Share Your Little Vistas

flowers in alley

Most countries have their majestic views. They’re the sights that populate Google image results and Pinterest collections. I’m thinking Eiffel Towers and Mount Fujis.

In the capital of Taiwan, we could ride the gondola up to the heights of Maokong and gaze at Taipei 101 piercing the skyline  of the city, surrounded by a ring of mountains. Or we could stand at the entrance of Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Park, with its paved square and manicured lawns leading to the majestic bright-white, blue roofed Memorial Hall.

If you visit Taipei, I’d suggest you try to see both of these grand vistas. But living there for a while, I had some little vistas that impacted me more. For instance, there was the view from my favorite seat in a Starbucks deep in the subway system. Through the glass wall in front of me, I could look down a long corridor, lined with shops. The architecture was nondescript, but what impacted me was the constant crowds of people kaleidoscoping by. I spent a lot of time at that vantage point mulling over big decisions.

And there was an ancient tree on a college campus downtown that caught my attention. It was mostly sideways limbs, gnarled and stretching out in all directions. The limbs were so heavy and low that they had to be held up by short concrete pillars so they wouldn’t touch the ground. I admired that tree. It was old and weary but enduring. It was especially picturesque during a rain shower.

What about you, in your host country? Do you have a little vista that brings you joy or peace or hope or inspiration?

Maybe you can’t get to yours right now, because you’ve had to leave your home, or maybe it’s inaccessible while you shelter in place. Maybe it’s just around the corner, or maybe it’s a bus ride away. Maybe it’s part of your weekly routine, or maybe you catch a glimpse of it every day, framed by your kitchen window. Maybe it’s a piece of God’s creation, or maybe it’s man made. Maybe you put it together yourself. Maybe you stumbled upon it. Maybe you’ve shown it to your friends. Maybe it’s a place it seems no one else has found.

Can you share with us a little vista? Can you sketch a word picture in the comments below and help us see—and feel—a small corner of your big part of the world? I hope so. I think we could all use a little extra joy and peace and hope and inspiration.

[photo: “Flowerpot of the Roadside” by mrhayata, used under a Creative Commons license]

What Are You Even Doing Here?

by Corella Roberts

Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, I was a fresh, excited, bi-vocational missionary-teacher in Alaska. I wanted to make a difference. I wanted to partner with God. I wanted to use my gifts and my training and my time to spread the gospel. I wanted to shine His glory to the uttermost parts of the earth.

And then … it was really, really, REALLY hard. I barely made it two months into village life before finding myself gasping for air.

“During this overwhelming, unpredictable season, we were invited to go to a church service in a nearby village; and we welcomed the opportunity to see a new place and worship with other believers. A travelling, Native pastor picked us up in his four-seater airplane, and we hopped down the river to an even smaller village for church.  Before the service began, this well-intentioned pastor asked us if we’d met the only other Christian couple in our village. They were in their forties, had been following Christ for about four years, and had been praying for Christian teachers to fellowship with. 

They didn’t have any kids in the school, where our lives had been consumed with the task of adjusting to teaching; so no, we hadn’t met them yet.

‘Then what are you even doing here?’ this short, fiery man retorted. 

Somehow, I held it together in the moment, but I was absolutely pierced, soul deep.  . . .

I tried to sit through the worship, but the pain inside was too strong. I got up, closed myself in the small bathroom, and tried to stifle my sobs.  Is THIS your plan, God? This mess of a job I’m calling teaching? . . . This crushing expectation to support the other Christian couple? Seriously, God. I don’t like it. I can’t do it. Why am I even here? I knew I needed to pull it together, but I had no answer. No peace. Only pain. Some missionary I was.” (I recounted that story in my new book, Colliding with the Call.)

I didn’t stay in that place of despair or those feelings of failure forever. In fact, I didn’t even give up on our bush teaching assignment. My husband and I hacked out another seven years in rural Alaska before moving to teach in Thailand, but I can tell you, I still hear that question buzzing in my ear now and then. What are you even doing here? It’s like a dengue-carrying mosquito, and I know if I let it land and bite, my faith will be in critical condition for a while. (If you don’t know what Dengue Fever is, feel free to substitute the imagery for the cough of a COVID-19 carrier who forgot to wear a mask.)

I think that question is so particularly hurtful because if there’s one thing a missionary wants to be, it’s useful. So when we start doubting our purpose, our calling, it’s often a direct attack on ourselves and our identity. But that right there–the feeling of a loss of identity when we feel like we’re failing at our tasks–is the real danger.

It’s easy to say, “My identity is in Christ,” but a whole other thing to live it. I won’t expand on that because Amy Young already wrote about it here. And you can find a huge list of scriptures about it here. But what I do want to touch on is that right now, during this global pandemic and the frustration of social distancing, what we can do is most likely being affected. Which means we’re all swatting at that question, What are you even doing here?

So, let’s answer it once and for all.

 

WHAT are you even doing here?
Are you sheltering your family by practicing social distancing? Do it in love. Are you preparing online lessons or teaching your stir-crazy kiddos from home? Do it in love. Did you make the painful decision to go? To stay? To be near those who need you most at this time? Be there in love. Are you distributing food? Sharing words of encouragement? Worshiping and praying? Learning to be still and listen? Do it in love.

There is no small task in the kingdom of God. What you see as menial, He sees as faithful service. I am convinced that nothing poured out in worship is ever wasted. Keep doing what you’re doing in love, as worship, and know that it is enough, because He is enough.

“The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed . . .” Matthew 13:31-32

 

What are YOU even doing here?
You are you on purpose–created and designed to fill that very special niche in God’s plan. He has not put anyone else in your particular position, he has put you there. Wherever you are and whatever you’re doing (or feel like you’re not doing), you’re there, doing it, on divine purpose. No one else can speak to that one hurting heart in your home, next door, or through the screen, the way you can. And no one else can represent that very special facet of His heart to the world the way you can. Just keep being you–He’s never asked you to be anyone else.

“For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works . . .” Ephesians 2:10

 

What are you even doing HERE?
I have a friend right now who has been stuck in Australia, trying to return to her family and her graduating senior in Thailand, since this whole global shut-down began. Others have been able to repatriate but now are unsure how they’ll get visas again when it’s time to return to their host countries. And many of us (myself included) are separated from vulnerable family members and questioning if we made the right choice not to be with them when this all started going down. It’s incredibly frustrating to feel trapped or blocked from being where we want to be, but I’m holding onto this:

“. . . your life is now hidden with Christ in God.” Colossians 3:2-4

God has my feet on this chunk of the planet, in this moment in time, for a reason. But more than that, I belong to Him. He is my true home, and my heart is safely cupped in His hands. 

No matter where you are, what you’re doing, or how you’re feeling productive and useful or not, you are sheltered and dearly loved in Christ for all eternity. 

I think if someone were to furrow their brows at me today and pointedly ask, “What are you even doing here?” I’d be miffed, certainly, but then I hope I’d say, “You know, I’m not always sure. But I am sure that God is pursuing my heart. And I hope I can love some other people into His kingdom along the way.”

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

Corella Roberts makes her home in Northern Thailand where she and her husband partner with an international school to “Serve the Servants.” Their first missionary teaching assignment landed them in the remote bush of Alaska, which you can read about in her newly released book, Colliding with the Call. From tundra to tropics, she seeks to follow Jesus, and she encourages others to connect deeply with God at corellaroberts.com. You can also find her cleaning up legos or meandering their local market in search of mangosteen and lychee fruit.

A lament for the griefs we don’t have time to grieve

by EC Nance

April and May are usually a grieving season for mission communities. This year it has been particularly rough. Schools closed without warning. People evacuated with a day’s notice. Graduation ceremonies moved online. Children face the prospect of never seeing friends again, without having done the leave-taking. I wrote the following poem as a reflection on this crazy season.

 

I live in a community that lives
in a semi-permanent state of grief
always separate
always strange
always leaving
always being left

but this season
the rhythms of grief
have been interrupted
so the fruit is left on the tree
to swell
sagging with tears

the separations
too rough
the strangeness
too jarring
the leaving
too fast
the being left
—well, what is left
but a splitting
where there should have been
a harvest feast.

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

EC Nance lives with her family in SE Asia where her husband works at an MK school.

Two Practices for The Long Obedience in the Same Direction

I am wired to move forward.

In January I created a Reflecting on 2019 and Preparing for 2020 packet. During group calls with cross-cultural workers who used packet, many said they are similar to me. Others said, “What?! No, reflecting is the best; planning is the hard part.” Obviously, both are important. That being said, just because something is important, doesn’t mean we will do it.

Part of my “move forward” mentality influenced my understanding of debriefing for missionaries. I thought people went through debriefing when they left the field. So, when I left the field in a more traumatic (to me) fashion than for years I assumed I would, I attended a weeklong debriefing. I highly, highly recommend debriefing!

But one repeated statement shocked me.

“Debriefing isn’t only for those who are leaving the field.” 

Wait? What?

Turns out debriefing helps both those who like to move forward and need a nudge to reflect and those who like to reflect and need a nudge making plans.

Since I can’t go back and add more debriefing to my past, I can build more into my life and have found two practices that have allowed me to sort through experiences closer to real time but with enough distance to be valuable. 

The first practice is an “After Action Review.” I read about AARs in Your Best Year Ever by Michael Hyatt. They were designed by the US Army in 1981 to provide a structured way to look at “failure.” After learning about them, my hope is that you and your team will start implementing them.

I have already done three since January, one for the January Challenge I designed for Global Trellis, one for a cross-cultural worker conference I attended last weekend, and one for the April Challenge (also at Global Trellis). 

An After Action Review involves four stages:

  1. State what you wanted to happen.
  2. Acknowledge what actually happened. Tease out themes, single words or phrases, even complete sentences.
  3. Learn from the experience.
  4. Adjust your behavior.

Because models are helpful, you can see the After Action Review I did of the January Challenge here. I have included most of what I wrote (I’ve left out the parts that are private). I will admit I reluctantly did an AAR for the April Challenge. Probably like you, much of this season has been marked by disappointment and parts of the April Challenge did not go as I had hoped. I wondered if doing an AAR was going to depress me (and remind me of the plans and investment—both time and money—that had gone to “waste”). But I did an After Action Review and you know what?

More went well than I thought. By taking about 15 minutes to answer the four question I was able to both capture on paper (so I can refer back) and allow the Holy Spirit to extend grace to me (this really was an unusual spring, I can be nice to myself that it didn’t go as well as hoped). 

Whether you are looking forward to doing an AAR or dreading it, I’d encourage you, your spouse, and/or your team to build in the practice after larger events. In truth, if you do it yourself, they take about 15 minutes. If you do it in a group, each of you do one ahead of time and then give no more than 45 minutes to go over it as a group. This will help you stay focused.

The second practice is debriefing. My hope is that you do not find this statement shocking in the least: “Debriefing isn’t only for those who are leaving the field.”

Whether you have been through a traumatic experience or simply the normal rough and tumble of a year or two, debriefing can benefit you. Similar to an annual checkup at the doctor, debriefings help you to know where you are healthy, where you might be in a warning zone, and where you need to change or intervene right now. 

Often debriefing in-person is expensive or unavailable. Thankfully with the internet more accessible debriefing options exist. Whether you left or stayed for COVID-19, you have a lot to unpack. Here are two options for accessible debriefing that can be done where you are. 

When Jesus pulled away and spent time with His Father, in part, he modeled that a life time of ministry has times of reflection and times of action. The more you build these two practices into your life, the more you will become integrated and whole.

After Action Reviews are not just for businesses and debriefing isn’t just for those leaving the field. Instead, they are practices of those who participate in what Eugene Peterson called “the long obedience in the same direction.”


Photo by Tucker Tangeman on Unsplash

Are You Poor?

by Rachel K. Zimmerman

I was sitting at a table for four at one of the more exclusive country clubs in Florida. My friend and I were in fancy dresses, trying to enjoy a nice dinner with some relatives. I was headed back overseas a few days later. My anxiety always peaked a few days before going back.

The conversation over dinner wandered from one superficial topic to another. My mind traveled from the taste of the wine to the looks of the buffet, wondering how much this meal was costing and why people spend so much money to belong to a club in order to go to fancy, overpriced buffet meals that were honestly not that tasty. I was present in the conversation and the minions in my mind were chanting their common tune of the mindset of the rich and the poor. 

I’m not quite sure how the question came up but all of the sudden one of the people at our table directed his attention towards me and asked: “so, are you poor?”

I think I blinked a few times, stunned, scrambling to find an appropriate answer to the inappropriate question. To this day, I’m mad at myself for how I didn’t speak up for myself and respond with a question of my own:

Are you rich?

Are you afraid of poor people?

What does poverty mean to you?

Yes, technically, I am materially poor right now. Is that a problem?

Is that any of your business?

Or, just get up, and leave the table, refusing to subject myself to such ignorance.

Instead, I stammered on in a very American way about how I’m volunteering in Haiti but am debt free, have a decent income potential in my profession in the US, etc. My American brain kicked in for me and said the right-ish thing that I thought the people around me wanted to hear. Inside of me, the Haitian and the American in me, the global citizen, felt indignant and also full of shame. 

I have thought about that conversation so many times since that night several years ago. I have rehearsed different ways I wish I had responded with conviction and thinly veiled alarm.

I guess it’s human nature to differentiate ourselves from others. In American society it seems we have convinced ourselves that those who are different from us must have done something to deserve their state in the world. This is what privilege unchecked leads to. It leads to conclusions drawn about others rather than setting a table to learn about the way our fellow human has experienced the world. In the many sectors of privilege across the world, the walls built to differentiate have somehow helped us feel safe and our collective conscience at quasi-peace. 

It’s easier to believe that we are different from them because if we were the same humanity with the same flesh and blood running through us, we may be compelled to live a different way. 

It is our biases unchecked that have led to so many of the social ills and societal brokenness that presently linger in our ‘civil’ society today.

It seems we’ve convinced ourselves:

People with mental illness are somehow more flawed than we are. 

The incarcerated deserve to be caged and their lives ruined as retribution for their sins.

People who abuse drugs are criminals and deserve punishment.

People who are homeless are a problem for society.

People who immigrate to America legally or illegally steal our jobs and need to speak English.

And those darn poor people. It must be their fault too. It’s the poor’s fault for being poor. Why can’t they just pick themselves up off the floor?

There was a message communicated without subtlety that poverty meant there was something wrong with me. I have wondered what compelled this man to ask that question. But honestly, the responses to that question are simply the armor that I put on to protect myself because the voices inside me were questioning:

Am I poor?

Am I doing something wrong?

Why don’t I fit into this country I once called home that now seems to be dominated by greedy capitalism and pull-yourself-up-by-your-boot-straps mentality?

The truth I can see now, many years later, is how outside the norm I must have been as an educated professional choosing to live with the have-nots in a ‘poor’ country living my dream and passion. I suppose this radical way of living tends to get the people around thinking.

This post is not about being rich or poor. I have truly been in the company of both extremes and have felt incredibly loved, seen, and known by humans in both groups. But oh how I miss the simple and joyous company of my Haitian brother and sister eating rice, beans, chicken with sauce, and laughing carelessly in the warm breeze.

I have been gifted some of my favorite relationships, life lessons, and many graces by the materially poor in this world. I wonder if there’s really something radical to the words of Jesus:

“Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.

Blessed are you who hunger now,
for you will be satisfied.

Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.

Blessed are you when people hate you,
when they exclude you and insult you
and reject your name as evil,
because of the Son of Man.”

Luke 6:20-22 NIV

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

Rachel K. Zimmerman is a physical therapist who spent two years working alongside a capable Haitian team to establish a community health center outside Port-au-Prince, Haiti. A self-proclaimed ‘geographically confused’ individual with a Texas license plate, an Oklahoma license, and 40 Haitian stamps in her passport, Rachel currently resides in Washington where she enjoys coffee, teaching yoga, and gasping at the majestic view of Mount Rainier. She is a recovering perfectionist, lover of cross-cultural workers, and student of trauma and healing subjects. You can read along at her blog, catch her on Facebook, or follow her on Instagram.

 

What is an Expatriate Family?

Originally published in Brain Child Magazine, 2013

My kids are the ones who bring the weird snack to school. The other kids have pain au chocolate (if they are French) or half a baguette with Smiling Cow cheese spread in the middle (if they are Djiboutian). Mine are the ones with homemade granola or banana bread. Nothing wrong with homemade granola or banana bread, but that’s not what the other kids are eating. The food sets them apart. As does their underwear. In swimming class other kids leave thick, single-colored cotton underpants in a heap on the floor. Mine leave Thomas the Tank Engine or Dora the Explorer thin cotton panties in a heap. The smells of home we carry on our clothes and my accent when communicating with the teacher or other parents mark my family. Other. Different. Foreign. Alien, even. We are the ones who don’t quite fit in. We are an expatriate family.

I thought this awkwardness would disappear when we spent one year in Minnesota, the land of our passports and tax-payments and home-ownership. But in Minnesota my family was the one wishing Somali cashiers at Target, “Eid Mubarak.” At school my kids were the Americans who didn’t know what to do in the cafeteria at lunchtime, the kids who thought people played baseball on Thanksgiving, the kids who wobbled on skates and tumbled on skis and who complained of the cold weather when it was 75 degrees. Here, I had the right accent and provided the right school snacks but I didn’t understand the grading system and spent hours and hours and hours perusing the shelves at the grocery store, searching for those snacks, half in awe and half in shock. After a decade abroad, we didn’t quite fit in here either.

When we don’t fit, we forge our own path. My kids didn’t know how to navigate the cafeteria but our twin teenagers have traveled internationally through three countries on their own. We might have strange accents but we can retreat into private family conversations in French or in Somali or English, depending on where we are. We might eat strange food but have learned to be comfortable no matter the strangeness of our underwear.

We don’t exactly fit in Somalia, Kenya, or Djibouti, though we have spent many years in these places and they are now the holders of our memories, the shapers of our present, and the backdrop against which we will always judge our futures. We don’t exactly fit in Minnesota, though four of the five of us were born there, we (loosely) cheer for the Vikings, and we care more about cheese and fresh water lakes than most expats.

Sometimes I sense a disconnect between my husband and I and our children. Tom and I know how to ice skate, enjoy wool socks, know just how long to let marshmallows smolder in hot chocolate. We know how to rake leaves and roll snowballs and what oofdah means. Because Minnesota raised us and our memories are woven through with the smells and seasons of the Midwest, fresh mown grass and wormy streets after a spring rain. My children’s childhoods sound like bicycle horns announcing the morning’s arrival of fresh baguettes. It smells like salty sea air. Their memories will be forever shaped by this place that is home to them in a way it will never be home to their parents. Sometimes I grieve this. I feel a loss, a loneliness, a separation. Other times I see the wild, extravagant gift of it, this widening of world views, the open-handed reception with which our children respond.

And so we make the conscious choice to receive this expat life as a gift. Like baguettes, my husband and I receive the gift as a current reality but my children receive it as the warm crusty bread they will forever love best because it is the bread they loved as children and it will remind them of learning to ride bikes and green wooden bread carts and dodging goats and football (soccer) in the street.

We are each unique and my children are shaping their own spaces, designing their own memories. In the details these memories look almost nothing like my own of growing up in suburban Minneapolis. But in grand, foundational ways, the ways of curiosity, love, creativity, faith, I am giving them what I received. A family to belong to, a family to come out from.

Everyone in our family eats funny food and wears funny underwear and speaks with funny accents. These funny things that separate us from the world bridge the gap and drive us toward each other, where we do fit. We are an expat family and we belong in the in-between spaces we each carve out, the five of us nestled against one another.

How does your family identify as an expat family?

The upside down-ness of socially distant life

As these last days and weeks have dragged on into months of isolation and distancing, I can’t shake the upside down feeling. Not much is as it should be. My family is out of place and out of sorts. Just this week with slight loosening lock down measures I took my children with me to the store, their first outing in two months. My five year old daughter talked to every person she met and rushed through the telling of all the names of friends she misses any time she had a captive audience. She is starved for connection. We all are.

Yes, there is Zoom and Skype and FaceTime. Yes, we WhatsApp with friends and family attempting to connect in meaningful ways. Yes, we remind ourselves that flattening the curve is important and the upside down-ness is not forever. The parts of our beings made for connection, real life physical connection, still starve.

Moving overseas, the connections with those we left behind took on a different form. We grieved the losses, but understood new connections would be made in our new home. My own parents, siblings, nieces and nephew, and friends were missing from my day to day life, but these in person holes were soon filled. A new, real life community formed around me. I am Aunt Anisha to countless mission nieces and nephews. While thousands of miles separate me from my mother, older women step in to provide comfort and guidance. New friendships forged in the shared experience of living overseas lend peace and hold us up when the homesickness strikes.

But now? Now when all the daily connections are missing and new relationships cannot be formed to fill the gap?

Recently our mission community experienced a exodus of expats. Our hearts hurt to say goodbye to many friends who had become family. Sharing my sadness with a teammate, she responded, “Yes. Sometimes I can feel so alone here. But God always reminds me that when I am lonely and my friends have left, He is the friend who never leaves me.”

We were created for connection- real life, physical connection with other people. People made in God’s image, fleshy carriers of His love and goodness.

God, how I miss your people! I pray. I thought I knew how to do this, how to cope when saying goodbye and forging new relationships is such an innate part of mission life. Surely I should be able to cope with these temporary distances, but they are so hard!

The distance is hard. We all feel it. We’ll keep those Zoom sessions and WhatsApp messages. Instead of stopping to talk with neighbors, we’ll cross to the other side of the street and shout across our greetings as we pass. We’ll remain socially distant and wait.

In the waiting, may my upside down heart remember that there is a Friend who is never distant, who is always with me, who created me for connection, and will provide for that ache just as He always has.

Cultural Hope

wheelchair-1581642_1920

“But what on earth can I write?”

This was what I wrestled with last week as I thought about writing for A Life Overseas. Half of you are displaced, wrestling with when you can get back to your host countries and homes. Half of you are sheltered in place in various places around the world, struggling with what that means. All of you are wondering “Did we make the right decision?”

All of these realities are compounded by the unknown world beyond Covid-19. Some of you are farther ahead. I have friends in Shanghai that encourage me there is life beyond shelter in place and quarantine orders. My son in Greece will be able to attend church next week for the first time in eight weeks. Others are still cautiously waiting. Still others are grieving things beyond Covid-19, worried for things that cannot easily be shared.

All of us are in need of the deep healing that only comes from God.

A few years ago, my husband and I were in an art gallery. Various paintings by different artists were beautifully displayed in an open space. There was light and beauty all around us.

I don’t remember any of the paintings except one. And that one I will never forget.

It was two feet wide and at least three and a half feet long. It hung on a dominant wall in the gallery and, despite sharing the space with several other paintings, this was the painting that I could not stop looking at. It was striking.

It was a picture of an art gallery, much like the gallery we were in. Within the gallery in the picture was a painting of Jesus on the cross on the central wall. Looking up at the painting, hope and longing pouring from the canvas was a man in a wheelchair. The painting was called “Cultural Hope.”

It was a moment of awe as we in the studio stood, invited in to this private moment between Jesus and a wheelchair-bound man. It was reminiscent of stories long ago where in a crowded room a paralyzed man was healed – only this man was still wheel-chair bound.

I knew nothing of the artist. Nothing of what had inspired the painting, but I wanted to stand there forever. Was it the longing in the man’s eyes? Was it the distinctive connection between the two? Was it that moment of shared suffering between cross and wheelchair that shouted of pain and only whispered of redemption?

I walked away challenged and moved. While this man’s wheelchair was visual, my wheelchair is in my mind. While his paralysis was obvious, mine is hidden. But I, like the man in the painting, have looked up at the cross shouting with pain and hearing only the whisper of redemption.

Throughout history people have come to the cross. Sometimes they have come with their own pain, illness, and suffering, and other times they have come with the burdens of others. Sometimes they have come with the weight and fury of injustice and unfair systems. Always they have come with longing for comfort in a broken world – comfort that can be found in a Savior that entered our world and knows our suffering.

As I reflected on the world wide suffering, confusion, fear, and even anger, I remembered this painting. I remembered what it evoked in me as I entered the moment portrayed through the painting. It struck me that this is us during this time. We are the man in the wheelchair. We look up toward Jesus on the cross from whatever binds us, from those things that paralyze us. We come to the cross with shouts of pain, longing, confusion, worry, or fear. Our cries are general and our cries are personal.

“Will you hear our public cries for the world? Will you hear our private cries for those we love? Will you heal our lands of the many things that prevent us from flourishing? Will you heal us – not only of disease but of so many other deep wrongs? Will you heal our paralysis and help us to act?”

Will you heal; will you act?

Shouts of pain and only whispers of redemption.

The longer I stand before the cross, the louder is the whisper. It compels me, urging me to wait, reminding me that the cross was replaced by an empty tomb, that the painting goes beyond “cultural hope” to a living reality.

This is our cultural hope. This is our living reality. We can’t see it, but that is the very definition of faith. We hold out for “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” And, if only for a moment, we rest.

The Privilege of Freedom of Movement

by Nicolette Hutcherson

Lebanon has never been an easy place for us to live. We’ve been here long enough that we’ve passed through some really difficult times – suicide bombings, the garbage crisis, threat of war. This year has been an absolute doozy. 204 days (and counting!) of Revolution. Economic collapse. And now corona. Schools closed at the end of February (and are still closed). Shortly after that, parks, restaurants, and shops followed suit and closed their doors.

Even in the midst of all these crises, we are able to recognize our privilege. I know that using the word privilege has a lot of baggage, but I also believe that not acknowledging it causes more harm than good. We are privileged by nature of our skin color, the families we were born into, our passports. My prayer is that we always use our privilege to call out injustice and for the benefit of the oppressed, but that’s for another blog post.

Anyways, one example of our privilege here: we have foreign bank accounts and foreign credit cards, so even if it means we have to book a quick trip outside Lebanon to pull out cash from the ATM, we still have access to our money. While we are struggling with the skyrocketing cost of living, it’s nothing compared to those who have to deal with the rising cost of food while at the same time not getting their salaries, or having their money held hostage in a bank account.

Another privilege that I have often felt so ashamed of is our freedom of movement. Even in the worst of times, when car bombs were exploding every week, we always knew in the back of our heads that we could jump into our car, drive to the airport, buy a ticket to almost anywhere and get out. It’s not a privilege we think about often, but I think it’s always there, in the deep recesses of our mind. We are free to leave whenever we want.

It’s put in sharp relief when I sit with my refugee friends, who have the complete opposite of freedom of movement. They are stuck. They can’t go home, they can’t go somewhere else. It doesn’t matter that they aren’t allowed to work, that their children’s school decided to close its doors to Syrians, that they need medical or psychological care that they can’t get here – they are stuck. I do my best to sit with them in their grief, in their “stuckness,” and to empathize as much as I can with the unfairness of the cards they have been dealt… but the privilege is still there. I hate it, but the reality is, I could leave any time. 

Until we couldn’t. In early March Lebanon stopped flights from most European cities, and then shortly after the US did the same. (And now the airport will be closed until at least June 8.) So even if we wanted to buy a ticket somewhere, not many places would let us in. Our border to the south is completely closed and under heavy military guard, to the east and north we have Syria, which is not accessible for Americans, and to the west the sea. So that leaves out a road trip anywhere. We don’t have plans to leave, or even want to leave, but all of a sudden, as the travel restrictions came one after the other, I could feel the signs of my PTSD coming back…. headache, shortness of breath…. wait, aren’t those also the symptoms of corona!?

I wish we’d never heard of this blasted sickness. I hope the measures people are taking will stop the spread. I pray that no one else suffers or dies from the virus. But I’m also thankful that because of corona – even if only for a fleeting moment – I learned what it feels like to be stuck, with no freedom to move, a reality that millions around the world live with on a daily basis. 

I’m not saying that a few weeks of being stuck is at all comparable to a lifetime, and even in our stuckness, we are still healthy and safe. But I hope that this small taste allows me to love and care for my truly stuck friends in a deeper way, even when I get the privilege of freedom of movement handed back to me, for no reason other than the passport I hold.

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Nicolette grew up bouncing around the U.S. and the world but has finally settled in Beirut, Lebanon, where she and her family have been serving since 2008. She is the director of Safe Haven, a home for abused and disadvantaged girls, and is involved with refugee ministry and community outreach through her church in Beirut. Nicolette blogs about life as an expat in the Middle East at www.calebandnicolette.wordpress.com

New Podcast Episodes: Marriage, Conflict, and Sex

Elizabeth and I recently carved out some time to go sit in a van in a park and talk about marriage. As a result, we’d like to share with you three new episodes of our Trotters41 Podcast!

This series on marriage is not specific to cross-cultural folks, although some of it is.

It’s also not specific to COVID-19, although some of it is.

We wrapped up the first part with A Marriage Blessing, and that is still our deepest prayer for marriages everywhere, whether you’re abroad or not, whether you’re quarantined or not. We had a lot of fun recording these for you all and we hope they’re an encouragement!

You can listen to the episodes at the links below, or find our podcast on iTunes or Stitcher. The links below will also lead you to each episode’s show notes, with tons of outgoing links to recommended books, articles, and resources.

In the first installment, we talked about marriage in general, discussing a theology of marriage and what the “5 magic hours” means. Listen to Episode 4 here.

In the second installment, we talked about how we conceptualize conflict, as well as some evidence-based tools for approaching conflict, including what to do if one or both people get “flooded.” Listen to Episode 5 here.

Lastly, we talked about sex, and well, you’ll just have to take a listen to that one here.

Hope as the Church’s Long Game

by Jacob Sims

March 21, 2020 – It’s a beautiful morning as the sun rises over Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The predictably sweltering heat and sticky humidity are not quite yet descended on the city as I make my way across Sihanoukville Boulevard just east of Independence Monument. 

In a mere 10-minute walking commute to work each morning, I pass the icons of affluence in a rising capital city — the towering, rapidly proliferating skyscrapers; the dramatic open parks; the army of ultra-luxury cars swerving around aging rickshaws. I pass state power in abundance as well — one of the world’s few North Korean embassies; the US Ambassador’s French-colonial mansion; the fashionable and imposing EU and Singaporean consulates. 

These temples of modern wealth and power sprinkled amidst crushing poverty are particularly perplexing this morning in a world gone mad with COVID-19.

In Cambodia as elsewhere, the poor are disproportionately affected by the crisis. Furloughs and lay-offs hit low income jobs first and hardest. Poor families are forced to choose between food and safety. Quarantining itself is impossible for millions of the most impoverished.

Regardless of economic status, fear is rampant and people are looking for a scapegoat. It is widely believed in Cambodia that western tourists and NGO workers are spreading the disease. The theory that the US Army planted the virus in Wuhan back in December is commonly accepted across the sub-continent. New visas from the United States and Western Europe were indefinitely barred several weeks back.

During my brief walk, I am eyed suspiciously as people make a concerted effort to keep their distance. Small children point at the westerner and mothers hurry them into a 20-foot bubble of extreme outdoor social distancing. 

Later this morning, the State Department issues its unprecedented Global Level 4 warning. Shortly thereafter, I find myself evacuated home. 

The situation here is no different. 

The open, interconnected, globalized world which this country helped create and seemed unassailable just a few weeks ago now feels very fragile, our future unknown.

Unemployment in the United States is at a record high. The stock market plunges in historic fashion. The country is on lock-down. Isolation-based anxiety is palpably boiling over.

Year-to-date, coronavirus is the leading cause of death in America, claiming more lives per hour than heart disease, all forms of cancer, the flu, or any other cause. 

Yet, the country visibly aches for rapid return to normalcy in a characteristically American prioritization of economic expediency over human life. We are paralyzed with fear. Our ability to control the illusory bubble which is modern American society is wholly upended.

And on and on it goes. Day after evolving day, the one constant in this ever-changing crisis is a persistent reminder of how earthly power yearns to protect itself above all else. As chaos looms and life becomes increasingly unpredictable, our world reveals its true nature. In our utter terror, we rampantly stoke prejudice; blame others for loss; and deny reality. 

— 

With so much uncertainty, so much division and fear, the key question posed in Stanley Hauerwas’ and Will Willimon’s 1982 ethical classic Resident Aliens remains prescient. What tools do we have as a global Church to ‘show the world what it is not’? 

On the surface, the global Church is impacted the same way as the rest of the world. Congregations around the world met virtually this Easter Sunday. In Jerusalem, for the first time in over 600 years, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher (built on top of Christ’s tomb) cancelled its Easter ‘Feast of the Resurrection.’ The last cancellation came as the bubonic plague was gripping the world and another wave of social distancing to curb a pandemic was required. 

But, we find our hope, ‘our difference,’ apart from our ability to meet freely and openly together. Historically, as a body of believers, our hope is directed at the unreasonable result of unbelievable suffering. As we celebrated Easter last month, we remembered this hope. We recalled that even as our church buildings were empty, the tomb is empty too.

If the Church is to distinguish itself, it must do so via this divine and historic gift — a perseverance in suffering well. 

We live in a society — particularly in our place as expatriates among the global powerful — which doesn’t often recognize the need to suffer. It is all too easy for us to resist suffering; blind ourselves to loss; delude ourselves into pushing away grief. 

We do this when we blame others for the unblameable. We do this when we foster or accept lies which deny the inconvenience of reality. We do this when we look for human solutions — when we look to our wealth, our power, our egos, our ability to travel and move freely — as barriers to the inescapable reality of pain. 

Yet, today, we find ourselves in a rare moment where our ascendant world is vulnerable to admitting that it is indeed suffering.

As David Kessler (coiner of the famous Five Stages of Grief typology) notes in a recent Harvard Business Review article, “we are feeling a number of different griefs. We feel the world has changed…and it has.”

As post-modern humans, we lack the tools to respond to grief effectively. Since we lack hope in the eternal, we seek to rid ourselves of suffering via other means. We deny. We become angry and blame others. We ‘bargain’ or try to use our own powers to correct the uncorrectable. 

Languishing in a German prison cell nearly eighty years ago, theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer noticed a similar trend. He pondered the tremendous grief of mortal death and dashed aspirations and unfulfilled human potential as a decimated continent suffered the virus of Nazi occupation. While recognizing the enormous loss, he also saw a larger gain. “That which is fragmentary may point to a higher fulfillment, one which can no longer be achieved by human effort. Strive though we might, the only work that matters was done by grace alone.”

As members of the historic body of Christ, we are offered this other path to the ‘fragmentary’ energies of ‘striving’ and ‘human effort.’ We are offered the very building blocks necessary to deal with suffering well. We are offered a chance to embrace pain as a catalyst for a meaningful life in a fallen world. As Paul states in Romans 5: 3-5, “…suffering produces perseverance, perseverance character, and character hope. Hope does not put us to shame. For God’s love is poured out into our hearts through the given Holy Spirit…”

— 

Beyond mere present pain and suffering, Kessler also notes the current prevalence of “anticipatory grief” — the feeling of uncertainty and despondency about the future when outlooks are grim. 

In spite of our denial, this feeling is natural today. This world of our own design feels a good deal more chaotic and less welcoming than it did just a few months ago. 

But again, as Christians, we are offered something more. In The Divine Conspiracy, Dallas Willard defines hope as “a joyful anticipation because of who we know God to be.” 

Through scriptural revelation and the inspiration of the living Church, we know God to be merciful and powerful and just beyond our ability to fathom. 

As the world attempts, with increasing desperation, to escape and deny its suffering and grief, we have an opportunity to accept these realities with hope.

Our hope then flows from faith in a force, a God, beyond our comprehension — beyond rational proof . This transcendent God desires union with us who are beyond love, and through that love, redeems us who are broken beyond redemption.

Without grounding in this sort of unbelievable faith, human existence — including a supposedly Christian one — is based on nothing more than illusions and rationalizations.

But, if we base our faith in the only realistic hope for humanity’s redemption — a God beyond our comprehension who loves us beyond our ability to receive it — we can start afresh the humble, courageous journey as travelers in the greater adventure of His glory instead of our own.

Perhaps then, we will confront the sin we see in the world with prayer instead of policies of further oppression.

Perhaps then, we can begin to hold our plans and even our very lives more loosely in an uncertain ‘fragmentary’ world.

Perhaps then, we will learn what it truly means to live by faith: a “confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we cannot see.” Hebrews 11:1

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Jacob works for an NGO fighting modern slavery in Southeast Asia. From 2015-2020 he led an international development consulting practice and served as adjunct faculty at the College of William & Mary — teaching and guest lecturing in courses on Education, Human Rights, Migration, and Global Health. He previously led humanitarian programs in northern Myanmar and co-founded a social justice organization in eastern Uganda. Jacob holds a Master’s degree from LSE and is currently preparing to publish his first book, WanderLOST: stories from the winding road to significance.

We Can’t Be Sure Everything Is Going to Be Okay

Since being unexpectedly wrenched from our Tanzanian home a month ago due to COVID-19, my family has been living as vagabonds in California, moving in with various relatives every couple of weeks. (It’s hard to shelter-in-place when you have no home.) This week we’re with some in-laws, and I’ve been walking the neighborhood daily.

Whenever I visit California, the perfectly manicured HOA lawns are always a shock to my system after living in a chaotic East African city. These days, the spring roses are bursting into bloom around me, as if in defiance of the pain the world is facing. And like spring flowers, popping up in neighbors’ yards are identical red cardboard signs that read: Everything is going to be okay. There are dozens of them, and they mock me as I pass by. How do you know everything is going to be okay? I silently yell at those signs. I just had to leave my home three months early, and we had four days’ notice. We lived in Tanzania for sixteen years, and since we were planning on relocating in July, this meant we got no closure, no good-byes, no tying up loose ends. Just grief and trauma. We don’t have jobs or a home. So please don’t tell me everything is going to be okay. I’m not in the mood. 

I walk, and I restlessly pound out my lament to God: How long, O Lord? How long before we can start a normal life again? How long before I know with confidence that the school, the friends, the community I left behind in Tanzania will be okay? How long before this knot of anxiety goes away, the weight of grief lifts off my chest? 

I love the stories of God’s deliverance in Scripture. The walls falling down, the giant conquered, the blind man healed. But I have this tendency to speed read through the Bible, focusing on the happy endings and ignoring the miserable parts in between. Yes, God’s people were dramatically rescued from slavery in Egypt. (After 400 years of back-breaking suffering.) Yes, they made it to the Promised Land. (After 40 years of death in the desert.) Sure, God promised them a “hope and a future”….but it would come after 70 years in exile. (That part doesn’t make it onto the coffee mugs.) The Messiah arrived! (After 400 years of silence from God.) 

Ever wonder what it must have felt like to live in the “in between” years before God’s miraculous deliverance? Probably felt pretty defeated, and isolated, and alone. Many, many, many of God’s faithful never saw his deliverance in their lifetimes. All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised (Heb 11). You could say that for them, everything did not turn out to be okay. That’s probably why amongst the miraculous stories was a whole lot of waiting and groaning and begging for redemption. 

My soul is in deep anguish.  How long, Lord, how long? (Ps. 6)

How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?

How long must I wrestle with my thoughts  and day after day have sorrow in my heart? (Ps. 13)

We are given no signs from God; no prophets are left, and none of us knows how long this will be. (Ps. 74)

How long will the land lie parched and the grass in every field be withered? (Jer. 12)

How long, Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, “Violence!” but you do not save? (Hab. 1)

How long, O Lord? How long? What if life doesn’t return to normal in months, or years, or even ever in our lifetime? What if things get worse? What if everything will not be okay? The truth is that if “okay” means safety, prosperity, and comfort, I might not get that. There is no guarantee. And judging from Christian history and the lives of my Christian brothers and sisters around the world, there is no precedent that God promises me those things. 

Perhaps one of the most important things I learned during my life overseas was in watching the lives of those who have lived and died asking, “How long, O Lord?”  She follows Jesus and her husband keeps cheating on her and he got her pregnant with a fourth child and she has only an elementary education and there is no government support and she works incredibly hard but nothing ever gets better. Oh, and even before COVID-19, there already were a dozen diseases around that could kill her or her children on any given day. Yet still, she perseveres in faith. 

I must remember that I am not promised that everything is going to be okay. In my lifetime, it might not be. 

Unless, that is, we’re talking about the very, very end. I am not promised heaven on earth. I am, however, promised heaven. That’s why Hebrews 11 ends with this: These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, since God had planned something better.

How long, O Lord, until everything will be okay? Maybe not ever. But I can be okay, because I am a foreigner on this earth. This is not where I belong. I can see Your redemption in the distance, and in the meantime, I long for a better country–a heavenly one.