Recently Julie and I were driving home from our vacation, and I was searching for a topic of conversation. At random I threw out, “If we were going to write a blog entitled ‘Five observations on our first five years in Spain,’ what would your observations be?” The following five are my takeaways from the conversation:
- In the first few years, it’s all about survival. Period. Five years ago, we had all this enthusiasm for the road ahead. We were so young, idealistic, and ready to get to Spain! We did not take lightly when our coaches in cross-cultural engagement told us to aim low. “Just shoot for coming back for a second term,” they told us. However, at the same time I remember thinking, “Ok. I think I’ve got it. But let’s get going!” The truth is I probably overestimated myself because shortly after landing in Spain, Satan’s attacks, transition, and language learning immediately took a toll. After just a few weeks, I was actually impressed at how many creative ways Satan had for ripping us apart. He went after our greatest insecurities and vulnerabilities, with a vengeance. This meant that the first few years were nothing but surviving, or at least it felt that way.
- You’ll be surprised who is really behind you, and even more surprised who isn’t. When we were raising support, it was an uphill climb. Partner development consisted of the slow process of building that prayer and support team to stand behind us on the field. But when God did finally build our team, it seemed like it was pretty much set in stone. By the time we took flight, we thought we had a feel for who was with us. In many ways, we have been blown away by how many really have stood by and encouraged us these last few years. Also surprisingly, many others just flat out disappeared.
- You are an alien and a stranger in a foreign land. The biblical imagery Peter used in 1 Peter 2:11 was intended to encourage early New Testament believers to their actual home being the new heavens and new earth. It was a means of urging them to obedience because of this heavenly citizenship or identity. Julie and I have gotten to experience what Peter was getting at. Yes, as Christians, this world is not our “home,” but Spain isn’t our earthly “home” either. As a missionary, you are doubly displaced. And with all your pushing in to a new culture, you will always be a little, well, odd. And particularly in Spain, when family time or holidays roll around, we’ve learned that being odd means we find ourselves left out and a little lonely. This is part of the price we pay for Gospel work.
- The only people who really get you usually end up leaving. As a missionary, being a stranger or alien now also applies to the US. Five years in, Julie and I do feel quite Spanish. We’ve gotten into fútbol and tapas. We also picked up different political opinions. This means that we have lost a part of our American selves. If we aren’t Spanish or American, what are we then? Well, we’re missionaries, and that means the only other people that truly get us are our expat and missionary friends experiencing what we experience. Unfortunately, missionaries and expats are transient folks, and that means you say goodbye more than you say hello. In Spain, missionaries come and go with incredible frequency. We’ve learned that the people we really get, and the people who really get us, often leave.
- God is at work even when we don’t see it. Pastor James McDonald once preached a sermon series called “God is at work even when you don’t see it.” Well, in Spain, you will have plenty of opportunities to not see God work. This does not mean He isn’t working. God is always at work. When Julie and I came back after our first full term and the dust settled from the transition, we had to prepare for our presentations or report all that God had done. I remember sitting down to that task and thinking, “what if I’ve got nothing to say?!” However, I think we were both quite surprised how God reminded us of his work. In reality, there was story after story of the little ways He used us in Spain for His purposes. He used our teaching gifts to mentor and preach. He used Julie’s hospitality gifts to start a small group. Etc. When you are overseas, it’s not always easy to see any of it because you are so overwhelmed with just surviving. Thankfully, the truth is that God has been at work even through us and especially in spite of us. The truth is his greatest power shows up in our greatest weakness (2 Cor 12:9).