Lessons on Reentry

“But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ,”  Philippians 3:20

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By Mike McGinty

I was running late to catch my flight from Sapporo, in northern Japan, to Tokyo, so I failed to take the usual precautions to prepare for my journey. This became evident when I entered the airport security line and fumbled to remove the loose items in my pocket.

I discovered to my chagrin that I was still carrying my ever-present pocket knife.

When I went to retrieve my laptop from my backpack, I noticed the bottled drink I had just mindlessly purchased minutes earlier for the trip in an outside pocket. No problem. I was in Japan.

The security personnel took my knife, apologized profusely and proceeded to place it in a sealed envelope, promising to return it once I disembarked from my plane in Tokyo. The offending plastic bottle of water was removed, examined by a special machine, and put back in place by the efficient white-gloved agent.

As I walked through the metal detector, my footwear apparently triggered an alarm. I was therefore politely asked to remove my shoes, step into the provided slippers, and quickly passed through the screening device a second time. Upon exiting, my shoes were placed neatly in front of me with additional apologies and I proceeded to my gate.

Following this incident a few months later, I was back in the States standing in an airport security line, but this time preparing to return to Japan.

Once again, I had neglected to remove my treasured pocket knife.

Without any evidence of pity, I was harshly instructed by the TSA agent to toss my keepsake into a nearby barrel along with the contraband of other negligent travelers.

A medium-sized tube of toothpaste and a freshly purchased can of shaving cream were also declared unacceptable among my possessions, so they shortly joined my knife in the barrel.

While I was still grieving the loss of these items, I hesitantly followed the example of all the other passengers in front of me, who were routinely removing their shoes for inspection and walking on an unsanitary floor in their socked feet.

Such a practice would be unthinkable in Japan I thought to myself, feeling like a complete stranger in my own country.

Finding and Losing Home

In April 1984, my wife and I set foot in Japan for the first time as complete strangers to the country. We didn’t know the language, we didn’t know the customs, we were unfamiliar with the food and, hardest of all, we didn’t know anybody.

But over the next 34 years of living in Japan, the unknown gradually became known to us and Japan eventually became a second home as we persevered in carving out a new life.

This huge transition was our stated objective from the very beginning, because we sought to live incarnational lives that would in turn facilitate our taking the Word of God to a different corner of the Earth.

However, we didn’t anticipate that when we headed to Japan and purposefully put our own country in the rearview mirror that our familiarity with what we formerly regarded as “home” steadily receded with the passing of time.

Foreigners in Our Own Country

After nearly a five-year absence marking the completion of our first term in Japan, our eventual return to North America felt much like my contrasting experiences with airport security. One seemed natural and normal, while the other seemed strange and foreign.

Surprisingly, we now felt like foreigners in our own country. Sociologists call this “re-entry stress” and we were duly warned by our more experienced colleagues to expect it upon our return.

Since that initial return home from the field many years ago, we have repeatedly gone through this process and have come to understand that our lives as missionaries are full of such challenging transitions. With the passing of time, and through accumulated experiences, we have learned to anticipate such transitions, but we cannot avoid them.

We still struggle with the latent belief that we should feel at home in our once familiar circumstances, but something has changed that subtly and inevitably gets in the way of our passing seamlessly from one culture to another. What has changed? Our culture has changed. Our family and friends have changed. We have changed.

These changes include values, technology, communication, practices, education, life routines, prices and most important of all, relationships.

Far more traumatic than walking in sock feet and losing a pocket knife in airport security, nothing feels quite right for a number of months following our return home.

The style of worship and leadership within our home church is different. None of the shows on TV or famous personalities are familiar to us. The rise of social media and advances in communication technology have dramatically altered how people relate to one another. No one seems to use cash anymore and we are unsure how far our finances will stretch in this brave, new world.

Perhaps most difficult of all, few seem to care about the world we left behind and fewer still can understand it.

Taken together, all this makes us feel like we are constantly on the outside of our own culture looking in, which is very similar to how we felt during our early days in Japan. Our personal values and practices seem to reflect an era that no longer exists and if we are not careful, we can easily settle into a critical mindset that does nothing to facilitate our transition back to normalcy.

But over the course of time we have come to understand and embrace that we are actually products of both cultures. We are oddly at home in both and at the same time, at home in neither. As we transition back and forth between our two worlds, we are constantly reminded that our eternal home yet awaits us and God does not intend for us to become comfortable in any culture.

As the Apostle Paul so aptly put it, “our citizenship is in heaven,” so each re-entry reminds us that we are ultimately destined for another world and we will finally be “home.”

That’s a re-entry worth waiting for!

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