For the past five years we have lived overseas making visits to the U.S. about twice a year. You would think it gets easier as it’s nearly routine. In some ways it has. The logistics get better as we learn from experience and mishaps how to be better organized because we know what to expect or better prepared for what we don’t expect. But one part doesn’t seem to get easier for me, that is the experience of entering in and then exiting again the deep personal relationships with family and friends. That is the part that is the most bittersweet.
Before we leave our host country each time there is a time of great anticipation and preparation for those we will see. There is such a longing to be face-to-face, to renew relationships, to create new memories, to be present to value those we love. There is also the preparing for our absence in the work and relationships that we will be leaving. Questions of: Will people continue in their responsibilities well or will things begin to fall apart? Will our new relationships here be strong enough to sustain through our absence or will people feel abandon and will we have to start building trust all over again? And so we prepare, pray, trust and leave the people and the work here in God’s hands to enter into our country of origin and reunite with those we love.
Next there’s the hassle of travel. It’s a long trip! Sometimes it goes really smoothly, without a hitch. This last time every leg of it was fraught with some problem, from a missed flight to airline strike to vouchers for a bus that no longer ran to catching the last train thirty seconds before it pulled out of the station (and a lot of other unusual things that I won’t describe). But we got to every place we were scheduled to go to without loosing any luggage so we counted ourselves very blessed despite the inconveniences.
Once we land in the U.S. there is the initial 24-hour of culture shock. Each time a different set of observations grabs me. (This time it was just how multi cultural the U.S. is with languages, shades of color and customs and the amount of obesity across all sectors of the population.) Then there are the sweet reunions renewing of deep bonds of friendship that have held over the years of moves, transitions and changes. There are the face-to-face encounters with those, whose loving support upholds and sustains us, as we live so far away. There are the times with family where our parental love, joy and pride swell with being able to participate with our adult children in shared experiences, special events and common activities of daily life.
My hope and prayer is to be able to be present and connect during each of these encounters and relationships because all too quickly the days slip by and there’s always “business tasks” or others busy schedules that “eat into” the time we have. Perhaps that is why about halfway through our visit I again face the reality that we are not part of the daily lives of those we love. It makes me feel very sad for a time. We no longer live in the same cities states or country as our adult children, parents and friends. While that is often the case for families/friends that live in different cities, it seems compounded for us because not only do we live in a different country but a very different culture. I understand much of the experiences of those I love in the U.S. but few of those friends & family have lived overseas which makes it difficult to share our worlds with each other. Our deepest relationships go beyond daily activities but daily activities are the stuff of life. It’s what people know and converse about and shapes the background on which their lives play out.
Every visit I get to this place of realization and then I remember two important things I’ve learned that help me. First, I realize the gulf that is there in so many of my precious relationships which is the price of living overseas and laying down our lives for the gospel. It is a daily choice. Second, I concur again the importance of working at strengthening and preserving those relationships beyond time, place and culture. Thankfully, we live in an age of technological wonders, which gives us the means of staying connected but we must be intentional in using those means. Perhaps it’s realizing this again that helps me prepare to return to our host country and enables me to “let go” and say “until next time” instead of just good-bye.
Each time we leave the U.S. again, Randy’s mom gets very teary and sad saying, “I don’t know if I’ll be here the next time you come.” She feels her age and the 9,000 miles distance in our parting. She speaks a possibility each one of us could say to anyone on any day because we don’t know the number of our days. But I answer her with the only truth that encourages me when we must leave our loved ones to return overseas, “Well, if not here then in our eternal home, you’ll just be there first.” I’m not trying to be flippant I’m trying to “think out” the implications of the truth of this promise Jesus gave in John 14:2,3: “In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.” I feel her sadness and pain at feeling left alone. I have sadness and pain too. I could not leave and go if it were not for believing in this promise of eternal life with Jesus. Because of this I can embrace the bittersweet of comings and goings. I can try to stay connected to loved ones in whatever ways work. I can even continue to experience my broken heart in all the “so long, until next time”. Because I believe that one day, “He will wipe every tear from their (my) eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” and that He will “make all things new!” (Rev. 21: 4 & 5)
These words ease the bittersweet and help me to make the transition back to our host country home, back to routines, to unpacked suitcases, to my own pillow and bed, to the place we put our stuff away for now, to the work and relationships we have here and to looking forward to the next time we will travel to be with our loved ones.