One of the first questions people ask us when we come off the field from Romania is, "how does it feel to be home?" We're not the only missionaries who get this question. We just returned from a conference with about fifty other missionaries, and they all bemoaned receiving this same question.
For many, the issue of this question lies in the problematic defining of the word "home." When so many of your greatest and most recent memories have been made in another country - and when so many close bonds have been made with those working beside you - "home" isn't such an easy place to identify. Home isn't simply the place you've lived in the longest, though that may help to make a place home. Home can also be the place in which you have experienced the greatest joys and pains. It is possible, then, to not really have a home, or to have more than one home.
But having been on the field only a little over two years, this notion of dual homes hasn't been my biggest issue with the common question posed to me. My issue is not so much that I like some other place more, but that I like this place much less. Now this isn't some anti-American article, though those who are uber-patriotic may see any critique of or displeasure with the United States as anti-American. Instead of being unpatriotic, I am hopeful that my view is simply realistic. And really, more than a critique of the United States, I believe my experience is more a critique of myself.
It seems that most people don't really know the story of Gideon. Everyone knows about his surrounding of the Midianites with a small army, but most don't know what happened before or after this battle. Before Gideon ever gathered his army together, God called him to tear down the idol of his people. For God to lead his people, his people had to first seek him and him alone. And so Gideon tore down his father's idol.
In the same manner, God had our family tear down our idols prior to heading overseas as missionaries. I remember being visually confronted with my materialism, as we sought to sell our house and the majority of our possessions. We had so much material junk, it took us several yard sales to sell most of it, and we still had a bunch left over to throw away. For two years, God confronted us with our idols of materialism, gluttony, and security (financial and physical). As we prepared to go off and do battle, God had us tear down our idols.
The second step to God's plan for Gideon was for him to take all of his strength and whittle it down to a pitiful force. God would use Gideon in his weakness so that in victory, God's name alone could be glorified. There would be no doubt as to who was in control and who routed the Midianites. Gideon was merely an instrument in the Almighty's hand.
In the same manner, God has taken our family down to nothing over the past few years. While we went to Romania expecting to use the gifts and talents with which God had so graciously equipped us, God has ended up putting our strength to the side and bringing us to a point of such weakness, that any accomplishment can be attributed to nothing other than God and God alone.
So far, so good. I know you're probably all tracking with me, and many of you may even know this part of Gideon's story. But what so many don't know - or what they forget - is that Gideon's story doesn't end with his faithfulness to God. It ends with his resurrecting of his father's idols. Rather than a success story, the story of Gideon is one of the greatest tragedies possible. A seeming worshiper of God who sees God work wonders, ends his life by worshiping idols and leading others to do the same.
In this regard, I feel exactly like Gideon when I return to the States.
Have you ever gone on a diet for an extended period of time? Or have you ever gotten into a good exercise routine? After you live a few months of a healthy life style, have you ever gotten sidetracked by an illness, depression, the holiday season, travel, or something else like that? When you first take a bite of that delicious, but forbidden cheesecake - or when you miss a day or two of running or going to the gym - it feels kind of gross. Your body is used to the discipline and healthy inputs and recognizes an enemy when it sees one. But it isn't long before one or two compromises and failures turns into routine and lifestyle.
When God had us address our idols prior to moving to Romania, it was freeing and cleansing. We went off with unburdened spirits to do spiritual battle. But upon returning to the States, I feel like I've instantaneously broken my diet. I feel like Gideon, who upon settling in the land after his amazing victory, began to erect the idols of old. My eating habits and the frequenting of convenient fast-food increased significantly. I stopped caring about waste, about gluttony, and about my bodily care because food tasted good and was easily accessible and our schedule too chaotic to incorporate self-care. I only needed to go to the mall or spend five minutes on Amazon to pique my materialistic desires. I only need to hear my friends and family talk about safety or think about the great education we could get our kids if we lived in certain U.S. communities to covet the sorts of securities my family could have if we permanently lived in the U.S..
I think Gideon's story can teach me a lot about my own life and tendencies. It's easy to hear God's call and move out in faith - but to have sustaining faith is difficult. Another great example of this is King David. Samuel tells us that during the season when kings went off to war, David sent out his soldiers, yet he himself remained behind. Rather than engaging in battle, David remained behind in leisure. And what happened in his leisure? He committed adultery and murder as the idol of lust reared its ugly head.
I think my return to the U.S. has been anticlimactic and depressing to me for a number of reasons. First, since I am a product of U.S. culture, my idols, temptations, and pitfalls are more numerous here. It is far easier for me to be pulled into an idolatrous life here in the States because that's where my former idols are. In this culture, the idols are all too ready to scratch the very itches I think I have.
The second reason a return to the U.S. feels disenchanting is because I mistakenly perceive myself to be out of the battle when I'm here. Just as Gideon thought he had fought and won his battle, just as the Children of Israel thought they had won their freedom after the Exodus, and just as David thought he was free from war while relaxing at his palace - so I think I am far from battle as we itinerate here in the U.S. But just as all those Israelite were mistaken, so am I. Paul tells us that we do not war against flesh and blood, and this is so true. Principalities and Powers don't just fight me in Romania, they fight me here in the States - and perhaps even more strongly since I am blind to their tactics here.
More than ever, I am recognizing my tendency towards idolatry. More than ever, I am recognizing how the whole Christian life is a spiritual battle. My hope is that through the journey on which God has taken me, others can come to see their blindspots, and recognize that the United States is not some haven for Christians. It's a spiritual battleground of some of the most ruthless idols to which humanity bows. Some of us may need to fell our idols for the first time, and some of us may need to be reminded that we are in battle every day of our lives, and we must avoid erecting our former idols again. We are not home, we are aliens in this world, and no land is a haven for a sojourner of Christ. We are citizens of heaven who are conquering the spiritual enemies of heaven through our proclamation of the gospel of Christ, as the nations are made his footstool. Fight the good fight.