Saturday, March 23, 2013

Singing a Sojourner's Song

There's that feeling again. Being a missionary brings it around just a little more frequently. It's the sense of discomfort, the awareness of incongruities in my fit with my surroundings. It's a feeling of not belonging. Not being completely home. It comes every time I travel back to the States or back to Japan. Returning just recently from 5 weeks in Chicagoland, the realization that I am indeed a foreigner in either culture is once again fresh.

Buddy Greene said it best in song: "I don't belong. I'm a foreigner here just singing a sojourner's song. I've always known. This place ain't home. And I don't belong."

It didn't used to be that way. Up until we left for Japan in 1999, I was decidedly American in my outlook, cultural identity and sensibilities. But things change when you remove yourself from that cultural milieu for any long stretch of time. Things no longer look the same when you return to them. You're different. People are different. The environment and culture are different. And you sense a lack of fit with a people and places you really were eager to call home again. That's disappointing, surprising and frustrating all at once.

It's not just the big gaps missing for you in the stories of those you know and love. Nor is it just all the little changes in technology, language usage, or pop culture trends all around you. It's not even the myriad of adjustments you need to make all over again. For example, I know by now when I return to the States I will:

1) be surprised at how big things are,
2) forget which side of the road to drive on for brief moments,
3) get into the car on the wrong side, and use the windshield wiper instead of the turning signal,
4) forget I need to tip in a restaurant,
5) find it strange that the stores are so huge and quiet,
6) marvel at the acres of space in front of stores just to park,
7) be overwhelmed with how sweet or salty everything tastes,
8) find the wide open spaces to be almost odd at times,
9) wonder why the daily earthquake never comes,
10) find TV to be even more degraded than last time,
11) be frustrated in finding the right word in English and use Japanese without thinking,
12) be unable to identify with topics of conversation,
13) wonder why our currency looks so foreign,
14) be excited by cheap $4/gallon gas,

...and the list could go on and on with a hundred other things.

But the feeling really is not birthed out of any of those things. Part of it might be the cumulative weight of all those things. But there's more. There's the sense that we CANNOT fit in anymore, even if we were to fill in ALL those gaps and make ALL those changes. Our frame of reference, our cultural perspective in life has fundamentally shifted in such a way that everything will look just a little out of focus around us. Call it the missionary complex. A cultural identity crisis. Cognitive dissonance. Schizophrenia. Call it whatever you like. The feeling is a lack of true belonging. A sense of being a foreigner in places one wouldn't think or desire to sense that.

I've resisted and fought off the feeling at times. But I am learning more and more to embrace the feeling as part of the way that God is preparing me for eternity, even now, in a peculiar way. Accepting my identity as a sojourner, a foreigner in either culture, moves me along in my spiritual progress. It makes heaven just a little more precious in the here and now. It affirms my relationship with another world. It pushes my longing upwards.

And so I am thankful to be a missionary because of this. It's brought clarity to my position in this world, and a richness and sweetness to my true home in heaven. It's sped up that part of my spiritual journey by letting me experience firsthand foreignness here, and anticipate even more my belonging there.

"Yes, I belong. And I'm going some day. Home to my own native land.
Where I'll belong. And it seems like I hear the sound of a welcome home band.
Yes I belong. No foreigner there...singing a sojourner's song.
I've always known. I'm going home. Where I'll belong." (lyrics, Buddy Greene)

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