Big and pregnant, waddling from my car and through the automatic sliding door, I crossed into the world of “baby”. From front to back and top to bottom and everywhere the eye could see, baby products greeted me with vivid thoughts of my soon-to-be-born son… how I would take walks with him and what it would be like to carry him around in Madagascar. Seeing the rockers, I imagined myself sitting in one of them and nursing him. The aisles of toys made me think of which ones he would enjoy playing with the most. But I wasn’t there to buy; in fact I knew he would never have most of those things. Even still, it was an emotional and mental preparation for the new life to come.
At home I would pull out some baby clothes and just hold them and stare at them for a while, thinking about my little boy inside of me. I did my research on diapers, decided to go with the cloth ones, and, strange as it may seem, I was even becoming excited about the idea of cleaning up my child’s waste! I arranged the adorable multi-colored diapers on the changing table and waited in anticipation for Matimu to arrive.
You see, I was high on pregnancy! Every movement and every hiccup inside of me made me see life in a different way, and I was responsible for this one. Those nine months for me were some of the best of my life, like falling in love again but in a whole new way.
Fast forward to when we first arrived in Madagascar. The landscape was breathtaking! Everything was new and exciting! We had just started language lessons and it was fun to speak even the few words that we knew. Snacks from the roadside sellers were especially tasty and learning how to bargain for food at the market was a fun new challenge. Life seemed to have a new burst of energy, a new vitality because we had stepped out of what we knew and into the unknown. Out of the daily grind and into an ever-changing world around us. Dare I say, I was high on life, on our new lives here in Madagascar!
Neither of these experiences is uncommon. A friend told me that when a woman becomes pregnant, certain chemicals and hormones in the brain increase in order to begin the bonding process and to prepare the woman for what lies ahead… all her thoughts and emotions are wrapped up in “baby”. Similarly, studies have been done on the phases of cultural adjustment when a person goes to live in a new country. The first phase is called the honeymoon phase and it’s just what I described. Things are new and exciting and even strange differences are often charming. They’ve found that this phase often occurs during the first two months of arrival in the new country.
As time went on, it was clear that adjustment, to both our new country and to motherhood, was going to take time. Nursing seemed to be keeping me from all the things I needed and wanted to do. Believe it or not, carrying Matimu all around town here in Madagascar is actually quite tiring! Hand-washing diapers, something I knew I would have to do while I was here, takes a lot of time and there’s never an end to what Matimu can excrete. I rarely study language because I don’t have enough extra time, and if I do, my brain is just too tired after so many hours of language lessons that I can’t cram in any more. Talking to people became a chore because I didn’t want to have to think so hard about what to say and how to say it. The poverty that I saw around me became difficult to process. At the end of the day, as many Americans do, I wondered what I had really done or accomplished. Every day I fell into bed exhausted, only to wake up again in a few short hours to take care of Matimu.
I questioned myself as a mother and I questioned myself as a missionary. I was becoming angry that all the mundane work around the house was keeping me from the people to whom I came to minister. Attending to Matimu’s needs took so much time, yet I wished that I could do more for him.
Things weren’t as they first seemed, reality was kicking in, and it was becoming too much for me to handle. I was becoming depressed. This is the time period after the honeymoon phase. For those living in another country, they’ve found that generally between two and six months, culture shock begins and things that once seemed new, interesting and wonderful become difficult and confusing and just plain depressing. The expatriate starts to miss home and all that’s familiar. They say this is completely normal. I have been through it all before in South Africa, and I expected that this time around adjustment would be easier. I had never factored in how becoming a mom would affect that.
I don’t know if anyone has done studies on the adjustment process of being a mom, but I would venture to say that it’s similar to adjusting to a new culture with all its ups and downs. The big challenge for me was that these two huge life stressors have collided in the same place and at the same time. And now I’m wondering how to put the pieces of my life back together in a way that they begin to reveal the true picture of what God is doing.
I feel broken. I don’t know how to be a good mom and I don’t know how to fully love the people around me. Yet, it’s through these times of difficulty and these feelings of inadequacy that I believe God often works. We are forced to lean on him.
And I know, just like everything else in life, that this is just for a time. Things do get better. Around six months is when the studies show that adjustment to a new culture becomes easier. Around a year, those things that were frustrating and confusing have become clearer as you begin to understand how the local people see the world around them, their values that cause them to act the way they do. You become comfortable with daily activities and the way of life around you becomes less and less of a surprise, shock and frustration. You learn balance: how to maintain who you are in the midst of differing expectations, while at the same time being flexible and willing to adapt to a totally different way of life – keeping the positives and discarding the negatives. The work you came to do finally becomes possible and the life you came to live finally becomes livable.
And so I believe this is also the life of a mom. I’m sure time management becomes easier and that the joys of watching my child grow and develop will outweigh the mundane tasks. I will understand better the needs of my child and I will begin to find myself again in the midst of all the demands of being a mom.
These are the seasons. This is life: managing changes, learning new skills, maintaining relationships, accomplishing work, raising children, growing old, and loss. We all experience it – the ebb and flow of life, ever-changing. At one moment we’re content or even exhilarated and the next we’re trying to cope and adjust, to keep ourselves from coming undone. This is our story.
And it hasn’t really changed. Even Jesus’ disciples went through these seasons when following him. In the beginning when he called them, they were excited that the savior of Israel had finally come. They would follow him anywhere, walk for days, sleep anywhere just to be in his presence. This was the one they’d been waiting for! The savior of their nation! Life had new meaning… they were in the honeymoon phase.
Then they became perplexed by his actions and deeply confused. It turned out that Jesus wasn’t there to conquer the Romans and free the Israelites. In fact he was doing something bigger and in a way they had never imagined. They didn’t get it. Often times they became frustrated, wondering why Jesus showed mercy to those around him who were obviously undeserving of mercy. Even his parables often left them more confused and they argued amongst themselves about what Jesus was really saying. What expectations did Jesus really have for them? Surely some of it was just crazy talk!
But then they began to understand and to know that Jesus was the Son of God and that he didn’t just come for Israel but for the whole world. His Kingdom was not of this earth. Yet much of it was still not clear. Just when they thought they got it, Jesus’ death shattered everything for them. They felt more lost, confused, and broken than ever. The suffering and heartache they felt was beyond compare.
But that wasn’t it! Jesus stepped out of the tomb and in that moment conquered all! This was the ushering in of a new season for all of us. It was the beginning of his Kingdom. Jesus’ disciples finally began to see what he’d been telling them all along. There was still work to be done, but now they could truly begin. And all of us, we still wait in anticipation for its completion, feeling completely at rest in this hope and at the same time completely restless for the fulfilling of his work.
It is now the in-between time for us. Theologian Karl Barth describes it well: “It is the proclamation of victory already won. The war is at an end – even though here and there troops are still shooting, because they have not heard anything yet about the capitulation. The game is won, even though the player can still play a few further moves. Actually he is already mated. The clock has run down, even though the pendulum still swings a few times this way and that. It is the interim space that we are living: the old is past, behold it has all become new.”
We can see evidence of his Kingdom at work and at the same time unrest in a world that doesn’t yet know him, that hasn’t yet accepted his victory. But our duty, as citizens of the new Kingdom, isn’t just to sit and wait until we get to Heaven! We have a work to do! “It is the interim time between His earthly existence and His return in glory; it is the time of the great opportunity, of the task of the Church towards the world; it is the time of mission.”
This Lenten season, this time before Easter, reminds us of the suffering that Jesus went through and even of the loss that was felt from those closest to him. They didn’t understand how he would have to be our sacrifice, that what he was doing was on a greater scale than they could possibly fathom. It was a horrible season. And for most of us, our experience of the work of the Kingdom, in this in-between time, might seem more like that of Lent than that of Easter. A time of suffering and challenge, where the dangers and hurts of the world are vivid and obvious and encroaching our lives at every point. As we engage the world, we suffer with the world, as the world still suffers.
But now that that part of the story is completed, we know what lies at the end of this season too: Resurrection Sunday!
So whatever we’re feeling, whatever struggles, whatever joys, whatever phases of life we’re facing, we have a big task ahead of us: to spread the abundant life of his Kingdom here on earth as we anticipate the final day of its inauguration, when all becomes new! It’s not easy, but we must persevere. Ecclesiastes 11:6 says, “In the morning sow your seed, and at evening do not let your hands be idle; for you do not know which will prosper, this or that, or whether both alike will be good.”
This is life. This is our story. We will continue to face challenges and difficulties and we don’t know where each one will lead. Yet for Christians, we are summoned to be a part of his story, a story that doesn’t change. We already know how it ends! Let us truly live out the hope we have in Christ Jesus.
With Lots of Love,
Lora, Adam, and Matimu Willard