. . . but not a dollar short! I’ve learned a lot this week, and I’m excited to share it with you.
One of the things I was most worried about going into this experience was my birthday. I’d never celebrated a birthday away from my family, and I was actually quite nervous as to how it would go. Would I cry a lot? Would it even feel like my birthday? Would I just feel super alone?
But I had nothing to worry about! My new friends, who are quickly becoming family, made this birthday incredible. On Friday night, Anne-Lize and I slept over at Noël’s apartment. We ate grilled cheese and tomato soup, brownies, and pancakes—a real American celebration! We played Settlers of Catan too, and Anne-Lize taught us the Dutch words for all the resources.
On Saturday, my dear roommate Yaciana invited several ladies from the church over for fajitas and a most wonderful mille-feuilles cake. We played Taboo XXL in French, which was definitely a challenge but also quite fun.
On Sunday, a dear elderly couple from the church invited Yaciana and me over for lunch. They made a type of fondue that I’d never had before: we had a pot of hot oil that we dipped pieces of raw chicken into until they were nicely fried. It was absolutely delicious, and the perfect thing for a chilly, rainy fall day. They also served a lovely ice cream cake, my third birthday cake this weekend!
I couldn’t have imagined a more beautiful birthday. I even got to see a glorious sunset on Friday night—the most vibrantly coloured sunset I’ve seen here. My heart feels like it’s expanding, welcoming all these new people in and becoming closer to each one.
Yet the more adjusted I feel here, the more I come to love these new people and feel comfortable every day, the more I miss the people I love back home. I miss the prairie, too—those wide open spaces and gigantic fields that people who’ve never seen can’t even imagine. “It’s like the ocean,” I say, “only grass. Prairie grass, a million different colours of brown rippling just like waves. And the sun sets like fire, and then you get to see the stars—thousands, millions of them.” Only the South African I’ve met understands exactly what I miss about open spaces and big sky. There’s a lot of nature here, stunningly beautiful nature, but one has the impression that it’s all been tamed, that everything’s been seen and captured and documented at one time or another.
If I’m honest with myself right now, I start to cry because I’m not handling this experience the way I should be. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not strong physically, but I’m also the first to stubbornly haul 20 bales of hay by myself when I could have asked for help. And that same model unfortunately carries over into my spiritual and emotional life. It’s easy for me to put up walls that make it look like I’m doing fine. Often, I can even convince myself of that for awhile. But sooner or later, my strategies for pacifying my fear or my pain start to crumble, and I have to look at my weaknesses and learn to be okay with the struggle.
This week, I’ve been sick. It’s a cumulation of several weeks of not really taking care of myself, of not eating or sleeping well, of demanding too much by my own strength. This morning, I decided to skip my one class and take a day to have some quiet. I’m curled up in the sun by the heater drinking tea and reflecting, praying.
The walls started to crumble on Thursday when I told Yaciana that the beginning of this week was the worst homesickness I’ve had. She smiled a bit, telling me that it’s only going to get worse for awhile. “You have to learn to find comfort in God, Anna. Your family, your friends—even when you’re with them, they could be taken from you at any time. Your only lasting comfort is in God. Trust me—this experience is going to make you more dependent on Him, if you allow it.” I do trust her. She spent four years away from her home and family.
Loving people hurts. C.S. Lewis talks about this in his book The Four Loves. (Though the cartoon by Zen Pencils below highlights romantic love, C.S. Lewis was speaking of all love—love for friends, family, and even pets. But I had to share the cartoon, because it’s just too cute.)
Here’s a more complete quotation:
To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.
—C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves
Instinctively, I know it’s not loving people that will, by itself, give me comfort. Love is a beautiful thing; selfless relationships between people are beautiful. But as someone who follows Christ, I should find my comfort and contentment in Him first and foremost. Instead, I find myself taking comfort in the fact that I’ll see my family at Christmas. I even find comfort in things as fleeting and fragile as my linguistic progress (which doesn’t work so well now that I’m sick as I find myself unable to pronounce anything correctly when my sinuses are swollen).
I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need.
And what is that secret? Verse 13:
I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.
Or as Dustin Kensrue puts it:
My one comfort both in life and death is that I am not my own.
I was bought with blood and I confess I belong to You alone.
By the Father’s good decree,
Jesus, You’ve delivered me,
By Your Spirit set me free
To follow You.
C.S. Lewis writes that:
In God there is no hunger that needs to be filled, only plenteousness that desires to give.
—C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves
In other words, God’s love—perfect love—isn’t about me giving something to God, but about God giving me peace, love, joy . . .
If you want to get warm you must stand near the fire: if you want to be wet you must get into the water. If you want joy, power, peace, eternal life, you must get close to, or even into, the thing that has them.
I want to be like my Saviour. The irony is that I’ve been trying to do that without Him.
The words of Psalm 42, so beautifully set to music in the song below, have been coming to me frequently this week. And it’s been convicting. I’m so thankful for the Psalms because they show people of God struggling. It’s okay that I’m struggling: there is grace. God is faithful and good. His love is strong—neither heighth nor depth nor powers nor principalities nor any thing can tear me from His love.
Or in Switchfoot’s beautiful rephrasing of the promise of God’s love:
There ain’t no darkness strong enough that could tear you out from My heart;
No there ain’t no strength that’s strong enough that could tear this love apart.
I’m never gonna let you go.
No, I won’t let you go.
I know this has been long and heavy, but these are thoughts I needed to share. This is going to keep me accountable now. I need to stop trying to do things by my own strength. I need to rely more and more upon my Saviour. Only in Him do I find lasting comfort and contentment, a value and satisfaction that is not fleeting, that does not depend upon my circumstances or my performance. In Him I find my true self, someone who’s worth is entirely dependent on the unfailing love of her Saviour.
If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.
I know this week will have its challenges, just like all the other weeks here. But I’m confident that He who began a good work in me will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ (Philippians 1:6). Until then, I’m prepared to break down my walls, to tear down my façades, to let my fear and pain and doubts go, and to cling all the more tightly to God who created me, who loves me, and who will never let me go.