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An Immigration Crisis

Katie’s phone rang one Tuesday morning two weeks ago as I walked down the stairs to the kitchen to make some breakfast. It was our immigration attorney. We were scheduled to meet with our immigration attorney on that Thursday to submit the documents and applications that, if accepted, would permit us to live in Bulgaria for another year as long-term residents. This was not a scheduled call and, after 11 years of marriage, I did not need to hear what our attorney was saying to know that it was not good. I could tell by the look on Katie’s face.

If you have never been a foreigner living in another country you do not know the anxiety, frustration, and paperwork that goes along with applying for the legal right to live in a country that is not your nation of citizenship. Let me just say that I was not prepared for it. There is an ease, a comfort, and a confidence that comes with knowing you are living in the nation you are from. In the same way, there is a constant and nagging awareness, when you drive, when you walk the streets at night, when you travel outside of the city, that any average issue is exacerbated by the fact that you are a guest, a foreigner, in a place. This awareness is always heightened and bothered each year as we begin the three-month process of renewing our legal status.

We thought that everything was taken care of. We thought we had all the documents, all the signatures, all the notarizations, and all the regulations checked. The attorney was calling that morning to tell us that the law had changed and that, now, we need a document that we do not have. Well, Katie asked, how serious is this? Can we get this document? What happens if we do not get this document? In short, it would take at least a month to get it and if we did not have it, we could not renew our legal residency status. Katie glanced at me and then said, “I am 7 months pregnant. We have two small children. Do we need to plan to be forced to leave the country? Should we contact our administration outside Bulgaria?”

Our attorney said that we could not know for sure how it would turn out until Thursday, but… We should definitely contact our administration and we should also begin to think through the possibility of having to leave the country for at least a few weeks.

I am not exaggerating when I say that it was as if somebody had pulled the fire alarm on our Tuesday. The Church of the Nazarene is an incredible organization and in moments like this I am always proud to belong to it. We began calling and emailing our Regional Personnel Coordinator, our Regional Finance Coordinator, our Field Strategy Coordinator, our District Secretary, our District Superintendent, and others. They would wait to hear from us again on Thursday at which point we would made arrangements if necessary to leave Bulgaria. In the silence that followed the hours-long frenzy Katie looked at me and said, “I really do not want to make plans to leave the country just weeks before I could possibly have a child, when our daughter’s birthday is just weeks away, and the holidays are coming up. Why can’t this just be easy?”

Later that day one of our good friends called to check on us. We had messaged her because we depend on her prayers. She had immediately called to get all the details. She asked the question that needed to be asked: “So, how stressed out are you guys with the possibility of being kicked out of your home?” My wise wife said, “Oh, for now we are fine. We will decide how stressed out we should be on Thursday. It might all be fine.” I then followed this up with one of our family phrases: “Sarah, we do not borrow trouble. If we got bent out of shape every time there might be a reason to worry, we would be miserable people always busy worrying.”

The next day I read a psalm that I am sure I have read before, but had never struck me so powerfully. I have subsequently memorized it and pray it often. It is Psalm 131:

“O Lord, my heart is not lifted up, my eyes are not raised too high; I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me. But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; my soul is like the weaned child that is with me. O Israel, hope in the Lord from this time on and for evermore.”
(Emphasis added)

Those words lodged in my heart: “Lord, I will not occupy myself with things too great and marvelous for me, but I will calm and quiet my soul.” This has become my prayer. It was true for our current crisis, but also perfect for our lives and ministry in general. How do you plant a church in a country you are not from, in a language that is not your mother tongue, among people who think differently than you do? How do you build meaningful and righteous relationships? How do you live faithfully? Well, I think this Psalm is the perfect answer. We do what we can. We make phone calls, we send emails, we fill out documents, we put our hearts on the line, we frequent playgrounds, we study and study and study and study a new language, we do not take the easy way out and hang out with the easiest people to hang out with (people just like us), we pray, we study scripture, and we work hard to do what we can!

But we also do not burden our hearts, minds, and relationships with the unnecessary and crushing weight of occupying our hearts and minds with things that are too great and marvelous for us. We calm and quiet our souls and declare, “Lord we have done what we can. Now, we will trust you to do what we cannot.” This is not always easy. Calming and quieting our souls is a spiritual discipline. Sacrificing to God those things that we cannot control, those things too great and marvelous for us, is not an easy thing and it does not just happen. We have to do it on purpose! We have to make it intentional! It must become a practiced rhythm of life.

That night over dinner we bowed our heads to pray and I told Katie, Jude, and Kate that I wanted to pray a Bible verse that had really helped me. When I finished praying Psalm 131 Jude said, “Pray that again Daddio, that’s a good one.” We prayed again.

Well, on our way to the immigration office on Thursday morning Katie looked over at me in the car and said, “Pray again, I am starting to get anxious.” We prayed again. The moment of truth came when our attorney laid all of our paperwork on the clerk’s counter at the immigration office. As she looked over our documents, she spared a moment to smile at our two children. They were blowing her kisses! (Remind me some other time to discuss the advantages of cute kids in ministry.) She said everything was in order! When our attorney asked about this missing document, she said that because we lived in the capital, we did not need it. We smiled at the kids and Jude said, “So we get to stay in Bulgaria!? Yay, we get to stay in Bulgaria!” We let them make a scene and just grinned over all the awkward looks from those around us.

So, another “almost” crisis in the books. But you know there is another one around the corner, and that is just fine. We are learning to pray, to live, to trust, and to calm and quiet our souls. We will not occupy ourselves with things too great and too marvelous for us. We will do what we can and God will do what we cannot. People of God, hope in the LORD from this time on and forever more!

Outside the Immigration Office with the Bulgarian District Secretary, Zhana!

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