I Believe, Help My Unbelief

In work, ministry, and life we all experience frequent seasons when things don’t work out quite the way we had hoped.

In missions, our internal dialogues consist of “Am I making a difference?” or “Will these things ever change?”

When we are trusting for provision, for a breakthrough in our health, or seeing a life changed, there is very fine line between losing hope or accepting the limitations of the change that will happen, all while still believing in a God who could do the unexpected.

We’ve all heard the stories where people are told to “just have faith”. I personally have seen a friend who was told her father died because of a lack of faith.

Is that the answer? More faith?

This year has brought several of these challenges to our family. Ministry disappointment, divorce of those close to us, and various health related issues.

We found ourselves wrestling with the delicate blend of serving an all-powerful God on a broken and imperfect planet. Sometimes this process results in times of throwing up your hands, wondering what is happening.

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A passage of Scripture has been in the forefront of my thoughts for a few months. It seems to reflect this very tension.

In Mark 9:14-29, Jesus heals a boy with an unclean spirit. In the dialogue which preceded the healing, Jesus asked the boy’s father how long this has been happening? The fathers respond with,

“But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.”

Jesus points out the key word in the father’s statement.

“IF”

“And Jesus said to him, “If you can! All things are possible for one who believes.”

How many times in the depths of frustration do we catch ourselves uttering “If?”

We almost feel guilty for this. Of course Jesus can do it. He is God after all.

Yet in our humanity, we utter that two letter statement of doubt, often in fear of getting our hopes up.

“If.”

Not so much if you are capable, but if….

  • You will do this for me, not just others.
  • The provision happens in my bank account, not always my neighbors’.
  • The healing we see working in our communities will find its way into our own homes.

Yes, He can,…but will He break into a broken and fallen world and touch MY situation.

The father in the story utters a phrase which is so profound.

“Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, “I believe; help my unbelief!”

I believe…..help my unbelief.

I believe in truth, I believe in principle, I believe in the unchanging character of the one I serve.

But…

Help my unbelief, which comes with emotion, fear, doubt, and weariness

As we turn to the New Year, it is good to do two things.

Acknowledge and be honest about…

  • the fears that our ministry will never achieve all we hope,
  • the doubts that God will answer OUR prayers (not just those of others),
  • the weariness which can border on frustration, tempting us to pack it in and go home

These are areas where we cry out to God to help our unbelief.

At the same time, we need to remind ourselves of what we DO believe.

  • I believe in the unchanging character of a good God.
  • I know God is on my side and working for my benefit.
  • I trust Immanuel, God with us, is not leaving us alone in this journey.

Acknowledge the unbelief and ask for help.

Remind ourselves of the truth which forms our foundation. (Preach it in the mirror!)

Take some time as the year wraps up to reflect and reset. We all need it.

I Believe….Help My Unbelief

 

Photo by Tiago Muraro

When dreams come true and life gets uncomfortable  

Over 40 years ago and a brand-new baby follower of Jesus, I promised God that if He’d have me, I’d someday be a missionary for Him when I grew up.

In what is now approaching 25 years ago, I met a guy who also felt God might just be directing him towards a lifetime of cross-cultural missions work.

I ended up marrying that guy, and twenty years ago he took a “survey” trip to “deepest, darkest” Africa, confirming in our hearts that Niger was where God was leading.

Nearly a generation ago, with three small ones and one on the way, we moved out of the United States for the very first time… That first move was a temporary one… a stepping stone… a place for us to focus on learning a new language and to first dip our toes into the waves of cross cultural living.

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I fell in love with that temporary place. If it had been up to my heart, I would have never left. My heart no longer cared that a city on the shores of the Sahara was our ultimate goal. Maybe it was a little like love at first sight…???

Now, years later, after working hard to choose to learn to love our desert home, her people, her culture – God started impressing upon our hearts that He had another transition in store. My heart entrenched, feet firmly planted, work I loved, community I adored, surrounded by immense needs – on every level – so great that we would never more than scratch the surface. Yet God insisted it was time to leave the place that had finally become home for me. It was the only place our eight children really even wanted to call home.

God brought us back to my first love, that first transition spot…

My far-out there dream had come true. We’ve been here for six months and I feel a bit like a kid at Christmas, staring at a tree surrounded by gifts and wondering where to start.

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Recently, I met an African refugee family whose journey to Quebec also started roughly 20 years ago – not unlike ours. There’s a huge difference, however: they’ve been long term refugees in one country after fleeing their home… only to end up here, once again refugees fleeing their now unstable and dangerous refuge.

It isn’t fair that He gives some above and beyond -overwhelmingly blessing- while others don’t even seem to have the promised-in-the-Bible daily bread.

I’ve been wrestling with this idea for a few months, now – and, like Jacob, I feel like I’m walking with a permanent limp. God didn’t have to, but for right now, He’s put me in what just might be the one place in all of this world where I would have put my finger down on a map and said, “I’d LOVE to live here!” Not for spiritual or lofty reasons, but simply because I love this place, the weather, the culture, the people. I want to celebrate this gift without feelings of guilt, yet…

Others, with better obedience and deeper faith than I,  who’ve sacrificed more than I could imagine just to wear the label of Jesus follower? They’ve lost family, friends, homes, possessions, opportunity… and I’ve been gifted the luxury of working in a ministry I love, with friends and family relatively near, in a place I’ve long dreamed of.

Somewhere – probably on social media – I read a quote about having a theology that travels well… a theology that “works,” not just in my culture and present situation but in all cultures regardless of the situation and all over the world. I’ve tried and tried to find the actual quote again, to no avail. But as I remember, the context had to do with crediting God for what some might consider a trivial-in-the-grand-scheme-of-things-blessing in the very real face of another’s great suffering and lack (i.e. gushing about God providing a dreamed for “luxury” car when others around me have lost home, family, job…).

I get the point and it’s valid.

The goal is to NOT transport theological concepts blindly wrapped and packaged in Western cultural baggage and trappings.

Yet good theology insists that we rejoice with those rejoicing and weep with those who weep – valuing others above self, not looking to self interests but to the interests of the others, and remembering to be sensitive to the very real and very hard life actualities overwhelming those around me.

Good theology also acknowledges the sufficiency and sovereignty of an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving and all sufficient God. Thus, every good thing, every hard thing, even every bad thing… every single thing… comes, ultimately, from or through His hand.

If you go back and look at the story of Job, a man well-known because of his great suffering, don’t miss the fact that Satan didn’t come to God singling out Job. It was actually God who first mentioned Job’s name… God who focused Satan’s sights on Job.

As I’ve wrestled, I guess I’ve finally decided that I don’t want a theology that travels well – although having such a one might be more convenient and less messy.

Rather, I want a theology that accurately presents, represents and reflects the character of my sovereign, all-sufficient, all gracious and holy God – even when, from my perspective, the results are messy and inconvenient and any answers I might offer fall short.

To quote CS Lewis: “He’s not a tame lion.”

Searching for Home

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It’s hard to describe the turbulence of soul that comes from being on the move, always unsettled. You cannot be still and breathe deeply. You cannot love the wild-growing front-lawn tulips too much, or the way the sunlight turns the living room into a golden elven forest in the afternoon. They will soon be gone. And with every big move, you are the new person all over again, trying to make friends at double-speed, weary of explaining where you came from and why you’re here.

We have lived in our current home in Taipei for thirteen months, the longest in any one place for nearly four years. This dubious “longevity” doesn’t prevent my gut fear of another uprooting. Experience leaves an imprint of expectation in our hearts. The nomadic lifestyle began in earnest when we finished seminary, after which a pastoral job and preparation to be missionaries led us to several different cities and even more homes. We moved twelve times in a span of two and a half years, and it hurt my heart terribly.

At nearly every house or apartment I resolutely unpacked everything, decorated the walls with my grandmother’s paintings and the children’s art, and brought cookies when meeting our new neighbors. I tried to make each place a home, even if it would not last long. And I grieved the loss of our previous home and the life we had built there.

I grew up in one place, but without knowing it, even then I longed to be home. I kept subtly searching for something that tingled like a phantom limb; it had to be there—my entire being reached out for it! Or was it only an untouchable dream?

I can relate to Peter when he tells Jesus, “See, we have left everything and followed you” (Mark 10:28). I reflect with some self-pity, perhaps like Peter, that we have left our family and our friends and our homeland to follow Christ. I know that dying to myself is the only path to life and abiding happiness, but even so, my heart is burdened in the midst of loss.

Jesus responds to Peter’s outburst with a longer-term view:

“Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life.” (Mark 10:29-30)

His words, though demanding, are a balm to my soul. God has fulfilled the temporal part of the promise many times over. We have been welcomed into the physical homes of fellow believers when we were in need, and our brothers and sisters in Christ are our family in every way. But even more so, the fleeting losses of following Christ are nothing compared to the eternal gain.

The ESV Study Bible notes that “Jesus assures the disciples that they have answered the call and are blessed.” This pain of being between worlds is not a logistical problem, but a sign of following His call. It’s not a sign that we are failures as missionaries, but that the redemption of the world is costly. Christ bore the greatest cost of all.

The home we long for is not a phantom or a dream: we were created to yearn for our Lord’s lovely dwelling place. “My soul longs, yes, faints for the courts of the Lord; my heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God” (Psalm 84:2). In his earthly life, Jesus shared in our homelessness. He left his perfect heavenly home to rescue us from our sin; he had no place to lay his head. And he will return to remedy our aching hunger with the ultimate Home he prepares for us even now, where there will be no more crying or pain because the former things have passed away.

When Singing “Joy to the World” Feels Too Hard

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Sadness has found me this Christmas season. I bear sadness over the brokenness in the world, and I bear sadness over the brokenness in my own life. So I mourn. And I grieve. Then, as I am currently in the United States for a short visit, I look around at America’s intensely commercialized version of Christmas, and I wish I could ignore it altogether.

That’s why this week, in an effort to fight my Scrooginess, I set aside time to bake Christmas cookies with my mom and my daughters. It’s why I pulled out the scissors and construction paper to make Christmas crafts. And it’s why I sat down at the piano to play Christmas carols. I knew I needed to ground myself in some ancient theology and lose myself in some minor keys.

Because I couldn’t play “Joy to the World.” Not now, not yet. It’s always been one of my favorites, but it’s too happy right now. It’s too early for glory and joy, too soon for triumph and victory. I’d love to get to these words from Isaac Watts:

No more let sins and sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow far as the curse is found,
Far as the curse is found, far as, far as, the curse is found.

He rules the world with truth and grace, and makes the nations prove
The glories of His righteousness, and wonders of His love,
And wonders of His love, and wonders, wonders, of His love.

But I’m not ready for them yet. I know the promise; I feel the promise. But right now, the promise feels more true than the fruition. The longing feels more true than the fulfillment. I am absolutely in love with Jesus, but I’m not ready for triumphant words and joyful melodies. I’ve been sticking to the sad-sounding songs instead.

I did manage “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” because I love the fullness of the Gospel story in Charles Wesley’s second and third verses. But more often, I was drawn to the minor-sounding songs, to the lamentations of the Christmas canon. I sat awhile with “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and “O Come O Come Emmanuel.” But over and over again, the songs I returned to were “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” for the ache of its fourth verse, and “What Child is This?” and “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” for their collective sadness.

In some mysterious way I draw hope from their minor keys. Somehow I feel comfort in their mourning. So in between cookie dough and paper stars, I headed to the piano to sing little encapsulations of the Gospel, to pour out my sadness upon the ivory. My husband picked up on my feelings and asked me if the songs were making me sad. But I told him no, these songs aren’t making me sad; they’re speaking my sadness.

Much like my liturgical friends suppress their alleluias during Lent, I’m suppressing my joy this Advent. I’m waiting for happy-happy Christmas, waiting for “Joy to the World.” I’m waiting for the termination of thorns and the death of the curse. I’m waiting for the wonders of His love and the absolute reign of His truth and grace.

So if you, like me, feel like suppressing your joy this Christmas season, it’s ok. Truly, it is. Because we’re actually still waiting — for the return of our King and the fullness of His joy. And it’s ok if, when you join your voice with others this next week, the song “Joy to the World” makes you sad rather than glad. It’s ok if it makes you cry. It’s even ok if you refuse to sing it.

We can make space at the table for sadness this Christmas. We can settle our souls on the minor keys. We can open our hearts to the Promise and wait for the complete reign of our Savior. We can employ a song not of total sadness, but of delayed joy. And right next to the seat of grief and lament in our hearts, we can prepare Him room.

To Eat or Not to Eat, That Is the Question

Have a look

I need your help to crowd source this post. Let me explain.

In every culture, there are some foods that those on the outside don’t understand. In fact, many on the inside don’t understand them either. Maybe they were first eaten during a time of shortage, and then, after that time had passed, they were handed down from generation to generation, not because the need was still there, but because they had become a part of the people’s identity. (Edit:) Of course, in some places, that “time of shortage” is happening now.

Maybe they are terrible-tasting things that we eat because they’re supposed to be good for us. (Maybe we think they’re good for us because they taste terrible?) And then there are those things that years ago, before refrigeration, were fermented—or prepared in some other way—to keep them from spoiling. And now, even after electricity, we still have them. Maybe it’s because over time our tastes just develop in different directions. Or maybe it’s because of extravagance: we’re wealthy enough to eat something odd and rare, just because we can.

Regardless of what put it on the menu, what food in your home-away-from-home gives your palate pause? Or, on the other hand, what have you tried that now has become part of who you are?

In the comments section below, tell us what it is, and let us know what you think about it. To make it easier, I’ve provided the scale below. All you need to do is give the name of the food followed with a number 1 through 6. (Adding places, comments, and experiences are optional but welcome.)

1- Absolutely no way!
2- Never again
3- Maybe someday
4- Actually not so bad
5- Think I like it
6- Love it! Love it! Love it!

For example, here are a couple from me that I know from my time in Taiwan—

  • Durian, 2 (but the smell is more like a 1!) The Taiwanese say that the first time you eat durian, you hate it; the second time you like it; and the third time it’s your favorite.
  • Stinky tofu, 4 (ditto on the smell)

Of course, this isn’t a look-at-those-crazy-people-over-there post. I’m from the US of A, which has introduced me to

  • Rocky-mountain oysters, 6 (as I recall, but I was pretty young at the time)
  • Head cheese, 1 (just the name’s too much for me)
  • Fruitcake, 4 (it is the Christmas season, after all).

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But enough from me. Now it’s your turn. Have at it!


[photos: “Have a Look,” by Malte Vahlenkamp, used under a Creative Commons license; “I have a fruitcake . . . ,” by John Brian Silverio, used under a Creative Commons license]

The Darkness is Not Winning

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“The darkness is not winning!”

These are words I read yesterday in a newsletter from my brother and sister-in-law. Stan and Tami live in Denver but spend at least half the year traveling throughout the world. And in their travels, they see things. They connect with people through the joys and challenges of a life overseas. They know that of which they speak, because they see God at work. 

They know that the darkness is not winning. So today I offer you the encouragement that they gave me through their newsletter:

*****

“Not long ago a news article about black holes in space caught my attention. Black holes seem to get a lot of news and mostly, it seems, because of what they swallow up. Now I’m not a physicist, mathematician or any kind of scientist and so what I say is simply my imagination. They say that what goes into a black hole doesn’t come out, that even light cannot escape. But did you know that the same observations and mathematical models predict not only black holes but something similar only altogether different? They are called white holes. Now a white hole doesn’t swallow everything up like a black hole. Instead a white hole lets out light into the universe instead of swallowing it up.

 

What a wonderful metaphor for Christmas and what we celebrate! The Christmas account in the Gospel of John begins with the first 14 verses of the book…

 

1 In the beginning was the Word,  and the Word was with God,  and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning.  3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.  4 In him was life,  and that life was the light  of all mankind. 5 The light shines in the darkness,  and the darkness has not overcome it…. 14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us.
The darkness is not winning. 

The truth is that wherever the news on television has been particularly bad this year, the Light is there shining and overcoming the Darkness. Refugees in the Middle East are being taken in by Christians, hatred is overcome by love. The hungry are being fed and the wounded healed in Jesus name. Discouraged and dislocated people are hearing about Jesus and receiving him and finding life and community and safety. Slaves in South East Asia are being set free from sex and labor imprisonment and the Light is even shining into the places where these slaves are working while they are still in slavery.”*

As I scan the news and read of grief, loss, and terror I think of the words from this newsletter, that wherever the news is particularly bad, the light is there shining and overcoming the darkness.

And I’m challenged yet again to live as one who knows that the darkness is not winning.

Where do you see the light shining and overcoming the darkness? 

*[source – Stan & Tami Brown IDEAS]

Best Christmas Advice: Act One and Act Two

Act One: several years ago

In a meeting with a Chinese pastor my colleague and I asked her how foreign Christians in the vicinity of her church could support her and the church. The church is in sort-of a rural area (a relative term in that part of China) and most of the foreigners don’t speak Chinese. The foreigners hadn’t been attending church often.

It would be tempting to judge them. But, as you know, it’s exhausting not to understand what’s going on around you day in and day out.

So, to weekly sit, stand, bow, wonder the topic of the sermon, try to quiet children, try not to look at your watch too often, try not to appear antsy and remind yourself this is supposed to have some elements of worship. Knowing that this isn’t a onetime event, but you’ll be back here next Sunday. It’s easy to ask yourself is it worth it?

So, back to the question asked the pastor: how can we serve you?

Her answer was painfully simple. Just show up. Don’t underestimate the power of your presence.

Just show up.

Power of your presence

Yes, yes! I say. But then I realize I prefer Nike’s just do it! Doing something seems active and easier to measure the difference I’ve made {um, yes, it’s back to being all about me, all about you, not all about them}.

Don’t underestimate the power of your presence.

Bam, and just that like the incarnation is summed up in a modern proverb. Emmanuel, God with us. Don’t underestimate the power of your presence.

I hadn’t thought of Jesus as being bored. But I bet he was. Or that he’d fidget when something didn’t capture his interest or try not to wonder how much longer he’d have to stay at an event until he could sneak out.  I’m not trying to be irreverent and I know that Jesus was able to be bored without sinning, something I am wholly incapable of doing consistently.

But when Jesus washed the feet of his friends before he died and told them to “go and do likewise,” I think he was throwing in some boredom too. Go, and serve one another, yes. At times I need to remember that serving can include just showing up.

Act Two: several weeks ago

In November my friend and I visited the pastor and her church.

After the service there is a small group who meet to practice their English by going over the sermon. One of the pastors will be present, but it’s mostly lead by the college students. The students take turns summarizing key points of the sermon and then the group discusses it and asks questions. I was able to sit in on one and can imagine pastors the world over would love for these kind of groups to be going on. For believers and explorers to review what was shared, what it means for their lives, and questions they might have.

At dinner that night we asked the head pastor how the group had come about.

“One of the students came to me with the idea. The foreigners had been showing up for several years, even when they didn’t understand. Each year it might be different foreigners, but they still come. I learned last year that the foreigners find out the scripture and read it in English during the service. On Sunday night when the team gets together, they study the scripture from that morning. When I heard this, I knew the kind of people they are. So, when the student asked, I was ready to say yes.”

Is her advice to “not underestimate the power of your presence” more powerful because of this obvious demonstration of where it could lead? I don’t think so. Instead, I see it as a mercy from God as he has lifted up the curtain and allowed a peek behind the mystery of much of what we do.

Sometimes we are the servants who sit in the pews, week after week and never got to reap this harvest. Sometimes we are the servants who get to see the obvious outworking of the Spirit.

Too often listen to the whispers that as what I’m doing and question the value of my contribution. Instead, this is also the voice of the Good Shepherd:

Just show up. Don’t underestimate the power of your presence.

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Where have you benefited from others’ presence these days? Where do you need to just show up?

Advent Longing in the Horn of Africa

One Christmas Eve in Djibouti my family drove past a cart. It was a rickety wooden contraption attached by frayed ropes to the back of a donkey and clattered down the main road. A man sat on a makeshift seat and held a stick, hovering it above the donkey’s flanks. He wore a red and white shawl and a brown macwiis, a Somali-style sarong. His face was wrinkled, beardless, and wind-worn.

I said to my husband, “If there was a pregnant woman in that cart, I would swear it was Joseph and Mary on their way to Bethlehem.”

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The image stuck with me. It made the story of Christmas and the birth of Jesus tangible, weighty with the muffled clack of donkey’s hooves on dirt, the sting of a dusty wind, the smell of the desert, the look on a man’s face.

My family has lived in the Horn of Africa for almost twelve years. Ten Christmases have been spent in the desert. All these years have turned Christmas from a fairytale coupled with heaps of gifts into a realistic story coupled with the yearning ache of advent.

Advent, the four weeks preceding Christmas, is a time epitomized by waiting, longing. 400 years people waited to hear from God and then his Word came in the form a baby. But whether a family is religious or not, most engage in some kind of countdown to the big day. Lighting a candle each Sunday and reading meaningful texts. Hiding candy around the house and giving kids clues each morning.

What we are counting down to might be a day to spend with family, to give and receive gifts, to feast. It might be to joyfully honor the birth of a promised and miraculous child, Jesus. We count down and with each passing day, our hope increases. Hope that the day of feasts and gifts will arrive. Hope that this child born two thousand years ago did not come in vain and will, one day, bring peace to earth.

Christmases in the Horn of Africa have increased my longing, deepened my advent ache because we see the brokenness, need, and lack of peace so vividly all around us. We go to church to sing Christmas carols and pass dozens and dozens of homeless men sleeping on sidewalks. We hear news of another slaughter in southern Somalia. Djibouti faces an unemployment rate of nearly 60%. On other continents there are hostage crises and floods and drought. There is Ebola across the continent from us. Refugees are longing for home and civilians in war torn regions are longing for peace. Black Americans are longing to be free from fear and injustice.

All over the world, the need and the ache are powerfully tangible. But so is hope. All is not broken, all is not lost.

Djibouti is 94% Muslim and though Muslims revere Jesus, they don’t traditionally celebrate his birth. But my Muslim friends know we are celebrating a holiday that is important to us and they respect that. Yesterday a friend brought gifts for my girls. On Eid we celebrate with our neighbors. Not because of religious conformity but because of genuine relationship.

I think this year in America there is also a deepened advent ache because the brokenness of our nation has been laid bare. Though not everyone will call it an advent ache, there is a burning desire to see justice and healing rain down. #refugeeswelcome and #blacklivesmatter are a heart-wrenching cry for fundamental change.

The more time my family spends living outside the homogenous neighborhoods of my own childhood means more time for my family to encounter the brokenness of the world and the hopefulness of the people working to heal it. We live right in the middle of the advent season of longing.

In the US, in the wake of devastating grand jury announcements, black and white are standing together, or laying on pavement together, or marching together. Together, the way my Djiboutian friends include us in their celebration and respect ours.

Advent reminds us that together we live and die, rejoice and suffer and long for healing in community.

The way forward, the way of the longing and advent-aching heart is together. As we countdown this year with candles and candy, may each day be a reminder of the justice and healing we long for. May each day be an inspiration to actively pursue that justice and healing side by side, American and Djiboutian, Muslim and Christian, black and white.

Merry Christmas and Eid Wanaagsan and Joyeux Noel.

So This Is Christmas

Christmas lightsBefore moving overseas we debated about whether or not to take our Christmas tree, a 5 foot pre-lit beauty. The perfect tree, a virtually undetectable fake. I loved it. Each year that perfect tree went up early and stayed up late.

Alas, in the move as our shipment and suitcases filled with other possessions, my beloved tree ended up in the give-away pile.

Last Christmas, our first in country, didn’t feel like Christmas at all. We’d just moved to our new and permanent town after language school. We spent pre-Christmas days unpacking, painting, and doing repair work on our house. Christmas Day seemed to appear out of nowhere.

This year, my eager anticipation for Christmas has been mounting since early October. Perhaps it’s the fact we’ve been settled here for a year. We are no longer wide-eyed and overwhelmed. Perhaps it’s my parents coming from America to spend the holiday with us. Perhaps it’s a bit of home sickness. It’s probably all three.

This year I miss my perfect Christmas tree. I long for shops filled with gifty things, church nativities, and Santa at the mall. I want fancy wrapping paper, bows, and carols. I want neighbourhoods with coordinated Christmas lights. I want snow.

On our island, Christmas is a big deal. I’ll have some of the things I’m longing for, but it’ll be, well . . . to put it mildly, it’ll be different.

I’ll get the carols, even Feliz Navidad on repeat. These songs will be blared at twenty million decibels from the town’s many “Pondok Natal” – wooden structures housing Santa, or Baby Jesus, or both, as well as the customary stadium speakers. These things are LOUD and play all day and all night.

Our church here has been planning the Christmas program for months. To raise money for the huge celebration, fried noodles and cakes are made available for purchase after every service. For Christmas fundraising at the church in our language school town, we sold RW. That’s code for spicy dog meat.

This year, after pining for my perfect Christmas tree, I bought an overpriced plastic tree from our local grocery store. It’s really big, more than 6 feet. From far away it’s pretty good, but from anywhere less than 20 feet the shiny green fishing line branches look a lot like toilet brushes.

Decorating the toilet brush tree.

We’ll probably get to meet Santa this year too. Believing in Santa isn’t something that we necessarily encourage, we’ve always told our son the truth, but he’s still pretty smitten by the idea of a big man in a red coat doling out gifts. Last year at a party Santa gave all the kids bags of treats. That Santa smelled like cigarette smoke, had red teeth from chewing betel nut, a dingy suit, a saggy beard, and wore reflective aviator sunglasses. My star-struck 4 year old took one look and wanted the Indonesian words for how to ask Santa where he parked his reindeer.

Our team Christmas party won’t be mulled wine and mince pies. It’ll be a Bakar Batu feast. While the men dig a big pit and heat stones, us women will clean a mountain of leafy green vegetables and prepare the pig meat. After about 3 hours of work the veggies and meat will be layered into the pit on top of alternating layers of banana leaves and hot stones. The whole thing is sealed with long grass and left to steam for an hour or so. We’ll play games and retell the Christmas story to pass the time; then bring out all the food onto a large tarp and sit around in circles eating with our hands.

bakar batu
I won’t have neighbourhoods filled with lights, but on Christmas day neighbours will open their doors. Here you don’t celebrate Christmas at home alone with your family, you go out and visit all of your friends. Each house will have food and drinks to share with whoever happens to stop by.

There are many, many things I miss. And there will be many, many things that are done differently here. But if Christmas is really about the greatest gift, then different can be good too.

This Christmas we’ll remember that God was born flesh and dwelt among us. We’ll remember that because of Christmas the world received long-promised grace and redemption.

The Christmas I long for, isn’t really Christmas. I miss the familiarity of traditions. I miss what I know. I miss my own comfort zone. Perhaps that’s the real gift of celebrating Christmas overseas in such different ways. I remember that traditions are nice, but they don’t define Christmas.

This year, as we remember the gift of the Saviour, we’ll do so in the middle of plastic toilet brush trees, the most delicious fried noodles, smelly Santas, deafening music, community pig roast feasts, and the joyful hospitality of our friends and neighbours.

So this is Christmas. Different, but celebrating our Saviour all the same.

***
Merry Christmas, friends. Wherever in the world you may be.

When your work is taken away from you

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My husband and I moved to rural Cambodia in March 2011, and through the summer of 2012, I volunteered in a missionary clinic as a registered nurse. I helped set up the clinic, registered patients, assisted with procedures, and visited patients in their homes— a volunteer job that was meaningful and fulfilling. I was also finishing my bachelor’s degree in nursing online.

But in June 2012, the missionary doctor closed the doors of the clinic and went home for a year’s furlough. I continued studying online and volunteering with small projects, but my world of work and influence shrank. After I finished my online studies in December, I found myself a very reluctant housewife with a blank calendar and few commitments.

I’ve always been a “go-getter” – a woman with a lot of drive and ambition who finds new challenges for herself. That year, however, I plunged into a depression I couldn’t shake. I tried finding part-time work with my husband’s organization and developing health education programs for other charities in town. But there were no positions in my husband’s office or with the other charities.

I felt frustrated, unfulfilled, and dissatisfied.

Why would God put me in a country like Cambodia and not give me a specific role to play? Why were my talents and time being wasted? Why couldn’t I find some way to use my nursing skills?

Slowly, over the course of a few months, God showed me why. Through prayer, his Word, and deep conversations with other Christians, I found purpose in the darkness. He gently drew the idol out of my heart: finding my identity outside of Jesus.

It was true. I’ve always found satisfaction, even pride, in describing myself as a nurse. I held challenging jobs that were respected by others. I had a role to look forward to when I woke up and a way to feel good about myself. But when it was taken away? I felt worthless.

I didn’t feel like Jesus was enough for me.

I believed the lie that I needed to create my own identity through my work, efforts, and titles. Being his daughter, his redeemed child, didn’t factor into my thoughts when I evaluated myself. I sought to be recognized and defined by my work, instead of the work Christ did for me.

God had to strip away all that was holding me together – a long and painful process. But now I know why God allowed those props to fall out of my life. I’m not defined by what I do; I’m defined by what Jesus did for me, and even now, how he changes me and leads me. Who I am in Christ is far more significant and lasting than any identity I could build on my own.

Once in Christ, our identity doesn’t change. It’s not threatened by other people. It can’t be held up in comparison to others, either to make us feel better about ourselves, or worse — because we can’t take credit for who we are. God is working in me and through me to make a new creature, with a new heart that longs only to glorify Him.

Now we’ve returned to the United States, and I’m still tempted to find my identity in a place other than Jesus. As long as I’m in this broken body on earth, I won’t stop struggling with the temptation to look away from Christ. But he is faithful to forgive, to strengthen, and to redeem. That’s what I want to identify with and be recognized by: his steadfast love for me.

Originally published here

WhitA travel junkie, RN, book nerd, and recovering expat, Whitney Conard recently moved back to Kansas City, USA after three years in Cambodia with her husband and son. She blogs at Journey Mercies about pursuing Jesus, loving people, living justly, and exploring the world.

Ask a Counselor: What about anger overseas?

2946463887_d086c060ed_z“What are some reasons that missionaries struggle so much with anger? What are ways we can deal with it on the field? What are helpful things a spouse can do if the other spouse is struggling with anger?”

What is it with anger overseas?  Why do we see so much of it?

If we’re experiencing anger because of the “evil, injustice, and oppression” of the world, fine.  We should be angry about those things.  In cases like that, we can

  • figure out what’s our job,
  • what’s God’s job,
  • do our part and
  • let the rest go.

But most of the time it’s more complicated than that.

If “anger is a signal, and one worth listening to,” (Harriet Lerner, The Dance of Anger) we’d do well to learn to listen to the anger, so that we can resolve problems rather than just stuffing the emotion until it explodes all over everyone around us.

When I think about reasons that missionaries in particular might struggle with anger, four possibilities come to mind right away.

The first factor I think of is PROXIMITY.

For a couple of years, we lived on a big mission center inside a fence with about 500 other missionaries. There was one school.  One store.  One Sunday morning meeting house.  One health clinic.  One road to the outside world.  You couldn’t escape the one-ness without serious prior planning.  If you went away to Australia, chances were somebody else would be staying in the same one guest house we all used.  No matter where we went, those people were always there.

Forced proximity in and of itself can be really, really difficult, and it’s almost inevitable in families and teams overseas.  That can create frustration and outbursts of anger.

Proximity also means that we’re more aware of each other’s frustrations and outbursts of anger.  We can’t hide quite so much when we’re living up close—and, the stresses of others can spill over into the lives of those close to them.

Furthermore, it’s less threatening and more acceptable in missionary culture to be angry with other missionaries, than to admit we’re mad at God, the local culture, or our spouse.

Other missionaries can easily become the dog that we kick when we’re mad at the boss.

IDEAS FOR DEALING WITH PROXIMITY

We have to be prepared to take responsibility for the toll of forced proximity in our own lives, with healthy self-care and good boundaries.  Getting outside of our small, closed circles on a regular basis can help us keep a healthy perspective on reality.  In addition, we have to keep track of our own emotional and spiritual processing so that we can take responsibility for ourselves, instead of  victimizing those in close proximity to us.

The second potentially anger-producing factor everybody has overseas: inordinate levels of STRESS.

As I was preparing to write this article, a friend of mine posted an article about the typically elevated stress levels that accompany a life overseas.

stress

If we aren’t prepared for the reality of the stress levels of overseas living, if we don’t have a plan in place to mitigate that stress, if we’re over our boundaries and not caring well for ourselves, then we’ve got the perfect storm for outbursts of anger.

IDEAS FOR DEALING WITH STRESS

Be aware of anger as a warning sign of burnout, a signal that we are way past our boundaries and into unhealthy stress levels.

Be aware of your stress levels at all times.  Use an instrument like the Cerny-Smith Adjustment Index to track stress levels regularly.  Be willing to make adjustments as necessary to account for the ebb and flow of stress, and your need for recovery at various times.

Make sure you’re resting regularly (daily, weekly) and have frequent holidays that are actually refreshing and renewing.  Yes, this will cost you time and money, but your life and sanity depends on finding rest for your soul.

The third anger-situation I’ve encountered overseas:  DIFFICULT PERSONALITIES.

In my experience, missionaries are pretty independent people.  It’s not normal to leave your home country and your family and friends to go live someplace else for years or a lifetime.  It’s good to be independent in those circumstances, or you won’t make it.  The problem is, within that extra-independent missionary population are a few people who have taken it to seriously unhealthy extremes.  They may have personality disorders like narcissism or borderline personality.

Their supporters back in their passport country see the charming, impassioned, high-energy side of that person.  They don’t see the lack of empathy, the willingness to take advantage of others, the personal kingdom-building that takes place on the far side of the globe with an almost total lack of accountability.  People with deep-seated problems like this will lash out in anger at anyone who gets in the way of their awesomeness.

I have seen seriously abusive people build a fortress for themselves overseas, where they were able to victimize their spouse, children, local people, and many colleagues while looking like heroes to those in their passport countries.

IDEAS FOR DEALING WITH DIFFICULT PERSONALITIES

If you’re on the receiving end of anger in a situation like this, good boundaries are your best hope.  You’ll also need to practice excellent self-care.  Victims can experience real, debilitating trauma in situations like this.  Minimize contact with the abusive person; separate completely if you are able.  Watch your functioning.  Are you able to do what you need to do each day?  If you find functioning falling off, seek help.  (Check out our Resource tab.)

A fourth possible explanation for anger is something called INCONGRUENCE.

When you’ve got incongruence, your messed-up insides don’t match your pretty missionary outsides.  When your insides and outsides don’t match, usually you’ll feel some shame about that.  And often, when we’re feeling very ashamed of ourselves, we’ll deal with that by blaming and being angry with others.

If you’re pretending like crazy to be super excited and happy about your assignment while wanting to leave every minute of every day, you’re likely to experience some incongruence, and you might find yourself lashing out at others in the midst of your wonderful life.

If you’re looking at porn while telling everybody back home how awesome it is to be teaching everybody overseas about Jesus, well, that’s a problem in terms of incongruence that will make you a pretty miserable person to be with.

Sometimes we don’t even know what’s really down there in the depths; we’ve just got anger on the surface.  If that’s happening, be willing to dig deep and face the darkness.

There is healing!  There is hope!  But healing and hope are never, ever found in lying to ourselves and other people.  The truth is what sets us free.

IDEAS FOR DEALING WITH INCONGRUENCE

Radical honesty is the only way out of the mess of incongruence.  We need to be honest with ourselves.  We need to be honest with God.  We need to be honest with safe others.  Even if that means going home to get well.

If you’re not sure you’ve got an incongruence issue, ask yourself this question:  “What do I hope that nobody ever finds out about me?”  Then find a safe person and talk to them about your answer.  The more honest we are with ourselves, God, and others, the more congruent (and emotionally calm) we are able to be.

When it comes to talking about anger issues in marriage or another close relationship, here are some ideas.

  • Make sure you are safe.
    • Don’t “confront” a person who’s already been abusive. If you are unsafe, get help.
  • Have the conversation when the person is not angry, and when you are not angry.
  • Use a soft approach. “I’m concerned…”  “It feels to me like something is wrong lately…”
  • State the problem, offer help, ask for what you need.
    • “I’m worried about the level of anger I’m seeing in you lately.  I want to help figure out what’s going on.  Let’s both take the Cerny-Smith Adjustment Index, and then let’s talk about the results together.”
  • Be prepared to state boundaries and stick to them if need be.
    • “If you speak to me that way, I will leave the room.” “I will not be able to meet with you individually until I feel safe with you again.”

Resources for further reading

Boundaries, Henry Cloud and John Townsend

The Verbally Abusive Relationship, Patricia Evans

The Dance of Anger, Harriet Goldhor Lerner

Tell me what you think!

Proximity, stress, difficult personalities, and incogruence are four factors that contribute to anger issues overseas.

  • What other factors have you seen? Share in the comments.

In dealing with anger, I think personal awareness, good boundaries, good self-care, and honesty are a great place to start.

  • What else can you think of? Share in the comments.

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