Identity Remembered

When we have been brought very low and helped, sorely wounded and healed, cast down and raised again, have given up all hope – and been suddenly snatched from danger, and placed in safety; and when these things have been repeated to us and in us a thousand times over, we begin to learn to trust simply to the word and power of God, beyond and against appearances… -John Newton

Even when there was no reason for hope, Abraham kept hoping… -Romans 4:18

Nine months ago my husband and I packed up our home in Central Asia, and boarded an airplane with one-way tickets to Europe in hand. Our youngest child who does not remember the United States was saying goodbye to the Central Asian country she identifies with. Yes, many would not even dream of visiting the very land that she still claims to be from. The grief I felt when leaving America for the first time, she was feeling now. We were moving to our 5th home, and 3rd country outside of the United States in about a year and a half. It was overwhelming. It was also confusing. Our year in Central Asia was a strange mix of my begging my husband to move us home, followed by a sincere love and desperation to stay in our final months of living there. God had given me a heart for these people we had been called to and as my culture shocked heart submitted to the Lord’s plan, I fell madly in love. So in love that the thought of moving to the European winter wonderland many dream of visiting – one full of Christmas Markets and streets that look like fairy tales personified – made my stomach hurt. Our new assignment would be loving and serving and sharing with the Central Asian immigrants in Europe. It was a daunting task then, still a daunting task now (especially with the influx of refugees we are helping), and one that has included some of the hardest days of our lives.

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Back in Central Asia, all of us had reached a certain level of comfort that we had worked hard and trusted the Lord to attain. We had learned language to a relatively advanced level, had adopted some of the customs as our own, and had relationships with nationals that were deepening daily. Our youngest, who would scream and claw at our legs when we left her with a non-English speaking nanny for hours everyday, had grown to love this woman as family. Our older children had grown accustomed to riding a bus to school alone and eating foods that were nothing like typical kid foods in America. I personally had overcome great darkness and was entering a new season of thriving in my new-found independence and ability to navigate a city of millions completely on my own. I had lessons of loneliness, rejection, courage, despair, and hope under my belt and was walking in peace and light to a depth I had not yet known. My husband and I had endured scarily dark spiritual warfare, and although we would cringe at all our eyes had seen, we were seeing the victory of the Lord abound in our marriage in beautiful ways.  God is faithful, and even our enemy’s most graphic and hateful schemes against us did not snatch us from the Father’s hand.

My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.  I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one can snatch them away from me,  for my Father has given them to me, and he is more powerful than anyone else. No one can snatch them from the Father’s hand. -John 10:27-29

But the moment we arrived in Europe, everything changed.

Our new environment became a playground for the enemy.

Culture shocked me to the core and I began the process of re-learning the same spiritual lessons I had learned in Central Asia in an entirely new context, while also spending everyday in language school trying to wrap my mind around now a second foreign language. Suddenly, our time in Central Asia seemed so simple compared to our situation now.

Immediately upon arrival, I remember being abruptly separated from my husband and having to go find a taxi with my exhausted children in the freezing cold without any language ability or knowledge of laws or customs in our new country. I remember walking into our freezing cold new home that did not have light fixtures or a kitchen and sleeping on deflated air mattresses in multiple layers of clothing to stay warm. Yes I am grateful that there was a home ready for us to move into, but it was quite shocking nonetheless. I remember walking to our grocery store alone and standing dumbfounded in front of the oatmeal, having no idea what the packages meant or which one to buy. I remember accidentally handing Central Asian money to the cashier and being so embarrassed when she scolded me that they were not Euros. I could not understand her, but her tone of voice made my mistake apparent. I went from understanding my daily life and interactions with locals to feeling out of control and like a child who had nowhere to run.

I was too much. Despair was lurking at every corner and hope began to slip through my fingers.

In our first days of trying to settle in and furnish an entire house, I remember seeing our next-door neighbors outside and with my husband’s prompting, put on my best, most brave smile, and introduced myself. Their response of “oooook?” with the confused why-are-you-bothering-me look on their faces, spoke loud and clear of the more private, colder nature of the culture that was now our home. Gone were the days where our warm natured Central Asian neighbors would knock on our doors with plates of food and show us beautiful hospitality like we had never seen before. Yes I have stories of being verbally abused and rejected in the conservative Muslim neighborhood we once lived in, but overall, the culture we came from was very welcoming.

I was suddenly the American girl who identified with Central Asian culture thrown into a European world that I did not understand.

In our second month of living in Europe, my last living grandparent died back in the United States. This man of God and his beautiful bride lived with our family during many seasons of my childhood. Suddenly, with one message on my phone notifying me of his death, my world changed. I have no mother. I have no father. I have no grandparents, and I live on the other side of the world from where those I love and miss are laid to rest. My mind focused on my mother’s final moments of life in her bedroom during my teenage years – those who witnessed that moment with me were dying one by one. First my grandmother, then my dad, and now my grandpa. There are no words to adequately describe grieving this much loss and while living in a place that is far from the comforts of your home country.

My husband booked me the next flight out in the morning and without time to even process what was happening, I was on my first flight to America in almost 2 years and completely alone. I was warmly received, given a place to stay, saw family and friends, and received more kisses and hugs than I could count.

But I felt different.

I had changed.

I remember sitting among the sweet sisters in Christ from the church I still call home who had gathered together in honor of me and felt a bit like an outsider. How do you answer questions of how is it overseas and do you love living in Europe? I saw the precious faces of those my heart cries for when we are separated, and yet images of men kneeling in prayer on the sidewalks and women getting slapped across the face flashed through my mind. I sat there with a smile on my face, yet traumatized on the inside from happenings in the year prior and not yet even beginning to grieve the death that had brought me home in the first place. I wanted to go back overseas. But I also was desperate to stay and never get on another airplane again. And it hit me….

This world is not my home.

Yes we’ve all heard it in Sunday school, but now I am living it.

I will never fully fit back in on American soil. I will never fully be accepted by the Central Asians I love. I will never be one of the Europeans that I live among. There’s no childhood home to go back to.

I fit in nowhere.

For this world is not our permanent home; we are looking forward to a home yet to come. -Hebrews 13:4

By God’s sustaining grace, I did survive that week back in America and after one last hug goodbye at the airport, boarded the plane headed for Europe.

Less than a month later, we discovered that I was expecting and while we were overjoyed, pregnancy only complicated my ability to cope with our new life and find my footing. I survived long months of language school and still miraculously saw the Lord open many doors for us to share the gospel both in word and action with the Central Asians we were there to love. But, life was not easy.

Things like painting or writing or photography or dancing all became a distant memory. My whole world was surviving and trying to mother my children, love my husband, learn my second foreign language, retain my first foreign language, and not lose it completely. There were forms to fill out with my language hours and how often I was sharing the gospel. The pressure I felt did not match the equipping I was given in the one year we had actually lived in Central Asia.

Dark days outnumbered good days and upon hearing I had been unwanted in our new European home, I found myself at a pivotal moment. Would I succumb to bitterness? Would I see the beauty of a tender heart and choose the path of forgiveness instead? The enemy who wages war against my soul knows my identity as beloved and chosen and fights hard to entice me into believing the opposite to be true. This was one of those war moments…

Isolation and rejection – two of the things I hate most – were being solidified as the lie I believed was my identity.

The weight of words caused my heart to run right back to feeling like the rejected girl who buried her dad – the man who was supposed to protect and love her but who chose to die at his own hand instead. My heart went back to all the memories of rejection from the last year and a half of floating in and out of countries, being seen by nationals and fellow workers alike as sometimes only a temporary resident. My wounded heart felt the sting of conditional love. My heart went back to the foot of my mother’s bed as she died, leaving me with an undeniable feeling of isolation from my peers.

But here’s the thing about rejection and rising above it: We cannot base our identity upon it.

God has made visible our identity in His Word and it is seen clearly in the person of Jesus. Knowing the Father illuminates our identity and knowing our identity nourishes our hunger to know the Father.

And what I’m finding on this journey overseas, is that if my identity slips out of view, I cannot see God clearly. And if I cannot see God clearly, my vision for why I am here gets lost and contentment is impossible.

You are chosen by God and pitied by God and possessed by God and holy like God and royal priests to God. The point here is first that you have immediate access to God – you don’t need another human priest as a mediator.  God himself provided the one Mediator between God and man, Jesus Christ.  You have direct access to God, through God.  And, second, you have an exalted, active role in God’s presence. You are not chosen, pitied, possessed, and holy just to fritter away your time doing nothing. You are called now to minister in the presence of God. All your life is priestly service. You are never out of God’s presence.  You are never in a neutral zone.  You are always in the court of the temple.  And your life is either a spiritual service of worship (Romans12:1-2), or it is out of character.  So you can see that your identity – the question, “Who are you?” – leads directly to the question, “What are you here for?” Your identity leads to your destiny.  You are chosen, pitied, possessed, and holy – all for a purpose – to minister as priests. -John Piper

No words, from unbelievers or believers alike, and no actions can change who I am and my purpose in life.

But the pain is still there…so what to do….

There is nothing more beautiful than a kind heart who loves deeply and forgives freely. There is nothing more captivating than a woman who knows who she is and to Whom she belongs to. I want to be this kind of woman, but how? I have studied scripture extensively and goodness, I am a missionary – missionaries aren’t supposed to lose sight of their identity, right? But no, I am just like anyone else. I am a girl who knows rejection intimately and who yearns to be loved and accepted and valued. So now what?

I flipped open my Bible one morning and although I had no plan or idea of where to read, I found myself in 1 Peter. This book of the Bible is rich with Truth and chapter 2 has become the key that has unlocked the chains that held my mind captive to lies of who I am…

A Living Stone and a Holy People

So put away all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander.  Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation— if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.

As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.  For it stands in Scripture:

“Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone,
    a cornerstone chosen and precious,
and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.”

 So the honor is for you who believe, but for those who do not believe,

“The stone that the builders rejected
    has become the cornerstone,”

and “A stone of stumbling,
    and a rock of offense.”

They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do.

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation. -1 Peter 2:1-12

If Jesus, the perfect and beautiful example for us to follow, was rejected by men, why would we expect to be treated any differently? Jesus was chosen and precious in God’s sight, and that did not change when others rejected Him.

As I let the words penned by Peter sink into my heart, healing and forgiveness became possible. He gave me a crown of beauty instead of ashes; joy instead of mourning; and praise sprang forth from a heart that had been wrought up in despair.

{ It was joyful sorrow }

Sorrow from the experiences of rejection, yet deep, sustaining, true joy that I was reminded by God that Jesus is able to understand the pain I experience. When I remember that Jesus understands and that I am a beloved daughter, chosen and precious, the words of others lose their power. In essence, the enemy loses power.

Chains are broken and freedom abounds.

Something interesting has happened since the Father has reminded me who I am – I have started clearly seeing His redemption in the hurts I’ve endured on the mission field and His plan for moving us to Europe. Nothing has happened by coincidence…

The Central Asians who live here, as well as the Syrian refugees that we are working with, know pain. They know rejection. They know what it feels like to live in a foreign country that is very different from their own. They understand the pains of existing in the balance of multiple languages and I have yet to meet a refugee who has not witnessed the death of loved ones.

And how could this American girl ever expect to love and understand those who God has called her to serve without experiencing similar pain and seeing God’s victory through it all?

Suddenly, I wasn’t the American girl who identified with Central Asian culture thrown into a European world that I did not understand for no reason. I was the American girl who the Lord had allowed refining suffering so that she could identify with the Central Asians who were thrown into a European world that they did not understand. I am the follower of Jesus who has had her eyes opened through years of preparatory pain so that she can be a voice of truth, an instrument of prayer, and place of love for those who need Jesus.

When a Central Asian woman feels ignored by her European neighbor, I understand. When a Syrian talks of seeing blood and watching family die, I understand. When an immigrant misses their home, I understand. When a Central Asian speaks of hopelessness, I understand, but praise the Lord I also know the secret to finding all hope and joy…

His name is Jesus.

And perhaps because I have listened with love and identified with their pain, they will see the supernatural hope that dispels even the scariest despair.

Our Savior Himself became perfect through His sufferings. Through His temptations He became able to succor those who are tempted, for He was tempted in all points like as they were. And you, Christian, will never be of great service in God’s church without temptation – you shall never be able to strengthen the weak, nor to comfort the faint-hearted. You cannot teach the ignorant, or inspire with courage the wavering unless you have, yourself, been taught in the school of experience. -Charles Spurgeon

So then, since we have a great High Priest who has entered heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to what we believe.  This High Priest of ours understands our weaknesses, for he faced all of the same testings we do, yet he did not sin. So let us come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. There we will receive his mercy, and we will find grace to help us when we need it most. -Hebrews 4:14-16

And so, dear, struggling readers…if you find yourself in circumstances that are painful and do not make sense, remember that the God you belong to { sees you }. You are where you are for a reason – cling to God’s promises and fill your mind with His Word, even when you don’t feel like it. Look forward with hope, knowing that the lessons you are learning in the school of experience today will only deepen your joy as you keep your gaze fixed on Him. He is creating in you a usefulness in His Kingdom that will be more beautiful and powerful than anything you can imagine.

There is always hope. Do not give up…

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