….well, not quite – four, in fact – that I left what I’d called ‘home’ in Hampton, Virginia, United States, to go on a four-week ministry trip, taking in, if I recall, England, Scotland, Romania, and Sweden, all my bags-a-packed and ready to leave… little did I know that day that I’d never see that house, or most of what I’d gathered to make it as much like ‘home’ as it could be, away from the United Kingdom, again….. Ostensibly, it really was a house I went to for about one-fifth of the year, for rest and relaxation: much of my time was spent in other countries. I’d just done all my ‘normal’ checks, like making sure most things were turned off – though doubtless the TV and a few other things were on standby!
What happened on my return, 26 May 2009, seems so distant now, four years on: to this day, I, nor my Immigration Lawyer, have ever been given a reason why I wasn’t given ‘permission to land’ that afternoon. The next 7 months were a blur of a night here, a night there, in different people’s homes, as I didn’t want to be a burden on anyone, assuming that my exclusion from the USA would be a temporary affair, whatever. 7 months and 129 different beds later, I found a house in Northern Ireland. All I ‘possessed’, then, were my two suitcases (there are benefits of being a frequent flyer, not the least of which is an extra piece of luggage!) and my laptop bag. Suitcases full of dirty clothes and used up personal items!
Even though I took this house on, at £400 a month I really didn’t think I could stay here too long: nor would I need to. Only if God did a miracle of provision, could I stay, as of course, I still had all the bills on the house in the USA to pay….48 months later, and 40 months of being in Ireland, this house has truly become the first place I genuinely call ‘home’ in almost 40 years. Actually, it’s not that I didn’t have ‘homes’ – I did. But I guess, in being advised – warned – no, instructed(!) by my lovely brothers in the Rhinos, that I had to find somewhere to learn to rest and relax, if not I’d be dead – not just spiritually, but physically. I knew deep down that they were right, and I was pretty nearly burned out. And in allowing God to teach me how to rest, I’ve found home in myself. That probably sounds very ‘slushy’ reading it cold: but it’s the truth.
The immigration process in the USA was long, drawn out, boring, painful, expensive, and any other similar adjective you want to add there! About 8 months into the process, the church I’d been part of, offered me a job as Foreign Missions Director. Sounds grand, doesn’t it! – but it was a church of about 30 people, so for all its grandeur, it was just a title, with a negligible salary. So the might of the US State and Homeland Security departments started to investigate just about every corner of my life. There were a few funny things: like – on the Immigrant Application form, of which there were many, one page had a box, 2½ inches x ¾ inch, with a number, and a question: ‘Please list here, with dates, all the countries that you have visited in the last 10 years’……that’s funny! When I’d finished the list, it stretched to 16 full pages of A4 paper…..
About 6-7 weeks ago, having thoroughly exhausted their search of my life, USCIS (Customs & Immigration Service) wrote to my lawyer, turning down – yet again – my application, but with ‘leave’ to appeal. I ‘knew’ this time that there was no point in appealing – a God-given gut feeling: as the two reasons for the denial related 1) to the quoted salary of the pastor (much higher than anyone had ever known!), and 2) to the church there, and its inability to support anyone else when the pastor’s salary was pretty much 40% of the total church income….
Funny as it might sound, I was relieved: relieved that it wasn’t anything I’d done, failed to do, misled them in, and that I could finally rid myself of the feeling that, because I couldn’t – can’t yet – go to the USA (even to transit to go to Latin America), I was almost like a criminal. A dear, dear friend in the States contacted the Pastor, as he, too had heard the communication from the USCIS via my lawyer: to be told that, actually, the ‘job’ I’d been offered hadn’t actually existed for 2½ years! Interestingly, no one there thought it might be a good – or God – thing, to actually tell me. I could have stopped the process there and then, arranged for the house to be sold (it’s owned by two lovely English businessman friends), and I could shed the bills every month….
Have I learned a lot since 4 years ago today! I’ve learned, among many things, that God is the Supreme Provider. The house I’m in here is owned by a friend: to not be able to pay the rent would be awful. Every month God has supplied that rent, and the money to send to the USA to pay the bills there – AND the massive cost of this whole saga….I’ve learned – again – about possessions (Max Lucado, an amazing writer, once wrote ‘We don’t possess our possessions, our possessions possess us’. How right he is!) – in 1983, God got me – the hard way as usual – to recognise that to sell the last house I’ve ever owned was the way forward, en route to Bible school: in 2006, my flat in Worthing, England, was burgled twice, and set-fire to, in a three-week period: in 2010, the house in the USA was flooded and a lot of stuff damaged (I hadn’t been there since April ’09 – don’t ask!!!!!!): in 2009 I was separated from my ‘stuff’ by a rather bad-tempered, gun-carrying, power-mad immigration officer (don’t worry, I’ve forgiven him!) – a little of that ‘stuff’ is just about to start making its way across the Atlantic in a container…. like I said, I learn the hard way…. I think I can honestly say I no longer value possessions as ‘precious’, the committed relationships and friendships I have are worth so much more. Would I swap these 4 years in which I’ve seen God do the most amazing things, for an easy life? To have missed out on finding out what ‘home’ really is? No way, José!
I’ve learned a lot about ‘friendship’ – mostly the hard way! Friendship in different cultures DOES mean different things, often: and the USA is a VERY different culture for a Brit to spend extended time in. My understanding of friendship is so, so different to what I’ve had ‘back’, in so many situations. I’ve learned something even more clearly, that I would preach – that we need to believe the best of each other: but only until we can’t believe the best anymore. I live my life, I hope, to be a blessing to as many people as possible – hopefully to more people than those who don’t find me a blessing! It means you get ‘used’ by people, it means you get ab-used by people, but it seems to me that that was Jesus’ style, so if it was good enough for him, then it’s something I’ll spend the rest of my days trying to attain.
Most important, I’ve learned that what God says he’ll do, he does: provide, heal, bless, amaze, challenge, strengthen, grow us… the list goes on. God is so, so trustworthy, so great….
Will I ever get back to the USA? Who knows? Will I ever WANT to go back? On a human level, my mind says.. ‘After what they’ve done to you…?’ – but my heart says, yes: for the people there who have loved me through some tough times, a small handful who have heard my frustration, even anger, at the process, and occasionally about people. Yes, because I still believe that God called me there, first in 1994, then again in 2006. Will I ever LIVE there? Now, that’s a whole other question that might take God a little longer to persuade me about!!!
I thank God for these four years: I’ve gained so much, lost a great deal, and learned so, so much about people. It’s all been worth it. So NOT ‘Twenty years ago today’, as the Beatles sang, just four. Four vital, important years of being on a steep learning curve with God.