Culture shock: up, down and level

Julia Tilford

Angry. Tired. Frustrated. 'This is too much. I can't go on anymore. What am I even doing in my life?' 

It all came over me like a wave first thing this morning. 

Crosslinks had warned me: there will be a 'honeymoon period' when everything in Portugal is exciting and wonderful and then culture shock will hit. After this, I can expect a new normal as I settle down. So maybe this was/is the start of my 'culture shock' phase? 

Or maybe it's an answer to prayer. Just yesterday I knew it was a problem that my mind was wandering so much when I read the Bible - how could I profess to love God when I was so bad at listening to what he says? But my heart didn't feel the reality of the problem. So I prayed that God would help me feel its severity. And then today I woke up feeling angry. 

I'm not entirely sure why, but I was angry partly because I just wanted to sit and receive God's word but, at the same time, I was in the way. I started tidying up. But did I need to move papers now? Couldn't it wait? Then I looked at my phone and sent a few replies. Were they really that urgent? Why were there so many messages? And why did I feel so bound to respond right now? Why couldn't I just enjoy listening to his eternal voice instead?

I faffed around answering messages, 'tidying up' and getting angrier. After 45 minutes I managed to find the self-control to stop and go for my ten-minute run. Phew. 

I've been trying to do this most days since I've arrived in Coimbra. I love running and I'm really so lucky to live right next to the river Mondego. It was good to clear my head a bit and try to work out what was going on. And pray for strength to read God's word when I got back to my room. And pray for my church in Greenwich and people in Coimbra. 

I still didn't know exactly what was going on. Maybe it was language frustrations. I still get the days of the week wrong in Portuguese. Monday is 'segunda feira' (literally ’second day’) and Tuesday is 'terça feira' (‘third day’) and so on until Friday - which is confusing because I think of Monday as the first day of the week and Tuesday as the second day...

I think it was probably a bit of everything that was making me angry: culture shock, tiredness and frustration with myself for being distracted from the greatest person in the universe, the one who loves me most of all. 

I decided that when I got back from the run I would just go straight to him, straight to the Bible and not look at my phone. Normally I use an audio bible but maybe I'd try reading aloud to myself instead. It was a lot better. And today I started Deuteronomy, when Moses reminds God's people that their parents' generation didn't listen to God. 'Yet in spite of this word [from God] you did not believe the LORD your God, who went before you in the way to seek you out a place to pitch your tents...' (Deut 1:32-33). 

This was really helpful for me! God wanted good for the Israelites and went to prepare a place for them to pitch their tents. But they didn't listen. It was a great reminder that God's words and his actions are always for the benefit of the hearers and the humans - but naturally we don't really want him or his words. It seems like humanity has always been this way. I guess that's part of the reason we find it hard to read the Bible, or aren't that interested in Jesus. But how ironic that the very person who we so easily reject or push to the side is the very one who brings fullness and flourishing to our lives. 

Thankfully God doesn't leave humanity like this. He still holds out the offer of forgiveness, so that we can genuinely know him personally. No one is too far away from Jesus, no one is too 'good' or too religious to need his forgiveness. 

What a great perspective-changer on a morning that started so badly.

Julia is a short-term partner in Portugal, working alongside Joe and Rachel Clarke and the student Christian movement (GBU). Find out more about short-term mission.

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Julia Tilford

Julia has been serving in Portugal since 2019, working with the Portuguese Christian Union movement. Her ministry includes reading the Bible with female students, discipling them and encouraging them in evangelism.