Smoke and Onions

by Emily Raan

Today it was smoke and onions. A few months ago it was reading hard, real, and desperately sad books based on true stories.

Don’t get me wrong, I hate the smell of our neighbors’ burning trash. And the five onions I just got done cutting up are certainly not a bed of roses.

But lately I’ve found those painful, eye-burning, tear-jerking, and often times ugly things to be such a blessing. They make me cry. Or, better yet, they allow me to cry. They bring freedom from the hardness of this life that I carry with me: all that emotion I bottle up in order to try to maintain some sanity in my day.

The dinner must get done. The kids each need my personal and undivided attention. Homeschool must go on. Someone, it seems, is always at our gate. And one of our kids is always falling down and getting their knees scraped up! (Literally seconds after I typed that last sentence my oldest scraped up the back of her leg jumping off one of our benches.) And life just seems to continue to go on like that, doesn’t it!?

And in the middle of all this chaos I am so often overwhelmed by the weight of sin – my sin, the sin of others, the sins of an oppressive and corrupt government, systems that fail those they are supposed to help and protect.

Sin and its effect on us. Its effect on me. Its effect on my family. Its effect on those in my community. Sin is real and it’s ugly.

We cry and pray with our friends as they struggle with incredibly difficult family situations. A young mom with cancer who won’t make it much longer, a child who seems to be wayward, kids taken from their parents because of false accusations, a father who is abusive to his first wife and has taken their children from her. We give medical care to those who come with their many wounds. We cry with and pray for our community when horrendous acts of violence seem to abound. We struggle to know how best help those who have somehow become abandoned because of, well…. sin!

Some days it feels unbearable and my old friend Anxiety once again makes his awful appearance. It is on those days that God, in all His sweet, tender compassion and with His still small voice, reminds me who He is. He says to my hurting heart (and hopefully yours, too)…

I am holy. (Isaiah 6:3, Psalm 22:3, 1 Peter 1:16, Revelation 4:8)

I am slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. (Psalm 103:8)

I am a good, good Father. (2 Thessalonians 2:16)

You do not need to be afraid, for I am with you. (Genesis 26:24, Joshua 1:9, Isaiah 41:10)

You see, God is for us and for those that we live and work among. He is for the brokenhearted. After all, we are broken, too.

Eventually, however, the smoke dissipates and the sweet smell of fresh air returns. Those onions get added to the hot oil and the now-savory aroma fills the room instead. And all of a sudden those smoke and onions become the beautiful reminder of who God is and all that He has done for us. A reminder of His abounding love and faithfulness. A reminder that we are not in this alone and that He has gone before us. A reminder that He can make even the ugliest and smelliest of things into something beautiful. A reminder of hope — and hope does not disappoint.


Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. Romans 5:1-5


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.

“Hello Again” — The Unanticipated Bright Side of Perpetual Goodbyes

We are expats.  We say goodbye.  A lot.

I could end this post right there and know that I have struck a chord.  But I won’t.

If you’re living far from home (or you instinctively use finger quotes when you even say the word “home”) you’ve noticed it.  You started this whole thing with a massive (if not universal) round of “goodbyes.”  Before you were culture shocked.  Before you were homesick.  Before you ever felt the sting of being a bumbling foreigner, “Goodbye” was the hurdle you had to jump.

Who knew that there was a skill set for saying goodbye?

But there is.  And you got better.  Or maybe you didn’t.

Regardless you realized, somewhere along the line, that the first round of goodbyes was exactly that . . . the first . . . and they haven’t stopped since.

Saying goodbye is hard —  even when you’re good at it.  So signing on (or being signed on) to a life that includes more farewells than you ever could have imagined is, so very often, the darkest, bitterest, most horrible part of the life cross-cultural.

We have spent the past two weeks rediscovering the brightest, sweetest most wonderful part.

“Hello again.”


I am writing this post under the influence of jet lag having spent some UBER-quality with old friends in Prague.  They were the other half of the first double date that my wife and I ever went on.  I was their son’s first baby sitter and we lived next door in married student housing.  He taught me survival Czech for college credit but all I remembered was “put your hands up and give me some money.”

This trip was my first chance to use that in context.

It was rich to catch up with great friends but it was even richer to take inventory of just how blessed we are with so many great friendships.

I call them “LIFERS” (and in doing so recognize the need to distinguish them from the prison sort).

They are people that we have done life with and connected with on some deep, deep, almost inexplicable level and forged a relationship that will absolutely, unquestionably be life long.  They are friends that will always be friends regardless of petty little things like time or geography.  Some are family members and we’ve never not known them, some we have grown up with and others we’ve actually spent a remarkably small amount of time with.  They are all different but the single uniting feature is that, at some point, it has been hard . . . really hard . . . to say goodbye.

I don’t think you can cram Lifers into a neatly packaged box of easily definable (or even describable characteristics) but here are a few things that I’ve noticed:

Lifers pick up where they left off

There is some kind of wormhole that Lifers step through when they say “hello again”.  It’s like the elapsed time since they last said goodbye never happened . . . only it did because you’ve still got those memories and you’ve all grown older but it feels like all of that took place in moments and not years.   Catching up on what you’ve missed and reminiscing about your past times together are like red and blue play-dough that get all smashed together in a bluey-red, swirly ball.

It’s weird.  But wonderful.

The Lifer connection is not strained by poor communication

There is a security between Lifers that is nether contingent nor fragile.  “Hello again’s” are not made awkward by guilt.  There is no sense of “I thought we were good friends but you never . . .”  There is only, “wow, it’s good to be back together.”  You’d think we’d be more ashamed.  More apologetic.  But there is no need.

It’s unnatural.  But refreshing.

Lifers are not threatened by other Lifers

Spending time with some of our favorite friends has got me thinking about just how many favorite friends we have.  In fact we loved telling stories of our other favorites to the favorites we were spending time with and we also loved hearing stories of their other favorites.  There is real joy and zero jealousy in knowing that our Lifers have other Lifers.

Granted, it might be weird to be in a room with all of our favorites at the same time but the likeliness of that ever happening is slim.

It’s hard to explain.  But rock solid. 

fun jm

Lifers laugh at things that are not funny to anyone else in the world

I mean gut laughing.  The kind that hurts your ears.  Over simple, ridiculous things.  Shared moments that you think are hysterical but the entire population of the universe (with the sole exception of your Lifers) would not.

At all.

They would just squint . . . or maybe chuckle because they were embarrassed for you.

You and your Lifers though — you pee in your pants a little bit every time you talk about it.

For example: When I babysat our friend’s son he cried the whole time.

See?  You’re squinting.  But you should see us laugh (and pee) every single time we talk about it.

It makes no sense.  But man it’s funny.

Lifers repeat themselves

When Lifers say “hello again” we have a limited amount of time and the clock starts ticking from the first hug.  We also have a limited number of stories to remember because our times together are always short and sweet.  So we choose our favorites and we relive them . . .  the exact same stories we relived the last time we saw each other and the same stories that will relive again . . . every single time.

I can guarantee that should we all live to be old and senile, that boy’s great grandchildren will know that he cried the whole entire time that I babysat him.

It’s redundant.  But it never gets old.

Lifers are worth investment

If your Lifers are like ours they are everywhere — literally spread out across the globe.  Unless your bank account is considerably more impressive than ours and you have considerably more free time on your hands than we do, opportunities for reconnection are rare.

So when they come . . . pounce on them.

This time around our Lifers were the ones who opened the door for this to even be possible.  We are so thankful they did.

Every Hello Again costs time and it costs money but the return on that investment is impossible to put a tag on.

It’s expensive.  But so very worth it. 

As a final sidenote I should add that I thought it would be a nice tribute to put pictures of all of our Lifers in this post.  Two things stopped me.

 •   I was afraid I would miss one and they would be like, “oh I see how it is Jerkface” (even though they wouldn’t)

•   We’ve got a lot of Lifers.  More than I have ever realized.

It’s not a bad problem to have.

Maybe you (like me) have never taken time to count your Lifers.  Give it a shot.  I would bet you’ll be surprised.

Send them this post and say something like, “Yep.  This is you.”  

Then start dreaming about your next Hello . . . Again.

originally posted on

Is Missionary Work Colonialism?

You might be a missionary – someone called and sent to serve God cross-culturally – but chances are, you don’t like being called a missionary. That’s because, in popular Western culture, missionaries are seen as pith helmet-wearing colonialists – forcing their culture and religion on people who don’t want it.

These concerns go back to the early church, where colonialism was condemned in the New Testament. In Galatians, Paul gets CRAZY mad at some Jewish Christians for trying to force their Jewish culture of circumcision on a group of new believers from non-Jewish backgrounds. Since then, Christian missionaries have often been guilty of bringing their cultural baggage with them.

European missionaries swept in with the settlers of England, Spain and Portugal as they conquered nations across the globe. These people really did wear pith helmets, and encouraged local people to adopt Western clothing, practices and values, while stealing their land and resources. They systematically forced indigenous people to abandon their own cultures and languages. There’s a LOT of baggage. And I can understand why folks wouldn’t want to be associated with the missionary label.

On the other hand, it’s only fair to recognize the immense good that has been done by missionaries worldwide. On a spiritual level, millions of lives have been transformed by the life and teachings of Jesus – thanks to the work of missionaries. And there is also strong evidence to suggest that ideas spread by missionaries have had a positive influence on societies, beyond the religious sphere.

Missionaries have been responsible for providing crucial services such as health care and the introduction of European medicine, saving millions of lives. They were also on the forefront of introducing European political practices and ideals such as religious liberty, mass education, newspapers, voluntary organizations, and liberal democracy.

There’s no doubt, the missionary enterprise has been a mixed bag. So, how do we move forward? Here are three suggestions.


1. Take a posture of humility
As an African believer once complained, “You brought us the bread of life, but it came wrapped in plastic that you shoved down our throats!”It’s easy to see in hindsight how missionaries came in with BOTH helpful and unhelpful ideas and practices. The beautiful and life-transforming teachings of Jesus were too often presented in culturally irrelevant or harmful ways.

For example, missionaries outlawed the use of incense in the Khmer church, though incense was traditionally a central part of worship in Cambodia. This has proven to be a big obstacle for people following Jesus in this country.

Mistakes have been made, and the appropriate response is lament and repentance – a posture of humility. As I have written here, a good place to start is by educating ourselves on the local political context – and our own nation’s complicity in that history.

Additionally, rather than taking the posture of an expert, we take the posture of one who seeks to explore. Discover together with local people how the teachings of Jesus might be applied in this context. Ask questions, listen to advice and invite ideas. A helpful hint: Christianity should look and feel familiar to local believers AND their neighbours.


2. Recognize that no culture is static
Across Asia, even developing countries like Bangladesh and Nepal have fast-growing access to the internet (more than half the population). And in more developed nations like South Korea and Malaysia, the vast majority of people are actively engaged online. The influence of popular culture through YouTube, TV, movies and music is much more obvious now than 20 years ago when I first came to Asia. This is the New Colonialism.

Non-Western cultures are being BOMBARDED from every direction by foreign cultures and ideas. Values, clothing, culture and even language are all shifting rapidly. You should see the kids in my little Cambodian neighbourhood singing ‘Despacito’, and watching the YouTube video on their parents’ cell phones. So, the question is no longer how can we avoid outside influence on local cultures. That is happening anyway, with or without us.

Culture is not static. It is dynamic and ever-changing. The space left by our disengagement will almost certainly be filled with YouTube, K-Pop and Justin Bieber. The New Colonialism will not stop. It will march forward regardless of whether Christians engage cross-culturally or not.


3. Engage respectfully as outsiders
In this context of globalisation, the answer is not to withdraw from the world out of fear or guilt. The answer is humble service, thoughtful engagement and prayerful community-building. And ironically these are the very things that missionaries have offered when they are at their best. Yes, missionaries have too often been guilty of advancing colonialism. But by God’s grace, it doesn’t have to be that way.

John Perkins suggests that three types of people are needed to see real transformation in a community. Firstly, and most importantly, are the “Remainers.” These are local people that have chosen to stay and be part of the solution to the problems surrounding them. They will be central to God’s work. These are the insiders.

Then, the “Returners” who were born and raised in the community and left for a better life, to study or to work. They are no longer trapped by the poverty of their neighbourhood, yet they choose to return. Moses was a returner. As were Nehemiah, Naomi and Ezra.

Finally, “Relocators” are those people who were not born in the neighbourhood but move in, sometimes cross-culturally, to tie their wellbeing to that of their neighbours. Another term for these outsiders is “missionary.” Ruth, Daniel, Joseph, Esther and the Apostle Paul were all outsiders, relocators, used by God in another cultural context.

To be an outsider, a relocator, or a missionary, is a valid role. It is a Biblical role. And it is a role that God has used since ancient times. Our tendency to mess it up, doesn’t negate that. In fact, when we relocate cross-culturally we are following in the footsteps of Jesus, who left the most exclusive gated community in the universe and came to live amongst us – embracing the culture of the time and walking alongside us with love.

Today, we still need folks who are willing to support efforts to share the love of Jesus with people unconditionally, especially those cast aside by the machinery of the New Colonialism. We still need folks to support efforts to learn, document and preserve the God-given languages of ethnic minorities that are dying out because of globalization.

We still need folks to walk in the ways of the Prince of Peace, to support efforts to fight injustice and promote non-violence, bringing a Jesus-shaped vision of care for the underdog. We still need folks to support efforts to create jobs that will offer dignity to the poor, instead of the exploitative jobs offered by global corporations like Apple. We need outsiders and relocators who will swallow their pride and offer themselves as part of the solution, coming alongside local people.

I honestly don’t care what you call yourselves: social entrepreneurs, humanitarians, aid workers, activists, abolitionists, enthusiasts or weirdos. Heck, call yourself a missionary for all I care. But don’t disengage. The needs are simply too great.

Originally published here.


Craig Greenfield is the founder and director of Alongsiders International and the author of the recently published Subversive Jesus. During more than 15 years living and ministering in slums and inner cities in Cambodia and Canada, Craig has established a number of initiatives to care for vulnerable kids and orphans, as well as formed Christian communities for those marginalized by society. His postgraduate research in International Development led to the publication of his first book, The Urban Halo: a story of hope for orphans of the poor which is currently available for free on Craig’s website. He loves God, the poor, and fish and chips. He’s on Twitter and Facebook too.

A Public Service Announcement for Parents and their TCKs

Years ago my dad was reading A Lesson Before Dying and my sister warned him, “Whatever you do, do not finish reading it on a plane because you will cry. I am just warning you. You want to finish that book in private.” 

If only all books came with warnings. So, to help you out, my public service announcement is: Do not finish A Wrinkle in Time on public transportation. I wish I had known this because I finished A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle riding on the light rail after returning home from the MC2 conference (which I recommend if you are in Minnesota in February!).

If you already love A Wrinke in Time, I bet like me you read it as a kid. I was first exposed to AWIT when my mom read it to my sisters and me after swim lessons one summer. I remember liking it. Last month I reread the classic with the Velvet Ashes Book Club and now want to know why it isn’t required reading for parents and their TCKs.

Here is a brief summary from Amazon:

“It was a dark and stormy night; Meg Murry, her small brother Charles Wallace, and her mother had come down to the kitchen for a midnight snack when they were upset by the arrival of a most disturbing stranger.
“’Wild nights are my glory,’ the unearthly stranger told them. ‘I just got caught in a downdraft and blown off course. Let me sit down for a moment, and then I’ll be on my way. Speaking of ways, by the way, there is such a thing as a tesseract.’
“A tesseract (in case the reader doesn’t know) is a wrinkle in time. To tell more would rob the reader of the enjoyment of Miss L’Engle’s unusual book. A Wrinkle in Time, winner of the Newbery Medal in 1963, is the story of the adventures in space and time of Meg, Charles Wallace, and Calvin O’Keefe (athlete, student, and one of the most popular boys in high school). They are in search of Meg’s father, a scientist who disappeared while engaged in secret work for the government on the tesseract problem.
“A Wrinkle in Time is the winner of the 1963 Newbery Medal.”

I had forgotten how many scriptural references and Christian themes L’Engle used, but what I had never noticed was how Meg and her father give voice to parent/TCK relationship. The final forty pages of the story give voice to some of the dynamics that go on between a parent and child that I have seen on the field.  

1. Though both working for the government, it was Mr. Murry who traveled first and then got lost on some planet. (Like TCKs, Meg and her brother CW were thrust into their “adventure” because of their parents.)

2. The parent/child relationship experiences a twist when the kids are called on the help their dad. (Anyone with children who have better language and end up translating for you?)

3. When they find their dad, Charles Wallace has been captured by IT and Mr. Murry needs to escape with Meg and her friend Calvin. Mr. Murry is not very skilled at tessering and his lack of expertise ends up causing the three to land in an unexpected planet. “He shouldn’t have taken me, then,” Meg said, “until he learned to do it better.” Oh man is Meg ticked with her dad, thinking he has abandoned Charles Wallace.

4. Not only is Meg angry, she’s physically hurt and requires medical attention on this unknown planet. At first Mr. Murry does not want to trust the beasts on the new planet to help Meg, but he has no choice. How many parents on the field fear more for their child having to face an unknown medical situation than for themselves?

5. Throughout the medical treatment and healing, Meg kept asking (more often accusing) her dad if he really cared about Charles Wallace. She could not see the bigger picture. 

6. Eventually it is determined that Meg, instead of her dad or Calvin, has to be the one to go back from Charles Wallace. “All right, I’ll go!” Meg sobbed. “I know you want me to go!” “We want nothing from you that you do without grace,” Mrs. Whatsit said, “or that you do without understanding.” (It is hard to watch our kids experience their own journey and not be able to stop bad or hard things from hurting them.)

7. As Meg prepares to return for her brother, she apologizes to her dad and says, “I wanted you to do it all for me. I wanted everything to be all easy and simple . . . So I was scared, and I didn’t want to have to do anything myself—“ “But I wanted to do it for you,” Mr. Murry said. “That’s what every parent wants.”

8. During this conversation, Mrs. Who quotes this scripture to Meg and her dad. “The foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men. For ye see your calling, brethren, how that not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called, but God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things that are mighty.” Reminding us that God has called our children in his mysterious way as well.

In the end, Meg is able to rescue Charles Wallace and they were all able to return home to Mrs. Murry and their twin brothers with lessons about love, joy, and the power for a family of a shared journey. 

If you have a copy of A Wrinkle in Time on your shelf, pull it out and read the final four chapters. You won’t be disappointed, but be warned, have a tissue near you.

Upside Down Dependency

Humanitarians often talk about the issue of dependency and how to avoid creating it. The whole: teach a person to fish scenario.

What if the conversation is backward?

What if the person at risk of developing the dependency is the humanitarian?

Humanitarians need the local person to be needy. We need a job, we need to feel useful, we need to feel value, we need to produce. We need gripping photos for fundraising attempts. On a more heart level, we need to feel powerful, in charge, and heroic.

The needier the local person and the longer they remain in that state, the more secure we are in our position.

The effective aid worker must be willing and able to clearly evaluate their impact and step away when they are no longer necessary. Isn’t that the whole point? If not, it should be.

Becoming no longer necessary needs to be one of our primary goals. If it isn’t, the program or project being implemented needs to be reevaluated and adjusted accordingly.

A true effort to avoid creating dependency is to make sure that effort goes both ways.

A successful aid program will mean those who implement it will one day become superfluous. This requires great humility and imagination, especially for the Westerner.

Me, no longer needed?! Me, step aside for a local to take over?!


If that isn’t the goal, something is wrong. The aid worker has become dependent.

Teach the community to fish and what does the teacher do once the students have learned? Many either keep on staying or simply never, truly, teach the community to fish without the foreigner providing worms, instructions, the market in which to sell the fish, or motivation.

It is still the outsider, bringing in outside information that is not indigenous. It is not the outsider looking at what the local community is already doing and coming alongside to improve and expand it.


In an incredible On Being podcast interview with Anand Giridharadas, he says, “It’s language like the “win-win,” which sounds great, but in some deep way is actually about rich people saying, the only acceptable forms of social change are the forms of social change that also kick something back upstairs — language like “doing well by doing good,” which, again, is like, “The only conditions under which I’m willing to do good is under which I would also do well.”

Maybe that doing well is economic, maybe it is emotional. Still, the ego of the humanitarian is dependent on the need of the local.


Sometimes I wonder if the people inside the projects established by Western aid agencies and faith-based organizations talk about how dependent that machinery is on them? I wonder if they say something like, “Take a fish from a Westerner and he’ll stick around for a day. Let him teach you to fish and he’ll stick around for a lifetime. (while eating a lot more fish than you will ever catch).”

The aid machine needs humanitarian crises. It needs war and refugees and massive camps and epidemics. The more dire the situation, the more money pours in and the longer people have job security. The more dangerous the situation, the higher the hazard pay.

That is on a large scale. But what about in your own work?

Is your job security dependent on perpetuating a certain level of need?

Is your identity dependent on feeling useful?

Is your sense of value dependent on maintaining a status quo of you being provider, instructor, leader, instigator?

Is your purpose dependent on another’s weakness?

Is your funding structure dependent on persistent need in the local community?

Or have you worked to develop a true, authentic sense of community and partnership? Have you come in as a humble servant, willingly placing yourself beneath local authority structures and adjusting to local systems?

Who is at risk of dependency in your work?

Resources to help guide your evaluation:

When Helping Hurts

Dead Aid: Why Aid is Not Working and How There is a Better Way for Africa

Toxic Charity

Subversive Jesus and all things things Craig Greenfield writes

13 Things I Want American Christians to Know about Stuff You Give Poor Kids (by yours truly)

*contains affiliate links

Does Any of It Belong to Us?

Antigua Guatemala

“The moment that you think something you do belongs to you, you lose the way.” – Rigoberta Menchu

It was when I was in my senior Latin American Culture class, as I read ‘I Rigoberta’, that I discovered this quote. Since my copy of the book was in Spanish, I looked for the exact same spot in an English translation so I could share it, in the same essence, with others.

It was as if I had found the holy grail—a way to navigate my own journey.

Since that senior level class, 23 years have passed. I have had roughly seven jobs in teaching and Christian ministry. I have spent four and a half years living in and studying another culture. I have moved 12 times and spent time all in-between in transition. I said goodbye to my Mama. I said hello to hundreds of new friends.

Like a weathered, leather-bound classic, this quote has stayed with me. I printed and laminated it for my Spanish students because I wanted them to remember. I shared it on my own blog a few years ago because the world needs to know. And I write about it now, to you, because its something that will preserve you if you lean into it.

To lean into these words is to guard our hearts from the seductive ways of possession. It provides accountability when we all-too-easily fall into the trap that things we do (or make or have) belong to us. It is a safeguard to a wilderness of our own making, where we wander, lost and out of touch with God and others.

Am I overstating things here?

I don’t think so. What happens when we lose our job? A child is sick or rebels? The church or ministry is not growing? The bitter fruit of our faulty understanding shows we have lost the way. We get angry. We become depressed. We get lost—numbing our minds and bodies and hearts to the pain.

It’s the oldest trap of all. Laced through all of our stories set in this fallen world. Didn’t Eve somehow believe that the tree, the choice, belonged to her? In an instant she lost the way. This is the inheritance of humanity and something we all must come to see.

But what if we learn to ‘keep the way’?

It was almost exactly four years ago when I had an extreme episode of hyper-mania (a symptom of bipolar disorder). I lay in that communist-style hospital, my basic dignity, ministry and home stripped away. In unspeakably hard ways, I was learning that none of it truly belonged to me. And too, that all of it, belongs to God.

So, as I walked the next days, I began to sense it was the Lord’s desire that I share my journey with bipolar disorder, openly, for all the world to read. I was terrified. I already felt so vulnerable. How could I do this?

Because not even this very personal journey truly belongs to me. If I open myself up to share my story, I create a space for the Spirit to work through my life. If I let go of the label being stuck on me, or my weakness being how people define me, then I can walk through a door called Redemption. I can see how courage inspires courage. I can find others who want this posture to define their story too. Together, we become something all together new, all together God’s.

I love more than this quote. I love, admire and respect Rigoberta Menchu’s life and story.

After her family had been killed in horrific ways, in exile, she narrated ‘I Rigoberta’ to Elizabeth Burgos. She could easily have held the anger and pain to herself, but she didn’t. She shared her story because it wasn’t ultimately hers alone. It belonged to the people of Guatemala, and to all of humanity.

But in the end, it is how this quote speaks to One Life extraordinarily. When the Son of God laid down all of His heavenly grandeur—the worship, the riches, the glory, the perfect relationship with the Father—He said it didn’t belong to Him. But it did! He had every right to claim it all. But he didn’t. He never, for one moment, lost the way. And in so doing, He made a way for us all.

I thought I’d be doing amazing work. I’m not.

I moved overseas thinking I would be off doing amazing things. God had a purpose for me in Indonesia, I was sure of it. I would use my talents and abilities to help children or work with women. I would make a difference.

Maybe you thought these things, too.

It didn’t turn out that way. I am, according to the visa in my passport, an accompanying spouse. My husband has the big job, his daily life is the reason we are here. I am not even allowed to volunteer. I am secondary. My visions of missionary work interrupted by the reality of what it really meant for our family to live overseas.

Besides my husband, I am surrounded by friends who do equally spectacular work. They translate scripture. They teach. They help and heal the sick. They mentor street children. They spend weeks in difficult living conditions to help victims of natural disasters. They fly airplanes. They fly helicopters. They quite literally save lives.

These days I am not off doing amazing things. Even if my visa allowed it, life here takes so much time I simply don’t have room to do all the extraordinary stuff too. I clean. I cook. I parent. I home school. If it wasn’t for the place I live in, my daily life would be considered quite unremarkable.

But you know what? I’ve come to like it this way.

I find that I love Jesus more, I need Jesus more, here in the unremarkable than I ever did in the extraordinary. I pray more, “God, how do I love my family and love my neighbors well?” Because while waking early to make breakfast for my family or buying extra vegetables because I know the mama selling them is in need isn’t very spectacular, it is precious in God’s sight.

This is a simple life. The daily chore of laying aside my preferences to mop dusty floor is as far from missionary work as I ever thought possible.

There is peace and rest here in the simple way. I can stand and cheer on my husband and those friends doing amazing work. There is no comparison, no guilt, because while I pray and cheer for them from my kitchen I hear Jesus whisper, “I am pleased with you. I see you. I placed you exactly where you are.”

Success or Faithfulness?

It has not been an easy week here in Kurdistan.

From difficulty with websites to difficulty with people, there are times when I would like life to be easier.

I’m sitting now at one of the two coffee shops in Rania, listening to Adele on repeat. Adele is easy on the ears, and I find myself gradually relaxing. Just before I left the university today, I spoke with two colleagues. “I don’t know how you do it” I said. “You face barriers in every single thing you do, and yet you don’t give up. You continue to face life with hope, joy, and laughter.”

This is the honest truth. Most of our Kurdish friends have life circumstances that are far more difficult than ours. Yet I don’t hear them complaining. They face every day with far more joy and hope than I have. This is remarkable.

Much of what my husband and I face here is learning to redefine success. Success at our jobs in the United States was easy to define. We had deliverables and performance reviews. We had deadlines and targets. Our lives were both dictated by grants and all that goes into them: problem statements, proposed plan, graphs, evidence, tables, objectives, outcomes, conclusions, and attachments. All of it wove together to create a fairly concrete system of success. It was easy to know if we were doing our jobs well.

We have entered into a system where none of that exists; where we search and search and search to find grants that our university is eligible to apply for. Once we find those proverbial needles in haystacks, we search and search to see if they fit with our universities capability. The amounts of money are tiny. I was used to dealing in hundreds of thousands to a couple million dollars while my husband was used to dealing in millions. Now, we get excited when we see a grant for five thousand dollars. The smaller the grant, the more the funder seems to want in terms of paper work. So we end up spending as much time on writing a grant for five thousand dollars as we used to for a million.

There are times when we are convinced it is a losing battle. We set up our ‘to do’ lists, only to be outdone by lack of electricity, no internet and hard to describe infrastructure challenges.

Lately I’ve come to not try to redefine it. I’ve come to realize that success is an arbitrary losing battle. But faithfulness – that feels possible.

Success is defined by performance. Faithfulness is defined by constancy.

Success is defined by accomplishment. Faithfulness by devotion.

Success is defined by achievement. Faithfulness by commitment.

Success is defined by attaining a goal. Faithfulness by being true to a promise.

As long as we posed the question “How do we redefine success?” we were still coming out as losing. We felt like failures. But changing it to “Are we being faithful?” This felt and continues to feel helpful.

Maybe, just maybe, it’s not just us. Maybe there are others out there that are defining their lives by success when that leaves way too many people out of the equation.

Maybe changing the paradigm to faithfulness would change society in indescribable ways. The person who is considered “mentally challenged”, the refugee with no job, the elderly who struggles to move in the morning, the one who is chronically ill, the child, the newborn…. how do they fit into our paradigms of success? How can our world be changed to include faithfulness or mere existence as markers of value?

So what does faithfulness mean to me at this moment? It means that I’ll not complain about lack of resources. That I will face the daily 8 hours of no electricity without complaining. That I will learn to love across cultural differences. That I will not rage about no internet.

It means that I will be kind and honor others, that I will communicate in spirit and in truth, that I will love hard and pray harder, that I will love God and love others, that I will read, speak, and write words that honor God, that echo truth.  

“Just be faithful.”

Just be faithful – it’s something I’ve written about before, and so I’ll close with some words I wrote some time ago:

The words continue “Marilyn, I know you’re tired. Just be faithful. With my strength be faithful.” I’m still tired but I walk with One who knows tired, with One who knows pain, with One who knows what it is to live out faithful in this beautiful, broken world.


Author’s Note: This piece was first published on Communicating Across Boundaries.

Take Heart, Weary Servant

The battle is real – compassion fatigue, backstabbing, lack of breakthroughs. And that’s just on Twitter. Ministry life can be even more brutal.

Especially if you’re engaged in ministry amongst people who are hurting – which is almost anyone in ministry, right? They hurt. We get hurt helping them. We hurt ourselves – and others. And by the time you’re a few years in, it’s like Michael Stipe sings, Everybody hurts!”

And sooner or later, you begin to ask if it’s all worth it.

If that’s you today, take heart weary servant. We’ve all been there and I’d like to offer you some sustenance for the next stretch of road.

I’m no armchair counsellor. I’ve lived in slums for more than a decade, in the midst of devastating poverty. I’ve been through the collapse of ministries I pioneered. I’ve been ripped off, cheated, maligned and mistreated. And that’s just by the Christians.

I have a few scars.

So, let me sketch a picture for you, a true story of a man.

He’s a weary servant, ready to give up. Oh he’s had his victories – even major triumphs in ministry. But the latest clash has sent him scurrying away to lick his wounds. He wonders how one man can face so much conflict and opposition, all on his own. So he takes a long aimless walk, and wanders a few miles out of town, to a place where nobody knows him. And eventually, when the burden of lifting one foot after another gets too much, he lies down under a bush, ready to give it all up.

The man’s name is Elijah (1 Kings 19).

And God extends three invitations to Elijah. The same three invitations He extends to us.


Invitation #1: Open your eyes
So Elijah is lying there feeling like absolute crap. Feeling like death warmed up. Wishing he could just end it all somehow. And eventually he falls asleep.

Then he lay down under the bush and fell asleep. All at once an angel touched him and said, “Get up and eat.”  He looked around, and there by his head was some bread baked over hot coals, and a jar of water. He ate and drank and then lay down again.

The angel of the Lord came back a second time and touched him and said, “Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.” So he got up and ate and drank. (1 Kings  19:5-8)

Notice how little effort Elijah is putting into pursuing God at this point. He’s not keeping up his quiet time. He’s not bothering to fellowship with other believers. He’s not reading his Bible. Elijah is spent. Done. Ready to throw in the towel.

And still God pursues him.

And still God pursues you.

It’s nothing spectacular, this provision from God. The blessing is not another mountain-top experience or ministry highlight to write home about. It’s the simple provision of some bread and water.


Do you see that? God provides for his basic needs not once, but twice. And notice how tender is His care. The angel touches Elijah, awakens him from his slumber of self-pity, and asks him to receive what God is giving. It’s like a gentle nudge from God to notice what he has right in front of his eyes.

“Do you have eyes to see, Elijah?”

This is an invitation for all of us, in these times of darkness and conflict. An invitation to notice what’s right in front of us. To open our eyes. And be grateful, first for the simple things. Shelter. Food. Family. God’s provision.


Invitation #2: Open your ears
But Elijah isn’t done with his dark night of the soul yet. He gets up from under that tree and embarks on a 40-day journey of darkness (1 Kings 19:8). If you’ve read the Bible enough, you’ll know that 40 of ANYTHING is usually a baaaaaad omen. 40 years in the wilderness. 40 days in the desert. These stretches of 40 are usually dry, dark and depressing.

By the end of this trek, Elijah finds himself in a cave on the side of a mountain. It’s a reminder that oftentimes our dark times stick around – way beyond the point where we’d like to be done with them.

At this point, I’d say Elijah is not just discouraged. He’s probably depressed.

And still God pursues him.

And still God pursues you.

And I love how wonderfully consistent God is in his treatment of Elijah. God still offers Himself to Elijah in tender, gentle ways. And to bring this point home, God does a bit of a demonstration.

There’s a mighty wind – a storm that blows a chill right through the mountain. But God isn’t in the wind (v 11).

Then the earth trembles and shakes with a violent earthquake. But God isn’t in the earthquake.

Finally, a raging fire burns out of control – destroying all the vegetation around the cave with thick blue and orange flames. But God isn’t in the fire (v 12).

Those of us who have been through the dark night of the soul know well the futility of trying to find God in the noisy celebrations that used to give us an emotional high. The soaring worship. The eloquent preachers. The Christian conferences. The hype. The noise. The frenzy. Those things that used to do it for us, leave us cold and empty. We’ve seen too much.

But then God comes to Elijah with a gentle whisper (v 12).

A gentle whisper.

Let that sink in.

And ask yourself. Do you have ears to hear that gentle whisper?

Many of us who have spent a long time in places of pain, have found God in the gentle whisper. The old ways no longer help. In fact they hinder. And so we find Him in new, quieter ways. Contemplative prayer. Listening. Silence. Solitude. Stillness.

The gentle whisper.


Invitation #3: Open your arms

What God says to Elijah at this point is not what you might expect. He doesn’t say “You’re free to go. Good work Elijah, now go and retire. Or get a job in a quiet library.”In fact, God sends him back into the fray. “Go back the way you came” (v 15).

But God sends Elijah back with an important reminder. You see all along Elijah has been complaining that he ALONE is faithful to God. “I am the only one left,” he laments (v 10).

Now God sends him back to complete the task but reminds Elijah that there are still 7000 faithful servants in Israel – contrary to what Elijah has been saying. There are others out there who are also faithful (v 18).

You’re not alone. You may not see them in this desert place. You may not see them in this cave. You may not be aware of them in this dark night of the soul. But you are not alone.

Take heart weary servant.

Just as God pursued and cared for Elijah with the tenderness of a nurse, he pursues you.

Just as God provided the basic necessities of life for Elijah, inviting him to open his eyes and notice. So, he invites you to open your eyes and see what you have right in front of you.

Just as God speaks in ever more gentle and quiet ways to Elijah, so He invites you into solitude, silence and stillness.

And just as God provides sojourners to walk the path with Elijah, so I pray that you will find those like-minded souls.

Take heart weary servant. Your labour is not in vain.

photo credit

originally published here


Craig Greenfield is the founder and director of Alongsiders International and the author of the recently published Subversive Jesus. During more than 15 years living and ministering in slums and inner cities in Cambodia and Canada, Craig has established a number of initiatives to care for vulnerable kids and orphans, as well as formed Christian communities for those marginalized by society. His postgraduate research in International Development led to the publication of his first book, The Urban Halo: a story of hope for orphans of the poor which is currently available for free on Craig’s website. He loves God, the poor, and fish and chips. He’s on Twitter and Facebook too.

When the Thief Steals

“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” ~ Jesus

Thieves steal. Sometimes the impact is NOW; you know it immediately and you feel it deeply. Other times, it takes some time; the bomb’s on a delay. And then it blows and you begin to realize all that was taken. All the time lost, the lives shattered, the relationships fractured. It feels like the wind gets knocked right out of you and you can’t even tell if the crater in your soul feels like anger or sadness or some other concoction of pain. But it’s definitely pain.

Sometimes the thief steals stuff, but often it’s more. Much more.

Maybe the thief looked like a robber on the back of a moto, or a home invader. Maybe the thief was a corrupt government, stealing freedom, opportunities, and futures. Maybe the thief was a cruel family member, or someone from your church or mission, a “friend.”

Whoever they were, they stole, they destroyed, and they killed. Or at least they tried.


Where was God?
Where was God when innocence was taken, when the thief came? It’s a valid question that burns hot, and it must be asked. Jesus asked it. Yes, I know God brings life and he brings it abundantly. But sometimes I wonder why he can’t just kill the thief and be done with it!

Theft involves loss, so grieving is certainly important here. But there’s so much more than sadness or grief. Theft is also an attack, with fear and insecurity its bloody aftermath. It is a terrible unsettling.

It’s even more unsettling and isolating if others don’t recognize the theft. Perhaps the thief looked perfect. Thieves often look not like thieves.

Have we not yet learned that looks can be deceiving? Have we not yet learned that the most malicious thieves are also skilled at masquerading as angels of light? They’ve learned from the best.

So where was God? Where is God?


The Justice of God
There are no easy answers. I know that. There are no golden tickets or magic bullets here: but there is the justice of God.

“Now, Lord, let your anger arise against the anger of my enemies. Awaken your fury and stand up for me! Decree that justice be done against my foes. Once and for all, end the evil tactics of the wicked!” Psalm 7: 6, 9

In the end, can we throw ourselves not only on the mercy of God, but also on the justice of God? Can we trust him with this? I know the right answer, but I still have to wrestle with the right question. Do you? I know the Bible verses, but I still find myself wrestling with God in the crushing darkness of night. It is an ancient tradition, this grappling with God. Maybe I’ll leave this match with a limp, but maybe I’ll also leave with a new name.

“I look up to the mountains—does my help come from there? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth!”  Psalm 121:1

The Shepherd knows what it’s like to lose, so when he speaks of the thief, it’s not hypothetical. It’s real and he knows it. The thief has flesh and bone; the thief has a face. But so does the Judge.

I don’t know you, and I don’t know your story, but I’m guessing you’ve known a thief too; a thief who mimicked the dark one, a thief who stole and destroyed. So please remember this, dear one: The thief who destroyed will be destroyed in turn, by Love. Our God is justice and he burns with fire against the thief who would hurt a little one.

He is a warrior with all the advantage. It’s true that our God is gentle and meek. It is also true that our God is consuming. It is also true that our God commands an army, the likes of which has never been seen.

This is our King.

I believe there’s a Man who’s seated on a throne
And He’s coming back to bring forth justice.
~ Laura Hackett Park

He does not allow abuse to go unanswered. He does not deny or blameshift or dismiss injury. He pursues the thief to the end, demanding reparations. He sees what was done. He knows the truth.

And in a great turning, he actually helps us get revenge. Because the best revenge is a life well-lived. A life enjoyed.

And life is what he gives. A life free of the thief and the thief’s thievery.

He brings life and life to the full, rich and satisfying. He brings life and life abundantly, more than you expect. He brings life until you overflow.


The Stars
After walking down into the depths of hell itself, the Poet in Inferno leads Dante up and out. They descended into hell together, but they did not stay there. In the end, they returned to the land of the living, where Dante speaks words that shake me to my core. At the end of the journey, at their surfacing, he simply says,

“Thence we came forth to rebehold the stars.”

The stars! Life! With crisp air and a clear line of sight!

If you’ve known the thief, then you’ve walked through hell. My prayer for you, then, is that you would someday soon, “rebehold the stars.” The Poet is with you, descending and then ascending again, reminding you of the reality of a billion astronomical wonders. So may you live!

His justice does roll down like a flood. So may you feel washed and protected in the torrent, while evil itself is swept away.

And when your path lies in shadow, may you remember that even the shadow is under his wings. And his arms are everlasting.


With much yearning for the stars and the One who breathed them,
~ Jonathan Trotter


Be merciful to me, O God
I trust in Your help
You are my refuge, my defense
And into Your hands

I commit my way to You
Come fulfill Your will in me
Stretch out Your strong and mighty arm
Let Your mercy lead me on all my days

Cover me, cover me, cover me
Under the shadow of Your wings
God, cover me, cover me, cover me
Under the shadow of Your wings
~ Laura Hackett Park


Why Don’t We Retreat?

We have an invitation for you today.


Ruth Haley Barton recommends that people in ministry have a spiritual retreat once a month to stay spiritually healthy. Everyone needs spiritual retreat, but when your life is about pouring out in ministry to others, you need a frequent rhythm of retreat to fill you up.

She is talking about anyone in ministry. This does not take into account the stresses of cross-cultural adjustment and life. So it’s fair to say that people ministering cross-culturally need at least a monthly retreat for spiritual vitality.

But who really does that?   

Seriously. A monthly spiritual retreat sounds lovely, so lovely it’s laughable.

Since this space is the “missions conversation,” can we have an open, honest dialogue about this?

How many of you practice spiritual retreat? Do you have times of “strategic withdrawal”? Do you remove yourself from your regular role and responsibilities for an extended time with the purpose of deepening your relationship with God?

This is NOT meant to be shame inducing. It’s an exploration into our reality.

I doubt many of us would disagree that spiritual retreat is a good idea; that Jesus himself “frequently withdrew into the wilderness”, and we should too. In fact, I think most of us like the idea and desire to practice spiritual retreat in our life.

But most of us don’t. And I wonder why.

Is it because it goes against everything not only in worldly culture, but also (especially?) Christian missions culture? We’re doers by nature. There’s a world that needs saving, so we’re very busy people.

Is it because our people need us? We can’t be spared.

Is it because we don’t have a physical place to go?

Is it because it feels expensive, and we don’t have the money for it?

Is it because we don’t know what we would actually do if we did take a spiritual retreat?

Or is it all of the above?

Our souls long for deeper intimacy with God. We sense the truth of Dallas Willard’s statement:

“If we don’t come apart for while, we will come apart after awhile.”

And yet so many barriers stand in the way of “coming apart”.

God has planted a vision in the ministry of Velvet Ashes to overcome as many of these barriers as possible, so that spiritual retreat is not a lovely, laughable idea, it’s actually doable for you. For you who live in remote places, for you with slow internet, for you with a nursing baby, for you with small budgets, for you who need to retreat but don’t know how you can.

This retreat is for you.

We create a retreat experience once a year. We’d all like to do monthly retreats, but let’s start with one. (We do have four past years’ retreats available for purchase if you’re looking for more!), The heart of the Velvet Ashes Retreat is to give you a taste, to equip you with tools to be able to make spiritual retreat a rhythm of your life.  Because once you taste the fruit of retreat, once you see how God meets you, you become hungry for more.

We invite you to join the global community as we retreat across the world. Get our early registration rate only until March 5th.

I’d love to hear in the comments about how and if you practice spiritual retreat, and what barriers who you face. Let’s have an honest, shame free exploration into reality.


Danielle Wheeler – Founder and Executive Director of Velvet Ashes. Recovering from trying to save the world. Now living in God’s tender care and inviting others to join her. Enjoys good books, tiny restaurants, plants, and pots of tea. Mom to four kiddos and wife to one supportive man. Find her on Instagram @daniellemwheeler.

Cultural or Christian?

by Leland Sawyer

One afternoon I came out of a meeting and saw a large group of men parading down the street. They had completely taken over the road and were blowing whistles, horns and singing all kinds of songs. It was a traditional Bagisu circumcision parade. The last two months of each calendar year is the season for these celebrations, and they mark when a young boy becomes a man in the cultural society. Yes, they do involve circumcision.

They also involve heavy drinking by everyone involved, several elements to pagan worship, and witchcraft. The people celebrating will drink all day and then perform the circumcision (dangerous, right?) in front of everyone. While doing all of this, the elders and leaders of the village are making offerings to and saying spells for the gods and spirits they worship.

These rituals are a part of the culture here; they are ingrained into life. And even as people come to Christ, they struggle to break free from rituals such as this. Many of these practices are steeped in darkness and pagan worship, but people hold onto them long after they have committed to following Jesus because of the strong pull and influence that their upbringing and CULTURE has on their lives. Don’t get me wrong, there are many elements of culture that are not sinful, some even are God-glorifying (such as community and family). But many elements are in direct opposition to our faith in Jesus and a lifestyle of being made into His image.

But let’s not pretend this is an African problem. This is a human problem. It has been this way since the beginning of man. At our last meeting during our National Conference here in Uganda, we focused on the history of culture invading God’s people. The Old Testament is filled with examples of God’s people adapting to their culture and sacrificing their own holiness. We see in Acts 15 how the early Christians were being invaded by legalistic Jewish culture AND by pagan Gentile culture. And we can see throughout church history similar stories.

So as I watched this parade, my first thought was about how they were letting culture dictate their lives in ways directly disobeying the Word of God. But my second thought was much more personal: How do I do the same thing?

  • How do I let my culture (both my passport culture and my new culture) trump the culture of the cross?
  • Do I allow my American individualistic spirit shape my theology more than the Word?
  • How do I allow consumerism to shape my experience within the body of Christ or how I view other people?
  • Am I concerned more about my nation (America) than God’s Kingdom?
  • Do I let the “rebel spirit of Texas” influence my obedience to God’s call?

As I process these questions, I can’t help but be torn when I know that my call is to serve God and His people, but this call is sometimes clouded by my own desires and wants. While I don’t go after the next best technology, the latest styles or fancy cars (we live in Uganda after all), that doesn’t stop me from wanting to buy things. I let my own wants (time, money, resources) trump others’ needs. I hurt inside because I see so much poverty in the streets, yet I live in a pretty comfortable and protected home.

How am I truly loving my neighbors? How am I living out God’s Kingdom rather than my own kingdom? How are my reactions to people shaped by my personal, American views rather than God’s view of people when I think they shouldn’t be doing something?

I’m hoping you also think a little bit about these questions: How do we try to hang onto our culture in a way that contradicts our Christian faith? What types of things do you need to let go of from your culture so that your faith in Christ shines more brightly? How do we live as an “exile and stranger in this world” (1 Peter 2:11)?

photo credit


Leland Sawyer, his wife and 6-year old daughter have been missionaries in Uganda for 3 years. Leland has a passion for life-on-life relational discipleship and the development of spiritually healthy leaders. He works with pastors and church leaders throughout Uganda, walking alongside men and women to help them learn more about what it means to fully live like Jesus. Before moving to Uganda, he was a youth minister for 11 years in Colorado and Texas. You can follow their family and ministry at Sawyers in Uganda.

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