Do you ever have those seasons in life where you feel like you’re barely hanging on by a thread. You feel like you can never get caught up on all you have to do. Just when the “In Box” is at it’s urgent fullness, life dumps an avalanche on your desk. Latinos have a saying, “All the Gringos have watches, but none of them have time.” Hurry, Rush, Busy Busy Busy!
I don’t like going through long stretches of time feeling like I’m just doing enough to make it through today. I’m a planner. I want to get stuff done so I don’t have to think about it for weeks on end. For example, in school I do my lesson plans for an entire month at one time. I have a yearly plan that is less specific. I don’t want to plan too far in advance because things happen and the schedule needs a cushion to accomodate unexpected changes. But I want to plan far enough in advance that I don’t have to scramble each night to prepare for tomorrow’s lessons.
Unfortunately we have to be flexible. Back in Minnesota we had the occasional “Snow Day” and school would be canceled. Here we have various natural disasters to contend with. We had a huge earthquake at the beginning of the school year and we lost a day for that. Two years ago we had a huge mudslide on one side of the city and the government closed school all over the city for a few days to keep parents from having to drive around the closed off area. And in Mexico City sometimes they close school for “Smog Days” when it’s just too polluted for kids to be playing outside during recess. One of those days can throw off a whole month of lesson plans. Being flexible is part of life.
But on the Mission Field, my commitment to flexibility is tested almost daily. Plans change sometimes hourly. I either adapt or go through life frustrated. My skills in “flying by the seat of my pants” come in handy when someone doesn’t show up for a meeting (usually without calling) or an event is canceled the hour it’s supposed to begin. I have to “wing it”. This means I constantly feel like I can’t rely too heavily on my plans. I still DO plan, because it’s my nature, but I can’t get upset when plans fall through.
This makes me feel like I’m constantly making decisions in the moment, living behind the 8 ball, but that’s how the world runs here. No one is upset by this but the Gringos. No one expects things to happen on time except the Americans. No one is surprised when plans change except the Foreigners. Change happens. What’s the big deal? Go with the flow, “just keep swimming,” and you can survive here in Latin America. Flexibility is a necessary life skill. It will either make you or break you on the mission field.
We are coming up on “summer vacation” here in Costa Rica. As a family we are looking forward to returning to the States for a few weeks of R&R for Christmas and to attend a World Missions Summit. We are totally blessed to be able to travel with relative ease between our mission field and our home state. But in many ways, making short trips back home sort of has the same effect as traveling through time might have. I feel like I get Time Travel Shock and the space-time continuum is interrupted.
When I am in Latin America, the third world is my “normal”. It’s like I exist in a completely different period of time now. There are so many aspects of life that I just take for granted at this point. The things that used to shock me or catch my attention have become part of my background white noise and I hardly notice them any more. But when I am dropped like a paratrooper back into my original setting, everything that used to be “normal” before I was a missionary seems stunning or note-worthy. Not only do I change locations physically, I seem to travel into the future to a time that has not yet existed in Costa Rica. The bouncing back and forth can be quite a shock to me both mentally and emotionally.
Let me expound on just one feature of my time travel shock. When I return to Minnesota the first thing I notice is the SPACE around me. There is just so much SPACE! Even in a crowded airport, I have ample elbow room. When we get in the car and drive from the airport to the house, the cars all keep a reasonable distance from each other. The highway is buffered on both flanks by wide hills of grass or dunes of snow depending on the season. So much unused SPACE! In the grocery store, I have lost all sense of what is an appropriate distance to maintain between myself and the other shoppers. Either I fall into my Latin American patterns of driving my cart right up to the behind of the person in line in front of me, or I over compensate and leave a confusing gap between us. My sense of space is all out of wack.
When I return again to Latin America, the first thing I notice when I step outside of the airport is the closeness of everything and everyone. The humidity wraps around my head and presses against my face, making me feel like I am breathing through a wet blanket. The people press in all around me asking to carry my bags or find a taxi for me. I have to resist the urge to start pushing people out of my way. I want to shove everyone and shout, “Back off! I have been folded into an airplane seat for hours and I really need some space.” The smells of wet pavement, rotting sewer, and over perfumed humanity all press in against my senses leaving me no where to turn. Then we get in the car and start driving home. The traffic zooms up to us and stops suddenly, no buffer, no fear of hitting us. They are just taking up space as fast as they can lest another car come along and claim that inch of pavement. We zoom, they zoom. The buildings on both sides of the highway hug the road, dangerously close. When we stop, people swarm the car trying to sell us things through the car windows. We keep the windows rolled up. That 3/4 of an inch of glass between us and the street vendors feels like enough space. Personal space has become relative.
In addition to our awkward use of space and the gawking our family of 5 will do in every public space, going back for Christmas time is a surreal experience in and of itself. My parents want my kids to make a Christmas list. My kids don’t know what toys are “out there” now. They ask me, “What do I need, Mom?” I just shake my head. I am stuck back in time from when we first left America 6 years ago. I think about what will fit in a suitcase- again, I have space issues. Before we leave, I will search the internet for what clothes are in fashion now. I will try to pack things that are neutral enough so that I blend into the background and don’t make me stick out like someone who just arrived from the year 2006. Not only to we change spaces, we change times as well. I am already anticipating the Time Travel Jet Lag.
Once upon a time, before we were missionaries, we were in youth ministry. We have some lingering side effects of having spent so many years with teenagers, and one of them is that we are always on the look-out for great sermon illustrations and object lessons. Kids remember stories and illustrations more than anything.
So one day I was surfing around on youtube for good illustrations and I found a simple, but profound illustration by author and preacher Francis Chan. In this illustration, Francis uses a really long rope. One end of the rope has about 6 inches of red tape wrapped around the end. Holding up the red tape, Francis begins to talk about our time on Earth. He lists all the things that tend to occupy our thoughts and concerns as we pass through our brief time on Earth.
This red part of the rope represents our time here on Earth. And all the rest of the rope represents eternity. We have a very brief moment called “Time” and we spend the majority of our energies concentrating on the things that are only relative to this little section called Time. Comparatively speaking, we spend a very small amount of time and energy thinking about things that relate to eternity. This is a profound and shocking illustration… and it actually saved my husband’s life.
When Josh and the team from California went to the tribe and got caught on the wrong side of the flash-flooded river, my husband happened to have the rope from this illustration in the back of his car! When the water level rose from knee height to arm pit height in a matter of minutes and loose bolders and trees pounded their way downstream, the missionaries strung the rope across the river and tied each end to one car on each bank. Using the rope, the last members of the team and Josh were able to cross the river in the nick of time. So I like to say that Francis Chan saved my husband’s life with his rope illustration. A good illustration can be worth more than we realize!
This is a 6 minute illustration… a POWERFUL 6 minute illustration… that just might change your life today and your eternity forever. Watch it!