I was 19, and a year felt daunting. Not totally overwhelming, but daunting. I flew over in the early days of September, and by the time Thanksgiving rolled around I felt pretty darn homesick. It was my first time away from the long, well-set table around which my family sat, reading the first pilgrim's words as tradition dictated and making merry. By contrast, the casual gathering of Americans around the cafeteria-style turkey didn't fill me up.
I hadn't expected England when I selected my college based on my wish to study abroad; I'd thought I'd go to France or Germany (or maybe both) so I could practice my languages. Signing up for the year-long Oxford program had surprised no one more than me. But by the time that year was over, I would never have taken it back. It was the most transforming year of my life. Even today, I'd call it that.
When my parents had moved our family to the UK thirteen years prior, they'd been agnostics with minimal interest in God. But three years in England brought a significant change. When they left, they were Christians. Most unexpectedly so (though is conversion ever expected?). So England was the site of their acquaintance with Jesus, and the birthplace of their faith.
Generational patterns are, I think, more significant than most folks think (or at least, than I've thought till lately). God pulled our family into his embrace in England, and a decade-plus later, he pulled me deeper into his embrace there. Because more than anything else, that was what my year abroad was about for me. It wasn't just that I got to study at glorious Oxford University, where transcendence and antiquity drip off every pillar and across every cobblestone. And it wasn't the academics, though the Bodleian certainly inspired and the dons lived up to their reputation. It was more inward than that. It was what happened at the soul level.
At Oxford, I saw rich and alive Christianity being played out by my peers in the most compelling ways possible. On one hand there was rich, grounding liturgy - beautifully crafted truths preserved across the ages, recited together as anchor and proclamation. On the other, there was following of God in all his ways, including experientially. There was teaching about - and intentional pursuit of - the Holy Spirit that was practical and accessible. The Christians I met were "going for it" (as they called it) with their faith, and I could see in them the 'much more' that was available to the follower of Jesus. It was enticing. Today I'm still close to those unusual Christians who helped me grow deeper and wider. They're some of the most inspiring people I know, and as dear to my heart as my own family.
It was the right time and the right place for me - for God to show up and move powerfully. Of course, being abroad is a growing thing for any person at any time, because being an expatriate is by definition an "out-of-your-comfort-zone" experience. It's all part of the package of being a stranger in a strange land. Layers of identity get exposed that at home stay reliably in the background. Existential questions that at home linger below the surface come suddenly bubbling up, often unbidden.
All this I ponder as I contemplate our coming move overseas. I'll once again be a stranger in a strange land, my first time living abroad since my junior year in Oxford (with a six-week tagalong stint in Germany at the end). That was twenty years ago. Then I was single; this time my husband and I go together with four kids in tow. Last time I lived in places my family had lived in before me; this time we move to a country none of the six of us have ever set foot in: Greece. Where none of us speak the language, or even know the letters of the resident alphabet. Such adventure awaits!
Almost nothing about the experience looks similar to my year in England, but I hope one thing will be. I hope God stretches wide our hearts, and that we come back amazed at the deepening He's wrought in our souls. Whatever else it is (and I expect and anticipate it'll be many things), I hope it'll be a real-deal "spiritual study abroad" experience... for the whole family.