a half and then we were home. I had such high hopes that if I could just get back to the States, then I would be able to see a doctor and they could cure me—or at least get me back to “my normal” (which still means having stomach issues but it not being so far out of control that I can’t leave the house ever for fear of recurring episodes). I saw a specialist right away (a doctor I really trust) and we got me a stool sample and I had hope again. We got the results back and…nothing. No parasite or infection. Just overgrown bacteria completely out of control in my system that it attacks everything I put in me. Basically I’ve been fighting food poisoning for more than a month. They could put me on an antibiotic, but I’ve tried that before and it’s a temporary fix for a chronic problem (and it’s more than two thousand dollars even on insurance). I eat so healthy, I try not to over eat, I take strong probiotics, I worked out very regularly (before the trip, and of course walked and hiked and biked all over on the trip), I have been drinking water non-stop throughout the day, and yet something just falls short. My symptoms were bad, but now they’re awful. Just this week I couldn’t sleep from the pain and nausea and frequent bathroom interruptions, so I ended up dozing off sitting up in the bathroom off and on until morning. And I had body aches accompanying it for a full 24 hours, so painful I didn’t want anything touching my skin. I didn’t eat anything for thirty seven hours. And even though the worst of that is over and I’m mostly sleeping through the night now, the stomach ache I had starting Monday hasn’t gone away once (and it’s Friday afternoon as I type this).

I don’t need pity from anyone, it’s not what I want at all. What I do want is for people to understand this isn’t just a thing I struggle with here and there, but that I battle every single day. I have canceled so many plans this week (and cancel so many plans every year) because “I feel so sick” that I wish I didn’t have to. I’m trying and trying and there’s nothing I want more in this world than to be a person with a healthy gut who didn’t feel sick after every meal and at random times of the day or to be a person who didn’t constantly panic over what was going to happen if there isn’t a bathroom nearby. In February, we will have health insurance again (Robbie has to be back at work 30 days before it kicks in), and I am committed to seeing an alternative health doctor and an immunologist to really start prioritizing my body’s health because everything right now is lacking because of it. I can’t pay attention, I’m fatigued, I’m apathetic (all things that are SO NOT normally me) as a result of the stomach pain and urgency going on in my body. I want to reclaim it. I want to have fresh faith that the Lord will heal me. I want to have hope and a positive attitude again. I have been sick for two straight months now with almost every meal of every day flaring symptoms of nausea, diarrhea, stomach pain, low energy, etc. and I want to take back my life again. But I’m not there yet, and Robbie has been more than generous with his receptiveness to my constant flow of tears and my frustration over wanting to be “normal”.

So we came back from the whirlwind four months overseas and landed here (sick as a dog, but hopeful to get better), elated to jump back into Citylight Benson, our church home. This is a place that is so much more than a “church.” It’s a space where people who we really love and admire gather, it’s a place where a body of believers who have loved us well go to be filled so they can pour out their overflow to their neighbors, friends and coworkers throughout the week. We have been inspired by this “body” and have been overjoyed to come back and continue partnering with these people in ministry and serving others. Within the first week of being back, before we even stepped foot into church on Sunday, we got hit with the news of some church drama, some hurt feelings, some conflict, some tensions that couldn’t be worked through that the pastors had entered into and that one of our pastors (and really good friends) would be stepping down. There was no scandal, no blatant sin, no crime or cover-up. Just simply “compatibility issues.” And while I know Jesus is so much bigger than this situation and one man doesn’t make the whole body work, it has been really hard news for Robbie and me to process. This pastor is the first pastor we’ve ever had who cared for us so intentionally, whose wife has invited me into her life and has loved me and walked beside me with purpose for two years now, and honestly whose sermons make us fired up for Jesus. It’s because of this man’s leadership, compassion, faith, action and words that Robbie and I have a greater passion for Jesus in our lives and in our marriage. So it’s true, life goes on, the church goes on without one man, but it’s also true that there will be a gap left where this man and his wife will not be anymore. Robbie and I have both shed probably too many tears over this when we know the Lord has a mighty and perfect plan despite human failure to get along, but this is something we are walking through right now. There have been one on one meetings with different pastors, prayer nights at friend’s houses, a multitude of phone calls with peers going over the details of a situation that confuses us and discourages us. Robbie and I feel emotionally spent by this news, but it doesn’t shake our faith. If anything it grows it. If anything it helps me more boldly see man’s sinfulness (my own included), and why we need a loving Savior to redeem us. Any one of us could be our pastors. I know I’ve been in a situation where I felt suffocated under a boss. I wish the conclusion was different (to say the very least), but I also know Citylight Benson is such a small blip on the map of the world, and there’s still so much good the Lord is doing through His people across the nation, across the earth.

Robbie and I are wholly committed to God’s will. That does not mean we have clarity about what He wants from us all the time. And that is difficult. When you’ve been crying out to God for two years now literally saying, “God, we will do anything for you. We will go anywhere for you.” and you don’t feel any nudging or urging towards a certain outcome, it can be confusing. The funny thing is that instead of getting asked about the trip when we got back, we were more bombarded with “What’s next?” and “Are you going to keep doing photography, Chase?” and “So what are you going to do with your lives?”. We live in a society where your worth and your identity is so deeply rooted in your career that we ask what people’s jobs are before we ask them what they’re passionate about or if they have any personal goals they’re working on or how their hearts are given the current state of the world or what they’re most looking forward to in life right now that we sort of bypass these intimate, meaningful dialogues for shallow talk about work projects and annoying coworkers. But somehow that job is everything. It’s all about what you’re doing and how you’re making money. And we’ll all judge you based off of our own assessment of how much you probably make. There were a handful of people who thought we were crazy for traveling for months without income. There have been people who wonder if I have “a regular job too” on top of photography. Everything to our society revolves around money and what your title is. I asked a woman recently what she did and she told me, “I’m a receptionist. But I seriously do so much more for the company than just answer calls!” I hate that we have to legitimize ourselves based off of what type of labels our job gives our character. I think being a receptionist sounds like a dream job. I’m actually so serious. Oh you work at a coffee shop and you’re graduated from college? That certainly couldn’t have been your first choice, so are you looking for a “real job” too? Why can’t we just have a job and let it be one thing about us, but not everything. Why can’t we end a conversation with “Where do you work?” instead of begin it? This has been an ongoing conversation for Robbie and me for some time now because we just aren’t “money people.” Money just isn’t something we think about. (Maybe to a fault at times, I’ll admit). It does not define us, it does not consume us. We don’t ever stress about it. We have never even had a budget (wouldn’t know how to make one even if I tried). And this isn’t because we just have all this money so we don’t need to worry over it. All our money is our own, we don’t come from wealthy families. We’ve never been handed anything. I put myself through school, Robbie got scholarships. I paid for our wedding. We have worked for every cent in our bank account. But it’s still not ours. It’s the Lord’s. He is the one who has provided. He is the one who will continue to provide it, so we have chosen not to worry about it, because He has chosen to be so faithful.

To digress and actually answer the question, “What’s next?” I’ll start with “I have no idea! I’m terrified, clueless, lost, and scared of being a failure!” This is all true. I thought for sure we would come back from our trip and have no doubt about where God wanted us and how He wanted to use us. But we didn’t. I do know we have prayed and read the Word and prayed some more and read some more and prayed even more and we still don’t know. I know that some of my expectations for knowing what plan God had for us was rooted in pride. It goes back to what I said before— Because our identities are in our careers, I needed to have a firm identity to hand people every time they asked that question so I would believe in my own legitimacy and in God’s. I really put God in a box and I feel sad about that. I needed Him to send us on this adventure of self-discovery and allow it to open the door of our very clear, unable to be confused, super obvious next step that Robbie and I both would be totally on the same page about and overjoyed to get started on. But that is definitely not what happened. We came back having made little to no progression toward understanding the path God had for us in 2018. So we continued to ask the question, “What do you have for us God? We will do anything.” When we didn’t get a clear answer we asked ourselves, “What could we do now that would align with scripture and what we know God has convicted us of?” The clear answer for us was to move into the low-income apartment complex where our refugee friends live. This has been confusing to some people (mostly the people who are not Christians). And that’s okay because sometimes what aligns with God’s will isn’t always going to make sense to the world.

We moved in Saturday, January 6th. Just a week ago. Our hope is to build off of the couple of relationships we already have there to walk alongside these people, be a true friend who actually cares about the answer to “how are you?” and who could be a resource to them in any way possible. I have a super longterm goal of learning some of their language (something I was convicted of on the trip both in my fascination of all the languages we experienced but specifically because I want to be that kind stranger we encountered who attempts to help people in their heart language). I have so many dreams for what this sacrifice could look like, but i’ll admit, it’s been just that so far— a sacrifice. I would love to say I’ve spent the last week overwhelmed with joy and peace and eagerness over this move. Seriously, I really wish I was that good of a person. But I’m not. I have been wrought with disgust over dead bugs all over my cabinets, frustration over the lack of hot water, my annoyance over how the toilet rocks back and forth when you sit on it because it’s not bolted into the ground well enough, being beside myself over the risk of the lead paint on the exterior walls, disliking the smell in the hallway and even in my own place, wishing the heat actually warmed the apartment, annoyed by our mailbox not locking. I have found myself wishing I didn’t grow up so damn privileged so that humbling myself in order to follow through on this decision didn’t have to feel like such a far fall. I have cried tears over not feeling like I can get the kitchen any cleaner and not wanting to walk on the floor with my bare feet because of permanent clumps of *something* on the ground in different places. I have cried countless tears over wishing we were buying our first home in a beautiful neighborhood like all of our friends. I have lived such a privileged life and this is really not a huge sacrifice and it’s sad that it feels so huge but it does yet I’m learning more and more about how much Jesus loves us through this because He sacrificed so much more than we ever will or ever could. He gave His whole life to die for us, He entered the homes of sinners and outcasts and the sick (the people who society wouldn’t look at much less dare to lay a hand on them and love them). He gave up perfection in Heaven to come to this dirty, rotten earth to redeem us and bring us salvation. He made the low, high and the high, low. And He says all are welcome in the Kingdom of Heaven. And it’s when I fix my eyes on Him that I remember why we are doing this. Because He did too. And then I feel so mad at myself for ever crying tears over all those stupid things because in doing so, I’m not displaying the heart of someone who truly trusts their father when I fret and worry and complain. Instead I’m acting like we’re doing this all on our own, like we are in control, like this is all about us and our comforts.

I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again here, I know what God is asking of us in 2018 is to stop acting like Earth is our home. To stop storing up treasures here, because they amount to nothing in the end. That my comfort is not the top concern when people’s salvation is on the line. My hope is that this honestly very small sacrifice to live in these apartments would be the ripple effect in Robbie and my life that would lead us to saying yes to way bigger sacrifices in the future time and time again. With every painful “yes”, the next one will be a little bit easier. I want to tear apart the lie that I “deserve” to live in a nicer place or in a place that doesn’t cost me so much of my comfort. Because it’s all a hoax, this whole thing where we live our lives believing refugees and under-privileged people got into their situations because they deserve it or they didn’t try hard enough to avoid it or get out of it. It’s all a lie that our president and so many in our country would have you believe. Here’s the thing though. We haven’t done anything yet. We’re still unpacking boxes and buying furniture and new sheets. So don’t applaud us. We’re still working on it and dreaming and trying to make a space that’s welcoming enough to invite our refugee neighbors in for a meal or tea. Again, we haven’t done anything yet, so don’t think we are great, because we sure don’t. I’m still getting over my privilege at the moment. We are not great. God is. And also— we don’t think everyone should do this. God has personally convicted us of this action. God convicts every believer in different ways for different purposes for His Kingdom. People in beautiful homes in nice neighborhoods can do just as much for the Lord as anyone else. I do know that God does ask all of us to love the poor, love the orphan, love the refugee and the widow. That is His whole heart. Everyone’s convictions will be different but all our actions will have the same heart behind it and that is to love and serve people for God’s glory, not our own.