When Life Gives You a Chicken

by Emily Raan

The day started out so normal. The kids even slept in! Leftover-rice porridge for breakfast and then off to town for some quick shopping.

“Quick shopping” quickly turned into two hours, while we made connections with our friends around town. One man, in particular, stood out. He somehow had lost, or possibly never had, the use of his legs. Without a wheelchair he was forced to scoot around on his hands and beg for money. We were starkly reminded, amidst the mundane “normalcy” of our daily shopping, just how harsh the realities are for so many. And there set the tone for the rest of the day.

As soon as we returned to our house, our night guard arrived at our gate with his son. We were so happy to see him, since he’s been gone in the village for a week visiting his family. Having been in the village, he brought us back a chicken for a Christmas gift. Yes. A real. Live. Chicken. Figuring out what to do with that cute little thing so that our dog didn’t kill it before we could was yet another challenge for the day.

However, our night guard’s reason for visiting wasn’t just a casual social call. His son was covered with jiggers on his feet, an infection on his legs, and fungus on his head. He had been living with his grandfather in the village and, I guess, the grandpa, how ever good-intentioned and loving, wasn’t able to care for the boy in the way that was needed. My husband rushed them to the best clinic in town and stayed with them for a while. He made it back just in time for lunch and our power outage – which lasted the whole rest of the day. When it rains, it pours! And the day was only half over.

Also on this day a young lady, “Grace” (not her real name), who has become dear to our family was visiting us. We’ve been paying her to help out with our kids and clean our lunch dishes one day a week for some extra income for her family while on her school break. But I could tell that this day was different. Something was not right. The first clue being that she brought her six year old brother with her this time.

While she was washing dishes and I was beginning dinner prep for our supper that night, I started asking questions. Though hesitant at first, I finally got the story out of her. Grace’s mother has left them to go to a hospital in the capital city to be with her auntie while her cousin is hospitalized with, presumably, poisoning from their local witch doctor. The poor girl’s dad had recently died and now she is sick with the same thing. Grace’s mother has now told her that she doesn’t know when she will return. Confident that she is safe and being taken care of in her current situation after more questions and conversation, I sent her and her brother home with enough money to last for a while.

The struggle is real and the need is great! And in the midst of all of this, our sub-leasers moved in to our back house, friends were in and out all day, my husband had yet more meetings and errands to do in the afternoon, we had to hang another line for drying laundry in our backyard, dinner took a long while to make, and we have a two-month old that needed nursing. And that was only part of the needs that were presented to us this day. There was another situation that also needed tending to, which, for privacy reasons, I’m not able to share.

Yes, this is a true story. And, yes, this all happened in one 24 hour period.

Life gave us a chicken, and I made beef stew. There’s probably a lesson there somewhere, but I’ll leave that to you to figure out; I’m too tired. For now I am choosing to take joy in the God that says “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).


Emily and her husband currently live in Uganda with their three kids, but they’ve also lived in India and traveled to six other countries on four continents. Once upon a time she was a high school math teacher, but now she’s living the life as a stay-at-home mom and loving it.  After several years of youth ministry, college life that went on far too long, and a year-long internship, they finally made it to this life abroad that they love so much.

Help build your own stool at the watering hole

When I was in high school Cheers was a popular television show. If you’re not familiar with Cheers, it was a comedy set in a local bar where the regulars shared their lives, grew together over time, and in many ways were family to each other.

But what solidified it was the theme song. Read through these lyrics (or listen) and ask yourself if this doesn’t also sound like the church:

Making your way in the world today takes everything you’ve got
Taking a break from all your worries, sure would help a lot

Wouldn’t you like to get away?
Sometimes you want to go
where everybody knows your name,
and they’re always glad you came

You wanna be where you can see
our troubles are all the same
You wanna be where everybody knows
your name

Obviously, the church would be centered on God. But guess what God loves? People. Cheers was long running because it was funny, tackled complexities of life, and fostered belonging. The name of the theme song is “Where everybody knows your name.” God is a God of belonging, of wanting to know us and wanting us to be known.

We know this and this is why we have heard His heart for the lost and responded to the call.

And over the years, places like A Life Overseas, Velvet Ashes, and Taking Route help us know we are not alone, challenge our thinking, and provide spaces to share our stories.

Which of these have you experienced on the field:




—Losing touch with yourself

—Not having the skills equal to the task

—Being used up and spit out by the missionary machine

—Fearing you will be exposed as a fraud

—Feeling you are out of your depth



I know you see yourself on somewhere on the list. Even if you are in your first year, and all is new and shiny, boredom has knocked on your door a time or two. I am dreaming another space for us, a space that doesn’t make you choose between tending your own soul (being) and building skills to help you do the work you are called to (doing). In order for the new space to meet your real needs, would you help by taking this survey? 

A couple of months ago I asked for your help and you participated in another survey. Your answers have enhanced the book I’m writing for people in their first year on the field beyond words. You inspired me so much I want to find ways to have your input in more areas. If you wondered if I read and use the data, here is a picture of the data printed out and poured over. (And the cards in the upper left-hand corner were used to write thank you’s to supporters).

So, thank you for taking this survey and helping to build a place that points us each to Jesus and each other.

Humming wit you . . .

You wanna be where you can see
our troubles are all the same
You wanna be where everybody knows
your name {and worships God}.

Thanks for your help! Amy

Welcoming Broken Missionaries Back

John Chau’s death in November raised a complicated and important conversation about the role of Christian evangelism. I’m going to let that debate rage on Twitter and the New York Times and the Failed Missionary podcast. I want to launch a different conversation. I believe Chau’s dream, work, and death forces the church to consider what the push of evangelism will require not of those who “go” but of those who “send.”

There is a missing piece in that go-send picture because the one who goes out will eventually come back. How will be they welcomed back? What kind of support systems are in place? Who will be the “receiver” of the returned missionary?

This question is especially relevant in the context of evangelism among what are known as unreached and unengaged populations like the people on the North Sentinelese island, (“An unengaged unreached people group (UUPG) has no known active church planting underway,” the Joshua Project) because missionaries who go to these places are also often missionaries who return broken. How will they be supported?

There is a reason groups of people are unreached or unengaged. They are sometimes hostile to outsiders, remote, living in places of poverty or disease or isolation. They tend to live in areas not considered comfortable, beautiful, or safe. They may speak languages that are not written down, difficult to learn. Their cultures might be radically different from the Western culture out of which many missionaries come. They want to be left alone.

Reaching these people is hard. Slow. Discouraging. And it comes with risks. There may be bodies buried on beaches, like Chau’s. There will certainly be brokenness, pain, and grief. Those who have gone out rejoicing will return weeping. I’m not sure the sending church is ready for that.

The call of the church to raise up Christians who will go to the unengaged is not a triumphal call for heroes. It is a call to suffering and death and brokenness. Churches which actively promote this kind of mission work need to be prepared to receive their people back, along with all their sorrow, pain, and anger.

There needs to be strong support systems in place to help those who return.

Counseling, intensive therapy for all members of the family, marriage help, help in finding jobs, financial advisors, medical assistance, physical space in which to recover, nonjudgmental and safe ways for them to ask all the deep, hard, scary questions about God and faith that rocked their world while living abroad, opportunities for them to be angry. Time. I don’t mean a week or a month. I mean maybe a year, depending on what a person has walked through. Community, people willing to welcome the returned into their families and holiday traditions and Bible studies, even though that person doesn’t have a shared history other than a yearly visit or monthly newsletter.

And grace to recognize that while living abroad, the person sent out from the church has changed. Is the Church ready to welcome that kind of changed person back into their arms with tenderness and acceptance?

I have seen missionaries ask for prayer as they grieve the death of their child and the prayer request is rephrased as, “Pray for their work.” I have seen missionaries told to move on quicker after a family accident or to stop being afraid when death threats or sexual harassment bombard them.

The church dare not, dare not, pray for the unengaged to be engaged while in the same breath refuse to face the tragedy that will come with that engagement. This is dangerous and irresponsible, if the church is not prepared to deal with the consequences.

People who live abroad get broken there. Then they come home and their wounds go unacknowledged. They are heroes. They are brave. They are warriors.

Fine (sort of). But guess what? They are also weak, lonely, confused, shattered. Their marriages are damaged, their children have depression, their bodies are fragile and filled with parasites, their resumes have unexplainable holes, their job skills fail to translate. They are lonely, their faith has been pushed sometimes to the breaking point. They have seen poverty and the global realities of politics and their own ideas on these topics have been transformed. They are no longer welcome, when they speak from what they’ve learned, in the places which sent them out.

I certainly see churches ready to send people triumphantly out.

Please, dear Western Church, be willing and ready to welcome them brokenly back.


Written by an anonymous worker

Into the Battle

I recently watched a video of a talk we gave on our last furlough. For an entire hour we shared with our home church all the glorious things we witnessed during our first term overseas.

Bible translation projects were completed.
For the first time in history believers had written songs to their Creator in their own language.
Local churches sent out missionaries to surrounding groups.
A church began in a new people group.

I could not hold back the tears as I listened to my two-years-ago-self share story after story of lives changed and bodies healed.

Although we live in that same town and do the same work with the same people, it’s almost as if that first term was a completely different place. The victory feels almost unrecognizable now.

Domestic violence.

The weight of sadness felt towards our town can be overwhelming. For the first time in five years I have pervasive thoughts of leaving.

“Just because we’re in the battle doesn’t mean we’ve lost the war.” My pastor tells me.

A battle rages for hearts, for minds, for healing, for wholeness, for salvation – not only for the people we came to, but for ourselves as well.

My thoughts are quick to betray me: I can’t do this anymore.

But scripture calls me home:
This is what the Lord says to you: ‘Do not be afraid or discouraged because of this vast army. For the battle is not yours, but God’s.’
2 Chronicles 20:15

I am tired of fighting.

The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.
Exodus 14:14

I am not enough.

You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world.
1 John 4:4

These hurts are too painful.

I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.
Romans 8:18

These problems are too big.

Through the Lord’s mercies we are not consumed, because His compassions fail not. They are new every morning; great is Your faithfulness.
Lamentations 3:22-23

I am afraid.

The Lord himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you or forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged.
Deuteronomy 31:8

I am lonely.

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, You are with me.
Psalm 23:4

I don’t know what to do.

For the Lord gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding.
Proverbs 2:6

Yes, the grief and the hardship are real, but we are not powerless or alone. In both the victory and the loss, God is with us- Faithful, unchanging, loving, giving, working.

Into the battle we go. To God be the glory. Amen.  

Clenched Fists and Heart’s Desires


It’s a New Year here at A Life Overseas and as I type I’m looking out at the barely visible mountains that surround our home here in Northern Iraq. On clear days, you can see the snow-covered mountains in Iran and they are beautiful. Today as I look, the entire area is covered in milky fog and you can barely see their outline. On those clear days I want to live here forever; during this fog, I want to pack my bags and say “Well, we gave that a try….!”

It’s during the fog that I need to remember the story of how we ended up here and speak out loud the works of God, because it is a story about desires, confession, and release. It’s a story about miracles of the heart and it has changed me.

For years I had longed for an opportunity to return to the Middle East. My longing was unspoken, but deeply embedded in my heart. But except for short trips to help with humanitarian aid projects, our lives were centered in Cambridge and Boston and the rhythms of the seasons. The few times that I dared to be honest with God, I begged for “Just one more chance”  – just one more opportunity to live and work in a part of the world that we love so deeply. We had left Cairo, Egypt over 20 years before and though our lives were full and rich, both of us involved with refugees and immigrants at home and work, I longed to go back.

I had been birthed and raised on the “delight and desires” cause and effect teaching of Psalm 37:4. When I was a child it all seemed so easy. Delight myself in God and I’ll get my heart’s desires, which as a child basically meant I would get what I wanted. I didn’t begin to really think about what delighting in God meant until much later in my life. But a child’s theology, if not challenged to move beyond, stays child-like instead of growing into a greater understanding of faith.  Somewhere along the journey the roots of delight, desire, and all that meant got lost and mixed up with hurt and disappointment in what life brought to me.

Somewhere along the journey, too, I began to stop voicing my desires and began to hold them in a tightly clenched fist. I could hardly bear to hear of others who were living and working in the Middle East, and felt almost pathological envy when I saw or heard about their lives.

It was a year ago when my dear friend and sister-in-law, Carol, challenged me on desires in general, challenged me on bringing my desires to God. I remember hot tears filling my eyes. “I don’t trust myself to voice my desires,” I said, the tears leaking into my throat. “I know I will just be disappointed. I know that it does no good. What’s the use of voicing my desires if I’ll only end up disappointed?” I don’t remember how Carol responded, but I remember that soon after that I ended the conversation. I began to cry. For how long, I don’t know. The tears came from such a deep place in my soul that I could barely breathe.

Soul confession tears are difficult to describe, but anyone who has experienced them knows them. They root out far more than your initial thoughts, and clarity comes with the confession and the crying. You begin to feel what perhaps David felt in his profound confession in Psalm 91 when he cries “Have mercy on me O God according to your loving kindness…. against you and you only have I sinned and done what is wrong in your sight…wash me and I will be clean.” The entire Psalm eloquently captures soul confession. I don’t know about King David, but at the end, I was so tired. Confession and purification are humbling and necessary – they can also be exhausting.

I had so long clenched my fists and held in my desires that I didn’t know what it would be like to finally release them. I didn’t know the relief that I would feel in finally giving up. I didn’t know what it would look like to no longer be trapped in my head. But after that day in Cambridge my life changed in invisible ways. I began to see meaning in my friendships and my work that I had previously not noticed. I began to relax in ways that only I could know. I began to understand contentment and gratitude and I longed for the time I had previously wasted to be redeemed. The interminable New England winter was no longer a time of depression and anxiety but of slow growth and peace.

In her book, Teach Us to Want, author Jen Pollock Michel says We prefer the not wanting and not having to the losing.” This had certainly been my just-below-the-surface thought for a long, long time. To have this slowly replaced, not with resignation but with soul-deep surrender, was new for me. I slowly began to honor my struggle instead of simply enduring it. Michel also talks about struggle being the “prerequisite to surrender”  – perhaps the greater the struggle, the greater the surrender? I don’t know. I just know that in the great mystery of delight, desires, struggle, and surrender, I was at a different place.

The emails and phone calls from Kurdistan began last March and went largely ignored. Then came more phone messages, and more emails, and then more. They continued on until May. It seemed there was a university that wanted to hire both my husband and me in Kurdistan. We laughed as we ignored these messages.  We finally paid attention when they told us a visa was waiting for us at the Baghdad Embassy in Washington D.C. We responded in late May. In June we took a whirlwind trip to visit the university by way of Qatar, and three short and crazy months later we landed in Kurdistan.

I don’t know why God finally answered my unvoiced, but long-held, prayer to be back in the Middle East. I don’t think I “delighted in God” any more or any less than I previously had. As I said earlier, I find my delight and desires, my struggle and surrender to be an ongoing mystery. As I continue this walk of long obedience, delight and desire ebb and flow. There are times when my heart is centered and focused, when the alignment of my heart is sure and straight. There are other times when my heart is bent toward whatever joy or crisis is going on in my life. I don’t know why suddenly we had this opportunity to move to Kurdistan, to work at a university, to learn how to live and love well in this country. I will never know why. And I do not know how long we will be here. We are at the mercy of a place where we are guests. But that is not what’s important.

In truth, my life began to change many months before when, on my couch in Cambridge, I opened up a tired fist, full of desires and tension and anger and disappointment, and finally held it out to an invisible God.

In turn, he took that fist in his almighty hand, and as the tender, faithful father that he is, clasped it in his own.

10 Life Lessons That Leading Worship 600 Times Taught Me

It just sort of happened.

As a teenager growing up in an a cappella church with an a cappella youth group, I sang a lot. In a non-instrumental church, any guy who can loosely carry a tune will be asked to carry that tune. And so I was. Over and over. And over. No guitar skills necessary.

In college, our inter-denominational student ministry needed a band leader. I still lacked all guitar skills, but no matter, they tagged me and I became the de facto leader for our Thursday night gatherings.

And then I actually started working for a church, leading the youth and worship ministries. I led worship nearly every Sunday for about six years. And that’s how we get to 600 plus.

I recently sat down to ponder what life lessons those experiences taught me. And as Elizabeth and I enter our 8th year of living and ministering across cultures, these “life lessons” have begun to look a lot like “cross-cultural ministry lessons” too. So I hope they are an encouragement, a blessing, and perhaps a challenge, to you as well, wherever you find yourself on this great planet we call home.

1. It’s not about me. 
Whether I’m standing before a group of 15 or 500, it’s not about me. It’s about the struggling mom of littles, the financially-strapped couple wondering how to make ends meet. It’s about the widower who feels his loneliness deep in his bones. It’s about the teen who’s trying to figure out who she is — and who God is.

Of course, it’s not about me.

And of course, it’s not primarily about them either. It’s about the Father who is longing to connect with his beloved people through moments of communion and community. It’s about the presence of the only One who is worthy; it’s about what the Spirit is saying to his Church.

2. Sometimes, you just have to show up, even when you don’t feel like it. 
When you do anything over and over and over again, even if it’s a good thing, there will come a time when you don’t feel like doing it. Well, what’s a worship leader (or missionary) supposed to do? Is it inauthentic to stand before people when you’ve had a crappy night’s sleep, or when you’re in the middle of a big fight with your wife, and pretend that things are OK?

I really had to wrestle with this. Every Sunday is not a glorious day, and there were many Sundays where the last thing I wanted to do was go to church, much less lead people in worship.

Showing up and doing your job, even when you don’t feel like it, isn’t inauthenticity. It’s actually maturity.

One question that continues to help me with this is, “Who is benefiting from my NOT revealing everything?” Am I hiding my true self from people in order to protect myself? In order to avoid intimacy? Or am I not revealing EVERY THING IN EVERY SINGLE MOMENT to get myself out of the way and help people meet with God? Is it for me or for them? If it’s for them, then it’s probably OK. (Of course, this assumes that at some point, and with some people, the leader will be authentic and vulnerable.)

God is worthy of worship whether I feel like it or not, and sometimes I need to stand before him and worship not because of my feelings, but in spite of my feelings. This is true about leading worship, and it’s true about leading life.

3. Smiling matters. A lot.
Effie was a kind old lady who became The Great Encourager of my 16-year-old self. When I was just starting out, someone told me, “Locate the few people who are smiling; look at them often.” I looked at Effie a lot.

It’s pretty good life and ministry advice too, “Locate the few people who are smiling; look at them often.”

4. Eye contact matters.
I’ve seen worship leaders who never look at a single person in the audience. That M.O. can look super-spiritual, and maybe it is. Maybe they’re lost in total adoration, caught up in the moment. Or maybe they’re just super disconnected from the people their leading.

In life abroad too, I’ve seen people who never notice the people in front of them. So look at people, look at their eyes, wonder about their stories, ask about their stories. If you do, you will impact people very deeply; for when it comes down to it, we are all longing to be seen, even if we’re desperately afraid of it.

5. Church people are the worst.
Some people at some churches hated me. They disliked my style, my music, and maybe even my face. It’s just the way it is. Some people will not like you no matter what you do. That does not necessarily mean you’re doing something wrong or bad, but it does mean that you (and they) are humans.

6. Church people are the best.
It was church guys who painted our house when my mom was sick with terminal cancer.

It was the “casserole ladies” who fed us.

It was inter-generational trips and Bible studies that showed me how to be a Christian adult, not just a Christian teen.

It was a man, a leader in the church, who came to my side when I couldn’t finish leading God Moves In a Mysterious Way. The cancer-induced tears were drowning me. He stood with me, shoulder to shoulder. We were two men at the front of a church, one young and crying, unable to voice anything. The other, older, an elder, choking tears and singing through empathy.

I will never forget that moment, because in that moment, standing vulnerable before God and his people, I was not alone. I was joined by a man thirty years my senior, and I was saved.

7. Complainers complain.
It’s what they do. But it is possible, sometimes, to maintain a positive relationship with complainers. And when it’s possible, it’s also extremely valuable.

But sometimes complainers are just toxic and keeping relationship with them is inadvisable. One key difference? If the complainers really want what’s best for you and for the church, they just really disagree with you, it’s probably best to try to maintain a friendship. If they’re out to control and dominate, manipulating through pressure and threats, to meet their own twisted needs, yeah, run away.

8. Every minute leading people requires two minutes NOT leading people.
At least.

The times that you’re NOT leading are more important than the times when you are leading. It may not look related, but sabbath has a direct impact on Sunday.

9. Displaying authentic emotions, even tears, in front of people, may be the most “leaderish” thing you ever do.
We live in hard times, and my current job as a pastoral counselor has convinced me (again) that most people do not feel free to really feel their feelings. They feel societal, religious, familial pressure to “keep it all together,” whatever that means. By showing emotions, leaders can help change this. We must change this.

10. If at the end of the day, people only remember your skills (or skinny jeans), you’ve failed.
When it really matters, people won’t care about your vocal ability. People won’t care about your flashy .pptx or Prezi or Keynote. People won’t care about your hair style or flannel shirt or your perfect DMM strategy. At the end of the day, people will ask, “Did he care about us? Did he care about the Church?”

Basically, what matters when the sun sets are these three things:

  • Was I a person of faith, even in my doubts?
  • Did I demonstrate hope, even through my despair?
  • And in a world gone mad, did I love like Christ?

May God help us all to live towards that.


As I drafted this article, I wept. I remembered my church, the Red Bridge church of Christ, and my breath caught.

You see, as I pondered, I realized something: I needed them way more than they needed me. That’s just the truth. I was in front of them, but they were leading me. I taught them new songs, but they taught me what Jesus looked like with skin on. I cried in front of them, and they joined their hearts with mine and embodied those beautiful people who mourn with. I got frustrated with them and I’m sure they got frustrated with me, and yet, we stayed friends. I’m so very glad we did, for those dear saints showed me what a “long obedience” could look like.

I’ll forever be grateful for the group of God’s people who invited a scrawny teenager with a pitch pipe to stand, to cry, to lead. They taught me so much, and I will never forget them.

Go Ahead and Criticize Missions (Constructively)

When raising children, we know that it’s only God who can draw their hearts to himself. But that doesn’t stop us from reading the best books and looking for the best advice. We search for the church with the best youth group and spend way too much money on the best camps.

When we’re sick, we know that ultimately it’s God who heals. But that doesn’t stop us from buying insurance, looking for the best hospital, and researching the best methods.

When we travel, we know that God is the one who protects us. But that doesn’t stop us from finding the safest car seats, getting our brakes serviced, and using only reputable airlines.

When we do evangelism and missions, we know that God is ultimately the one who saves souls. But why then are we supposed to check our brains at the door?

I am a firm believer in the Sovereignty of God–that God is in control of all situations and all hearts. I also have no doubt that God can take our worst failures, our biggest sins, or even downright evil, and use it for his will and his glory.

Of course, God can take the most abusive parent and bring forth the most kind-hearted child. God can take the most run-down hospital or ill-equipped doctor and bring healing. He can preserve and protect us despite a rickety vehicle or failing brakes.

But that doesn’t mean we stop thinking. We don’t go recklessly running after failure if a better option is right in front of us. So why then, when it comes to evangelism and missions, are discussions about best practices considered taboo?

I keep hearing things like this:

If God called her, then who are we to judge if she is qualified or equipped?

If God led them to do that, then what right do we have to criticize?

If just one person is reached with the gospel, then it’s worth any expense of time, energy, and money. It doesn’t matter if there could be a better way to steward those resources.

Whether or not his evangelism method was effective, that’s between him and God. We should just keep our mouths shut.

If she says God called her, then she must be doing the right thing. Whether she was a success or not is between her and God.

If their intentions were good, then that’s all that really matters. God only cares about the heart, not the end result.

We wouldn’t say that about anything else. If 90% of the people who entered a hospital ended up dead, we wouldn’t say, “Well, as long as one life is saved, why try to improve it?” If a car seat got terrible safety reviews, we wouldn’t buy it anyway and say, “Well, ultimately it’s God who will protect my child.”

Of course, there is a balance to keep here. For example, as missionaries, sometimes we do choose to live in places where medical care or road conditions aren’t exactly stellar. And in those times, it absolutely is our comfort and confidence to rest in God’s sovereignty. Similarly, when we’ve laboured hard on the mission field and seen very little (if any) fruit, we can lean heavily on the promise that ultimately it is God who saves souls.

But that shouldn’t shut down conversation on how we could do it better next time!

Remember, saying “God called me” can be dangerous. So yeah, you do have a right to ask the hard questions of the under-equipped young person who wants to go out and change the world. We do have the responsibility of evaluating the fruit of evangelism methods of the past. It’s okay to delve into the potentially harmful impact of the short-term team. It’s important to question the methods of a ministry strategy that may actually be hindering the gospel. Robust discussion, constructive criticism, and listening with humility are all ways God uses to provide checks and balances for what could be sinful inclinations or just plain foolishness.

So for all of us involved in local evangelism or overseas missions–whether that be as a short or long-term missionary, financial supporter, trainer, recruiter, or partner–we must ask ourselves:  Are we willing to humbly listen to our biblically-based critics? In light of that criticism, are we willing to honestly evaluate our motives and methods? As iron sharpens iron, let us make each other better.  

Marrying Across Cultures

by Hannah Edington

Marriage of any type comes with difficulties, but intercultural marriage has its own set of unexpected challenges. For single missionaries serving abroad, the possibility of marrying from within their host culture should involve deep considerations.

Like Moses and Zipporah coming face to face with his family’s racism, to my experiences with my husband refusing to translate the threats made against my body by men on the street, these unique marriages should not come without considering the cost. And while the external threats are extremely difficult, most of the challenges come from within the multicultural couple’s own varying cultural perspectives.

Here are four ideas to consider as you enter into a romantic relationship within your host culture.


1. Arguments
Before entering into a relationship (or marriage) within the culture you serve, be aware that your arguments are likely to be a little extra heated. Even if one of you is fluent in the other’s language, emotions impact how we use our words. And when arguments arise, explaining the depths of what you are thinking and feeling can cause further complications. Having said that, don’t ever marry someone, especially someone from another culture, without having experienced a fair share of heated arguments. Cultures argue differently, as do genders, and knowing how your spouse argues is crucial preparation for marriage.


2. Conflicting Values and Preferences
It is also important to be aware that you will likely have vastly different perspectives on money and finances, an issue which is cited for the majority of divorces in western society. Even if you are in a country with a high economic status, you may have quite different ideas on how money should be spent. Marrying within a culture that is considered ‘developing’ means you will absolutely, no doubt, have different views on where each penny should go.

These are only two examples. Parenting, clothing, how time is spent, what should be eaten, gender roles, sitting through conversations with their friends without understanding a word, and in-laws are all other things that will absolutely come into play.


3. Openness and Learning
Never cease to try and get to know this person before committing to them for life and never cease to try and get to know their culture.  In marrying them, you are marrying their culture. And culture comes out significantly more after the wedding than it seemed to exist before.  This means that you need to continue to be open. You are marrying their culture, but they are also marrying yours. Don’t hide the parts of you that you don’t want them to see because they will eventually come out. Some of those things may be cultural, but they might also just be a part of you. Never assume that they will learn to handle it without first being open.


4. Importance of Christ in us
Remember that as Christians, we have something pretty huge going for us. I was drawn to my husband because of his Christ-like character and integrity. If you can find a man or woman within the culture you serve who displays this type of behavior, that’s a good start. But don’t just see them alone, see him or her among friends. See him or her in the church.

Once you are certain that this person has the qualities of Christ-likeness that extend beyond international barriers, or that his/her view of Christ is not impacted by potentially massive theological differences that have spread throughout regions of the globe, your marriage can be God-honoring. Once you are certain that their attraction to you is based on your own representation of Christ and not the country from which your passport was issued, your marriage can be life-giving. Once you are certain that you can marry this person, and this culture, your marriage can be one of grace and truth.

Christian couples have the advantage of this grace and truth. We have the advantage of ending our arguments with lots of prayer and, I recommend, a study on Song of Solomon with some practical application that speaks to all cultures. Outside of Christ, there are no such advantages.

There are enormous considerations before entering into a marriage within the culture you serve, but entrusting it fully to Christ is the first step. Beyond that, prepare yourself. Do your part and allow God to do His. His will be significantly greater.


Hannah Edington is a writer and entrepreneur living in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Her long-term goals include writing about life in developing nations, working with widows and single moms to start businesses, and starting a family with her husband.

Greetings for the New Year: Hey, 2019, Wassup? Have You Eaten?

I remember his question well.

One morning I walked to our neighborhood post office in Taipei to take the language exam I liked to call “mailing a package.” I got in the line leading to a clerk with whom I was familiar, practiced and prepped for answering what he would ask me—things like “Where is your package going?” or “What’s inside the box?”

Instead, he glanced at me and said nonchalantly, “Have you eaten?”

What? Did I look gaunt and hungry? Was he prying into my daily schedule? Was he inviting me to share a snack? Was the post office a food-free zone and he’d seen some crumbs on my shirt?

While I remember the question, I don’t remember what I said in return. As he’d caught me off guard, my guess is that my reply was incoherent at best (F for the exam). It wasn’t until later that I found out that “Have you eaten?” is simply a local way to say Hello, particularly among the older generations. (“I’ve eaten” or “Not yet” suffice for responses, with no need for elaboration or fact checking.)

I wish I could say that was the only time I was confused by a greeting in Taiwan. Yeah, I wish.

Another one that tripped me up was the first few times I heard someone call out “Huan ying guang lin!” when I entered a store. The literal translation is akin to “A happy welcome to the arrival of your bright light!” I couldn’t make out the individual words, and to me it sounded as if people were making a valiant attempt at English and were saying “Good morning” to me no matter the time of day. Good for them, I thought, with a smile. At least they were trying.

And then there are the Chinese non-verbals. There’s the slight downward nod of the head, which is equally suitable at a restaurant to acknowledge the waiter who’s come to take your order or at the airport to welcome home a close family member who’s returned from a year abroad. And I’d be remiss if I left out the highly nuanced two-handed exchange of business cards.

Those people and their funny ways.

Of course, we English speakers in the West are “those people,” too. How hard it must be for English learners to navigate our greetings landscape. We have our “What’s up?” (up where?),  “What’s happening? (to whom?)” “Howdy! (short for “How do you do?”—but do what?), and “How’s it going? (how’s what going where?). And that’s not to mention “Whazzup?” “Wassup?” “Sup?” “S’appenin’?” “Look what the cat dragged in,” or “Speak of the devil!”

We have our non-verbals, as well: the hand shake, the high five, the fist bump, the hug, the side hug, and the hand shake into a half hug.

So here’s the place where I say—What about your host culture? Do they have interesting, intricate, or confusing-to-expat ways of saying hello? Did they catch you off guard the first time you encountered them? Or maybe you caught the locals off guard with your ways of saying Hi. As we greet the new year, I invite you to share with us your experiences with greetings in the comments below.

But . . . a too-late search of the archives of A Life Overseas shows me that Rachel Pieh Jones did something just like that a few years ago. (Oh, internet search box, why do you torment me so?) In fact, some more frantic searching shows me that back when I asked readers to offer up their odd-food experiences, I was again following in Rachel’s footsteps.

So you can still leave your comments here if you’d like. Or you can just head over to “Hello World!” to read that list of submissions and join in there. And don’t worry if you find out that you’re repeating what somebody else has already written. That happens sometimes.

[photo: “HI sparklers,” by Julie Lane, used under a Creative Commons license]


Investing in Traditions That Travel Well


Life abroad is a trade off isn’t it?  You give some things up.  You get some things back.

Some would call it a sacrifice which is perfectly accurate for so many.  I prefer the term investment for myself.  Both start with letting go of something but a sacrifice let’s go with no expectation or hope for return.

Truly and entirely selfless.  Those people are my heros.


I’m getting way too much out of this to think that I have genuinely sacrificed anything (especially in comparison to those people).  I’ve given things up but I’m an investor and frankly the returns are phenomenal.

To be clear — I’m not talking money here.

My investment has been comfort, connection and confidence.

I’ve given up things like a room full of power tools, a bathroom that doesn’t smell like raw sewage and literacy.  Those are trivial compared to the relational investments — sure would be nice to drop the kids at Grandma and Grandpa’s for the day.

I’m whining a bit but I’m not complaining.  The returns are not lost on me — I’m getting a bottomless adventure, a network of close friends from every continent (except Antarctica), kids who will never be held back by words like, “that’s too far to travel”, free language lessons with every taxi ride, fabulous family selfies, street food that would make your head spin and a chance to live out my calling every single day.

Seriously — not complaining — but I do miss my family.  Especially this time of year.  

The holiday season has me thinking about traditions.  Are they an investment or a sacrifice?

I feel like many expats buy into the idea that when you live abroad you have to check your traditions at the airport.  Just put them on pause until you get back “home”.  A total sacrifice on the altar of “that’s not an option here”.

I don’t buy it.

Traditions, for the expat (and the repat), are one of the great opportunities for something solid in a life which is otherwise incessantly marked by change.  Adaptation is required to be sure.  Adjustment is essential.  You can’t do this without some tweaks and twerks and modifications but rock solid traditions are worth the investment.

My family needs that.  I need that.

So I’m investing in a solid set of traditions (holiday and otherwise) that can remain constant here, there or anywhwere.

sidenote: Twerks are probably less essential to this process than tweaks and modifications.  Please consult a doctor before you include twerking in your family traditions.  Please also consult your family.  

When you squeeze the old, stable customs through the filter of expat realities you end up with a set of TRAVELING TRADITIONS that can go with you wherever you land.

I’m working on mine and here are some things that I’m considering:

Traveling Traditions should focus on people not places. 

We don’t have the luxury of going to Grandmother’s house every year let alone going over the same river or through the same woods.  Our stability will likely never be a place.  It is people (namely us).

Traveling Traditions should be focused on what “can always” instead of what “can here”.

Every true tradition must be held to the test . . . could we still do this if we lived in Dubai or Moscow or Bangkok or Atlantis?  If not then it always runs the risk of extinction with the next move . . . or the one after that.

Traveling Traditions should be focused on small and not large.

Ornaments travel.  Trees, not so much.  We are mobile people.  Our traditions should not be tethered to “things” that cannot move with us.

Traveling Traditions are more likely to need “translating” than simply “transplanting”.

Traditions probably won’t ever move seamlessly between spots on the planet but discovering how to convert the heart of the old into a new location or culture is worth some thought.  sidenote: something is always lost in translation which does not render it unworth translating.

Traveling Traditions should be firmly flexible. 

I am 100% dead set, unflinchingly convinced and resolved that our traditions will move forward according to our plan, absolutely . . . until they don’t.  Then I’ll be flexible.  We’re expats so we’ve already learned something about flexibility.  It keeps us from breaking.

Traveling Traditions should break the time-space continuum.

20 years from now I want my kids to finish the sentence, “When I was a child my parents always made us ______________”.   Then I want them to wrack their brains figuring out how they’re going to get their families to love it as much as they did.

We have a wonderfully challenging, beautifully transient life.  Things change regularly and rapidly even when we don’t go anywhere.  We make more friends than we ever dreamed we would, engage more cultures than we even knew existed and say more goodbyes than we ever signed on for.

Considering the fact that pretty much everything changes on a regular basis for the average expat  . . . something needs to stay the same.

Traditions are worth the investment but they are certainly not without return.

What have you learned about maintaining your traditions in a constantly changing life?  

What are your favorite Traveling Traditions?

Join in the ALOS Christmas Party

Hello A Life Overseas Friends,

A friend and I were talking a few hours ago about a part of the world we hold dear and ended up by saying, “It’s complicated.” The same could be said about Christmas.

Why did Jesus come? On one level it is so simple, and yet it is also complicated.

From now until heaven, having loved both sides of the world, I am with my people and never with my people.

Sometimes celebrating is easy and fun, other years, it is an act of discipline.

Often the season is filled with normal life (whatever that is!) and an added layer of ministry. Which is, a blessing and exhausting.

One of the best parts of Christmas overseas is learning how the teammates and local culture celebrate (or strip away some of the trappings of) Christmas. As I thought about this post and what I want/need from this space, I realized that in addition to the words we share, I wanted to know a little bit about you and what Christmas is like around the world.

So today, let’s have a party!

I would bring “Nuts and Bolts” — a snack mix my mom only makes at Christmas time. It has dry cereal, pretzel sticks, and nuts . . . covered in some magical yummy sauce and baked with love. Sometimes she would freeze me some and I could enjoy it when I visited.

Normally, I do not go above and beyond when it comes to food. I tend to aim for beneath and in front of me, but because it is Christmas and this is a virtual party, I’m also going to bring fig pudding. My father “always had fig pudding” because his mom made it; so when my mom married into the family and the traditions of cooking passed to her, she learned to make it. We have it every year.

For me, Nuts and Bolts and fig pudding are the flavors of Christmas. Cookies are a given, am I right?!

I would have us listen to Silent Night in Chinese.

What are you bringing to the party? We need more food, beverages, music, decorations, and activities. How is Christmas celebrated where you live? Or in one of the countries you have lived? Since most of the party will happen in the comments, I’ll see you there.

Merry Happy Blessed Christmas everyone!


P.S. Thanks last month for taking the survey about your first year on the field! Your input has already elevated the book that is being born and I am grateful for the ways you are helping to pay your experience forward.

Photo by Izabella Bedő from Pexels

A Blessing on Your Life Overseas

I’ve walked through darkness this year. In the lowest moments, a friend sent me blessings every day. I started reading John O’Donohue’s To Bless the Space Between Us. I am now sending blessings to someone I love dearly, to walk with her through her own dark days. My brother is getting married to a woman I adore, so I wrote them a marriage blessing.

I don’t believe in writer’s block (refuse the concept!) but I did struggle this month with brain fog. I have all kinds of excuses, but instead of listing them, I’ll tell you what I decided.

I decided we need blessing. We need to insist on it, to wrestle with God until he gives it to us, to turn to one another and offer it. We need to speak blessing, not rage. We need to receive blessing when it comes to us from unexpected places. We need to discover, anew, all it can mean to live as a blessing among the nations.

And so, I bless you, expatriate, and your life overseas.

I tried to write my own blessing but alas, brain fog. Or #blamethecancer? So I’m borrowing from other, wiser people.

From To Bless the Space Between Us, by John O’Donohue

When you travel, you find yourself

Alone in a different way,

More attentive now

To the self you bring along,

Your more subtle eye watching

You abroad; and how what meets you

Touches that part of the heart

That lies low at home.


Welcoming Blessing, by Jan Richardson

When you are lost
in your own life.

When the landscape
you have known
falls away.

When your familiar path
becomes foreign
and you find yourself
a stranger
in the story you had held
most dear.

Then let yourself
be lost.
Let yourself leave
for a place
whose contours
you do not already know,
whose cadences
you have not learned
by heart.
Let yourself land
on a threshold
that mirrors the mystery
of your own
bewildered soul.

It will come
as a surprise,
what arrives
to welcome you
through the door,
making a place for you
at the table
and calling you
by your name.

Let what comes,


From Mary Oliver, Evidence: Poems

“Sometimes I need
only to stand
wherever I am
to be blessed.”


The Journey, by Rumi

Come, seek,

for seeking is the foundation of fortune:
every success depends upon focusing the heart.
Unconcerned with the business of the world,
keep saying with all your soul, “Ku, ku,” like the dove…

Even though you’re not equipped,
keep searching…

Whoever you see engaged in search,
become her friend and cast your head in front of her,
for choosing to be a neighbor of seekers,
you become one yourself…

Day and night you are a traveler in a ship.
You are under the protection of a life-giving spirit…

Step aboard the ship and set sail,
like the soul going towards the soul’s Beloved.
Without hands or feet, travel toward Timelessness
just as spirits flee from non-existence.

…By God, don’t linger
in any spiritual benefit you have gained,
but yearn for more like one suffering from illness
whose thirst for water is never quenched…

Leave the seat of honor behind:
the Journey is your seat of honor.


May you be blessed this season, wherever you are and in whatever combination of lightness and darkness you find yourself.

the missions conversation