Do you need to make this change?

I’m almost done reading The 4 Season Solution by Dallas Hartwig. In it he argues that too many of us are living in a perpetual summer time and need to return to four-season living.

Having rhythms be a part of life is not new; just think about creation. God didn’t simply “make everything.” He wove ebbs and flows and rest into the seven days. Or think of the pilgrim festivals listed in Deuteronomy 16 and they ways that Passover, the Festival of Weeks, and the Festival of Booths added rhythm to a year.

The author highlights four areas that are often out of balance:

—Sleep

—Food

—Movement

—Connections

Depending where you are in the world, the difference in daylight hours between summer and winter can be a few hours, or they can be dramatically different. Yet, many of us on-the-field live as if we are in the peak of the summer all year long. Why?

I would argue because we have mixed the truth with lies. Yes, what we are doing is important and at times even vital. But even Jesus knew that he, in human form, was not the answer to every need placed before him. So, how can we return to the truth that our ministries, organizations, and lives need to have more seasonality to them?

Let me unpack the four areas a bit more. In summer, people tend to sleep less, which is fine . . . for a season. Does your sleep have rhythms over the year? Or do you tend to go to bed or get up at the same time all year without regards to when the sun goes down or comes up?

When it comes to food, in my opinion, this is a strong suit for us. Do you tend to eat seasonally? For many of us, there is no option but to eat seasonally! However, this is changing around the world, and you probably have more out-of-season options available. Summer eating tends to have more fruits and carbohydrates available. Thinking of the food you eat, are you noticing that your body craves different foods in different seasons? (Hint: it should.)

Moving on to movement (see what I did there!), this can be another strength for us on the field with the amount of walking many of us do. The author advocates that we get as much everyday-movement that involves lifting and carrying things as we can instead of the mindset of “intense workouts.” So, some of you reading this may need to move more . . . and some may need to move less, or at least differently. As you look over the past year, are the ways you move your body the same all year round? Do you notice seasonal variety to how you move (or exercise) your body?

The final area is the one I hear the most lament over when it comes to overseas life: connection. Many of us are connected to people; the problem is how often we rotate in and out of physical proximity to each other. Or how often our lives are feast or famine. For instance you may have a holiday without any extended family and then eat every single meal in a week on furlough with someone precious. As you think about your connections, do you have long-term connections that you maintain? What are your connection-rhythms like over a year? Is your door open all year round, or do you have seasons where you withdraw a bit more?

Near the end of the book, Hartwig suggests that if you notice you have been living in perpetual summer for a while, it is not enough to simply want to live differently. You need to have an intentional and prolonged fall and winter to reset. Afterwards you can emerge into the rhythms of a typical spring, summer, fall, and winter.

I know that Covid has thrown many of us personally or organizationally out of whack. I am thinking beyond Covid-life, both before and life after our current season. What were your rhythms before Covid? What might they look over the next few years? Have you learned to live with a four-season rhythm to your life and ministry? Or do you tend to live in perpetual summer because what you do is so important it is worth the sacrifice?

Of course there are times when this is true and what you are involved in has a sense of urgency to it. I’m in a more busy season myself because I’m the chair of a board that needed to let the Executive Director go. We are in an “all hands on deck” season. But we need to remember this is for a season. I am already thinking about how I need to guard against this level of busyness becoming my new normal. And how after this summertime phase, we may need, as an organization, to have an intentional fall and winter season — which might sound backwards when you hire a ED or have a new team member.

What that looks like when we have programs that will continue and actual people with actual needs, I don’t know. But I do know that if I, and if we, do not ask the question, we are doomed to stay in perpetual summer.

God has so much more for us. Let’s not get tricked into living such one-dimensional lives.

And all God’s people said . . . .

Amen!


Photo by Roan Lavery on Unsplash

“Quiet” Insights: On Introverts, Pseudo-Extroverts, and Voices in a Crowd

Did you hear the one about the team of five cross-cultural workers who walk into pre-field training and take the Myers-Briggs personality assessment? Three of them get a code that’s “E” something something something, while two have “I” as their first letter. Then four of them turn to one of the “I”s and say, “Wait, what? You’ve got to be kidding. You are so not an introvert!”

Perhaps you’ve been part of a team like this. Perhaps you’ve been the one diagnosed with the suspect “I.” Perhaps you’ve been one of those who claim to know an extrovert when you see one.

Now this is where the facilitator steps in to explain that for the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) the words extrovert and introvert don’t mean what we commonly think they mean. They’re not “loud” and “shy” respectively. Nor do they signify who is or who isn’t the “life of the party.” Rather, it’s an outer-world versus inner-world thing. As the Myers-Briggs Foundation asks at its site: “Where do you put your attention and get your energy?” Is that place inside, among your thoughts, or outside, where the people are.

But still, what about those who claim to be introverted when we all know better. We’ve seen them in action. We know how outgoing they are. Did the test fail them? Did they answer the questions incorrectly? Are they not self aware? Or are they trying to have it both ways?

Come on, if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s got to be . . . an extrovert, or at least someone who wants to be the center of attention.

Susan Cain, in her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, gives us a lens through which to look at this dichotomy. You may have already read Quiet. It was published in 2012, after all. But I just got a copy a couple months ago, by way of a coworker, so I’m a little late to the game. Fellow ALO writer Rachel Pieh Jones has mentioned Quiet a couple times here at this blog, in 2013 and 2017. Maybe we need to bring it up every four years. If so, I guess it’s time again.

To Be or Not to Be . . . Yourself

When it comes to being either an introvert or an extrovert, Cain points out that it’s more than a simple either/or situation. Rather, there’s a spectrum between the extremes, even including “ambiverts,” those who find themselves right in the middle. But she also explains why true introverts can come across as extroverts, and she presents a vocabulary for discussing it. For example, there are “socially poised introverts,” who are “interpersonally skilled” while retaining their introversion. Some introverts “engage in a certain level of pretend-extroversion” when circumstances call for it. And some are “high self monitors,” meaning that they are “highly skilled at modifying their behavior to the social demands of a situation.”

Does that last one sound like people who can change how they act depending on their surroundings, say, in a new country? It does to Cain. Here’s how she describes her journey from being a “pseudo extrovert” as a corporate lawyer to becoming who she is now:

It took me almost a decade to understand that the law was never my personal project, not even close. Today I can tell you unhesitatingly what is: my husband and son; writing; promoting the values of this book. Once I realized this, I had to make a change. I look back on my years as a Wall Street lawyer as time spent in a foreign country. It was absorbing, it was exciting, and I got to meet a lot of interesting people whom I never would have known otherwise. But I was always an expatriate.

Here is where Cain draws a line between mimicking extroversion in a purposeful, healthy way, versus in a way that is detrimental to one’s own identity. The person who does the former “acts out of character for the sake of worthy tasks that temporarily require a different orientation,” while for the the latter, she offers up an example of someone who’s denied her true self, “acting out of character in the service of a project she didn’t care about.” (Again, do you see how this could apply to those serving overseas?)

Cain writes that “if we act out of character by convincing ourselves that our pseudo-self is real, we can eventually burn out without knowing why.” “But even if you’re stretching yourself in the service of a core personal project,” she says, “you don’t want to act out of character too much, or for too long.”

So if being a pseudo-extrovert is a positive response to the task before you, how do you cope? One way, Cain tells us, is to follow the advice of psychologist Brian Little, and make for yourself plenty of “restorative niches.” A restorative niche can be in the form of a location or an activity, a place of rest or a way to relax. It’s “the place you go,” she writes, “when you want to return to your true self.”

Can You Hear Me Now?

Much of Quiet consists of Cain defending the 1/3 to 1/2 of us who are introverts in a world that exalts the “extrovert ideal,” identifying introverts’ strengths and admirable qualities. (Full disclosure, according to the MBTI, I’m an introvert—an INFP to be exact.) And one of the points that she makes is that introverts are worth listening to, even when their words are softly, or rarely, spoken.

“If we assume that quiet and loud people have roughly the same number of good (and bad) ideas,” she writes, “then we should worry if the louder and more forceful people always carry the day.” “Don’t mistake assertiveness or eloquence for good ideas,” she explains.

So let’s go back to that team at the beginning of this post. If you were the team leader, how would maximize the creative potential of your group, for instance, in a brainstorming session—getting input from everyone, including introverts who act like introverts, at least during team meetings?

One thing to understand, writes Cain, is the “startling conclusion” that brainstorming simply doesn’t work. Research shows that individuals working alone (such as introverts who might rather think things over in solitude) produce more and better ideas than groups do. And the larger the group, the less productivity. More and better ideas are produced when people go their separate ways and think on their own. But there is an exception to this, she says. It’s brainstorming online. Not only does it work, but the larger the group, the better it works. Why? Well, according to Cain, while online group work is collaborative, it also represents “a form of solitude all its own.”

Cain writes that psychologists have come up with three reasons for why group brainstorming isn’t successful in producing the best outcomes: “Social loafing” is when some people in a group stay quiet and let others take the lead. “Production blocking” is caused by members needing to speak one at a time, requiring others to pause and listen. And “evaluation apprehension” comes about when people are afraid that others will think that their ideas aren’t good enough. These factors can affect extroverts and introverts, but it’s easy to see how they can inhibit introverts even more.

In light of this, Cain gives this advice, applicable to employees and team members alike:

If it’s creativity you’re after, ask your employees to solve problems alone before sharing their ideas. If you want the wisdom of the crowd, gather it electronically, or in writing, and make sure people can’t see each other’s ideas until everyone’s had a chance to contribute.

So here’s another story. It’s about a team in which all the members understand that introverts and extroverts are different inside, even when they might seem the same outwardly. They recognize that introverts who act outside their comfort zone, even for a purpose they believe in, need time to recharge. They also create the space and the time for introverts to formulate their thoughts and share their ideas. And they listen closely to everyone, even those who speak in still, small voices.

(To read even more about introverts serving abroad, take a look at these posts from Anisha Hopkinson and Jerry Jones.)

(The Meyers-Briggs Foundation, “Extroversion or Introversion,” adapted from Charles R. Martin, Looking at Type: The Fundamentals, CAPT, 1997; Susan Cain, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Crown, 2012)

[photo: “Hand adjusting audio mixer,” by Ilmicrofono Oggiono, used under a Creative Commons license]


Mostly Belonging: Hope for the MK

by Michèle Phoenix

When I was little, I’d snuggle up to my mom in the evenings and listen to her reading Are You My Mother?, attracted to the plight of the children’s book’s melancholy protagonist in a way I couldn’t fully comprehend. In the story, the baby bird falls out of her nest and wanders from cat to tractor to cow and car, repeating her increasingly urgent question: “Are you my mother?

Without realizing it, I identified with her pain. The sensation of lostness was all too familiar to me, even at that age.

When I saw a copy of the book in a store a few weeks ago, my instant reaction was an urge to reach through the glossy cover and comfort the hapless hero. I saw a bit of me in her—a lifetime spent wondering if new places and people groups would be my “mother,” my place of belonging and sameness.

In many respects, MKs are not much different from this feathered fellow. We hover between clusters of those who know their place and fit their social contexts, hoping that someone will want us or include us despite our difference. We try to act like it doesn’t really matter. Or we try to be tough and endure it. But we still live our lives in a more or less conscious pursuit of belonging.

“I will never belong” is a sentiment I’ve heard expressed with varying degrees of rancor and drama in my thirty years of MK ministry. Of all the traits Third Culture Kids and Missionaries’ Kids share, I think this one is among the most powerful.

It is born of multi-cultural, multi-national, multi-experiential and multi-identificational backgrounds that both expand our worlds and limit our full adaptation to any of them.

One of my first conscious thoughts about my TCK identity came at a young age, when I realized while on furlough that I’d never be fully American, and that the French would never consider me fully French, either. There seemed to be no place on earth where I could feel that I fully belonged. Is it any wonder that MK communities like schools and mission conferences become such a haven of sameness to MKs?

Unfortunately, having experienced that level of identification can also set us up for a lifetime of discontent, because—and I don’t want to sound pessimistic—it is a sense of wholeness we may never know again.

Multi-cultural dwellers face three distinct options in their quest for belonging.

The first is to conform.
The second is to intentionally unconform.
The third is to straddle the cultural divide.

Let’s start with conforming. In some ways it’s the easiest option, and MKs are fairly good at it, at least on a surface level. We’re observers by nature. Whether it be trying out a new fast-food restaurant or voting in elections for the first time, I still live by the old motto: watch first, act second. I’ll relinquish my place in line as often as I need to until I’ve figured out how “normal” people do it and can proceed as they do.

That’s really just cultural savvy—or practical conformity. The kind that spares us public embarrassment and the kind of social faux-pas we desperately try to avoid. A complete conformity is a more dangerous version of the classic MK ability to adapt. In this case, we’ll either consciously or subconsciously discard those parts of ourselves that link us to other cultures and modes of life in order to be fully American, fully European, or fully Asian.

The danger in full conformity is in what we have to relinquish to achieve it.

You’ll see this in the MK from Rwanda who moves to Canada and wears nothing but Rwandan garb as an outward sign of her allegiance to her heart-home. You’ll see it in the Turkish MK who refuses to return to his passport culture and stops using English—thereby losing contact with the North American branch of his family and identity. Or the TCK in her passport country who never refers to the foreign places that framed her worldview and shaped her personality.

In order for me to have fully adapted to my French culture or to my Canadian passport culture, for instance, I would have had to alter my appearance, my political views, my gender-role opinions, my culinary tastes, and some of my social behaviors to achieve what that culture expected of me.

Once I was finished erasing the old and embracing the new, there would have been very little left of the richness of a multi-cultural upbringing: the broadened understanding and artistic/social/political palette that is so unique and so prized in TCKs.

Conformity would have cost me every bit of the beautiful complexity that can come from being an MK, but it would also have earned me a sense of belonging and sameness. For that sense, MKs can be willing to sacrifice an awful lot.

The second response to unbelonging is unconforming. It’s a fascinating phenomenon to me and it goes something like this: “There’s no way I’m ever going to fit in. People on both continents tell me I’m weird. Weird in Brazil. Weird in Korea. Well, let me show you weird.” And the MK sets out to be as odd as he or she can possibly be.

It’s a self-defense mechanism that has serious back-firing potential, but I can see its appeal. Whereas being the victim of our difference feels painful and unpredictable, being the architect of the difference gives us a sense of control.

So we exaggerate our weirdness in order to call it a choice, not an affliction.

Sometimes it’s strange clothes, sometimes it’s eccentric behavior, sometimes it’s threatening attitudes, weird tastes or social misconduct. On some, it’s endearing. On others, it’s off-putting. But to MKs whose identities have been shattered and rearranged without their volition, it’s a sense of finally being in control of how the world perceives them.

So when someone’s expression says, “You’re weird,” they can pat themselves on the backs and consider it mission accomplished, because they’ve made “difference” a choice, not an painful condition.

But…they’ve also made that elusive “belonging” even more impossible to achieve.

The final response to unbelonging is straddling. It’s probably the healthiest of the three belonging options, though it is certainly not the easiest.

It requires that we celebrate “mostly-belonging.” It keeps us intentionally connected to the cultures and subcultures that have shaped us while investing and implanting in the one in which we live.

Straddling allows us to retain all those facets that lend depth and breadth to our identities while mostly adapting to the new places life takes us. In order to successfully straddle cultures, we’ll have to understand and value each of them, retaining those other-culture quirks that are acceptable in the place where we currently are and disengaging those that might be jarring or misunderstood by the locals around us—at least initially.

Straddling requires that we add new facets to our panoply, not as a rejection of what we’ve known before, but an expansion of our cultural arsenal. It is also a means of honoring the culture in which we’ve been planted. For instance, moving to Germany and not alienating our neighbors may require that we regularly sweep sidewalks that don’t need sweeping. Living in other places may require more modest dress for women. And yet others may require a “bribe” column in our budgeting. These are adjustments we can make without releasing the influences that made us who we are.

Mostly-belonging isn’t a repudiation of the multi-cultural aspects of our identities—it’s a thoughtful, intentional choice to embed in the culture we now live in, and an equally intentional choice to stay connected with the other cultures we carry within us.

An initial carefulness and adherence to social norms will usually yield a more successful integration than, say, waving a Greek flag and refusing to eat anything but olives and feta! As relationships deepen and our friends know us better, we’ll be able to broaden our expressions of multi-culturalism without alienating others.

Straddling or mostly-belonging requires that we relinquish the baby bird’s dream of full, uncompromising sameness. As MKs, we’re actually healthier when we accept that we won’t ever be completely one or the other of our natures, when we acknowledge and celebrate those ways in which we can fit in, and when we set out to live enthusiastically in that space between belongings. That’s what makes us unique, broad-minded, tolerant, chameleon-like and prized bridge-builders in whatever society we embrace. That’s what allows us to thrive as TCKs.

With that attitude—with that self-awareness, intentionality and openness—true connection becomes possible, and a new, richer and healthier form of belonging can be ours.

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

Raised in France by a Canadian father and an American mother, Michèle is a mentor, writer and speaker with a heart for MKs. She taught for 20 years at Black Forest Academy (Germany) before launching her own ministry advocating for TCKs. She now travels globally to consult and teach on topics related to this unique people group, and she has recently launched the podcast Pondering Purple. She loves good conversations, French pastries, mischievous students and Marvel movies.

Sick and Far Away

We all know what it’s like. It’s the fever that comes over us late in the evening. We think we’ll sleep it off, but by morning it’s far worse. It’s accompanied by terrible dysentery. We still hold out for the hope that it is a 24-hour virus, only to realize it is not. Or it’s the croup that comes over our 18 month old in the night. We wake to a strange bark. What could it be? It sounds like a sick dog has made its way into our apartment. Uneasy, we suddenly realize it’s our precious toddler. Rushing into his bedroom, we see him standing up in his crib with his favorite sleep animal. He cries out “Mama” in a hoarse whisper, struggling to breathe. We gather him up and turn the shower on full steam, praying to the God who made him, who loves him.

There are thousands of other scenarios that we could describe. Often, the outcomes are wonderful. The fever and dysentery resolve; the croup is stilled and the next day we get to a pediatrician; the stitches are placed by a kind doctor who speaks our language and we tear up in gratitude. But there is a point in any of these cases where everything feels urgent and hard. Depending on where we live, we may rue limited medical care in ways we never think about when we are healthy.

These are the stories of being sick and far away. Stories where we have only our gut feelings, and Where There is No Doctor to guide us. Loneliness often overtakes us, knowing we are at the mercy of our new neighbors and friends, knowing that our moms, sisters, and doctors are far, far away.

As I write this, I’m sitting in Istanbul, Turkey. After being bathed in fog for several days, the sun has finally broken through and brightens my room. We are all sick. As my ever wise sister-in-law says, “I’m pretty sure it’s not a ‘sickness unto death,’ but it sure feels like it.” From across the room I weakly nod in agreement, my fever rising and causing chills over my body.

Sick and far away. Lonely, tearful, in pain.

And yet, sickness and disease is part of the human story. In my favorite read of the year, Prayer in the Night, author Tish Harrison Warren reminds us that for centuries priests would come pray for people and tell them to make a will. It’s not because of lack of faith. Prayer was for healing, but if healing did not come, a will was a smart way to care for those you left behind. It’s because life is what it is — a broken version of the original plan. It still holds much joy, hope, beauty, and goodness. It also holds far too much pain, sorrow, sickness, and death.

Since I was a little girl, these times of sickness have often brought help from unexpected places. At four years old, with a raging fever brought on by Malaria, a couple from my parents’ organization arrived at our house in the middle of the night to get us to care and safety. At 30 years old with the toddler with croup, a kind friend told me about an excellent pediatrician who made house calls. At 34 with a raging fever and my husband traveling, friends who had no idea I was sick showed up just at the right time.

Often, but not always. The reality is that help doesn’t always come. As thankful as I have been for help that has come, I have also witnessed the tragic deaths of community members, permanent loss because of sickness, outcomes that have made me cry out in sadness and anger, and weep for months. “Pray for healing and make a will” played out in real time. We walk through the door of permanent loss that death brings, slowly learning to embrace our existence where longing is a breath away, and we accept sadness as a permanent fixture of the gladness. Yet, sickness and death have brought me close to the one who understands pain and sickness like no other. I don’t understand this mystery, and I never will. But I lean in. I don’t know any other way to be, any other thing to do.

In this world that offers many contradictions and paradoxes for people of Christian faith, there are also some clear hard core truths. One truth that we cling to is that God loves this world: he loves his creation. He entered it through the person of Jesus to walk with us, weep with us, get sick with us, rejoice with us, and heal us. At times of sickness, I cling to my limited understanding of God’s love for this world; his awesome love for a creation that he continually runs toward, limitless in his creative ability to grab our hearts. As my fever rises, I marvel that he loved it and us enough to reconcile all of creation to himself and renew it through that reconciliation. This faith that I’ve pledged my life to points me to a greater reality than the one that I see and to the feverish, achy body that I now feel.

In her recent newsletter, “Do Good Better,” Rachel Pieh Jones writes powerful words about anemic faith vs. painful faith. Her words resonated deeply as I lay on my brother-in-law and sister-in-law’s couch groaning with sickness, wishing my faith was less anemic. I offer them here as a benediction to this piece.

“Was Jesus happy, comfortable, and safe when people wanted to throw him off the cliff? When he had no place to lay his head? When his family fled to Egypt? When he was beaten, spit on, mocked, stripped, and murdered?

This idea creates an anemic faith that cannot withstand the buffeting winds of a real human existence. It creates an idol out of God and utterly misunderstands God’s character. It provides no language for dealing with pain or fear. It leaves no room for forgiveness, for courage, for endurance, for patience, for lament, for reality. …I want to talk about painful faith. Faith that cries out, ‘This hurts! This is not justice! Where are you God?’ In my darkest moments, the times when I couldn’t breathe because of grief or fear or rage, the times I had to stop driving because I couldn’t see, had to lay down on the kitchen floor because I could no longer stand, had to hurl stones from cliffs and scream, lost my voice from crying, you know the moments. You are a human, you’ve had them too. In those moments, faith hurt. It hurt because it didn’t heal anything, it didn’t solve anything, it didn’t take away the emotions. But faith pointed me in a direction. I knew where to aim my sorrow and anger and confusion.” –Rachel Pieh Jones in “Do Good Better

When Their Culture Becomes Your Idol

It starts off innocently enough. In your months or years leading up to your move overseas, you pick up a few books at the library and start reading to learn a little bit more about the place you are going to live. You watch videos on YouTube about the culture and food and the language you are about to enter in to.

You attend cross-cultural missionary trainings where you learn how important it is to seek to understand the culture in which you are about to go live. They teach you practical things like how to dress and what to cook, how to shake hands and how to drive, but they also help you to better think about the perspective of others and how they might view the world and the gospel.

You move abroad and at first, these adjustments are “easy” to make. Easy in the sense that you’ve been expecting them, so they don’t feel like a huge shock or burden. You gladly pull on the baggy skirt and head out the door and you stop and say hello to each person that you pass no matter how long it takes. It doesn’t feel like an inconvenience, because this is what you’ve been waiting for, preparing for…a chance to move here and demonstrate the love of God.

Soon though, the honeymoon phase with this new culture wears off a little bit. No matter how much you study, no matter how hard you try, no matter how many sacrifices you’ve made, you will make mistakes. You’ll offend someone by reaching out to greet them with the wrong hand, you’ll use a seemingly harmless phrase that’s common in your passport country only to watch in bewilderment as your colleague explodes in rage at your insensitivity. You’ll be criticized for the way you planned an event out of order, or you’ll be shamed for accidentally letting your knee show as you knelt down to help a small child. Often times, it’s in these moments of “failure,” pain, or confusion where our hearts start looking elsewhere for solutions that seem, on the surface, more attainable, more logical.

For many of us, the answer our flesh immediately offers to us is to just “work harder.” For some, they’ll dive deeper into trying to understand every single intricacy of the culture, believing that that’s a feat they can actually achieve in one lifetime. They’ll pride themselves on what they are learning, and they might even start to shame other foreigners for their ignorance. Somewhere deep within them is a fear of messing up and a desire to be seen as the expert, the one who “gets it.” At times, though, they may be tempted to elevate the role that culture plays in evangelism, so much so that it keeps them paralyzed from sharing the good news because they aren’t quite sure how to present it perfectly yet. They see understanding culture wholly as the magical key to unlocking the heart of man, as if the Holy Spirit himself no longer has any role to play.

What started out as genuine desire to learn or to be “all things for all men for the sake of the gospel” (1 Cor 9:22), has perhaps started to become idolatry.

Martin Lloyd-Jones describes an idol as “anything in our lives that occupies the place that should be occupied by God alone. Anything that is central in my life, anything that seems to me essential. An idol is anything by which I live and on which I depend, anything that holds such a controlling position in my life that it moves, rouses and attracts too much of my time, attention, energy and money.”

How exactly does one person’s culture become another person’s idol?

It happens just the same way anything else becomes an idol in our hearts–by weaseling its way in, often masquerading itself as something good and harmless, meanwhile taking our attention away from our one true love, master, and purpose.

Understanding and adapting to culture in and of itself is not wrong– it is a good thing. It is something we are called to do, a tool for showing the love, kindness, and compassion of our Savior in deep and unique ways to those who need it most. But sometimes it’s not an issue of what you are doing, but why you are doing it. What are your motivations? Why are you doing what you are doing?

Is it a _________________:

  • Desire to be liked by everyone that you meet and interact with?
  • Desire to have it (or force it to) be reciprocated to the same level?
  • Desire to accomplish or “win” the expat integration game with your outward appearances?
  • Desire to learn/understand, to solve the cultural puzzle or web, so to speak, and to have all the answers?
  • Desire to avoid messing up (cultural taboos) and having to live in that shame temporarily?
  • Desire to protect oneself from being called out or surprised with a new rule?
  • Desire to meet obligations that others have put on you, whether that’s supporters back home or people in your host community?

It’s a delicate line to walk: being in this world and yet not of it, honoring and respecting culture, whether theirs or your own, while not allowing it to consume you or control you.

Culture — either theirs or mine — was never meant to be an idol, and yet we idolize it when we give it such control in our lives and space in our hearts.

What started out harmlessly enough became an all-encompassing obsession. Whether it’s the hollow pride of proving that I’ve mastered this and am better than everyone else, or whether it’s the internal battle that is raging within me and shackling me down with chains of bitterness and resentment, their culture has taken a hold of me, and the next thing I know I’m bowing down before it. Bowing down and asking for approval, acceptance, protection, praise, acknowledgement, security–you name it. All those things that God has already given me through adoption into his royal family, I’m seeking after elsewhere.

When we worship anything or anyone over the living God, we will be disappointed…over and over and over again. When we attach our self-worth to other people’s acceptance of us, we become controlled by people-pleasing behavior, and our peace, joy, and contentment are dependent on the ever-changing waves and nuances of culture and human whim rather than the solid rock of Christ himself.

What happens, then, when even after all your strivings, they still don’t accept you, or you still fail? If your self-worth and ability to share the good news of salvation is tied up in their culture’s approval of you, how then will you respond when those efforts go unnoticed, unappreciated, criticized, or unreciprocated? Maybe you will just dig in and try harder, mustering up more of your own strength as you strive to please a false god with impossible expectations. Or perhaps you will start to resent every little thing about that other culture, elevating your own passport country’s culture as The Way, The Truth, The Light? When this is our relationship with culture and the people of that culture, how then will we be the salt and light of the earth? How can we love like Jesus did when our very purpose and identity is washed away and extinguished by even the subtlest breezes of opposition?

It may not be as obvious as the golden calf, but it sure does have the same effect. So how then are we to interact with our host culture? What then is the Christian’s relationship with culture? How do we balance becoming all things for all men and being in the world but not of it? Where exactly do we draw the line?

Again, in the end, it’s not so much about what we do…whether we eat or drink or wear long baggy skirts or don’t…it’s more about why we do it. What is the heart behind it? Are we doing it to earn love from man? Are we doing it out of fear of man or his obligations? Are we doing it to prove we are right and they are wrong? Or are we doing it for the sake of the gospel, out of freedom, for love of lost souls so that they might truly know salvation to its fullest extent and experience the same grace that we ourselves have received?

Paul was not compelled to adapt to the culture and give up his rights by a desire for the approval of man, pride, or perishable rewards (Gal 1:10; 1 Cor 9:15-16, 25-26) nor by the obligation of any law (1 Cor 9:19). Rather, he was compelled by the unbreakable, unconditional, never-ending, overflowing, powerful love the Father had given him for the lost “so that I may by every possible means save some…. because of the gospel, so that I might share in the blessings” (1 Cor 9:22-23).

1 Corinthians 13:1-3 says, “If I speak human or angelic tongues, but I do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging symbol. If I have the gift of prophesy and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have faith so that I can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. And if I give away all my possessions and if I give my body in order to boast but do not have love, I gain nothing.”

I might add this twist: “Even if I speak the language perfectly, carry out all the cultural customs according to what’s expected of me, have cultural and/or biblical wisdom greater than all the other expats here, and outwardly play by all the rules, but don’t have love…I am nothing, I gain nothing.”

 

Radical Forgiveness

by Rahma

This week marked the sixteenth anniversary of an unforgettable family tragedy. My mom’s first cousin Jeff was driving with his five children when a pickup truck suddenly crossed the grassy median and hit them head-on at 60 miles per hour. All five of the children were killed instantly, and Jeff suffered serious injuries. I was in my senior year of high school at the time, and I remember seeing my mom cry when she got the phone call.

Carolyn, the mother of the family, had been in town running some errands, and her family had been on their way to meet her. I cannot imagine the unspeakable grief of a mother losing all five of her children in one instant.

But even while her husband was still in the hospital, Carolyn visited another hospital room: the room of the driver who had hit her family’s car. His name was Mr. Helm.

Carolyn took my Great-Uncle Jason (the grandfather of the children who died) to visit Mr. Helm. Together they told him that they forgave him and were praying for him. They did not press charges. They did not seek revenge. They chose to forgive. When cousin Jeff recovered, he, too, offered forgiveness to Mr. Helm.

My mom flew across the country from Virginia to Washington State to attend the funeral of my second cousins. Five crosses now mark the graves of Carmen, 12; Jana, 10; Carinna, 8; Jerryl, 4; and Craig, 2. For years, the picture of their five beautiful faces hung on my mother’s refrigerator. The picture served as a reminder to my family of incredible suffering and radical forgiveness.

This week also marks the three-week anniversary of an ongoing hostage crisis in Haiti. Seventeen mission workers are being held captive, including five children. The ages of those children are 8 months, 3 years, 6 years, 13 years, and 15 years.

Great-Uncle Jason, the grandfather of the five children who died in that car crash so many years ago, is now waiting and praying for news of another grandchild. His 27-year-old grandson traveled to Haiti to serve and was taken hostage the next day. But Great-Uncle Jason is again responding with unbelievable faith and forgiveness. Watching him offer forgiveness to the hostages brings tears to my eyes.

What kind of radical faith can bring people to say such things? To offer forgiveness to those who are holding hostage and threatening the lives of their loved ones? What kind of faith brings a mother to forgive the man whose truck killed all five of her children? How can my Great-Uncle Jason, who has already buried five grandchildren, hold onto hope as he awaits news of yet another grandchild?

And yet, this is the faith that we are all invited into. My family are Mennonites, but it is not only Mennonites who are called to forgive their enemies. If we call ourselves Christians, then we are part of a faith that calls us to forgive. We follow a savior who called us to love our enemies and to do good to those who persecute us (Matthew 5). Every time we pray the Lord’s prayer, we pray, “Forgive us our sins as we also forgive those who sin against us.”

Our savior left us countless examples of forgiveness. Perhaps the most powerful example of all came as he was hanging on the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

But do we forgive like this? Do we actually forgive those who sin against us? Would we choose forgiveness if we were in my Great-Uncle Jason’s shoes? Or if we were Jeff and Carolyn, the parents who lost five children in one moment? Or if we were the parents or grandparents of one of the other hostages in Haiti?

This week as I reflected on these tragedies both past and present, the Lord brought it closer to home for me. Sunday, October 31st was the ten-year anniversary of a devastating fire in the first slum community that I lived in. When the flames were finally put out, all that was left was a smoldering neighborhood and 200 families who were suddenly homeless.

Do I forgive the perpetrators of this devastating fire from ten years ago?

Forgiving is not the same thing as condoning sin or enabling abusers. However, our Lord has instructed us to forgive. Forgiveness helps free us from our anger, bitterness, and prisons of hate. But it is only with the help of the Holy Spirit that forgiveness can be possible.

Now as I live in another slum community in one of the largest cities on earth, I am grateful for my Christian Mennonite heritage which taught me to love Jesus, care about the poor, and seek to love my enemies. I know I cannot do this perfectly, but that is why we need grace. Each and every day we must cling to the grace offered by our Lord Jesus and know we are forgiven.

And it is because we are forgiven that we can then offer forgiveness to others.

Lord, help us on our journeys to forgiveness. Give us Your heart to forgive those who have wronged us. Help us to be agents of love and reconciliation to those around us, that the world may see and stand in awe of You.

 

*This article has been modified to remove references to the sending agency of the workers held hostage in Haiti. On November 9, 2021, the author, along with A Life Overseas, learned of a history of sexual abuse coverup in that agency. We grieve when any person is abused and are deeply sorry for any pain caused by the references in the initial article.

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Rahma (not her real name) and her husband and two boys have lived and served in a slum in Jakarta for the past ten years. She enjoys learning piano, playing in the rain, and devouring Amy Carmichael books. You can learn more about the organization they serve with at servantsasia.org.