A strange and disorienting experience is not something to be feared or avoided, but something to be welcomed and embraced. God stretches and shapes me most when I am out of my comfort zone, unable to exist in cruise-control, uncertain of the outcome, unwilling to go back to the way things were. Even though I know this is true, I still wonder how much stretching I can handle.
Here’s the deal: Just when I expected I would put down deep roots in a small town in Indiana, it was as if the rug was pulled right out from underneath me. The very things I found myself longing for – a place to call home, a people to call my tribe, and a vocation I could embrace – slipped right through my fingers.
They were there and then they were gone.
It was a great year of ministry in Indiana. In some ways, I was in my sweet spot. I was working with an amazing team of leaders who enjoyed serving and doing life together. I was leading worship alongside a humble and sincere group of dedicated musicians (adult and youth). I personally had some deep friendships with a few guys in the church, the kind of friendships where masks get taken off and we get real with each other. My two younger kids were flourishing at school and thriving spiritually and socially. Who could ask for more than that?
I’m not looking for your pity. I realize the choice was up to us to follow the Spirit’s leading to Indiana, and it was that same pure desire to discern what God is up to which led us to move back to Arizona. It certainly surprised us! So much so, that the city we actually moved to in Arizona is literally called “Surprise.”
And I’m sure this won’t surprise you either: Nothing about moving my family cross-country has been easy. My wife’s job is the most intense job she’s ever had. (Surprise!) We moved into our house in 115 degree heat. (Surprise!) We’ve had some fluke infections come up in our house requiring us to make multiple visits to Urgent Care, sans health insurance. (Surprise!) We’ve dumped major amounts of money into car repairs we weren’t expecting. (Surprise!) But none of this tops the dis-orienting feeling of being alone, or the heaviness of intentionally letting go of the very things which have given me me a sense of identity for so many years.
If you want to know what it feels like to be dis-oriented, but you don’t want to move your family to Surprise, Arizona, travel to another country where you can’t speak the language. When something as basic as interpersonal communication – the ability to understand and be understood – is taken off the table, it can be unsettling and unnerving. But it is precisely in those times when I feel like I am able to develop a deeper form of communication: the ability to “listen softer.”
It wouldn’t do me any good to shout louder in English to the person who can’t understand what I’m saying. Nor would it be of any value for that other person to repeat over and over what they are trying to communicate. If I don’t know what they are saying, no amount of repetition will enlighten me.
I’m in Guatemala City right now, writing this post in a cafe, slowly sipping on a caramel latte and trying to pay attention to what is going on around me as well as the many thoughts that are churning within. In some respects it’s easier for me to understand the Spanish language than the deep stirrings of my heart. At least with Spanish I can understand a few key words and use what little powers of deduction I possess in order to form some idea of what I’m trying to order at the counter. “Grande” means large. (Thanks, Starbucks!) “Caramel Latte” means tasty espresso-based drink that goes down nice and smooth, especially in Guatemala. I think “con leche” means “with milk” but I’m not sure. (It might mean “with cream” or something like that.) But then when they tell me how much it costs, and I can’t understand what they are saying, I just hand them some money. If they look at me like it isn’t enough, then I hand them some more. What? Is that not a good idea?
I’m noticing that I need more than mere words when I’m trying to figure out something I don’t understand. Perhaps you can relate. When communication has broken down and we’re just two people staring at each other, it sometimes helps if we turn the conversation into a type of “charades” game. We start talking more with our hands. For example, I may not understand what the lady behind the counter is saying, but if she counts my money and holds up two fingers, I pretty much know I need to give her two more Quetzales.
It’s all about paying attention and listening softer, trying to use more than verbal language to understand what is being communicated. We’re looking for signs, for ways to recognize that which we can’t easily understand, for common forms of connection.
And this becomes the way I begin to understand what God is up to in my own life as well.
Sometimes I get it wrong when I order a drink from a Guatemalan cafe, or when I place an order for tacos at a nearby restaurant. I have to be okay with taking that first drink or bite and saying, “That’s not what I thought I was getting, but okay.”
Why is it easier for me to be more gracious and kind with the person in Guatemala who gives me something I wasn’t expecting than the person who works at the Taco Bell down the street from me? Maybe being disoriented is actually a way into gratitude. I’m grateful to struggle through this “unknowing” and I completely understand why the end result may not be what I expected. But in my everyday life I am far less interested in the other person. If they don’t get it right, they must be the idiot! I’m the master of my kingdom, and I expect to get exactly what I ordered. Anything less than that is cause to ruin my day, and maybe if I’m mad enough, I can ruin that person’s day, too.
(I hope you know I’m not actually that mean…usually.)
So, let’s bring it all back around to where this whole post started. I’m surprised by everything that has recently happened in my life. There’s a good chance that I misread or misunderstood a few things along the way. I fully expect to open up the lid and say, “Oh, that’s another surprise I wasn’t expecting.” It may not be exactly the way I ordered it up, but I’m guessing in the end that it will be even better than my meager expectations. This is the way of God. There are surprises and adventures awaiting me that I don’t think I want to experience, but I know God is going to walk with me.
As I lean into this season of dis-orientation, I want to “listen softer” to the voice of God. I want to develop the kind of sensitivity in my spirit that is always aware of God’s constant communication. It may be in God’s written Word. It may be in the Holy Spirit’s prompting. It may be on a 6-mile run through the streets of Guatemala City. It may be in the lyrics of a worship song. It may be in the beauty of creation. (I’m looking forward to a few days next week in Antigua, Guatemala, one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been.) It may be at the Guatemala City dump, where thousands of people rummage through trash just to earn a couple dollars a day. It may be the smile of the lady behind the counter who graciously holds up two fingers when I don’t give her enough money.
Who knows what God will reveal to me while I’m here in Guatemala? Who knows what God is shaping in me through my most recent move back to Arizona? My challenge for you is the same that I hold for myself: listen softer. Don’t clench your fists and determine that you will fight through your dis-orientation. Calm down and allow the transformation of God to bring about something new and beautiful in you. You never know how God might one day say to you, “Surprise!” Determine today that you will begin to nurture the kind of openness and sensitivity to God that welcomes those Growth opportunities.
Surprises occasionally come at good times, but more often than not they are extremely disruptive and dis-orienting. How will you recognize an opportunity for transformation when it comes your way? How will you discern whether it is from the Lord or not? There are a lot of different schools of thought on how we discern God’s “will” in our lives. My concern is whether or not you will develop a relationship with God that is sensitive to the “wind of the Spirit” in the first place. (See John 3:6-8)
For starters, determine whether or not this verse of Scripture has taken root in your heart:
For the Lord is good;
his steadfast love endures forever,
and his faithfulness to all generations. (Psalm 100:5 NRSV)
I promise you, it is true. God loves you! Now walk in the knowledge and the revelation of that truth, and have fun being surprised by God’s surprises.