catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 13, Num 2 :: 2014.01.24 — 2014.02.06


Quitting my dream

The first moment I stepped off a British Airways plane onto the airstairs at Entebbe International Airport, a dormant seed began pushing its way to the surface of my life.  I was only 19 when I first smelled garbage burning and diesel engines and bananas and sewage and fresh pineapple, all in one whiff.  And like so many who take a summer trip to another culture, I was undone and put back together all at once.  Before my feet had even hit the tarmac, a strange certainty I had never before experienced stamped itself onto my consciousness: I was made for this. 

The following weeks passed as all of life does, with highlights and moments of sheer boredom, with relationships that were sweet and those that weren’t, with foods I enjoyed and the inevitable fish dinner.  There were other experiences a bit more out of the ordinary: that humiliating incident with the pinching ants; that day the whole village walked us back to our transport, singing and holding our hands; the evening an armed man entered the hostel room with his gun and I was too tired to find out why.  The assurance that I was made for this didn’t wane. 

It took years to unpack what “being made for this” meant.  These days I know that it wasn’t a functional or vocational reality. But starting with my first dramatic step of withdrawing from college after my return, each decision I made was evaluated in light of that moment.  In Uganda, local friends say that when you visit the headwaters of the Nile at Jinja, you will certainly be back.  Given the sheer number of tourists who must visit Jinja, it can’t be true, but when Joyous told me, standing on that spot, that I would return to Africa, there was no doubt in my mind that she was a prophetess.  I didn’t leave it to chance, though.  When I reenrolled in college, when I met a young man who had also experienced life in East Africa in a deeply formative way, when I decided not to get a credit card or take on any debt, it was all with a clear goal: to live cross-culturally, in service and love for others, in Jesus’ name. 

For years, the crystal-clear revelation of that moment at Entebbe guided life.  There was ebb and flow; I learned and grew.  I experienced serving and loving others in America under the guidance of wise and kind mentors.  I went to school and fell in love.  I went days and weeks without talking to others about a dream that would take me far from them and their normal forever.  But I never strayed far from the dream internally.

The time came to return.  I did, initially, single.  The young man I had fallen in love with had moved to the Arabian Peninsula to learn language and left me wondering where that left me.  For six months, I taught and cooked and shopped and lived and prayed in a hot desert city in a corner of Africa.  I was living the dream, albeit alone and wishing I weren’t.  After our engagement on my apartment roof in this city, the young language learner and I both returned “home,” got married and continued to let what had become a mutual dream grow and flourish. 

In February 2006, we had done all the paperwork and found all the funding and packed four bags full of three years of treasure.  We moved back to my former desert home together and found out that we were right: this was indeed what we had been made for.  Life was normal: incredible hardship, deep joy and irritatingly mundane days all added up to living our dream.  It was probably nothing like what my 19-year-old self had seen in a flash at Entebbe International Airport, but it was nonetheless good and right and our dream in real life.  I conceived and birthed my first child in East Africa and learned my first language through sweat and tears (high school French did not count).  I lost my grandmother from 8,000 miles away and returned to give a jetlagged eulogy at her funeral in New Jersey.  I learned how to tuck my dress into my underwear when the summer temperatures hit and I learned in disturbingly personal detail just how acrid sweat can smell when the desert turns on her heat.  I taught and I loved and I yelled and I wept.  Friends held my hand when I was sick and they hurried from their houses on those days that I whipped open my door and yelled, in English, how desperately sick I was of their homeland and how I wanted to go home.  Now. 

Several countries in eastern Africa saw me develop from a teenage girl into a woman, then a wife, then a mother.  I laid down privilege after privilege to live where I did because I saw with clarity that I would treasure joy after joy if I did.  And I did.  The joys were not elusive; there was the rain song that brought tears to my eyes before I even knew what it was; being named by my neighbors; years later holding a little baby who was named after me.  Learning a whole new story from scratch as I entered a whole new world.  Giving my neighbors great cause for glee as I would hitch up my dress and run screaming past camels that are much larger and scarier in person than I had anticipated.  Finally being able to speak a language well enough to pray with someone who was hurting.  Entering a rhythm of a culture that was vastly different from my own until it felt a bit like home.

For five years “on the ground,” plus several more preparing and raising funds, I lived this dream, until one day, it became clear that it was time to quit.  Formulating that sentence, saying it out loud, was one of the hardest things I had done at the time.  At first we whispered it to one another and found that we were still safe together.  Without that, we may not have had the courage to quit.  We did all the thinking and praying and consulting with wise people that we could.  But how do you quit your dream?  How do you leave what you’ve been living for all these years?  Of course I worried about what other people would think; much more pressing though was unraveling what I thought. 

Then there was that Thursday afternoon in an American friend’s living room with a doctor visiting from Mayo Clinic.  He too had once lived in Africa with his family and so knew to pack his suitcase full of Starbucks, not extra clothes.  He doled out the coffee and the chocolate and the luxuries that we lived without, except for the generosity of those traveling to see us.  That afternoon, as he reflected on his experience, it was his words that brought the luxury my husband and I were desperate for: grace.  He said it in passing, just a simple commentary on how he and his family had come to leave East Africa.  “Sometimes,” he said, “God just moves you on.”  We were the lightning rod and his words the lightning.  As everyone else sipped freshly brewed Starbucks in a country that didn’t have one ATM in a quarter million square miles, my eyes met my husband’s and we both heard the same thing: the divine revelation we had been waiting for, the sign from heaven that told us that quitting this dream wasn’t a spontaneous abortion that would mean only loss, but a live birth, painful as it was.  As much as it sometimes felt like it, we were not giving up on what was true — about us, about God or about his world. 

In the weeks and months that followed, we received questions and criticisms and plenty of pain from our fellow believers.  There were some who were able to let us go generously and others who needed to dissect our decision in order to prove it was the wrong one.  The refrain “sometimes God just moves you on” played over and over, and when I felt the fear coursing through me, I’d say it aloud.  We were in our mid-thirties, with a “career” of ministry, health insurance, retirement accounts and a reasonably stable income.  In truth, none of that mattered as much as the fact that we weren’t quitting our jobs — we were quitting our dream. 

It turns out, that was only partly true.

At 19, I assumed the dream was fully mine.  It was limited by geography and vocation and my own sense of fulfillment in living it.  15 years later, I disagree with my younger self.  My spiritual formation teacher has offered me the gift of thinking in a new way: that God, in infinite wisdom and perfect creativity, dreamed first.  That his creation of me included the piece of me that would step into the tepid air of Entebbe and see Lake Victoria and feel alive in a whole new way.  I didn’t dream this dream; I only responded to the divine invitation offered to me that day and over again through the years.  Leaving the geographic limitations of this dream meant quitting my dream from all outward appearances, but in the two years since, I have realized that it wasn’t my dream to quit and it wasn’t measured the way I thought.

God’s creative strength is unfolding in my life, now in America, now in a vocation of mother and wife and children’s minister, just as it did with a veil over my hair and rain songs haunting me from outside.  I itch to start learning another language often enough; I follow women around in the Goodwill when I recognize the distinctive dress from “my” corner of Africa, waiting for the chance to literally bump into them and introduce myself.  Yes, I miss Africa nearly every day and I hope for a time that living overseas will become my normal again.  But if I do find myself choosing a life across the world, this time, I will do it with the confidence that the Eternal Creator himself has offered me another gift.  I will know that I didn’t create the opportunity through my own tenacity or wisdom.  And I will know that someday, he might just move me on.  

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