Being by myself in a foreign country has caused me to think about a lot of things I haven’t even explicitly considered in the past. One item in particular that keeps coming up in my thoughts is my value system, that is, what’s really important to me and what I most enjoy. I’ve been surprised somewhat by the conclusions my musings have brought me to, both in the values themselves, the fact that I haven’t recognized them explicitly before, and the strength of those values to me.
Read on for more, but beware, this is a long article…
Since a week or so after arriving here, I’ve been trying to figure out what’s different about this time away from home as compared to the other times I’ve packed up and gone off for a while. I’ve spent over eleven months absent from my immediate family in the past, and yet I’ve never experienced some of the inner turmoil and emotions I’m going through this time. It’s been like something really big that I enjoyed immensely (yet obviously took for granted) disappeared from my life, and I haven’t been able to figure out what it is.
Probably the strongest feeling that I’ve had since being here is one of being alone. The Lord is, of course, my constant companion, and I’ve made some friends, but something has still been missing, something important. Today I found a word for it: family. A working definition of family in this case is “one or more people who share my core values and with whom I physically spend a significant portion of almost every day (physically meaning phone calls don’t count).” Obviously, my family in NC is still my family no matter where I am, and I still consider them as such, but (through no fault of theirs) right now they don’t have much impact on my daily life.
I’ve lived away from home two other times: once in Indianapolis at the Indianapolis Training Center, and once just recently at IBLP headquarters in Oak Brook, IL. In both of those instances, I was part of a family almost immediately upon arrival — not a family in the traditional sense, but rather a family in the sense of daily interaction with others of shared value.
In Indy we were organized into teams of six the day we arrived, and for the two months of training I spent nearly 24 hours a day with the other five guys on my team. We ate together, bunked together, studied together, and played together, and not only did we share core values, but we also had a completely shared context. We were six fellows all in the same ship. In retrospect, I can see that part of the reason my satisfaction and contentment at Indy dropped after the training was over was due to the isolation that working with a juvenile delinquent created (my immaturity was also an important factor, but that’s another article).
The second time away from home, at HQ, I started out in a house with three other guys, all of them very friendly and willing to make me a part of the family (staff for IBLP all live in IBLP-provided housing). I also had ample opportunities to build relationships through various service opportunities. Even though there were some very, very difficult things that happened during my stay in Oak Brook, there was never any thought in my mind of leaving, and the thing that kept me there wasn’t the work, the food, or the location. Rather, it was the daily interaction with some of the most humble, Godly, real people I’ve ever known (outside of my immediate family). The Lord used them to teach me some very, very important lessons, and to grow my walk with Him in some incredible ways.
Now I find myself living just outside of London, seeing things many will only ever dream of seeing, yet without real satisfaction. I must sound incredibly ungrateful! Certainly I thank God for the opportunity to be here, and I know that He has me here right now for a purpose. I’m taking as much as I can from each day, and using the time to drink very deeply from the still waters He provides (more on that in a moment). But it seems that one of the reasons He has placed me here is to remove from me any notion that I would enjoy living “on my own.”
Josh Harris ruminates on this in his article, Experiencing Freedom: If this is freedom, I’ll take the ball & chain. An apt quote, that expresses much of what I’m feeling at the moment, is, “But to me, [the college students’ freedom] was an empty freedom. It was a freedom to get caught up in the fleeting, and forget the things that make the world go Ã«round: families, true learning, real work.” This is the freedom I see so many around me seeking: the fleeting pleasures of this world that pale and disappear when compared to the incredibly simple and incredibly profound joys of family.
(What of church family, you ask? While church is very important, and I have found a very good church over here, family as I’m defining it is never found in an organization. Rather, it is found in daily involvement in the lives of individual people. While I probably could and should do more to be involved in the local church, the shortness of my time here and the fact that I only really see people at church functions makes it difficult to build relationships that extend beyond services.)
Certainly in the past I’ve thought it would be great to live on my own; there’s always been a romance about being free, beholden to no one. Of course, this romantic notion almost assuredly originates in today’s pop culture, which seems to equate family with taking out the garbage: necessary but distasteful. I think that right up until I arrived here, and for a week or two afterwards, I was still captive to the idea that independence would be enjoyable in and of itself. No more. I can now see my other ‘extra-home’ experiences in the proper light, and understand why they were as enjoyable as they were. I also regard the time I have had and will have with my immediate family as being that much more precious.
Reflecting on why I value family so much more highly than a lot of people I encounter, I have to wonder if it’s because they haven’t really experienced family as I define it. The core, shared values are just as critical as living in the same place. Also, the particular values that my family shares, those of the Judeo-Christian faith, and the fact that we all have the indwelling Holy Spirit to empower us to live those values, enhance family life like french fries enhance salt.
Which brings me to the second somewhat surprising thing I’ve recognized I value: knowing God. I’ve been a Christian since I was four, so it might seem a bit strange for me to realize this now. Yet, it’s easy to live the Christian life and never recognize the delight it brings. Once again, loneliness has been my ally, as I have turned to the only One who is with me daily and shares my value (really, He defines my values). Now I turn to Him with nothing else to fall back on, and I find him… completely and absolutely sufficient for every need I will ever have. So even in the midst of great inner turmoil, peace reigns as I rest in the only constant One that ever has or will exist.
Prayer, which has in the past been accompanied so many times by sleepiness, now can keep me awake. Whenever I go to Him, afterwards I find myself strangely sated, as a hunger I’ve learned to ignore is satisfied. Scripture reading has increased in importance for me over the past few years already, but in addition I now find verses I’ve read and memorized in the past returning to mind unbidden, where I turn them over and consider them and find insights directly applicable to my present state.
I don’t want to sound hokey; these things are not mystical experiences, but rather real life suddenly losing its drudgery and living up to its promise. It’s so hard to explain in words; I’ve rewritten the previous sentence at least a dozen times. Suffice it to say, if you don’t know God, or don’t delight in knowing Him, you’re missing out. In Desiring God, John Piper drives home the point that the greatest delight lies in God Himself, and our mistake is not in seeking our own pleasure too much, but in seeking it too little and in the wrong places.
Of course, my delight in family is tied inseperably to my delight in God; to delight in family alone is like delighting in the way the sunbeams dapple the leaves and then denying the existence of the very sun that casts the beams. Suddenly it’s not so surprising that so much of the world devalues family: family without God at the center is just as empty in the end as any other temporal happiness.
I was hoping that perhaps putting these thoughts down on (virtual) paper would help alleviate some of the emotions. In retrospect, it has simply clarified them, not alleviated them. However, at least I have a better understanding of their source, and a better understanding of their solution: first, complete and total dependence on God, for only He can ever satisfy, and second, being with family.
In conclusion, a few applicable pieces of Scripture:
Gen. 2:18a – “And the LORD God said, It is not good that the man should be alone”
Ps. 133 – “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity! It is like the precious ointment upon the head, that ran down upon the beard, even AaronÃs beard: that went down to the skirts of his garments;
As the dew of Hermon, and as the dew that descended upon the mountains of Zion: for there the LORD commanded the blessing, even life for evermore.”
Ps. 68:6a – “God setteth the solitary in families”