From 2005 until 2010, my husband and I served as missionaries in Bulgaria, which is a formerly communist country in Eastern Europe. Everything I had been graciously taught in my mere twenty-four years of life was not nearly enough to prepare me for what God was calling us to do. It was far beyond reach of my own human capabilities, and took me to a place of absolute surrender, and sincere faith in God. I thought I was surrendered to God. I thought I had faith. What I had was nothing in comparison to what I so desperately needed.
It was December 19th, 2005. The day had finally arrived. Everything we owned was being awkwardly lugged in three royal blue suitcases, and eight bulky cardboard boxes. We sobbed our tearful farewells and boarded the plane for this foreign destination. It was nine hours and fifty minutes from Phoenix to London, seemingly a lifetime. My mind was a stormy sea of questions, and a wave of emotions. After a four-hour layover and another three-hour flight from London to Sofia, we had arrived.
The airport was small, dirty, and crowded. We were met with quizzical glares as we shuffled into the building. As we stood for what seemed like hours, we waited for all of our earthly possessions to come join us on this new adventure. With all eight boxes and three suitcases stacked up high, we franticly searched for a way to transport them.
My husband discovered a luggage cart hidden in the corner of the airport and rushed to grab it. It only had three wheels and was followed by an old man who was shouting. What he was shouting, we had no idea, but we managed to load this broken cart. He pushed the cart, and I held on to the bags as they attempted to escape at every bump and turn. We were pushing our belongings into a new outside world; a very cold world. No… a freezing world! The sky was gray. The ground was covered in a brown slushy mixture of snow and ice. After a nearly four-hour drive from the airport, we were “home”.
Unable to communicate or navigate the icy streets, I stayed home. We lived on the sixth floor of an old communist-style block apartment and it had no elevator. Attempting to go anywhere proved more difficult than staying in.
We found a small market around the corner on the bottom floor of our building. Everything was placed behind the counter and we had to ask for the things we wanted to purchase. I think I learned most of my Bulgarian words from that little old saleswoman. One of the first things she taught me to say was toilet paper, which is an amazingly important word when in need of it.
Our nearly daily trips to the corner market always proved entertaining, well to all the onlookers anyway. We would point at things, she would mutter something, and then we would shake our heads yes or no until we got what we needed. Most of the items were unidentifiable to us. Our entire life was a long sequence of trial and error, mostly error.
Two years passed, and the time approached for our furlough in Chandler, Arizona. I was so excited to go home. I wanted to eat American food: sweet, salty, greasy, and fattening. Oh America, how we missed you, how we love you! There were so many things about America that I missed, and I was so happy to be going back.
We had landed in Atlanta, Georgia and had to go through customs. I looked around at all my fellow Americans. We were big and well fed. At the time, smartphones were new and we marveled at how many people had one in their hand. The guy behind us complained about his flight. The woman in front of us said the airport was too hot. They joked about the security not knowing how to do their job. We were home.
I was home, but everything was different; the people were different, the relationships were different, the places I used to go were different. Church was different, or maybe I was different. We entered into that first night of conference and heard a sermon on surrender. I thought, “God, I don’t know how much more I can surrender.” We heard sermons on giving all, and I said, “God I am!”, and I meant it with all sincerity. I looked around at almost a thousand other people in that place and thought to myself, “What about them?”
I honestly left conference that year feeling more discouraged than encouraged. Why had God chosen me? Why did I have to return back to my communist block? All the while, my friends and family were living so comfortably in their four-bedroom houses with swimming pools and two-car garages. It didn’t seem fair.
As the weather began to get warmer, so did my heart. I was learning more words everyday and finally able to interact with people, sort of. You could see the difficulties of life written on their faces, an almost constant frown; even on the faces of children. This was a hard life. Jobs were scarce, and those fortunate enough to work would do so for at least ten hours a day, for six days a week. They walked long distances no matter the weather. The salaries were only enough for survival. I would offer a smile and a “hello” in passing, but it was rarely returned.
As I saw the hardships of those around me, God began to show me how blessed I am. Every complaint I could ever make was really nothing compared to what the majority of the world faces. I realized all the things my life had been sheltered from and all the things I had taken for granted. For the first time I truly understood these things and was grateful to be born in America.
While there in Europe, we went to Turkey where proclaiming Christianity can put you and your family in danger. We walked the streets of Ephesus, where Paul once stood preaching the Gospel. We visited Rome, and saw the Colosseum, a place where many christians were killed “damnatio ad bestia” (meaning thrown to wild beasts) while people watched for entertainment. We stood in St. Peter’s square where Peter was crucified upside-down for his faith.
There are many people in the history of Christianity that long for the freedoms we have to worship. Those freedoms have been fought for and many have lost their lives to experience what we have today. We so easily get caught up in our daily routines and rituals that we forget how blessed we are.
I wonder how many in our armed forces feel like they are coming home to an ungrateful nation. They go out and fight for the very freedoms we take for granted: We have the freedom of speech and we use it to slander and complain. We are able to vote but very few of us do. We are free to worship in the House of God, but we choose to isolate ourselves in comfort and entertainment.
For me, I had to leave America to see how truly blessed I am. We have so much more than we deserve. On this Memorial Day, let us remember those who have gone before us to make the nation what it is today. Let us also honor those who died standing in the name of Jesus. Jesus paid the ultimate sacrifice so we can truly be free. Let us remember and be thankful.