The following excerpt comes from Dangerous Territory: My Misguided Quest to Save the World by Amy Peterson. Click here for an interview with Amy about her book.
At the end of my second month teaching, I was a bundle of contradictions. I adored my life. I adored my quiet mornings with coffee and my laptop, and the evenings alone teaching myself to play melancholy folk songs on the guitar. I adored my classes—my hilarious and outgoing third-year students, my dreamy and big-eyed first-year students. I adored teaching, and reading the essays students turned in, papers that started with lines like “When I see him, I am lovesick,” or “This life is not easy for anyone,” or “When I was a child, I asked my mother why I could not fly.” I adored riding on the back of Darcy’s motorbike, and learning how to cook with rice paper, and drinking the thick, sweet iced coffee sold on the side of the road.
But in the course of a single week I could move from joyful contentment to barren despair. I was lonely, wishing that my family and friends back home would at least e-mail me back. Their lives seemed to be moving along without me. Disconnected from so many of the people and things I’d once used to identify myself, what was left? Who was I?
It had been months since I’d attended a church or even been with a large group of Christians. I felt my spiritual wells being sucked dry. I felt barren. For one of my online grad classes, I was reading through the book of Acts. Peter’s speech in chapter two quotes from the prophet Joel, his promise that in the last days God would pour out his Spirit on all flesh, that sons and daughters would prophesy.
Curious about that promise, I followed those verses back to their source, reading Joel’s prophecy in full. I was struck by how the description of the Israelites sounded like me, with all my gladness “dried up,” with nothing left to offer to God. The nation of Israel had been hit by drought and a plague of locusts—a devastating plague far worse than any they had ever experienced. Their land was barren, and they had nothing to offer to God—no grain or wine to bring as temple sacrifices.
I felt dried up, too. I wanted to follow Joel’s exhortation, to rend my heart and not my garments, hoping that God would “turn and have pity and leave behind a blessing.” I knew what I wanted that blessing to be: success, prestige, emotional stability, clear direction for the future, easy relationships. Would God turn to me in my emptiness and offer me those things?
But that’s not what Joel suggested. No, the blessing God might bestow on repentant hearts was this: grain and drink offerings for the Lord. The blessing God would give was restoration of what had been lost so that his people could praise him again.
I needed my desires to be transformed, so that I would grow to want more than anything else the ability to praise God.
Later in the book, God tells the Israelites that he will repay them for the years the locusts have eaten. I was bowled over by the beauty of that promise, its evocative image: that even when my sin leads to dryness and discipline, God will restore what I have lost. But I felt shaken and unsettled by it, too. The years the locusts have eaten. Would I lose whole years of my life to the locusts? How long would I feel empty inside?
That’s where I was—emptiness, uncertainty, confusion, and joy all mixed—when Veronica came to visit me the second time.
I’d gotten to know her a bit better through her journal writings in class, and come to realize that she was a deep thinker, a poet, and a seeker. I hadn’t said anything more to her about Jesus, not yet; while I described myself as a Christian when I introduced myself on the first day of classes, I hadn’t said more than that to anyone.
Veronica wanted me to know that there was a Catholic church on the edge of town. Would I visit it with her on Sunday, and then eat lunch at her home, with her family?
It was still warm that November Sunday as we motorbiked to the edge of town. I was curious—skeptical, maybe, but hopeful—about what we’d find. Why had people told me there were no local Christians if this church existed? Would the church have Bibles available in the local language?
The town was quiet on Sunday mornings; shopkeepers in pajamas swept sidewalks and opened their doors. The city streets, lined with skinny three-story French colonial buildings painted in pastel colors, smelled of urine and smoke, but as we left town, lonely rice fields swallowed us in sweet green. Around a corner, behind a gate, we came upon the church suddenly, a stone cathedral with spires, a bit of Europe in the middle of Asia. I wondered what we’d find inside: the truth, or just bits of truth mixed with traditional religion to form something new? The Spirit, or many spirits? Freedom, or fear?
Of course, I couldn’t find those answers myself. The entire service took place in a foreign language, so I relied on Veronica to interpret it for me later that afternoon. We talked about some of the scriptures that were read, and the prayers and traditions. She seemed to share my skepticism, remarking that the people she spoke with there only attended because of a superstitious belief that they needed to confess to a priest in order to be safe from evil spirits or curses. But she wanted to know more. “Can we study the Bible together?” she asked me afterward.
“Of course,” I replied. “Anytime you like.” Back at her house, we ate rice, stir-fried pork, whole grilled fishes, sautéed spinach with garlic, pomelo fruit—a feast—prepared by her mother, a soft, round-faced woman who held and patted my arm, looking deeply into my eyes with a questioning gaze and with something like gratitude. I smiled shyly, then realized suddenly that she thought I was saving her daughter. She wasn’t oblivious to the despair that had threatened to pull Veronica under since she failed the university entrance exam two years earlier. This mother didn’t care what saved her daughter; she was just thankful to see her alive again, curious and engaged and happy. Veronica’s father, quiet, but observant, seemed proud to be entertaining a foreigner. Her younger brother struck me as bright-eyed and sweet. I hardly knew what to do with all the kindness they showered on me.
Still I waited. Was Veronica interested in me because I was a foreigner, or was she truly interested in knowing God? I waited for her to ask again, and she did, the very next time our class met. After the other students dissipated, she came up to my desk.
“When can we study the Bible together?” she asked.
That night Veronica and her friend Sarah came to my apartment after dinner. I showed them the Bible, and we talked about what kind of book it was, where it came from, who wrote it. I gave Veronica some pages I’d printed from a college Bible study, an introduction to the Bible and the first few chapters of Luke. I asked her why she was interested in studying.
“I want to belong to something,” she said, struggling to find the right English words. “Did you know Brian from the Backstreet Boys went to Cincinnati Bible College? I think if I read this book, I will be . . . complete.”
Veronica and I began meeting every Sunday night, talking about a few chapters of Luke each time. She asked if she could have my copy of the Bible in her language, and I let her take it, warning her to be careful reading it in public. Each week she showed up with pages and pages of reflections and questions written in her journal. More confident writing in English than speaking, she sometimes wrote me letters. A month after we began studying together, she wrote about the way reading the Bible had changed her.
I ever lost faith in the life. And I didn’t know what the meaning of my life was. I totally lost myself until you came and let me know about Jesus’ words… The moment you suggested me learning the Bible, I was so afraid, that I was not good enough to receive such a great world, but I really wanted to know it. The Bible let me understand that The Father comes to us not because we are good enough, but because we are forgiven.
My English is not good, I know you sympathize and see my heart for it. May I think that you are my sister? You didn’t only come as a teacher, but as a messenger. I heard the Bible say that Messengers can appear through many different forms…
I couldn’t quite believe what was happening. For some reason, I was shocked to see the Bible work, astounded that Veronica, who had never read the Bible before, could read it for the first time and recognize exactly the same truths I’d memorized in catechism as a little girl. Maybe it was all true, after all. I realized suddenly that I hadn’t been sure. I hadn’t been sure that the truths which had surrounded me since birth would still be true on the other side of the world, in a totally foreign culture. I had kind of wondered if we had made it all up. But the prayers my supporters had prayed were being answered, within the first three months I’d spent in the city—the city that everyone had warned me was a hard, dark place. The Spirit was already at work there, just like in the stories I’d read, where missionaries arrived at isolated islands or deep interior jungles to be welcomed by natives proclaiming, “We know who you are! You are messengers of God. He told us in a dream you were coming.”
And so dreams and pop music led to salvation, and the miracle began in my barrenness and disbelief. I could take no credit for the miracle—it was really proof that I’m a true daughter of the biblical Sarah, who laughed at the promise of new life. God was calling Veronica to himself, and was allowing me to watch, even to take part. The locusts disappeared before they had even had time to descend. Suddenly I found myself with an offering of praise.