Support Teams, Vulnerability and Applause?

My hands are shaking in a jerky vibration. My legs are unsteady as they threaten to give way. There are one hundred people in front of me. It is a group from a church which has just begun to support our ministry. My husband just introduced me. Now they are waiting to hear a part of my story. It’s the part I would most like to hold back.

It is as though I am at the edge of a cliff. In the expanse there is an echoing call. Will I leap forward into the unknown, into vulnerability? Or will I take the safe path?

I close my eyes to ready myself for the plunge. I open my mouth and start to speak. We have just talked about our story, how we had to return to the States. It’s a vague thing until they hear my piece.

So I say it.

I tell them how a bout of hyper-mania landed me in a Hungarian hospital for 2 weeks. I speak the diagnosis of bipolar disorder and I try to keep breathing. It’s all ashes, but somehow the Spirit tells me my voice is the beauty.

When I finish, something unexpected happens. There is the ring of applause. Applause. It is a shocking thing. And I realize again how vulnerability changes the world.

Why? How?

Because when we choose to speak the hard, open up the wounds, bring others into our honest story, we touch the pulse of human need. We need to know we are not alone. We need to know we are more than our tragedies. We need to know there is hope in the pain, life after death, and freedom from bondage. When these needs are met we become someone altogether new.

However, as missionaries, the tendency can be to think we must be strong before others. But, I truly believe there is a better way—one which leads straight to the heart of God.

Here are some reasons to choose vulnerability:

  • Because Jesus did: Jesus emptied himself of everything. Pride. Reputation. Stature. He never appeased the crowd. He laid down every care of what others would think to live the life he was called to live. He formed his communication of the truth about himself, knowing it would open him up to rejection. His story is lined with tragedy and brokenness. Yet, in it all, he lived vulnerably in a way which overcame the world. He calls to us to know and be like him.
  • Because we want true community: Establishing a team of supporters is difficult. There is much work of casting vision, travel, late nights and early mornings. It is easy to want to hang onto it all tightly. But, the better way is to let go, risk sharing vulnerably, because we want the comfort, strength and warmth of true community. As we do this, we will become surrounded by those who love us, not the perfect missionary. We will find those who labor in prayer for our needs, because they know those needs, and believe their support is crucial to the victory.
  • Because we give courage to others: The beauty of vulnerability is that as we share our brokenness, it gives others the courage to do the same. They are freed from the hissing lie which says they must hide their weakness. They too gain freedom to be honest with others about what their life really is. Our vulnerability becomes, for them, a stepping stone to, perhaps, an even greater experience of it.
  • Because we are strengthened by it: The discipline, the lifestyle, of vulnerability is a gift. While it as an invitation for others to enter our lives, the greater thing happens in us. By opening up to show our cracked and bleeding places, we remember how we are loved. We are loved inspite of, and more, because of our frailty. It brings forth the tender heart of God.
  • Because through it, we know the Gospel: As missionaries, some of our biggest fears are found in losing reputation and being seen as weak. But when we walk the way of vulnerability, we take away the power of these fears. We make space for the Gospel—the healing of our souls. In the great economy of God, we first receive the Gospel, and then, we are ready to give it away.

I don’t know where this finds you. Are you in a habit of sharing vulnerably? Keep on.

Are you struggling behind closed doors? Please consider opening up to others. It doesn’t have to be everyone, but it needs to be someone. As you take these steps, I know you will find genuine love and acceptance from God and others. You will find great strength and contagious courage. You will find Jesus and all it is to be like Him.

A Note from the Leadership Team

May of 2013, A Life Overseas co-founder Laura Parker wrote an article celebrating the site’s six-month anniversary and its first 100 posts. At that time, our Facebook community numbered about 800 folks.

As of this writing, regular and guest writers have published 742 articles, with a community on Facebook exceeding 11,000 people! Thank you for reading and commenting and sharing!

A Life Overseas has always been about hosting “the missions conversation,” and thanks to our writers and readers, that has happened. And we want to keep that conversation happening!

With that in mind, we’d like to ask you for money. Not a lot, just a little.

None of the writers at A Life Overseas makes any money. We all have “day jobs,” including our editor-in-chief, Elizabeth Trotter. But hosting a site that reaches over 60,000 people per month isn’t free. It’s not real expensive either. It’s about $80 per month.

So, if you feel like you’ve benefited from A Life Overseas, or if you feel like someone you love has benefited from A Life Overseas, or if you’ve ever sent an article to someone because you wanted them to understand something about your life overseas, you want to help us stay online? If so, that’d be totally sweet.

Click Here to donate via PayPal. Todays business world All funds are managed by Andy Bruner, our IT guy and treasurer.

If you have any questions, you can comment here or e-mail us at alifeoverseasblog@gmail.com. Thanks so much for joining with us!

 

all for ONE,

Jonathan Trotter, for the Leadership Team

Are You OK? and Help! Two Things You Really Need to Learn to Say in Your Target Language

When you visit a country where the people don’t speak your language, there are several important phrases you should know how to say: things such as “Hello” and “Goodbye,” “How much is this?” “Where’s the bathroom?” and “Can I have ice with my water?” But when you move to that country, the stakes become higher. The important words and phrases become deeper and more necessary and more . . . important. They’re usually not covered in the first five chapters of your language book, and you may not end up learning them until you come face to face with the need for them. At least, that’s the way it was for me.

Are You OK?

The streets in Taiwan give new meaning to the phrase flow of traffic. Outnumbering automobiles two to one, scooters zip in and out to fill in the narrow gaps between cars, and when they all come to a red light, they pile up at the intersection, waiting to spill forward again when the light turns green. Watch that whitewater river for long, and you’ll see quite a few accidents.

One morning while I was walking to language school in Taipei, I came up to one of the city’s crowded intersections and waited to cross. As several lanes slowed for the light, a lady on a scooter was unable to stop and broke through the pack, sliding several feet on her side. She wasn’t hit by anyone, but she was slow getting up. My first thought was to run over to her and see how she was. I didn’t make it, though. First of all, by the time I could cross the street, she was back on her way, though pushing, not riding, her scooter now. And second, I didn’t know what to say.

Yes, I knew the greeting “How are you?” but that’s not the right question for someone who might be hurt. I knew how to say several other things, too, but none of them seemed appropriate. I could imagine the woman’s horror having me, a foreigner, rush up to her in her time of need, letting loose with my vocabulary of “Hello. How are you? I’m an American. What part of Taipei are you from? What’s you’re favorite food? I like pizza.”

It’s one thing to be able to say the equivalent of How are you? Howdy, or What’s up? It’s another to go beyond trite formality, to ask caring questions and expect heartfelt responses.

G. K. Chesterton writes, “The traveller sees what he sees. The tourist sees what he has come to see.” If I could add to Chesterton’s observation, I’d say, “The resident sees what can’t be seen.” Or that’s what should happen. There are many things hidden from the outsider, tucked deep in the souls of the people. And the best way to see behind the curtain is to ask. One of the simplest yet most profound questions we can voice is “Are you OK?” It shows caring. It shows that we know all may not be well, and yet we ask anyway. It shows that we are truly willing to step in and be a part of the community around us.

Help!

The second phrase isn’t a phrase at all. It’s just one word, but what a word it is. It’s a word that became the focus of my thoughts one day because of a leaky air conditioner.

At one point, we lived on the third floor of an apartment building, with a barber shop below that had a fiberglass awning over its entrance. Under normal circumstances, the condensation from our AC unit would travel down a plastic tube to the street. But of course, circumstances rarely seemed normal, and the water from our AC did not drain into the tube. Instead it drip . . . drip . . . dripped . . . and dripped . . . and dripped onto the awning. We knew this because the barber told us. I set out quickly to fix the problem—which involved climbing out on a window ledge and stretching as far as I could to reach the air conditioner. I did this when my wife wasn’t at home, mostly because I didn’t want her to talk me out of it. But as I had to step closer to the edge, clinging to the bricks with one hand and trying to grab the AC with the other, I thought, “What if I slip and end up hanging over the alley by three fingers? How do you yell ‘Help!’ in Chinese?” It simply hadn’t come up in my language class during the unit on common food items at the grocery store.

It’s not that I hadn’t asked for help before: “Excuse me, could you tell me if I’m on the right train?” “Can you help us take our photo?” “Do you have these shoes in a larger size?” But I’d never thought about shouting “Help!” because I’d never before thought about needing to be saved.

It’s an odd thing for a missionary to think about his own need for salvation. Isn’t that what we came to offer? But spiritual salvation wasn’t what I had in mind. I was thinking about the kind of saving you need when you’re deeply afraid, when your child is struck by a car in the crosswalk, when you face a mugger in a dark alley, when flood waters are rising, or when loneliness grabs ahold of you and won’t let go.

Knowing how to call for help, though, is not the same as admitting that we need real, meaningful help from those around us. And it’s not just the security guard or the policeman or the nurse who can answer our pleas. It might be the student next door or the businessman hurrying to work or the homeless lady sorting through the trash, whoever is close by as you dangle from the ledge.

Those of us who go to other countries to help must be able to receive help, too. We need to be willing to rely on those around us, to learn, to take advice, and to share our needs—even our emotional and (gasp) spiritual needs. This, too, shows that we want to be part of the community.

People of the Cloth

We talk about the “social fabric,” and it’s an apt metaphor when it comes to needing and being needed. They’re the warp and woof of community. For many, it’s easier to ask “Are you OK?” than to cry out “Help!” but we must be vulnerable enough to say both, to be able to allow someone to voice what’s wrong before we offer a solution and to be able to acknowledge our reliance on those around us.

Take a look at the tapestry that surrounds you. Do you see yourself as a seamstress or tailor, mending the neighborhood according to a pattern of your own making? Or are you, yourself, a part of the fabric, a thread woven in by the skilled hand of the one who knits hearts together and makes all things new?

It may just be that we need to expand our vocabulary.

[photos: “helping-hand,” by Faith @101, used under a Creative Commons license; “Connections,” by scrappy annie, used under a Creative Commons license]

When your “exotic overseas life” feels ordinary

For months now I’ve had writer’s block at A Life Overseas. I’ve been busy, yes, but mostly I’ve had writer’s block. So you haven’t seen me around here much. I have so many things to say in general (and I do so, on my personal blog), but when I sit at the computer and ask myself, how can I help Christian expats and missionaries through my writing? I come up with nothing. Every time.

I feel useless for this community right now. My life just feels so ordinary. I’m in the thick of raising children and educating them. At this point I don’t have a lot of cross cultural advice to give, because I’m not doing a whole lot of cross cultural living or cross cultural ministering. What I am doing a whole lot of is homeschooling and homemaking.

Some friends left in May (some permanently, and some for home assignment), and I felt quite desolate. This summer I realized I have no desire to make new friends. Every relationship is so temporary, and I’m not in the mood to connect deeply with new people. They might just leave in a few years. But then I thought to myself, that’s not the kind of helpful, encouraging attitude I should be offering the readers at A Life Overseas.

On top of that, I’m not sure I’ve gained enough wisdom or experience from which to speak. I’ve only lived here five years, and that doesn’t seem like very much in comparison to friends who’ve lived here 10 or 15 years (or more). I’m not sure I have enough perspective yet. After all, I wouldn’t listen to marriage advice from someone with a five-year-old marriage.

So I figured I might as well just be honest with you: I don’t feel like I have anything to offer the expat community during this time in my life. But I thought I might resurrect the following post from my own website. Four and a half years later, it still captures how I feel about my life: Ordinary.

(If you are also an ordinary wife and mother like myself, you might be interested in this recent compilation of my motherhood and homeschooling essays.)

Ordinary

Learning a new language, interacting with an unfamiliar culture and its customs, living near an orphanage, living near a house of girls rescued from human trafficking, all these things can make my life seem overly exotic to someone living in America.

And while it’s true that living cross-culturally has been known to eat away at my mental and emotional margin, most of my life is extraordinarily . . . ordinary. I wash dishes. I fold laundry. I brush my teeth. I often combine those last two.

I cook. I grocery shop. I get to the end of some days and ask myself just what am I going to feed these people tonight??

I fetch the Band-Aids. I scrub the bathroom. I take care of sick people.

I make sure that my children study and that they play. I make sure that they put away their own laundry and that they brush their own teeth (though not necessarily at the same time).

I get irritable for all the ordinary reasons: being tired, being hungry, being hot. And during certain times of the month, I freak out. Even if I’m not tired, hungry, or hot.

I like to spend time with my husband. I like to spend time with my friends. I like to spend time by myself. (Translation: I like to check Facebook.)

These are not extraordinary things. These are the very ordinary things of my life, and I feel very ordinary doing them. In fact, I did all these things back in America, including the one-handed-laundry-sort.

And maybe, just maybe, you do all these ordinary things too.

~~~~~~~~~~~

Does your supposedly exotic overseas life ever feel ordinary? Does that feeling ever bother you?

Shouldn’t I Have It All Figured Out By Now?

By Kris Gnuse

I went from zero to sixty in the time it took to realize that the internet was down. Again. From nurturing wife planning a trip to the grocery store, to snipping, snapping grumpiness.

The previous 10 days had been busy with blessings. A long brunch at a cozy café shared with other missionary ladies of the area. The end of home school year and our first official whack at standardized testing online. A mission team from our awesome home church serving alongside us at the children’s home. Five dinners for 31 prepared and shared. My heart-story laid out before new friends. Even a rare date night, courtesy of a kind team member’s willingness to watch our children.

In tandem with the high-octane push of hosting a group, we had been praying my husband through his installment of the coughing crud I spent two weeks kicking. The illness is legit if the man will actually drink hot honey lemon tea, y’all. The good Lord didn’t put him together with a natural appreciation for it. Our modem was fried by a lightning strike for the second time in 3 weeks, and the technicians couldn’t drop by to fix it until 5 long days later. Workmen were scheduled to come make repairs on various parts of the house we rent. Like a winter snowstorm — you never know exactly when it will hit, how long it will last, or how bad it will be.

So when the little spinny connection icon at the top of my phone screen went unglued for the third time in four weeks, so did I. These moments always catch me (and my beloved) off guard. I’m like the huge bucket at the water park that fills quietly over time and suddenly dumps unannounced with the force of a tidal wave. Okay, I didn’t break anything, say any bad words, or do anything more than be short and cross with my husband, then stomp off to regain my reason. Like the monumental splash, it passed quickly enough for me to ask forgiveness and “hug it right” before I grabbed my keys for the milk run.

What am I learning about myself in this life of serving in a different country and culture? I like things to work the way they are supposed to. Sometimes it’s fun to play pioneer and improvise by catching rainwater from the downspout to flush toilets when city water is out of service. But every once in a while the rolls really do need to be baked when the power goes out. I miss the control of owning my nest and of telling workmen the way things should be done rather than being told what they are going to do and when they may invade my space to do it. I like to be good at things. When my Spanish heads off the fairway into the rough, I feel it like buzz-of-speaker feedback during a worship song.

I love the role that we have been given to serve the Lord here. We see Him moving in ways great and small all the time. We feel him drawing us into closer surrender, showing us His infinite care, our infinite need. Child after child, team after team, the Lord changes lives at Hogar de Vida. My husband Matt in leadership, myself in our kitchen, we really do fit like puzzle pieces crafted to complete the picture for this time and place. It’s an honor to be here, the loving hands of so many in the States supporting this work.

So why the deluge? How can I make holes in the bucket to release the weight of life’s cross cultural, ministerial idiosyncrasies? We are three and three-quarters of a year here. Shouldn’t I have this down by now?

No.

I really mean it. No.

Listen one more time, self that expected to fling her whole being into new language and culture like a baby duckling following momma-duck off of a bridge into a sunset pond.  And then realized that being momma-duck in this beautiful family meant most of my hours are spent serving behind my own front door.

No. You aren’t supposed to have it all figured out yet. Life doesn’t work like that.

I have heard a repeated theme recently from anointed missionary friends, fully immersed in the culture, whose Spanish knocks my Gallo Pinto off:

After all the years, all the effort, I’m still different from the surrounding culture. I will always be different to them. Not unloved. Not without great impact. But yes, different. Still making mistakes and working through misunderstandings.

In this season, I, Kris, am not out in the culture much. Fail. My Spanish is passable but highly imperfect. Fail. My boys have little to no interest in learning another language. Fail.  After 2.5 years of honest effort to engage a great local Spanish church, we felt led to join an English-speaking congregation. Fail.

And yet, we have seen the Lord move endearingly in our children through this new church body. Win. We’ve made new friendships and laughed more than I can remember since we left language school. Win. I’ve conquered my fear of navigating my way around the country. Win. I surrendered my pride in doing home school completely myself and enrolled the two older ones in an online program. They were challenged and learned all sorts of new skills. Just as important, our relationship got a chance to blossom with someone else in charge of the class work. The entire family enjoyed their first year. Total win.

Understanding that I don’t have to have it all down perfect is perhaps the greatest release valve I can open. Giving myself grace to do my best and leave the rest in the Lord’s hands engages the sprinkler to make a fountain.  All those expectations don’t belong in my bucket anyway. I need to give myself time and space to recharge, freedom to not know it all.  I need to remember that sometimes life is messy and the Internet stops working when you have exactly one day left to finish the Stanford 10 Math tests. It’s okay to not be okay. Everyone has a unique journey. My job is not to achieve perfection. My calling is to live with those stresses trickling over open hands, through fingers extended to receive what the Lord has in each moment. To be the blessing that only I am capable of being to those around me.

To be a watering can, rather than a tipping bucket.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Kris Gnuse is a living testament that the Lord gently leads those who have young. In 2013, she said “I will,” to the Lord’s call for their family of five to serve at a transitional children’s home in Costa Rica. In the crossroads of hosting short term mission teams and loving the little ones who were not safe at home, she has a stand offering cups of cold water.  You can follow her journey at www.thegoodnewsfamily.com

The Five People Who Shape You the Most

“You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” (Jim Rohn)

Soak in that for a minute. Think it through. Is it true?

For you personally?

For everyone?

For me it is one of those brilliantly profound and profoundly frustrating statements.

It makes sense. A lot of sense. So much sense that a piece of me instinctively wants it to be wrong — a feeling which increases in intensity the more I hear it. I have a visceral reaction to anything so quotable it shows up everywhere but that’s the world we live in isn’t it?

A world of instant cliches.

I’ve pondered this quote though and I wonder if it applies in the same way for people like you and me. You know . . . the cross-cultural types. Help me out because I’m curious to know if this is just me or if it goes with the territory.

Here is my dilemma. I don’t know who I spend the most time with. I literally do not have an answer for who those five people would be. I’m like a TCK trying to tell you where he is from.

Even if I could identify the top five right now (simply based on time spent together) they would be completely different from my five three years ago . . . and three years before that . . . and three before that.

My life moves in rhythms that naturally divide my closest friendships into sections of time and geography. I have a BFF at every port but I have never seen any of them in the same room (which makes me think that maybe they are all actually the same person . . . or Batman).

I love that part of my life. I really do.

I love that I can travel almost anywhere in the world and catch up with an old friend. I love the “hello agains”. I love the picking up where we left off as if we never left off at all. I love that the only indicator of time passed is our growing kids. I love the reminiscing about the seasons when we did spend most of our time together and I even love the falsely hopeful farewells.

“Come visit us.”

“Oh we will . . . one of these days.”

I also love that I’m building more of those connections right where we are . . . in this season.

I love talking work stuff and figuring out life problems. I love wrestling through the challenges of the transition that never ends with newbies, stayers and goers. I love bumbling through cross-cultural things with other bumblers and I love deep, heartfelt, sincere conversations that lean heavily on sign-language and Google Translate.

But five?

Just five?

In one place?

Can’t do it.

I could narrow it down though, to the five that I HAVE spent the most time with. The five who have impacted me the most. The five who would go anywhere and do anything for me and know that I would do the same.

They are the five people that I WOULD spend the most time with . . . if we all lived in the same country . . . at the same time . . . and they weren’t too busy fighting the Joker.

This cross-cultural life is anything but average but if I can be the average of my global list of five guys, I’ll be in good shape.

How about you?

Do you know your five? Are they all in one place or spread out?

 

To My Expat Friends

Dear expat friends who have my back and hold my heart,

When I say my husband and I are arguing about packing suitcases and that my back hurts, you know what I mean. You’ve also slammed doors and said things you regret because peanut butter weighs a lot and tennis rackets don’t quite fit. Thanks for letting me vent.

You aren’t afraid of dengue fever, typhoid, or malaria. You’ve been vaccinated and have that little yellow card and your kids have the BCG scar on their upper arms. You aren’t grossed out when I mention that we deworm our entire family twice a year. Thanks for helping me feel normal, healthy even.

When I’m broken about the poverty I see and conflicted about how to respond to beggars and barely able to hold all my spiritual questions, you’ve carried it with me, and helped me process. Thank you for sharing your own messy insides.

When I haven’t had the courage or the energy to go a wedding or a funeral alone, thank you for coming with me, for dancing with me, for holding my sweaty hand, for passing me Kleenex.

When friends or family from far away experience tragedy and I can’t be with them, you don’t spout platitudes. You know the pain of a lonely grief. Thank you for letting me weep, for weeping with me. Thank you for bringing us food. When friends or family from far away experience delight and celebrations and I can’t be with them, thank you for joining me in the joy, though you don’t know them. Through your loving response to their delight, I feel your love for me.

Help me not to be the ugly expat. Help me not complain, help me not set myself apart from local friends and coworkers. Challenge me to engage and adapt. Give me a safe place to process my questions and discoveries. Come with me as I explore. Thank you for helping me discover who I am in this new place and for allowing me the space to grow and change.

Thank you for being our family on holidays and birthdays, for creatively forming our own expat traditions like Easter egg hunts through rocks and thorns and goats at the beach. Like Thanksgiving baseball games. Like day-after-Christmas camping and whale shark diving.

We probably won’t have long years together but since we are all lonely and vulnerable and feeling exposed, our conversations go to the deep waters of our hearts faster than I’ve experienced elsewhere. Thank you for being willing to jump into life with me, quickly.

Thank you for calling me when you found brown sugar at the grocery store.

Thank you for loving my children and for letting me love yours.

When we say goodbye, we don’t promise to keep in touch. We probably won’t and that’s okay. I care about you. Our friendship has been deeply true. I might follow you on Facebook or Instagram but we both need to move to the next new thing, the friends who live close by. You are always and forever welcome at my house and I know I will always and forever feel welcome and comfortable in yours, no matter what country we might live in. I will always rejoice with your good news and mourn with your losses and pain. You made these months or years rich and that is no small treasure.

We are expatriate friends. We help each other pack. We pay each other’s bail or electricity bills. We check on each other’s pets. We sit through long watches of the night beside hospital beds. We share peanut butter. We know the inside jokes and laugh at the morbid humor. We care about the same obscure regions and quote the same strange proverbs. We’ve walked through births, marriages, deaths, divorces, job losses, wayward children, jet lag, national disasters, loneliness, misunderstandings, birthdays, private joys and public celebrations, entrenched sins and personal successes. We dream together and root for each other. I am so, so thankful for you.

If I never see you again in this life, come find me in the next. We have so many stories to share with each other.

Love, your forever-wherever expat friend,

Rachel

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Where your story is held

Years ago, standing in our parent’s basement one of my sisters wondered what it would be like to deal with all of our dad’s paperwork. While not a hoarder in other areas, every piece of paper the man had touched through his life, he kept.

In that moment, the Lord gave me this insight: All this paper is more than paper, it is the container of your dad’s story.

Tax records going back decades were not kept in case of being audited. No, they were kept as a record. A record that said, “I was here, I took care of my family, I held a job, I gave to my church and charities. I invested myself in what matters in this world.” I can tell you this is not what my tax records mean to me because I do not keep my story in tax records.

Oddly, though a non-car person, my story is held, in part, by the cars I have owned.

As a college graduation present, my parents got me a car. It was love at first sight! She was a  red Dodge Shadow and had an air spoiler and a strip down her side. In sixth grade I was cast as Margot Lane in a radio play about The Shadow; so, her name was Margot.

My education program was completed with a year of student teaching and graduate classes. Margot drove me out to Perry Middle School in rural Kansas. We had our first near death experience along those roads. She drove me to South Junior High where I learned to love teaching Algebra. And from South Junior High we hurried to the University of Kansas where I taught ESL to students from around the world as I completed my Master’s Degree.

During the summers we spent hours together driving home to Denver. And then hours apart as she sat in a parking lot while I taught English and fell in love with China. After several years of teaching in Kansas and summers in China, Margot watched as my dad helped load a U-Haul to take my worldly possessions back to Denver to live for two years in my sister’s basement.

Dad headed off to Denver and Margot and I hit the road for a detour through Wichita. A dear friend had donated a kidney to her brother and I wanted to visit her one last time before I moved to China.

Because I was only going to China for two years, it seemed silly to sell her. So I didn’t.

I do not know where my story would have been stored if I had sold her. I am also not sure when she became the keeper of my story. All I know is that she did. Every time I returned to the U.S. she was there to drive me around and provide me with a sense of independence.

In the blink of an eye, nine years passed.

I returned to the U.S. on a study leave. Margot and I were united again. And again she drove me to school, to visit friends, to speak at churches. She heard me sing and bore silent witness to the tears I shed in the months leading up to another goodbye.

In the blink of an eye, three years passed.

I returned to China. My beloved Margot sat once more, waiting for me.

Whenever I returned to Denver, she was there. She provided me the gift of coming and going at will. But then one summer, it was obvious that Margot was aging and the time had come to do the unthinkable.

No one would have paid her true value and I could not bear to have her underappreciated. I called the local rescue mission and explained I had a car to donate. We set up an appointment for me to turn over the title, I had only one stipulation: You cannot take her until I have left for China. I cannot bear to see her drive away.

The pain cut so deep, it went beyond reason. I might have given my left arm to be able to keep her. And that’s when I hit me.

Margot held my story.

I loved living overseas. I thrived. But every now and then as I aged the twinge would come when I thought of siblings and peers who had houses and cars and other “normal” markers of adulthood. I had a passport full of stamps, yes. But I had nothing tangible to point to that indicated “Here is an adult. Here is a ‘real person.’”

Margot had been with me through my 20s and 30s. She was the one constant in a sea of change. While I lived a more nomadic existence, packing up after each year in China (another story for another time), and I found myself at age 30 having life rhythms I had had at twenty, I would say to myself, “Don’t worry, I am a real adult, I own a car.”

This week all of this flooded back.

Four years ago I moved back to the U.S. and bought another car. Much to everyone’s shock, after insisting on only buying red computers, red this, red that. She was blue. As a Honda Fit it seemed only fitting that she be called Fiona.

Cutting to the chase, she was pummeled in a colossal hail storm in May. This week she was deemed totaled. This had not occurred to me when I casually dropped her off the end of August. On the phone with the insurance who went over the details and what I would be paid and steps I need to take, she casually asked if I needed to get an any personal items out of the car before she was reclaimed at the repair place. Of course I do you idiot. (Only part said out loud.)

I still own nothing but a car as a sign of adulthood. And now that which held my story for the last four years, is no longer mine.

My story will go on. God at work in and through me, to be sure.

But I am left wondering who will keep the story now? And why can the cost of the call sneak up? Will Fiona’s new owner know what she is capable of?

It may not be taxes, paper, or cars, but in his mercy, God uses ordinary things of this world to help hold your story. What is it for you?

Support Raising and the Dreaded Big Need

This year, we needed a lot of extra money – $38,000.00 extra to be precise.

Even though we’ve been at this whole support raising thing for more than a decade, that big number left me feeling a bit wobbly. I had two major doubts:

Yeah God has provided in really cool ways in the past, but this is a lot of money.

It just doesn’t seem right asking people who already give to give more.

If this was the post of my dreams, I’d be sharing with you the foolproof, non-embarrassing, super easy, success guaranteed steps to raising support. Sorry, this isn’t that post. Instead, I can share what I’ve got – my not so catchy, but thoroughly faith building experience of what it’s really like to deal with your doubts and raise support.

Dealing with the doubt

Doubt: Yeah God has provided in really cool ways in the past, but this is a lot of money.

As I surveyed the big financial needs ahead of us, I felt like surely by now God must be all out of tricks. We’d seen big needs met in the past and our daily expenses continued to be covered, but maybe we’d finally reached our quota of miraculous financial gifts. Maybe this time God would shake his head and shrug, “Sorry guys. That last one was my limit. You’re on your own this time.”

What really happened: We used savings first. I know that doesn’t sound all that miraculous, but it is. God was already providing for this big need. He had been for years. The very fact that we had money in the bank to put towards the initial need was evidence of it. God’s miraculous provision isn’t past tense; it’s present and faithful day by day.

Doubt: It just doesn’t seem right to ask people who already give to give more.

What really happened: As we started to share the story and our needs, it was as if a fire lit up inside of people. Crazy things started to happen. Some who I’d thought couldn’t possibly give did and did so generously. A stranger handed me a wad of cash. Another donated out of the blue online. We won grants to help cover certain eligible expenses. Someone gave us diamond jewelry to sell. As needs were met people would ask, “What other needs do you have?” We began to share what had previously only been “it would be really nice if…” and then see those provided for as well.

Get to it

At some point, we had to just take a deep breath and get to work. There are all sorts of methods and even classes that teach you how to market yourself as a missionary (yikes!), but as for my personal opinion – you don’t need any of that. You already have all you need.

Share your story: When we were transitioning from salaried jobs to living on support alone, my team leader said something I’ve never forgotten. She said, “Just share your story and see what God does.”

So we did. We thought through our own stories of how we’d come to know Jesus and how we’d come to have this desire to serve overseas. We put together stories from the team already on the field. We shared with anyone who cared to listen. And we trusted that in the same way God had used these stories to spur our own hearts to action, he would use them in the lives of others as well.

This year, with that huge sum of money to raise, we found ourselves once again thinking through and sharing our stories. What led us here? What is God already doing?

I don’t write this post retrospectively. We are still $8,000 away from having that big need completely met. I have no idea where the money will come from, but that number doesn’t leave me quite as wobbly as before.

Anyway, why should it? My big need didn’t catch God by surprise. He’s already stirring hearts to action.

Should we send “ordinary Christians” as missionaries? What I’ve learned from the Ugandan church.

By Anthony Sytsma

Should churches send out “ordinary Christians” as missionaries? That is the question that came to my mind when I read an intriguing tweet from Chuck Swindoll:

Missions aren’t just for superstars. A missionary is just like you. Ordinary folks through whom God does the extraordinary.”

On the one hand, I agree with this statement. I, as a missionary, know my own sins and weaknesses.  I am regularly astounded at how God has used me. It is his grace at work in me, an ordinary person. A major biblical theme is that God likes to use weak people, sinful people, and people who we would not expect for his Kingdom work.

But on the other hand, Swindoll’s comment brought to mind what Ugandan church leaders have told me about missionaries during my discussions with them in When Helping Hurts trainings. I think Ugandans are frustrated with “ordinary missionaries.” Ugandan leaders told me to tell the North American church that we should stop sending missionaries who aren’t prepared. And above all, they want missionaries who are theologically trained and strong in faith and character.

One Ugandan asked, “Are the donors back home actually strong in faith but they are just sending us middle-men?” Another said, “If they are not trained and not able to teach, then why are they sent to work here?” They are confused when North American churches and mission organizations emphasize the importance of Bible college and seminary education, and yet some of the missionaries they send, who are trying to teach pastors, have not had these types of education themselves.

How do we synthesize both Swindoll’s comment and the quotes from the Ugandan leaders? Both perspectives seem to be true and important. Should we send ordinary Christians as missionaries? My answer is a qualified “yes.” Missionaries are indeed ordinary Christians in one sense, but they should be trained and well-prepared ordinary Christians. God can use anybody for his work, even if they are not prepared or even sinful. But we should never use this as an excuse to be unprepared or irresponsible in our mission work.

I think a historical shift has taken place in the North American Church. In the recent past, I’m sure that emphasizing this theme of Swindoll’s was helpful. It was a corrective to churches that idealized missionaries too much, making them out to be abnormal super Christians, the examples of whom we could not possibly hope to live up to. But it seems the pendulum has shifted to the other extreme side. Now we view missionaries as a little bit too ordinary. In the rest of this post, I’d like to analyze this historical shift.

The consequences of this historical shift

Some very good things have resulted from this historical shift. People like me were encouraged that despite our weaknesses God could use even us. Our fears were largely taken away. This shift has also helped church members in sending churches to better relate to, understand, befriend, and be more patient with missionaries because they realize that we are actually not extraordinary people, but just regular ordinary folks.

But there have been some negative consequences from this historical shift as well:

  • While before some people felt too inadequate to become a missionary, now it seems that people do not have enough feelings of humble inadequacy.
  • Some missionaries are not being adequately prepared and trained before going to other countries. They are told God can use them just as they are, in their weaknesses. So they rush off to try to change the world with scant theological and mission education, very little reading of theology and mission books, and little practical ministry experience in their home country.
  • Perhaps some people are becoming missionaries because they are told repeatedly, “anyone can be a missionary” but they are not truly called by God to do it. Sending churches may not be testing the personal callings of missionaries enough today.
  • Many missionaries have had to go home because of falling into sin, having mental breakdowns, or having unfruitful ministries. These tragic missionary stories are common. We need to show compassion and mercy to such missionaries, but some of these tragedies could have been avoided had the missionaries been adequately prepared and received counseling before going overseas.
  • Many missionaries in developing countries are doing as much harm as good as they try to reach out to the poor (see the book When Helping Hurts). Many missionaries jump in the airplane and go without ever having read any books on poverty alleviation. If all you have is a compassionate heart and you haven’t been taught about how to effectively help the poor, or how to counsel alcoholics, or how to work with the homeless, or how to work against corruption, (you name the issue), then you can’t really expect to make much of a positive impact.
  • Since the message is that “any ordinary person can be a missionary overseas,” churches have severely downplayed some biblical passages:
    • Passages about each person having different gifts and abilities, and therefore different roles. Not everyone is supposed to be a missionary in another country just like not everyone is supposed to be a pastor or elder.
    • Passages about the importance of teaching, being taught, and training up new leaders. We need to be prepared.  1 Peter 3:15 – But in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect.
    • Passages about special qualifications and ordination to positions such as Acts 6:1-7, 1 Timothy 3, and the powerful James 3:1 – “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” 1 Timothy 5:22 – “Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands, and do not share in the sins of others.” Logically and biblically, those we ordain as leaders, such as elders, deacons, or pastors, should be people of excellent character, knowledge, and leadership skills. They should be more spiritually mature than other Christians.  In other words, though this is a bit crass, they should be “the best of the best.” Why do we think it should be any different for those we ordain as missionaries? If we are to choose “the best” as elders and overseers of the church, why wouldn’t we also choose “the best” to be sent out to new cultures to start new churches, as representatives of the churches that send them? I don’t understand why American Christians still look up to pastors as being more spiritually mature leaders of God’s people, but then they say we should not look up to missionaries as spiritually mature Christian leaders because they are just ordinary Christians?

Questions for Reflection and Discussion

I admit that these are not easy issues, and I don’t want to be legalistic about the following items. I can apply these tough questions as easily to myself as to other missionaries and not fully get a passing grade. But we should try to make sure our missionaries are as spiritually mature and prepared as they can be.

  • Why do some denominations have vigorous standards for ordination to pastoral ministry, but not for missionaries? In my denomination, for a person to become ordained as a pastor, it takes years of education, training, psychological evaluations, internships, difficult exams, and a local church affirming your calling. I think this is good and fitting for the difficult calling that being a pastor is. Why don’t mission agencies and denominations have as vigorous standards for people to become missionaries? Especially consider that they are also doing difficult ministry, but with the added challenge of doing it in a foreign culture.
  • Why is it that we send people to start new churches, who have not pastored a church in their passport country first?
  • Why is it that we send missionaries to preach who have never preached in their passport country?
  • Why do we send people overseas to help the poor if they have not done any poverty alleviation work in their passport country first?
  • Why do we send people to evangelize who have never led someone to Christ in their passport country?
  • Why is it that we send people to teach others theology who have not had theological education themselves first?
  • If you would not be comfortable with your missionary as an elder or pastor of your church in your own country, then should you really be comfortable with them representing your church to a new culture in another country?

Let’s make sure whatever missionaries we send are thoroughly prepared, experienced, counseled, discipled, and trained before they go.  Let’s embrace humility, remembering that missionaries are ordinary people, and it is God who works in and through us.  But remember, we are dealing with the Great Commission, the Good News, the Gospel.  It is important.  Let us take the missionary calling seriously.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Rev. Anthony Sytsma works in Kenya and Uganda with World Renew, a Christian development organization affiliated with the Christian Reformed Church of North America (CRCNA).  He is passionate about equipping local churches, and his main work is to teach and encourage church leaders. He is married to Sara who works with farmers in agricultural development and other livelihood projects. They blog jointly at Word and Seed in Kenya.

Is Calling in our DNA?

DNA Strands

“So” said the kindly woman at the Baptist church. “You must want to be a missionary too when you grow up! Do you think God will call you too?” 

I recoiled. I hoped she wouldn’t see the visible distress on my face. She was so kind. She was so excited about my potential. How could I disappoint?

But NO, I didn’t. I didn’t want to be a missionary when I grew up. I didn’t want to raise support. I didn’t want to go from church to church in small New England towns. I did not want prayer letters or ‘deputation’. No. No. No. 

I was 18 years old. I wanted college and boyfriends and travel and stamps in my passport. And then down the road? Down the road of course I would go overseas again – because that was home! But I didn’t even think about being a missionary. 

There are a couple of things that can be huge burdens to missionary kids and their parents.

One is behavior. Missionary kids have just as many reasons to rebel as any other kid. Some might argue, more. Our world contains pitfalls that can catch and take us down. I know. I was one who found marijuana growing in the back of Holy Trinity church, that noble and historic church in the town of Murree that the entire missionary community would attend every summer. It’s easy for us to use excuses of belonging and identity to rebel. And then it’s easy for a parent to feel guilt “if we hadn’t brought our kids half way around the world etc. this wouldn’t have happened…” while the reality is that when a kid is bent on bending rules it’s going to happen anywhere.

The second burden is ‘calling’. Because calling is a word loaded with question marks and misunderstanding.

It was a few years later that I began to really wrestle with this word and idea. I had seen the good, bad, and ugly related to call and calling.  I had seen the good that comes from faith and understanding God’s big story. I had seen a kid on the brink of death because a father was so committed to a call that he forgot the call included caring for his children. I had become acquainted with ugly legalism that forgets the beautiful story and call to redemption, reducing it to choking rules and regulations. 

In my wrestling, I  realized that the kind woman at that Baptist church was partially correct. My parents were called. But their first call was to God Himself. After that, their journey took them places where all was initially unfamiliar. Food, clothing, housing, plumbing, language, faith expression — all of it was new. It had to be learned and learned with humility and willingness to admit mistakes.

Along the way they had babies. And sometimes more babies. And what was unfamiliar to them was home to us, their children. We first heard words and phrases in English, Urdu, and Sindhi. Curry was a staple, the call to prayer the first alarm clock. None of this spelled strange, it was all familiar. Home was 18-hour train rides from the desert of Sindh to the lush Punjab; home was a boarding school community with all the good and the hard of dormitory living away from parents; home was plane trips and passports, learning how to negotiate cross-culturally at young ages. This was home.

So pressure that this life overseas would be a ‘calling’ simply because we were the children of missionaries was uncomfortable and so foreign. 

On the one hand it seemed to make sense, like a family business where one by one the kids take their place behind the counter talking to customers and learning how to negotiate transactions. But how many kids actually end up in the family business?  How many children of nurses, teachers, and mechanics become nurses, teachers, mechanics? Some do. But others follow another path, walk a different journey.

Ultimately the call of God isn’t a business, it isn’t an occupation. The call of God is heard in the heart and obeyed with the mind and body. It is a word, the Word, that is planted and watered until it grows into an active, living, breathing faith. It is a call to God himself. 

Missionary kids are called. But they are called to God Himself. After that – it’s anyone’s guess. After that it could be to a small town in England, a large city in North America, an international consulting business based in Holland, a law office in Seattle, a position in an international business degree program, a tenured professorship at a university, a foreign service position with the state department.

Rarely does it look the same as the parents. Our journey may begin through the faith and calling of our parents, but those roots are transplanted and sustained through our own decisions of faith. 

So is calling in our DNA?

Threaded through each strand of our DNA is indeed a Call. A Call described best by the ever-challenging words of St. Augustine to “Love God and enjoy Him forever”.  Only that Call is carefully entwined in our spiritual genetic code from head to toe, from heart to soul.

And after that it’s anyone’s guess.

This post has been adapted from an older version originally written in 2012 for Community Across Boundaries. 

Ask A Counselor: How’s my self-care plan holding up?

Hey friends, I usually write a self-care post in January, but I just wanted to run through a quick self-care check-up with you this month, and give a few ideas if you find yourself needing a little pick-me-up.

I like to use the Biopsychosocial model as a guide to make sure that we’re covering all our self-care bases.  We need to be caring for ourselves:

  • biologically (our physical selves)
  • psychologically (our emotional/spiritual selves)
  • socially (our relational selves, in the reality of today)

Here are some evaluation points for our biological selves:

  • How am I sleeping?
  • How is my appetite?
  • Am I getting regular exercise?
  • Am I fairly healthy, or am I experiencing repeated physical illnesses?
  • When I scan my body, are there areas of persistent physical tension?
  • Am I able to physically relax?
  • Am I experiencing panic or anxiety attacks?

If we are experiencing any disturbances in this area, we might:

  • See a doctor to explore issues of sleep, appetite, illness.
  • Find regular exercise routines that work in our setting.
  • Explore yoga as a way to care for the physical self.
  • Learn alternate nostril breathing as a calming technique.
  • Explore contemplative prayer as a way to connect our embodied selves with God.
  • Use a simple app like Calm as a breathing, meditation, or sleep coach.

Here are some evaluation points for our psychological (spiritual/emotional) selves:

  • How are my moods?
  • Am I especially irritable, angry, sad, anxious?
  • Am I acting out in undesirable ways?
  • When I sit quietly with myself, what emotions arise?
  • Am I feeling spiritually dry, distant, disconnected?

If we’re experiencing disturbances in this area, we might:

  • Journal 20 minutes daily.
  • Read good books–some suggested below.
  • Listen to uplifting music.
  • Find a good podcast.
  • Talk to a counselor.  (Check our resource tab!)
  • Join a supportive online group.

Here are some evaluation points for our social selves:

  • How are my closest relationships these days?
  • Can I easily access friends, family, supportive community?
  • What’s my work environment like right now?
  • Does life feel “fair” to me, or do I feel overworked and underappreciated?
  • Are there any particularly stressful or painful circumstances right now?
  • When’s the last time I really had fun?
  • When is my next holiday?

If we’re experiencing disturbances in this area, we might:

  • Make an effort to reach out to those closest to us, and explore any disconnect.
  • Consider what healthy boundaries would look like for me and my family.
  • Consider what healthy boundaries would look like for my work environment.
  • Take into account any particularly stressful circumstances the might require boundary adjustments.
  • Look for ways to have fun, relax, and nourish myself on a daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly basis.

Remember:

YOU MATTER.

YOU COUNT.

YOU ARE GOD’S BELOVED.

The pattern of your life should reflect your infinite value and worth.

You are not the source and supply for every person on earth–not even if they think you are.

You are fully loved and safe and chosen, just as you are.

GOD IS THE SOURCE AND SUPPLY.

LET GOD BE GOD.

YOU BE YOU.

Resources to explore

The Body Keeps the Score, Bessel Van Der Kolk

Boundaries, Henry Cloud and John Townsend

How God Changes Your Brain, Andrew Newberg

The Anxiety Cure, Archibald Hart

The Inner Voice of Love, Henri Nouwen

Learning to Walk in the Dark, Barbara Brown Taylor

Falling Upward, Richard Rohr

photo credit