Once again, it’s that time of year that many of us in overseas missions work experience a lot of transition. Some are getting ready to go to the field, some are getting ready to leave the field and some of us are continuing to stay. But even for those who are staying on the field, the transition truly never stops. On the mission field there are the expected transitions to and from the field, but what is often more unexpected is the yearly transition of community that many of us missionaries and expats experience. Everyone is experiencing hellos and goodbyes in their lives, but for many of us in overseas service, it is a yearly event. Well-loved friends and team members leave and we prepare to welcome new faces to our community. Those who stay need to say goodbye with full hearts and then open our hearts to the newcomers. And we do it again and again and again. We live a life of perpetual hellos and goodbyes.
There is something quite special about our community on the field. Recently a group of expat friends and I were discussing what made our friendships and community in Korea so special and rich. We agreed that one year of friendship had the depth of three years and that it was likely because as foreigners we were all in a vulnerable spot together, that our neediness was more on the surface. It was harder to hide, harder to pretend we were completely independent and had it all together because as foreigners we so clearly did need help and support. Also, due to the regular turnover of people in our greater community, when we did make a close relationship we were able to value it for the treasure it was.
Because the field can be a lonely place. The many goodbyes can make it hard to have a stable, intimate community group. We are often too busy, too tired, too overwhelmed to do the hard work of trying to connect with others. And sometimes it seems like there is just no one we can really ‘click’ with. Sometimes with the tiredness and the inevitable goodbyes and all the effort it takes it can seem better to just keep to ourselves and do our thing. To not keep trying for this fabled community and to just be independent operators.
However, the truth stands that we need community and we need to keep our hearts open. It’s very easy to want to protect our vulnerable hearts from the pain that goodbyes bring and to stop opening up. It is easy to make the conscious or unconscious choice to just be that independent operator. Perhaps it’s even easier to choose being an independent operator if you come from a more individualistic culture, such as the United States.
For those of us who do live in a context of perpetual hellos and goodbyes, there is a distinct challenge to having godly community. However, the family of God is not just a concept- it is a reality to be lived out. Our God is relational in His Trinitarian nature and we were created as relational beings. This doesn’t mean we can just instantly choose to have a meaningful, trusting community, particularly in a very transitory context. In fact, there do seem to be distinct seasons that are lonelier than others and this is a part of life and a sacrifice that is made to do the work we do.
While it is rarely easy, particularly in our context, it is so important to stay open to new relationships and work for that trusted community. Community is the space where we represent God’s love to each other and bring a little of the divine into daily life. It takes risk, it takes effort and its hard work. Sometimes it forms easily and effortlessly and sometimes it requires a lot of intentionality. It can be formal or informal and can be practiced in so many ways from an accountability group to a workout group to just starting to open your home to others.
In community, all our needs aren’t fulfilled but in the space of community we can encourage each other, love each other and bond together as imperfect people who are committed to bring the Kingdom of God in ways big and small to their relationships and the world.