Heaping Plates of Grace: Returning from China to the United States
Perhaps you’ve worked and lived overseas and were required to attend a debriefing session. It’s very possible you heard a story that goes something like this: “I went to the grocery store to pick up cereal, but when I got to the cereal aisle, I was totally overwhelmed with all the choices. I just had to sit down and cry!” Not to belittle those who have experienced these emotions, but when I heard this story at my own debriefing a few days before returning home, my exact thought was, “HA! Tears of joy, maybe.” I had just spent a year in Sichuan, China, as a university teacher and, for the most part, loved it. From what I’ve seen and heard, spending a single year in a country seems to be somewhat of a gamble, because if things start out terrible, there is not much time to turn it around. My coin flip ended happily. I lived on campus with my fun and functional team, which enabled us to interact with our students frequently. My classes were well behaved and the subject (oral English) relatively simple to plan. I became friends with students and visited their hometowns, along with other major cities in China. I got to constantly enjoy spicy food and become pals with the restaurant owners. My teammate and I even had the opportunity to lead a study on the Word for our students. Some of them came to know Christ, and all of them heard things about Christ they never knew before. All in all, it was a very positive experience, but I was also very excited to come home and enjoy some of the aforementioned cereal benefits.
That incredulous thought from my debriefing session describes my first days back from China. With my eternally patient mother as my witness, I positively frolicked down the cereal aisle. I ran from sample to sample at Sam’s Club, almost fainted for joy at the smell of Target, and ate guacamole with a spoon. Was I a little concerned that I was a heartless, shallow ingrate? Partially, but I was also pretty confident in the fact that everyone transitions back to their home culture differently, and some of us just have a deep, abiding love for a certain man by the name of Cap’n Crunch. I was riding the high of joyful reunions with friends and food.
However, as you may have guessed, this was only what we like to call, “The Honeymoon Period.” Not to say that I don’t still have a great relationship with America. No, I am still fully enjoying pretzels, being one of a million blondes, and my ability to eavesdrop on conversations as much as ever. America and I, we will be fully committed to each other for many years to come. But I now have quite a different relationship with the Christian culture of the United States. And that relationship has conflict brewing under the surface.
“Culture shock” doesn’t really describe how I feel. Yes, America is very materialistic, but China is too. Nor did my return from China include the jarring realization of the disparity of wealth that Westerners often experience when they visit less developed countries. To be honest, I don’t really think of America as a Christian nation, and therefore my standards for American culture (and Chinese culture) are pretty low. But I do have higher standards for the Christian community of America, and so “Christian culture shock,” is a more apt description of what I’ve experienced after my return.
In China, almost every American Christian I knew was there with the specific intent to share the Gospel. We prayed about it, we talked about it, we took classes about it. I didn’t have to search for purpose – it was right there in front of me! The distractions of status, achievements, appearance, and wealth were conveniently absent for the most part. It’s kind of boring to play the comparison game when you’re all making money below the American poverty line and wearing jeans that constantly sag because you don’t have a dryer. Everybody loses. Everybody wins.
Reenter returning missionary into the American church (“church” being Christian friends, family, or the physical church building) and this is where I started to feel the jarring disparity. This is where I started to feel the tension in the relationship. So, being the emotionally aware adult that I am, I adopted the tried and true policy of passive-aggression.
I struggle with being passive-aggressive in other areas of my life, so it shouldn’t really surprise me that I would do this with collective bodies as well as actual people. Passive-aggressiveness, as you may have heard, is when you can’t really verbalize how you are feeling about the material mindset of many Christians you meet, so you lash out by telling people in a snotty voice how dumb you think it is that your church spent thousands of dollars remodeling its fancy bathroom into a fancier bathroom while you were away. It’s when you can see - or you think you can see - that the Christians around you don’t find their identity in Christ, but rather in clearance sales, Instagram-ready food, salaries, and fancy beer.
Here is the great thing about passive-aggression: you get to feel righteously indignant and morally superior, and then conveniently act like you don’t have to do anything about it. This is why I use it for so many life situations. However, side effects may include: building resentment, conflict, judgmental pride, and the solving of absolutely no problems whatsoever.
When I realized I was feeling this way, I asked myself, “Well, now what?” When you realize you are acting this way towards a person, you go to that person, ask for forgiveness, and try to explain how you feel. But this becomes difficult when your anger is directed at a thousand people, most of whom are vague, faceless, or imagined.
But why am I angry? What’s going on here? I’ve had to sit and think about that for a while.
The truth is that I’m scared. One reason I loved my Christian community in China was the ever-present encouragement to live my life intentionally. It is very, very easy to focus on evangelism when everyone else focused on it as well. It’s easy to do things that scare you when your neighbor is being bold right along with you. Accountability isn’t a bi-weekly appointment; it’s a way of life. Before China, evangelism had never been a focus, or even a hobby, of my life. It was more like something I ran away from in terror.
So, in my head, the logic went like this:
Life before China – I’m similar to those around me. I don’t deliberately seek out the lost.
Life during China – I’m similar to those around me. I deliberately seek out the lost.
Life after China – I’m not sure if I’m similar to those around me. And if the people around me aren’t seeking out the lost, how am I not going to slip right back into my old patterns and be just like them? I need these people to support me, because I cannot do this myself, and I am going to fail.
And here we have come to the heart of the matter concerning my relationship with American Christianity – the crippling fear of failure due to some truly twisted logic. This logic is rooted in three big lies. The first lie is that I am the only Christian around who wants to intentionally share the love that I’ve received. This is so terribly self-absorbed and prideful that it’s embarrassing to admit. The truth is that there is grace; God provides others to labor with us. The second lie is that my ability to explain God’s story and love had anything to do with me or the people who were around me. The truth is that grace is responsible for all my good works. The third lie is that my performance in the area of evangelism is what solidifies God’s love for me. This also explains a lot of my anger; I felt like God was going to hold me to a standard without the resources to meet it. The truth is that grace has already met the standard and provides me with every resource I need.
The truth is grace. Grace brought me to China, grace brought me back, and grace can sustain me anywhere. There are heaping plates – American-sized plates – of grace for you and me and the American church. There is no shortage of provision or forgiveness. Grace is what makes it possible for me to live in China, possible for me to live in America, possible for me to live.
Lisa Speckhard comes from Cottage Grove, Minnesota, and is a graduate of Trinity International University. She recently spent a year teaching English in Sichuan, China, and will be starting graduate school to pursue a degree in journalism in the fall. You can follow her personal blog at The Beautiful Place.