When you’re learning and living a new language, sometimes you discover beautiful words. I’m talking about a word for which the beauty lies in the concept it represents, a concept that’s not represented in your mother-tongue, causing it to strike you and grab your attention. And the beauty of these kinds of words grows as you live in the culture and experience these culture-specific concepts.

Take the following Wolof word: gunge. (or GOONG-gay in English quasi-phonetics)

This is one of several Wolof words that I find particularly beautiful. In fact I find it more beautiful now that when I first learned it. In English, the closest we get to this concept is perhaps in the word “accompany,” but gunge has a more specific usage. It means “to accompany a guest home.” When I first learned the word and its definition, I thought it was interesting as I’d heard about other African cultures in which the custom was common. When one receives a guest, it’s an honor; when the time comes for the guest to leave, a host will accompany him or her out to the door, down the road, and sometimes all the way to the guest’s destination — just to repay the honor. In Wolof, this action is gunge. I found it interesting, but nothing more. It hardly stuck out to me in the mountain of new vocabulary I was living and trying to put to memory.

Gunge became a beautiful word to me, though, as I began experiencing it. That word jumped off the abstract list of new vocabulary and began wearing the tangible clothes of my daily experience as a foreigner, a perpetual guest in West Africa. Gunge for me is now a word rich with feeling, meaning, memories, a word that lives and breathes reassurance to solitary me.

It’s not rare for me to be on my own here, as I go from one place to another, as I run errands, as I travel, as I visit people. This is nothing new for me. But being on your own where you’re a foreigner, where there’s no chance of blending it, where there’s no avoiding the curious gaze — is a different experience. Being solitary in that kind of environment, in my personal experience, can bring with it a certain weight, a sense of vulnerability and always being exposed, even fear at times. In West Africa I’ve learned to appreciate company like never before. Going anywhere with someone (even someone I’ve just met) is a completely different experience for me (and almost always preferred) than walking alone. And so when I’ve been spending time with someone and the time comes for me to leave, their company to gunge me, to see me out and on my way — putting off even by a few minutes the moment where we part ways and I’m once again solitary — simply means the world to me. Sometimes I almost feel like I’m being passed from hand to hand of kind hosts and friends who are looking out for me here. It’s a huge blessing to live in a culture where that is simply normal. I’ve tried adopting the custom and seeing visitors at least as far as the bus stop if they live some distance away. It just seems right to honor and enjoy the presence of a companion a little longer. That’s what gunge represents for me, and that’s why it’s a beautiful word.

Well this beautiful word popped up in a new place for me recently. I was going on a short trip and, as I often do, taking my leave.  The people seeing me off were Wolof, and this sort of occasion is one of many where the Wolof love of blessings is heard. I’m used to hearing the most common traveler’s blessing, which I love: Yàlla na la Yàlla teeg ci yoonu jamm. (“May God put you on the road of peace.”) But this time a different blessing was uttered, grabbing my ears and my heart: Yàlla na la Yàlla gunge (“May God gunge you.”)

The blessing sent my mind spinning and flooded me with a wave of reassurance and comfort as I imagined the presence of God Himself, accompanying me from one place to the next. Wherever I go, solitary or in human company, ultimately God is gunge-ing me. What a miracle! And His is a presence with which I don’t even need to part ways, a presence beside me that lasts. His company endures. In that moment, considering the Wolof blessing I’d just heard, I decided that from now on, whenever someone gunges me, instead of dreading the moment when the gunge will end and the weight of solitude will once again descend on me, I will try to see the human company as a symbol of the divine company that promises to not turn back.

Last year, a stranger gave me Brennan Manning’s Abba’s Child which I finally got around to reading. In it, I found Manning’s reminder — fitting and also beautiful:

The miracle of the gospel is Christ, risen and glorified, who this very moment tracks us, pursues us, abides in us, and offers Himself to us as companion for the journey!

Wherever you are coming from or headed to, Yàlla na la Yàlla gunge — may God gunge you too.

Earlier this month, my host brother got married, opening up a whole new window for me into Wolof culture and traditional wedding customs. He married a friend of mine, an expatriate, which obviously added another dynamic and set of traditions to their wedding ceremony and celebration. Was their wedding more West African or more western? Maybe I’ll let you decide…

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The Saturday morning ceremony was held at the church grounds in the bride’s “hometown” (that is, where she lives here and where her West African family is). Many of the groom’s family members (my Wolof family) traveled up to attend.

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The bride entered (with no escort since her father wasn’t able to attend), greeted by crowds of cell-phone- and camera-wielding attendees!

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Singing and praying in Wolof

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Sermon given in French, translated into Wolof

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The presiding pastor reminding the bride and groom that they as a couple have their eyes fixed on a point, vows exchanged in Wolof and in English, and the symbolism of the wedding band explained.

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The pastor declares them Mr. and Mrs. Mangane, and tells them to kiss — and has them do it again, two additional times, because the first time was too fast to capture on camera! Women from the bride’s church (her “family”) surround the couple, dancing, clapping, and singing their congratulations.

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The new couple kneels and receives prayer from all the pastors in attendance.

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The Saturday afternoon reception, complete with cake-cutting and family photos

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A day later, Sunday night, the bride, accompanied by a group of women from her church (the female members of her “family”), traveled to the groom’s hometown and to his parents’ home, i.e. his home (and where I currently live), for the traditional “entering of the husband’s house” ceremony. The bride was covered with a special cloth at the house entryway, showered with rice, then taken into her mother-in-law’s room where she sat on the bed. Lax (a traditional millet-based dish) was brought to the bride and groom, who served each other and ate.

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The next morning, Monday, began with the bride serving her mother-in-law breakfast — accompanied by energetic approval from the women of the household, in form of dancing, clapping, and singing!

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A day of festivities ensued, with the “family” and friends of the bride celebrating her entrance into her husband’s family’s home. Above top, the family griot (“praise singer”) sings of the bride’s “family” as they sit next to the mother-in-law. Above, a rich lunch was served to honor the bride’s “family.”

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The bride presented the women of the groom’s family with a suitcase-full of fabric, an expected gift for her new family and an expense that the griot announced and sang about as well.

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Me with the groom and bride, in all their Wolof finery!

It’s not often that a Christian Wolof wedding takes place. I found it fascinating to watch the preparations and participate in the various parts of the event. I was especially interested in what the national believers and church leaders encouraged the couple to observe in terms of traditional customs. I still have a lot to learn about what all the customs mean, particularly in the traditional “entering of the husband’s home” ceremony.

I showed these photos to a believing national friend of mine who doesn’t know the couple. She’s a single woman about my age whose parents converted to Christianity when she was young and raised her as a Christian. The pictures of the church ceremony and following reception seemed to be about what she expected. She told of church weddings she’d attended where she saw similar things. But when she saw the following photos, showing the bride entering the groom’s home, her reaction changed significantly. She was visibly surprised. “Oh, those are the traditional practices. Christians don’t do that.” I asked her if the practices had a religious or spiritual significance, but she couldn’t really answer. She said, “Well, they’re traditional practices. I’ve never seen them done in a Christian wedding.” I asked her if she could explain the meaning of the customs, but she simply said, “All I know is that’s what Muslims do.”

In a people group where so few are believers, it’s not surprising that so many of their traditional customs are automatically associated with the majority religion of Islam. I’m intrigued by the customs I saw and by my friend’s response. I may do some digging.

What does a Christian wedding look like in a Wolof context? How does one have a wedding celebration that is both fully Christian and authentically Wolof? Which traditional customs aren’t compatible with the Christian faith and should be left aside, and which can be embraced and celebrated — for the sake of both cultural authenticity and witness? There are no cut-and-dry answers, for insiders or outsiders. These are important questions for national believers to wrestle with as God’s Church and His Word take root in a particular cultural context. Ultimately, national believers are the ones who must answer them. During this Wolof family wedding, I was content to simply observe how the believers involved answered these complex questions. More than anything, I was grateful to witness and celebrate this beautiful picture of two becoming one in Christ.

How are the gospel and God’s Word made known in a culture where what is clear and understood is not necessarily heard as sacred? And vice versa, where what is considered sacred is not necessarily understood?

This is a question that my SIL teammates and I are starting to run into a lot with our Basic Wolof Phase 1 project. And personally, I’m confronting the extent to which fundamental, underlying concepts such as comprehension, spirituality, and personal understanding of Scripture, are entrenched in culture.

The need for research into the dialect of Wolof spoken in urban settings came to SIL’s attention years ago as some people expressed difficulty in using the New Testament currently available in Wolof. The words, expressions, and register found in it are described as Wolof bu xoot (“deep Wolof”). This is the way many village-dwelling Wolof people speak; it’s a register that is respected as “pure Wolof.”

Because it is the trade language in this West African country, Wolof is widely-spoken outside the Wolof ethnic group (hence the term “wolophone,” people who speak Wolof but aren’t ethnically Wolof). And therefore, it’s also the dominant language in the capital city, a melting pot of many ethnic groups. But the dialect of Wolof that is spoken by people who speak it as their second or third language, by people of other ethnicities, by people who live in cities rather than villages — is different. The vocabulary changes, the expressions vary, certain aspects of the grammar are dropped. And especially as younger generations grow up in the urban setting, where their ethnic language is sometimes left aside, this dialect of Wolof becomes their functional first language.

So the question facing our Basic Wolof team stems from this complex sociolinguistic situation. Does this group of Wolophones who don’t speak “deep Wolof” have access to Scripture in the language they understand best? And if not, would it be feasible to start another translation in a register of Wolof that could be called “basic Wolof”?

As we’ve begun to dig and ask questions, we’ve received some interesting (and at times, surprising) feedback. Some Wolophones who live in a village setting express difficulty understanding the deep Wolof New Testament. Some Wolophones who live in cities express satisfaction and appreciation for the deep Wolof New Testament, sharing that they use it regularly.

And then there’s the comment that we’ve heard several times now that goes something like this: “It’s not necessarily a bad thing that the New Testament be in a register difficult to understand at times.”

This is where I realize that my own culture’s way of viewing comprehension, spirituality, and personal understanding of Scripture may diverge.

The national believers who express this opinion go on to give various reasonings. There’s the cultural pride reasoning, which says those who don’t understand the Wolof vocabulary are pushed to learn things about their culture and their language that might otherwise be lost. There’s the group discussion reasoning, which says that people in this culture prefer to hear and talk about spiritual matters in a group setting anyway, so if they don’t understand phrases and expressions on their own, they can hear explanations from others in the group. And the most common, and perhaps most significant, reasoning is that of sacred value. Several national pastors have told us that expressing God’s Word in too simple of language would deform the message and not be revered in this culture as sacred text.

They explain that in this culture there is a love of the “hidden” when it comes to spirituality. When something is expressed in too clear or down-to-earth terms, it cannot be respected as spiritual. Vice versa, when something is communicated in a deep language that hides the meaning, the listener or reader is given cause to appreciate the sacredness of the message — whether or not they understand.

Granted, there are things in Scripture that are difficult to understand no matter the language, culture, or register in which they are communicated. Even people who have had access to the Bible for years in the language they understand best are confounded by many passages. If we believe that the ultimate author is God and that His Spirit is needed to understand it, then we should expect this.

However, here are a couple examples of the situation found in Wolof. A national pastor explains that to say “Jesus died” would be heard as very crass; expressing it this way would risk scandalizing Wolophones. It would be better to use a euphemism like wacc na liggéey (“left his job”) in the translation of Scripture. Another pastor explains his profound love for the way Psalm 23 is rendered in the deep Wolof translation of the book of Psalms. He thinks it’s beautiful, and it moves his soul. Yet, when he reads it to those among whom he ministers, in a region of the country where Wolophones aren’t ethnically Wolof, people give him blank stares. They tell him they don’t understand the words and expressions. This pastor explains that, over time, he has changed the way he talks when sharing Scripture to accommodate the level of understanding of his hearers, a way of talking that diverges from the New Testament translation. He gives another example of the word for “redeemer.” He shares that the word exists in Wolof (rammukat), which is the word found in the New Testament translation, but that his hearers don’t understand the term. So he started simply using an explanatory phrase in place of the term.

These examples highlight another dynamic — the fact that there is the Word, and then there are the feet/ hands/ mouths of those who take and share it. God didn’t give His Word in a vacuum but rather expects His people to help make it known, which can include explaining its meaning as His Spirit leads.

What are the implications of these things for Bible translation, the use of Scriptures by the national church here, and the spiritual growth of national believers in this country? The answers(s) won’t necessarily be easily obtained.

And what are the implications of this for me, coming from a culture where the direct and clear tends to be more highly valued than the hidden and obscure? Where personal comprehension tends to be of greater significance than communal negotiation of meaning? Where the down-to-earth tends to be more emphasized than the mystical?

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arrival in Enampor, the largest Bandial village, for the New Testament dedication Saturday May 16, 2015

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attendees (visitors and Bandial) and chorale, preparing for the start of the ceremony

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a Bandial leader speaking on the importance of the Bandial New Testament for Bandial culture and their language community

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traditional Bandial music and dancing

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Wolfgang and Karine, SIL members who have been involved in Bandial translation and literacy, addressing the attendees in Bandial

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the Bandial New Testament presented, accompanied by dancing and singing in Bandial about God’s Word

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…and the dancing and singing continues

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readings of New Testament passages in Bandial

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Pray for the Bandial as they engage with God’s Word in their language!

Statistics don’t capture everything. But they can offer an interesting, at-a-glance perspective.

I recently heard the following statistics on the West African country where I live. They come from a study called “Tolerance and Tension: Islam and Christianity in sub-Saharan Africa” done by Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life in April 2010 (to view the whole report click here).

  • 98% of this West African country’s population say religion is very important in their lives (the highest percentage of countries around the world included in the study, ahead of Bangladesh 97% and Kuwait 95%).
  • 58% of this country’s population believe in the protective power of sacrifices and in ancestral spirits (the third highest percentage from the African continent, after Tanzania 60% and Mali 59%).
  • 93% is this country’s level of tolerance towards other religions (the highest from the African continent, ahead of Ghana 92% and Zambia 87%).

These figures highlight the seemingly paradoxical religious landscape of the country where I live and work. Daniel Gomis, the West African who presented this research, concluded that it summarizes the three aspects of life which are essential for him and his fellow countrymen:

  1. faith in God
  2. belief in the spirit realm
  3. openness to the outside world

Gomis went on to explain however that, if one scratches below the surface, one discovers a world that the statistics fail to capture, a world that’s not so neat and tidy, a world that underlies his people’s everyday existence. In his words:

C’est un monde mélangé de réalité, de mythes et de croyances populaires. Il s’agit de l’imaginaire – l’âme même – qui sous-tend la vision du monde [des habitants de ce pays ouest africain].

(It’s a world in which reality, myths, and mainstream beliefs blend together. This is the popular imaginary – the very soul – which underpins the worldview [of this West African country’s people].)

Gomis then borrowed the words of Professor Ibrahima Sow to posit that a comprehension of this underlying layer of his countrymen’s collective soul is what allows us to:

…mettre à nu l’âme magique et angoissée [des peuples de ce pays], dont on découvre avec stupeur combien leur existence est davantage régie par le magique, ce que d’autres nomment le mystique, que par le bon sens et par la foi.

…lay bare the mystical and anxious soul [of this country’s inhabitants], by which one is shocked to discover how much their existence is governed more by magic, what others call mysticism, than by common sense or by faith.

While I’m intrigued, it’s all quite a mystery to me. But hopefully I’m up for some discovering.

Thank you to Daniel Gomis, for the stats and thought-provoking analysis of his country’s worldview.

April 16-22 was the annual conference for the SIL International branch of which I’m a member. This is the once-a-year gathering of all the workers (as many who can make it) from the three countries that make up this branch. It gives us all an opportunity to reconnect, share highlights from the past year, pray for the various projects, take care of organizational business, worship together, and plan for the year ahead. It was my second conference. (I confess though, last year’s conference was a blur as it came two months after my arrival.)

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This year’s theme verse was Ephesians 2:19-22:

Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.

The five days brought various discussions and activities; underlying it all was a current of reflection stimulated by these verses. We had some wrestling to do. It’s difficult enough for these verses to become reality in a context where a single culture is represented. But for a group of nationals and expatriates coming from many different countries, trying to work together in a West African context, these verses seem a bit idealistic.

What does it mean for us as an SIL International branch to be built together as a body of believers? Is there place in the edifice for each of the cultures represented (we come from over a dozen countries), let alone each individual personality? Do we truly believe that there are no foreigners in our midst, and that each is an equal member of the household? Are we in the branch fulfilling our purpose of being a believing body where God dwells? Are we willing to be chiseled as individual building blocks so that the Master Builder can fit us into place, on the foundation of the apostles and prophets and with Christ as the cornerstone? What does it take, on both an individual and organizational level, for this to happen?

"Write down what you think it takes for us to be built up together."

“Write down what you think it takes for us to be built up together.”

We at SIL International are a multicultural building being constructed by God’s grace. God is the Master Builder and He will have His way with us, and yet we must actively participate in the building process. We as individuals cannot passively, stubbornly wait for God to force us into place alongside our colleagues. God’s Spirit calls us to action in seeking to be joined together. Being joined together takes intentional, persistent, daily work.

We spent several sessions comparing “Kingdom Culture” to our respective cultures. We were in four separate groups – Francophone Africa, Francophone Europe, the United Kingdom, and North America (and these groups didn’t even cover all the cultures in the branch!). In our groups we discussed ways our cultures reflect values of God’s Kingdom and the ways in which they fall short. And then we spent time as a branch, listening to each group share its reflections. It was so helpful to be reminded of why colleagues act, speak, and behave in certain ways – often because of the culture from which they come. It was helpful to laugh about each other’s cultural quirks. It was helpful to listen to each other, to affirm each culture while acknowledging that all cultures (and we humans who comprise them) need to be redeemed in order to embrace Kingdom values.

Culture Exercise

our branch in our four culture groups

Our multicultural edifice at SIL is of course only one tiny part of the much larger, world-wide Church that God is building. So we as an organization also need to yield to the Master Builder in where He wants us as a group to fit into His larger construction.

During one worship session, we were encouraged to consider the following words of C.S. Lewis from Mere Christianity – quite a timely thought in the midst of our reflections:

I find I must borrow yet another parable from George MacDonald. Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on: you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently he starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of – throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were going to be made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself. … The process will be long and in parts very painful, but that is what we are in for. Nothing less. He meant what He said.

Oh, how we need grace for this miracle of transformation to occur! As individuals, as organizations, as the Church – we need grace as God builds us into His palace.

I’ve once again moved and taken up residence in a new home and a new town. A new Wolof host family – the Mangane family – has taken me in. This is important as I continue to learn language and culture. My new town is about an hour and a half’s commute from the capital, where I will need to report regularly for my work on SIL’s Basic Wolof team. I think it’s a good fit to live close enough to the capital to be there when needed, but outside the capital where there is more space, less stress, and more pronounced Wolof culture. Though I know better than to make concrete plans, I’m hoping that this living situation could become a long-term solution. I pray that God has led me here and that I can finally, sort of (despite the back-and-forth-ing to the capital) settle down.

sama neeg ci ker Mangane

The Mangane family is large in number and in heart. I’m getting to know them, and hopefully they’re getting to know me. It will be a process. Their house is comfortable, and my room in their home feels restful. My window looks out on some wonderful trees (anything green is a source of joy!), including a glorious neem tree that’s in bloom this time of year. Its branches reach towards my window, delicately tossing at me the delicious scent of its tiny white flowers, reminding me that beauty exists in this country (though sometimes in different and less pronounced forms than what I’m used to). The smell of the neem flower is the sort of gift that often moves me to tears here – rare and small yet tangible and so very precious.

garab neem

On my first day as a member of the Mangane household, I discovered a great irony in the meaning behind their family name and in my living among them. Mangane comes from the Wolof word màngaan, which means “nomadic herding to find pastures for the herd.” My time in West Africa since arriving last February has certainly felt nomadic! Who knows, maybe now that I’m living with a family named “nomadic,” I will stop moving around so much!

As I consider this new Wolof word, looking back at the moves I’ve made since arriving in this country and breathing in the smell of the neem flower outside my new room, I find myself considering green pastures. The nomadic herder moves himself and his herd in order to find them greener pastures. I admit that the moving around that I’ve done here has been tiring. In each case, though, I was brought to something that I needed, a “greener pasture” in my learning and adjustment and search for my place here. My room with the neem tree outside is the “greener pasture” to which I’ve most recently come.

But the fatigue has been palpable at times. I remember one night in particular at the Ndiaye home, where I so enjoyed living, when I realized I wouldn’t be able to stay and would have to keep looking for a long-term place to live. Dreading the thought as I lay there before drifting off to sleep, I sighed one of those deep-soul sighs to God, praying, “Lord, I know you’re preparing a place for me and that the place you promise me is in heaven, not here on earth. And I know you’re coming back for me, to take me to that place… but in the meantime, would a little corner here below be too much to ask for?”

“Just a place to lay my head, where I feel at home and can be myself,” I’ve sometimes thought. And yet, that thought always leads me to the well-known words of the Master, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” A couple months ago, I heard a devotional given on these words of Jesus by one of my Serer-Sine brothers. He challenged his fellow pastors to remember whom they follow. He said that we sometimes want security and financial guarantees before committing to ministry, and yet why should we expect these things when the Master whose path we follow did not have them? I was challenged by his words, especially considering their context here, where the role of pastor rarely brings with it a salary.

Jesus never promised His disciples that we’d feel at home here on earth, that we’d always have a physical place to call our own and lay our head. He never even promised that it would be financially easy, as my pastor friend reminded me. Any of these tangible or intangible discomforts that we experience as His disciples simply disappear when we consider His incomparable sacrifice on our behalf. And He calls us to follow.

His promise to me is that He will be my Shepherd. “I shall not be in want. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he restores my soul.” As I journey towards my yet unseen home, my Shepherd finds green pastures for me to lie down in, even where it feels like I have no place to lay my head. I may not always understand why He calls me out of one place to be led to another, but He knows me and the pasturelands better than I do. And He promises to restore my soul.

Since my arrival in this country last year, the Shepherd has led me, and I have not been in want. Instead of feeling the culminating fatigue of the moves I’ve made, I can look back at each “green pasture” to which He led me and the ways He restored my soul. And I know He has more green pastures in store, just as I know that my soul will continue to need restoration from the fatigue. May He give me the grace to continue following His voice and going where He leads.

As my new favorite singer Audrey Assad puts it so well in “Lead Me On”:

Your rod and Your staff are a strange mercy
In a world where I’m not yet home.

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