“All great literature is one of two stories; a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town.” -Leo Tolstoy
Occasionally, I read or hear something that doesn’t seem to be helpful. Tolstoy’s statement has acted that way for me. But his success as a writer lends him credibility in this potential oversimplification. With this in mind, I’ve been contemplating my trip to Rwanda. I was away from home for all of fourteen short days. During which, it could easily be argued that my adventure was one of a man going on a journey. I got on a plane, I went somewhere and did things. But the story of coming home is so much longer and feels more complex. Frankly, the return has been incredibly hard.
I’m not the guy who goes to Africa, comes home, then hates capitalism or our hyper-commercial culture because “I’ve met starving children in Africa.” I’ve met them in my home town and across the United States. A homeless man is sitting across from me as I write this. I’ve never been sheltered from the suffering that takes place in our own neighborhoods. The difficulty in the return lies elsewhere.
I’ve always tried to avoid treating very Much Later like a journal. Because that’s weird and I want this to not be about me. So, when I write that coming home from Rwanda has been difficult, it isn’t a matter of asking for pity. There’s no sympathy for the white man who willingly went to Africa, and that’s fine. I share this, hoping to communicate something else.
I feel like the stranger who’s come to town. In those narratives, the newcomer tends to shake things up, to cause problems or bring about self-awareness to a community that was formerly ignorant of their prejudices or lack of life. Edward Scissorhands, The Green Mile, To Kill A Mockingbird and One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest are all great examples of the Stranger Comes to Town narrative.
Atticus Finch knew that racism was wrong and fought it. Jonny Depp’s misanthropic character had no clue that his gothic appearance and potentially tetanus-inducing appendages would shake up a neighborhood and in the end would cause snow to fall on everyone because they were all terrible people and snow is a punishment for that (my interpretation). We have a range of characters from reluctant heroes to outcasts who accomplished something, whether they wanted to or not.
I’d say that in the Christian context, the story wherein the stranger comes to town is actually the stranger comes home. That’s what Jesus does to us- He saves us and changes us, then generally leaves us in the context in which he found us. In Mark chapter 5, Jesus commits a horrific party foul. Upon arriving in Gerasenes, He delivered a man from demonic possession. This instance is the one in which we discover the horrifying Legion- “…because we are many.” No, thank you.
Jesus casts the demons out into a herd of pigs which then rush off a cliff and into the sea where all that bacon was lost. As the story goes, the people of the area ask Jesus and the disciples to leave, but the man who’d been delivered asked to go with them. Jesus’ said to him, “No, go home to your family, and tell them everything the Lord has done for you and how merciful he has been.”
Which the man formerly known as Legion did. He went back to his people, as a completely new man. Maybe some knew him before his possession, but his interaction with Jesus had another effect on him. He was a believer in something they’d already rejected. But his witness meant something. (Okay, Legion was the posse of demons hiding out there, but it still kind of works). That’s about how I felt coming home this time around.
Sometimes, the introduction of a new idea isn’t unhelpful, but misapplication ends up being problematic. Tolstoy’s statement is about literature, not life. Superimposing literary quotes onto my own experiences is either nerdy, pretentious or dumb. Possibly all three. But it really seemed to fit, so I ran with it.
I would describe myself as a stranger who’s come to town because I feel like I’ve come back different, while everything around me is exactly the same. He makes all things new and it seems that He’s starting with us.
So there’s Rwanda, 2014 for you.
** I’ll post a few most stories when the time is right. Like the one wherein I nearly become engaged to a beautiful, amazing woman in Africa. Because that’s real.