As a medical missionary, following God’s call from Texas to Tanzania required a lot of preparation. I read books, studied Swahili, spoke to experts, and bought supplies. Those efforts successfully launched my missions career, but they did not equip me for the emotional and spiritual reality of living on two continents. I’ve crossed the Atlantic Ocean a dozen times now, and each passport stamp seems to heighten the tension between here and there.
When I am in America, I miss my Tanzanian friends, work that I’m passionate about, a life lived close to the earth, colorful African cloth, delicious fresh fruit, and beautiful mountain views.
When I am in Tanzania, I miss my family and American friends, washing machines and dishwashers, running water and electricity, as well as ice cream, pizza, cheese… OK, I could easily list 20 more food items, but I’ll stop there!
I’m a missionary, which means that I am always missing something. Sometimes this longing is a physical ache like when I couldn’t hug my sister when she announced her pregnancy. Other times, it’s a nagging thought at the back of my mind, like when I miss carving pumpkins at Halloween. Yet, it never leaves me. During my first few years of international living, I misunderstood this constant missing as a spiritual flaw. I thought I should be content with what I have. I should be so wrapped up in God’s work that I have no time to miss anything. And I definitely should have banished those worldly desires for comfort foods or an easier existence.
Every new should landed on my shoulders with a thud, weighing down my heart and spirit. One day, I saw my neighbor return from gathering firewood. She was stooped over, her brow was sweaty, and she looked exhausted by the load she carried. Relief flooded her face the moment she let her burden go. My heart cried out for the same release. I knew it was time to lay down my heavy load at my Father’s feet.
So, I confessed to God how much I missed the comfort of home. I asked for forgiveness and help to find contentment with what each day held. Yet, God chose to use my longing for home in a different and better way. A few days later I was reading Hebrews 11. The chapter lists the “Who’s Who” of the Christian faith and then describes them as foreigners and strangers on the earth.
The words “foreigners and strangers” grabbed my attention. A mentor once told me to treat Scripture phrases that catch my attention like pieces of delicious hard candy: Spend some time with them, enjoy their flavor, and resist the temptation to chew them up to speed their digestion. So, I sat with the phrase for a while, thinking about being a foreigner and stranger in Tanzania.
Then I returned to the Scripture passage. What did it mean that biblical heroes like Noah, Abraham, and Sarah also felt like foreigners and strangers on the earth? I read this paraphrase of Hebrews 11:14-16: Their stories “make it plain that they are looking for their true home. If they were homesick for the old country, they could have gone back any time they wanted. But they were after a far better country than that — heaven country.” They were homesick for heaven!
There was great joy in realizing that I am also a stranger and foreigner on this earth, looking for my true home. God did not want to take away my longing for home. Instead, God used it to foster within me a deeper, holier, weightier desire: his very presence. The only cure for my homesickness — no matter where I am physically — will be spending eternity with him. All of my longings shall be satisfied when my heart reaches its true home. Until then, each longing serves as a reminder that I am a stranger and foreigner on this earth, and encouragement to keep my eyes focused on eternity.
So the next time that I’m eating rice and beans for the 27th straight day and pining after my hometown grocery store, I can shift my focus to dreaming about the heavenly banquet table (surely God will serve cheese, right!?). And when I am tired of sticking out and missing the anonymity of blending in, I can imagine the joy of being part of the throng of people from every nation, tribe, and tongue worshipping before God’s throne (Revelation 7:9).
Yet, it can be challenging to maintain this eternal perspective when the mundane realities of life press in. How can I keep my eyes focused on heaven when there is so much work to do here on earth? Perhaps I can again take a lesson from the mission field. When I’m in Tanzania missing my family, I send them an email, give them a call, make them a video. I reach out to the place that I am missing. I find a connection point between where I am and where I want to be.
Maybe that’s another way to understand prayer. We’re reaching out to someone from our eternal home. We’re telling God that we miss him and hope to see him soon. We share about our life and read Scripture about his. We laugh and listen. We find life-giving joy in those moments together. Those connection points give us the strength to keep pushing on all the way home.