The transition from Ukraine to Romania was … dramatic. We moved from cold to balmy, from a gray soviet-style cityscape to a quaint 19th-century hamlet. It was a green, clear spring in the Carpathian mountains, and we were in a gypsy village nestled up against the foothills. Out the back door of my host family’s house was a 1000 foot climb to the top of a forested ridge, with views that stretched for miles.
But still there was a problem with lack structure, which continued to tweak this nerve in me that had grown raw over the preceding months. I still had nowhere to go but my own head, I still had to face this angry blistered thing in my heart. In spite of the idyllic setting and the exuberant faces of our Romani hosts, I still felt bored — or if not bored, then dissatisfied; if not dissatisfied, then somehow bitter. Something was fuming within me, and I didn’t know how to name it.
For a while I distracted myself. I read a Shane Claiborne book. I played soccer with the local men. I developed a crush on at least one of my teammates. These were not cures.
One morning I climbed the ridge behind the house, and decided I was going to finally be honest with my God. Far above earshot from the village, I yelled and cursed at him, and said I was pissed that life had not turned out to be noble and epic and interesting the way I had thought. The Christian life was not becoming more exciting, and I was not feeling more contented with my path, and why wasn’t He effing doing anything about it?? I cried. I was angry.
I heard very little. Somewhere there in the wind was a tiny, tiny voice that spoke in a soothing tone. Something imperceptible, too delicate for words, that gently asked me, with a tender innocence, what are you so sad about? I didn’t know the answer, and I despaired. I didn’t really know. Somehow, I thought, this life had not turned out to be enough for me.
The month with the gypsies was a long one, almost five weeks. What we actually did that month blurs together in my memory, because I spent most of those weeks inside my own head. When we finally arrived at debrief in Brasov, I was starting to go numb. We met with our coach Mike Hindes, who was doing catch-ups with all the teams on our squad. He could see that something was wrong, and privately asked me what was going on.
I stumbled, paused, and choked: “I feel stuck”.
He took me by the shoulders, looked me in the eyes, and poured some words out over me that I don’t remember. He reminded me of my purpose, of my completeness and my identity and my adequacy in Jesus. Something began to shift in me, and I cried, and he didn’t let go. He prayed over me, and asked me if I wanted to remain stuck. I said no. He told me that I could choose to unstick myself, but it would have to be for the sake of this broken world, and for the work of healing it, and bringing life and the gospel to it — it would not be enough to unstick myself for the sake of me.
Something turned over in me. I shuddered, and my team gathered around me, and I cannot remember the rest of that day.
Somewhere in there, amongst these few months, I managed to reach the end of my personal resources. I had become exhausted … not in my physical endurance, but in my soul and bones. It took several months for this exhaustion to show itself as true bankruptcy … and then I yelled at God from a mountain, and Mike spoke over me, and my team gathered round me …
… and somehow the pit I had been in was undone.
From the debrief in Brasov, we moved into Slovakia, and I experienced a renaissance there. For the first time in my life, I felt some kind of joy that was not connected to any goals, any projects or progress, any physical circumstances or material endowment. Practically speaking, Slovakia was a tough, scattered month for our team, but somehow through most of those weeks I was … elevated.
On our last day in Europe, I danced and sang in the rain in the middle of downtown Bratislava, for three hours. It was all new ground, and it was weird and I’m sure funny-looking. But I don’t care how it looked. It was revolution. It was badass.
And so, there it was.
There is a lot wrapped up in such a transition. Years later, I am still trying to understand what happened in me, so that I might better know how to offer such road markers to others who would follow a similar path. The key, I am convinced, was the emptying that I experienced — the journey into brokenness, and the arrival at that destination.
We all together followed that same road, out there, and we respectively hit rock bottom at different times, in different places, and in ugly awkward ways. But somehow there was a Spirit who guided us through such a wild mess, and taught us how to love each other, and even how to love the random faces we encountered — even when there was nothing left inside us that was generous, warm, altruistic, bright, clever, or creative. Even then, this Jesus somehow stretched out through our tired hands, and made himself known to souls whom we’d never see again. We became vessels, carrier waves, for a light that was too big for us to hold ourselves.
Today, I am different. I am irrevocably changed, no longer the brooding young man that I once was. It is true that I am not cured, I am not perfect, I am not done growing or even consolidating the change that was started out there on the Race. But, there is life in my eyes now that was never there before, and I can feel it. And without the frustration and spiritual constipation of India; without the cold depression and hopelessness of Ukraine; without the listlessness and desperation on the mountaintops of Romania; and without the careful love and protection of my teammates … I never would have arrived here.