My parents bought a house when I was a toddler and stayed in it for decades. While I was growing up our neighborhood didn’t change much either. One couple across the street had a pristine yard with no room for kids playing football in it. A friendly widow a few houses down played Frisbee with us sometimes. She also had a cat that roamed the street.
When I went to college and later started a family of my own, I took for granted that I could return home at any time. I always had a place where I belonged until my Dad died in the basement of that home and Mom sold the house about a year later. As I was driving alone one last time from home, hauling some of my childhood belongings with me, I mourned my loss. I knew I would never go back there again.
I mean, I tried. I would drive up to that house and stare at it, usually before or after visiting Dad’s grave nearby. I saw some familiar neighbors from my car window, but never spoke to them. I now have to stay in a hotel or with friends when I visit my hometown, if I can still call it that.
My wife was born in Africa. Although her parents raised her in the same house from the time she was young, she’s lived her entire adult life thousands of miles away from where she belonged. That distance stands like a great, fixed gulf that can not be crossed. I never grasped her sadness about it until I lost my center that once held everything together. Witnessing her swirling emotions as she got to go back there just once for a visit, put my own story in perspective. At least I had a home I could return to while I was finding myself as a young adult, even if it expired when it did during my thirties.
When our family answered God’s summons to make a new home in Brazil, I immediately thought of our kids. What home would they remember? Would it be South Dakota? Missouri? Brazil? What would they miss more: the homes they once knew in America or the one they are getting to know only to leave behind one day in Brazil?
It’s a cliché that one ought to withhold judgment of someone else until they’ve walked a mile in their shoes. But, oh how I wish that people would stop and consider the foreigner for just one moment before dismissing them in word or deed. Becoming a foreigner doesn’t mean a short-term trip overseas, it’s buying a one-way ticket to a place that doesn’t claim you, hoping that one day it will.
Becoming a foreigner is excitedly getting the family ready for a fun dinner on New Year’s Eve, only to find every place closed, so people can celebrate with their families. It’s meeting your new neighbors accidentally, because you’re putting together furniture too loudly on a Saturday morning amid suitcases and chaos. It’s living with a weight pushing down firmly on the center of your chest, hoping that everything will work out every day, because you have no idea how to communicate in a pinch if and when something doesn’t. Becoming a foreigner is a nasty in-between place where things from back home seem so distant, but you lack the tools and capacity to build relationships in your new home. If anyone in the world deserves grace and kindness it’s those of us who have become foreigners, especially the ones who didn’t even choose to leave their home, but had to flee from it.
Our family just finished reading through the Book of Ruth, and this time the familiar story had a new angle for me. Naomi was the foreigner in Moab and made a home there, but it crumbled, so she goes back home. Ruth, who lived where she belonged her whole life, chooses to become a foreigner out of her love and duty to Naomi and her faith in God. She doesn’t buy a plane ticket, but she says that when she goes with Naomi it will be until her death. Now that’s commitment.
I wonder how long Ruth felt the weight of anxiety as she left her new home each morning in hopes that the day would treat her well. That gathering grain would be somewhat easy. That people wouldn’t expect too much of her too soon. I wonder how long she missed Moab and her family there. The book focuses so much on Naomi’s woes that Ruth never shares them with us the readers. But I’m sure she lived them. After all, she became the foreigner.
As Ruth immediately gets to work as a foreigner in the strange land of Bethlehem, God is gracious. She happens upon Boaz, who goes out of his way to take care of her because she is taking care of Naomi. Ruth discovers Boaz is a relative who can redeem her crumbled family, and they eventually marry.
Over time Bethlehem claims Ruth as their daughter, as the book ends with the elders of the city blessing her to be like Rachel and Leah, who together built up the house of Israel. She went from becoming a foreigner to being a foreigner in a new home: a small change in words, but a huge change in reality. The book ends with Ruth’s key place in the genealogy of King David. Hundreds of pages later in our Bibles, the New Testament begins with Ruth’s place in the genealogy of Jesus.
It shouldn’t have, but it has taken several weeks of living as a foreigner to let the words of Holy Scripture sink deep into my soul when they remind us our “citizenship is in heaven” (Phil 3:20), that we are “aliens and strangers in the world” (1 Pet 2:11), and that living by faith means no longer looking for a country of our own here on earth (Heb 11:13-16).
We’re all foreigners here. Or at least we should be. And God loves us and sustains us in a way that no home on earth ever could. He also promises a kingdom beyond all imagination where we will finally belong.
Until then may Brazil become our Bethlehem. In a way it already has.