And to answer that question I would need a long drawn out journey of hours of conversations, showing pictures, praying, and prophesying. But the short answer I'll include in this blog. Because as much as I came home to familiar faces and food and street signs and a familiar language (!) and a familiar routine and rhythm of life, being back is not the same as life pre-trip. There are lessons you can't unlearn, new friends you can't unsee, journeys you can't forget, lies you can't go back to believing again. There is revelation that you can't go back to not knowing, even if I wanted to.
Here are a few lessons I learned during my 5 and a half weeks overseas as I trekked through 5 countries, multiple cities and walked through well-worn, history-ridden streets (often lugging my suitcase wishing I had packed lighter):
In a foreign country with a different culture and different language, you learn humility really quickly. In Nebraska, my French ability is AH-MAY-ZING. Everyone thinks I'm this great, bilingual, talented person. In France, they have trouble understanding me when I speak, citing my accent and poor vocabulary. And I understand maybe 50% of what they say (and that's a REALLY good day).
I spent so much time feeling like a little kid trying to learn how to communicate all over again. And even with some of the kids I talked to in France, I couldn't understand everything they told me!! It was very humbling. A lesson I wasn't expecting to learn and one I wasn't always thankful to be learning.
Even in the moments where I could communicate well or could actually say what I wanted to in French, there was still the realization in the back of my mind that I had so much farther to go. Speaking another language is a lesson in never arriving and always learning. Much like life.
The European Church understands better than we do as Americans how connected the Body of Christ is worldwide. Even if we never meet or see each other, what we do in America affects the rest of the world and what they do affects us! And more than that, we have need of one another. The churches and houses of prayer in France need us! They need our prayers, our perseverance on hard days, our zeal and resources. And we need them! We need their perseverance and wisdom and rich spiritual history of longevity and reform.
In France EVERYTHING is small. The streets are small, the houses are small, everything is small. Even Paris has a "petiteness" feel to it. The Church of France is also small- like 1-3% of the population. They are small, but mighty. And beautiful to the Lord. And some of the most committed, zealous Jesus-lovers I've ever met. They're small numbers and seemingly small spheres of influence does not negate the Lord's OVERWHELMING affection for them. He LOVES small things, small beginnings, small places. He is not intimidated by smallness. He is not overlooking small places and skipping to the places that have more resources, more people, more finances, more influence. He is really there in those small places, in those small gatherings. Perhaps there even more tangible than in some of the bigger places.
Being a part of a small ministry in BIG America, I often have to battle the feeling of insignificance and wondering if what we do even matters in the grand scheme of things. After all other places with more people and more resources are doing what we do and they're probably doing it better than we do a lot of the time.
But God loves those small places and small gatherings. He loves my smallness. My small prayer room and small worship team. He loves my small yes and He doesn't count it any different than anyone else's. Small matters. Small counts. Much more than we can imagine.
Stepping outside of America for awhile helps you to see America from a different perspective. One of the things I noticed is the frightening mixture of politics and religion in America. There are those who look to politics and legislation to bring righteousness and salvation into our nation and can be so dogmatic and rigid in thinking that they forget that God can still move outside of conservative politics and the Republican Party.
The political dynamics of America are so heated and paint a volatile atmosphere that seeks the well-being of the two extreme sides without focusing on the needs and the issues that face the majority of the population. The Church has political stances on important and serious issues and I am not saying that the American Church should sacrifice her morals for the sake of having relevance, but I think that the Church should be looking outside of herself and her own political needs to stand in the gap in the midst of a polarized, volatile political climate that is seeking to disenfranchise the American people. This is a chance to bring reconciliation and share the gospel with people who would otherwise not have an ear to hear.
For instance, let me recount the French Church's relationship to politics. In France, the Christians are so small in number and there is a political dynamic of the laïcité (or a strict separation of Church and State) so the Christians do not look to politics to bring righteousness into France. They look to Jesus and to each other instead of politicians. They look at the nation and issues as a whole when deciding who to vote for instead of voting based on one or two key issues (like abortion or same-sex marriage). There may be French believers who vote on on the "left" and others who vote on the "right" and their political affiliation does not define their spirituality or relationship with Jesus. In addition, there are about 5 main political parties instead of 2. Voting is a personal choice that they seek Jesus for instead of (primarily) listening to other believers in their community for the "right" choice. To the French especially (who are famous for their dislike of politicians) there is no "right" candidate, there is just the one they vote for. Also, the vast majority of the French actually vote (like 80+%) including a vast majority of French believers.
Obviously as different culture and different political system, there are many things that simply do not work to adopt. However I feel that we can learn some things from the French. We have an opportunity as American believers in the midst of a changing political climate to stand in the gap and rescue the disenfranchised, speak life into the broken and forgotten.
American life is fast paced. We value and take pride in being fast paced and hard-workers, but sometimes all of our fast paced-ness is a cover for disconnectedness. Sometimes we're so fast paced we are able to bury our insecurities or unhealthy habits in working more. We shame those who take time to go through the process of healing or those who take time to recharge and deem them "less committed".
In France, life is a bit slower (especially in the South). For one, meals can easily take 2 hours. You have an aperitif, appetizer, main course, cheese course, fruit course, dessert, coffee, digestif, etc. And one thing I noticed about meals is that when it is meal time, it is only meal time. They are not watching TV or doing work while eating. They don't have their phones out at the table (even the teenagers!). They are focused on eating and connecting with family and friends. This is a lost art in America.
Also, the French and Europeans at large value vacations. I happened to be in France during "vacances" season. And they take vacances seriously. They may take a whole month (or more!) to recharge and prep for the next year. Many Europeans work hard and play hard. This is simply part of the culture. And my guess is that there is less burnout.
Now granted in our American society it's not like all of us can just take a month off of work or more for vacations, and we might not be able to slow down the whole culture, but we can slow ourselves down. We don't have to work less to play harder. We can take time that is focused and not distracted to connect and recharge. Maybe we only get an hour, or one meal like that a week. Maybe we only get a few days off a year instead of a few weeks, but we can make those times count.
In America, Christianity is commonplace and it is even often considered popular or a normal part of life. While this can be nice, the flip side of this is that there are a lot of nominal Christians. There are many Christians who define themselves as Christians even though they only connect with God on Sundays (and maybe Wednesdays). The rest of the week can be spent however they want completely disconnected from God, but as long as they take a seat on Sunday morning in the pew, they are a Christian. We even have words created for the less committed type of Christians like Chreaster Christians- the Christmas and Easter church go-ers.
In Europe, and especially in France, Christianity is not popular. It is not common. It is not a normal way of life. So when someone says they are a Christian, they are a committed, radical follower of Jesus. They are not simply connecting with Him on Sunday morning, but they orient their lives around Him every day. Even among the youth and some nonbelievers, there is an idea that being a Christian means to give Jesus everything. All of your heart. Christianity in its popularity in America loses some of its potency. In France there is not strong persecution. I can only imagine the potency of Christians in restricted nations where being a Christian can literally cost them their lives. This is a zeal and a commitment we need as Americans. This is a potency we must fight to maintain in the midst of mundane, freedom-of-religion America.
There were so many moments where I got to stop and encourage individuals or pray with them. On the train, or on a bus, or in a small city or church or house of prayer or on the streets. These were those "divine encounter" moments where I was in the right place at the right time and God wanted to let someone know that He is thinking about them, that He sees them, that He cares about them!
Many of them were so blown away that me, a young American would travel all the way to Europe and come to encourage them or tell them God cares about them. And that I would tell them in their own language (at least most of the time). God could have used a French person, one of their neighbors perhaps, or friends to encourage them. But He took a person from the middle of nowhere in America to travel all the way to the middle of nowhere in France to tell them. With one individual in particular towards the end of the trip, I really noticed the inefficiency of God's love!
When God wants to speak and wants to encourage and highlight His love, He is not efficient. He throws ALL of His resources, ALL of His heart into action. He leaves the 99 in order to stop for "the one." And He is more than joyful to do so. I think He gets a kick out of surprising humans and breaking us out of the orderly boxes we make life into. And the same way He feels about the many "one's" in France, He feels about me.
In trying to navigate public transportation and large cities and plan activities and schedules and try to not get lost-many times by myself, I had to rely on the small voice of God and learn to take risks with Him. There were so many moments where I would hear a tender whisper to reroute my plan or schedule or path. Sometimes responding to those tender whispers made seemingly no difference, and sometimes it made BIG differences.
For instance, when I was in Cluny, I had spent too long at the Cluny Abbey and when I left I was 40 minutes walking distance away from the bus station, but the bus left in 30 minutes. If I missed the bus, I would then miss the train back to Lyon. If I missed that train, I would miss the train from Lyon to Chambery, and then the train from Chambery to Rome, Italy. It was a domino in a long list of potential problems that would end in me arriving in Rome at least 5 or 6 hours later than I had planned, maybe even a whole day later. Which meant that the whole reason for me going to Rome- to spend some time with one of my American friends on his day off while he was doing a 2 week missions trip in Rome- would be completely wasted. Because my friend had only one day off and my train was set to arrive at 5am on that day in Rome.
Anyway, as I was POWER walking as fast as I could to the bus station, I felt the whisper of the Lord to take a right (off the path of my Google maps on my phone). If the Lord's leading was wrong, there would have been no way I would make the bus in time. I took a right and walked about 500m and there was another bus station on the same bus route and the bus left in 20 minutes and would still get to the train station at the same time. Not only did I not have to run to maybe catch the bus, I was actually early!
The practice of listening for the whisper is not just helpful in navigating public transportation though. I wonder how many times I have been too busy or too stressed or anxious to listen to the gentle whisper of the Lord. How many times have I ignored His leading that would have saved me time or energy or stress and worry? Listening to the whisper means I have to take a risk, but if the option is taking a risk with the Lord or doing it my own way in my own strength, the whisper is worth it.
The French have this mentality which I call "life happens." It's hot in Europe and there's not a lot of air conditioned houses, and so the result is sweat. And while Americans take all precautions to avoid sweat, avoid looking sweaty, avoid looking anything less than perfect and ready for the day at all times (doing makeup, shaving, changing clothes- sometimes multiple times a day), Europeans seem to have adopted a "life happens" mentality. It's not like they are dirty or smelly (I mean except for the metros) or less beautiful. But they also don't have any pretenses or a standard of how they should look. If you sweat, it's a part of life. If you have a 5:00 shadow or if women have stubble on their legs, it's a part of life. It happens. Americans have an idea that life gets in the way of beauty. Europeans embrace the idea that their bodies are their own and they don't have to be ashamed or take hours each day in order for them to be presentable to others.
This mentality permeates beyond sweat and morning routines. And I think it is a mentality that would serve us well to adopt. We don't have to put up so many pretenses with or for others, be it physical appearance or emotional states. Let's be a little more real with one another. Life is beautiful when it happens.