Eighteen months ago, I wrote the final words of my book. That day is a blur to me. I don’t remember how I celebrated the completion of a year-long project that summarized a decade of my life in Armenia. Perhaps I asked Nick to watch the kids as I slipped out for a cup of chai tea; milk frothed to the brim. Perhaps I just sat propped up in my bed, listening to Nick read the children bedtime stories, as I let my brain go numb.
I loved the process of writing I Am There: Armenia. It was a project started during my final year there. When I realized I was leaving, I spent late nights, writing on my laptop, face illuminated in the corner of our dark living room. I was trying to capture all my memories on paper before they permanently slipped away.
We arrived back in America for our year of intense “furlough.” After so many years of living in Armenia, I remember my first day back in Minneapolis. I drove through the streets, windows down, absorbing the feeling that I was home. I had one full year to let myself be American; to relearn the roads; make small talk in the grocery store check-out lines; to enjoy the look of green, spacious meadows; to finally attempt to understand why-in-the-world, all of a sudden, hashtags were showing up in my newsfeed.
Nick travelled full-time, and I became a full-time anchor for our kids. Finding time to write was allusive – a few minutes at my desk during Ava’s nap, a quick trip to Starbucks or Barnes to finish a chapter. I was not attempting to write a best-selling novel – no book about one woman’s experience as a missionary could ever be that.
I wrote it because the Armenians’ stories deserved to be heard. I wrote it so my children would know about the first few years of their lives in a place where they were adored. They will never be able to visualize the hundreds of hugs, kisses, secretive handshakes filled with candy, and warm welcomes they received from their Armenian “family.” When they entered an Armenian home, they were the center of that universe. And, some day, I hope that my book helps them to realize how much they were loved by this people and what a privilege it was to travel the same bumpy, pothole-filled roads with them for a while.
I wrote the book for me. I didn’t want to forget the journey. I entered Armenia as a 24 year old woman who always wished she could be a tad bit older; a tad bit more influential. Now I sit as a 35 year old in my apartment, in Estonia, wishing I was a tad bit younger and I am amazed at the journey. I am amazed that God has held me in His hands – so gently I often never even realized it.
A few weeks ago, I was driving with some friends through the forests of Estonia. Our van was filled with conversation as I stared out at the Narnia-like evergreens, each bended branch frosted with a ledge of snow. I attempted to maintain my introvert persona by practicing my newly acquired habit after living in America- checking my facebook app. Then an Estonian friend asked the question.
“I read your blog about Armenia. Why don’t you write any more? It’s been a long time.”
. . .
. . .
My heart sinks a little as I debate how to answer.
. . .
How do I explain the last eighteen months?
How can a veteran missionary be so blind-sided by transition to a new, more developed, easier country? It should have been easy. I survived Armenia – and the first few years there were very tough. Then, why in the world, was I not hacking it in the beautiful cruise port city of Tallinn?
How can a Christian, who has experienced the hope and love of God, be diagnosed with clinical depression?
How can a certified group fitness instructor gain weight, have thyroid and exhaustion issues, and feel so out of control?
How could I, someone who learned Armenian very well, suddenly not be able to remember even the most basic Estonian words I was learning in each lesson?
How do I explain an urgent trip to see a counselor – desperate to find a way out?
How do I explain that when one is trying to survive, the brain doesn’t even allow you to have one creative thought or inspirational blog post?
. . .
I can explain it like this.
Missionaries are not super heroes. Christians are not immune from sadness. Huge life change and stress will play havoc on your body. The effect of long, dark winter days in the upper Northern hemisphere is not something to be trivialized.
I, Olivia Autumn Puccini, am human. I struggle. I get tired of living away from America. To be honest, sometimes I get tired of trying to be good enough to be a Christian.
But, then God’s grace steps in.
It steps in through the many Estonian friends – most not of the same faith- who have loved me; taken me out for coffee or invited me to their home for a meal; managed my children on play dates; and who have just simply been there.
I felt like my darkness was illuminated through the wise advice of a counselor who believed I still had a place in ministry and in missions. She reminded me that depression is not something that defines me; it’s not a permanent friend. It’s something I have travelled through; can learn and share from.
God’s grace intruded into my effort- a life spent trying to be skinny enough, fit enough, good enough, smart enough. God never asked me to be this. He didn’t throw a size, a rule, a goal on me; I did. Others did. God just cares about me- loving Him. Loving the life He chose to give me.
For years, I had several people tell me that I would benefit from truly studying more about the breadth of God’s grace. I never understood their recommendation. I thought I knew what grace meant.
Only now, after a year of sadness, silence and exhaustion do I truly understand. When I cannot serve, cannot inspire, cannot shine, cannot write one word in a blog, cannot force my body into submission, cannot do ONE thing that makes me worthy- I am. But, I am not worthy through my own personal words or actions. I am merely worthy because God declares I am. That is His grace. This is true faith.
When I have nothing to offer, God offers me everything. When I am physically or mentally crippled, God offers me healing. When I am weighted by exhaustion, God gives me rest. Not because I deserve it, but just because I have chosen Him.
And, even when I am all of the above, God takes the spark of faith I have in Him and still chooses to use me. He chooses to use me to bring a compassionate heart to a person in need. He gives me ideas on how to be generous to those who also need to be reminded that they are worthy– people like me.
I have grown up in the church, and I spent years trying to be good enough; trying to be worthy of the title of missionary. Then, a few weeks ago, I found this verse in the Bible that got back to a foundational principle I had somehow overlooked.
“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” Matthew 23 – the Message - Bible
Tonight I sit here, 18 months after typing the final word of my book, and I finally want to write again. My time in Armenia taught me that God was always there with me – even to the ends of the earth.
Estonia is teaching me about an even more foundational concept: grace.
It was grace given through Estonian friends and American colleagues.
Grace given to infuse my lifeless limbs with energy to climb out of darkness.
Grace given so I can truly know how wide, how deep, and how vast is the love of Christ.
Grace given in an unforced rhythm that pounds out the foundation of my life.
I may not always notice its steady tremors or vibrations. I may run ahead of it sometimes, working to prove my worth. I may collapse on to its waves when I can no longer stand in my own strength. But, it remains. Constant. Unchanging. Undeserving. Holding me so gently I barely notice its touch; illuminating my life.
To celebrate the fact that I finally posted to my blog again, I am giving free downloads of my book about Armenia for three days! Download your free copy of I Am There: Armenia here.