Learning to Live Flexibly and Intentionally

by Marilyn on May 19, 2014

intentional and flexible

Several years ago I read a newsletter from a couple who have spent many years living and working in Amman, Jordan. The letter was an honest look at how they decide to spend their time. In it they described their particular styles and personalities — she was relaxed and spontaneous, always ready for an interruption and an adventure. He was methodical and loved to stick to a schedule, order was important and intentionality paramount. He was a planner.

They recalled the many negotiations they had to make in their marriage through the years and how this related to their living cross-culturally, blending American and Jordanian cultural norms and attitudes.   The parallel between their marriage and  cross-cultural negotiations and the words they used “learning to live flexibly but intentionally” resonated with me.  

With purpose and goals, but always willing to bend those for the sake of people coming into their lives and unexpected circumstances demanding adjustment, flexibility and of course, time.  This sounds like a balanced way to live, a critical mix of East, where people and relationships are paramount and West, where goals and ideas yield some amazing results.

A life overseas carries with it incredible joys and tough challenges. It is easy to become results-oriented to please both funders and fulfill our own sense of purpose, sense of worth. This too often brings with it a rigid way of life that demands control and order. And burnout is inevitable. But — a life overseas can also hold endless distractions and at times, utter chaos. It can be easy within that chaos to give up on any goals, to throw up our hands and succumb to endless interruptions.  Auto-correcting in both modes can swing us one direction or another when what is best is a balance.

The “how-to’s” of achieving this is the challenge.  From a practical point of view, I have found that life overseas takes more planning. At one point in Pakistan if I wanted to serve egg salad sandwiches for a late lunch I had to get up at the earliest call to prayer and begin making bread. I then went on to make the mayonnaise so it could sit in the refrigerator and get cold, boil the eggs and cool them off and finally end the process by making the sandwiches. A mundane example to be sure, but any of us who have been in that place know that without the many conveniences available in the western world intentional planning is a necessity just to get food on the table. When we’re interrupted in the middle of the process by someone spontaneously dropping by for tea, there are moments of throwing up our hands in despair. How do we do this life? Practical tips like having a high tolerance for ambiguity can sound good on paper but sometimes doesn’t provide the comfort or encouragement we crave.

Life overseas provides endless opportunities for projects and people. How can we be purposeful about these, always leaving room for God-given interruptions? Can we learn to live intentionally and flexibly in the world where God has placed us?  Can we be spontaneous planners – creating the perfect oxymoron?

It’s when I stop and listen for the voice of God, a voice of wisdom and truth, that I learn more of living intentionally and flexibly. Because one look at the life of Jesus shows the perfect balance. He was intent on purpose and spoke truth in Galilee, but he recognized human need and stopped to make sure all were fed. He was on a journey with a destination in mind, but he stopped and took a drink from a woman by a well in Samaria. He was beaten and bruised, hanging on a cross but he paused and made sure to secure a promise that his mother would have a son, would be taken care of by someone who would love her.

In the book Hearing God, Dallas Willard says this: “His [Jesus] union with the Father was so great that he was at all times obedient. This obedience was something that rested in his mature will and understanding of his life before God, not on always being told “Now do this” and “Now do that” with regard to every detail of his life or work.” 

The life of Jesus, lived in obedience to the Father and reflecting perfect balance, offers hope on this journey.

Do you struggle to live intentionally but flexibly? With purpose but room for the Spirit to intervene? What have you found to be key to living this way? 

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About Marilyn

An adult third culture kid, Marilyn grew up in Pakistan and then raised her own 5 third culture kids in Pakistan and Egypt. She currently lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts 15 minutes from the international terminal. She works with underserved, minority communities as a public health nurse and flies to the Middle East & Pakistan as often as possible. She is the author of Between Worlds: Essays on Culture and Belonging and you can find her blogging at Communicating Across Boundaries.
  • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

    I love this: Jesus was intent on a purpose but he stopped to make sure we were all fed. Perfect balance. I can be too rigid and get thrown off easily when the unexpected comes up. You’d think I’d have learned by now, and I like to think I’m more flexible than I used to be, but I have a ways to go in giving up my expectations and plans and letting the spirit move. Tips would be great! I’ll look forward to seeing if people have suggestions in the comments.

    • Marilyn Gardner

      I feel like I’ve gone backwards sometimes and that I used to be better at this. I also think it depends on my stress level. When I feel really stressed then routine is my best friend and I shudder at interruptions. The other thing is the whole cross-cultural piece of it that could be explored much further. We are products of both worlds and trying to negotiate both worlds is a challenge.

  • Richelle Wright

    i don’t know about other people, but i find that when i’m thinking of time as “mine,” then i tend to land into my default mode, which my husband calls “driven.” i like to think of myself as more of a planner and very intentional about the choices I make and when/how I do what needs to be done. when i slip back to default, though, “interruptions” of any type are an inconvenience and an irritation and i lose any focus on relational and spontaneity. when i can keep the perspective that “my time” is one of those things i can offer back to God, then i can at least keep that perspective on the view finder, even if it isn’t always in focus.

    keeping that perspective is a continuous effort at reorienting each day, throughout the day according to what God places before me, not necessarily what we wrote on the calendar or i scribbled on a to-do list the night before as i consciously remember that my time is not my own…

    • Marilyn Gardner

      Love this – this is me. I find myself almost crying with frustration instead of breathing and finding perspective. I like your reminder that this takes daily ‘reorienting’. Praying for wisdom and focus. Thanks Richelle.

  • Hi Marilyn, I love your blog post! I hope you don’t mind, but I just wrote a devotion based on it and posted it to my blog with a link to your blog post – Here’s the link to it: http://barbraveling.com/2014/05/20/devotion-planners-spontaneous-people-and-god/. Also, I wasn’t sure if you wanted me to list your whole name so I just put Marilyn, but let me know if you’d like me to add your last name!

    • Marilyn Gardner

      Barb – I’m honored that you would link. And either way is fine with my name. Thanks for the encouragement. Heading to your devotional right now. Grace to you today.

  • I have clear memories of the blissful ignorance of a life of unquestioned confidence. The stint lasted a relatively short two dozen years or so before the cracks started to show. The crutch of rigidity gave out and I hobbled to find a surer support. I now can look back on this past decade of adjustment and see the goodness in the panic ridden feelings of utter uncertainty that began to surface. As a natural pragmatic I find it ironic that no practical answers have been given to me to help me find that balance of which you speak between flexibility and intentionality. The simple, yet oh so hard, answer coming to me at this time in my life is: surrender. Thank you for the beautiful reminder to look to Jesus as we take steps, faltering or steady, in this thing called life.

    • Marilyn Gardner

      Your words “the crutch of rigidity gave out and I hobbled to find a surer support” are so descriptive. Wow. I was thinking the same thing about practical answers, and how they elude us when it comes to balance and developing a flexible life of purpose. Maybe because practical answers put us into a formula and there are no formulas for the hard work of surrender.

  • malanaganz

    I am a planner by nature, too, and trying to keep six kids in order was always a challenge. My husband is spontaneous and adventurous. When we lived in Salem, OR, after a 20 minute drive to church we could continue westward and be at the ocean in another 45 minutes. Several times my husband would say, as we got in the car on Sunday morning, “Let’s go to the beach after church!” Now if he had said that Saturday night, I could have prepared lunch (which we generally couldn’t afford to eat at a restaurant) and had the kids pack clothes. So I would say, “It’s too late, we can’t get ready that fast.” When I complained to my mother-in-law, she bit her tongue for a minute and then said, “I would keep a bag of clothes in the back of the van so that you could go on a moment’s notice. Who doesn’t want to go to the beach?” It was so gentle and yet pointed….Sometimes for a planner, learning to be flexible is learning to be prepared so that we CAN be flexible.
    In a relational society, one of the nice things is that we can have unexpected visitors, and they don’t intend to interrupt our day, but to share it with us. No need to stop doing laundry, just hand them coffee and talk while you work. It makes having visitors much easier when we don’t have to entertain them, at least here in Panama.

    • Marilyn Gardner

      I love how practical this response is. This is the kind of thing that is so helpful – sometimes it’s something this simple that can make the difference between angst and fights and just moving forward learning to live in harmony with interruptions. I also like that you have pointed out that people come along with us as we do our chores in these relational societies. You don’t have to have the house perfect.

  • Ohhhh how well I relate to this. This has probably been one of the biggest struggles for me on the field. Thank you for the reminder. Blessings from Croatia: http://www.missionalcall.com

    • Marilyn Gardner

      So good to hear from you and I empathize with the struggle.

  • Pingback: Devotion: Planners, Spontaneous People, and God | Beyond the Sinner's Prayer()

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