What to Know Before You Go

Let’s say you are boarding a transatlantic flight and hear, “Good morning, ladies and gentlemen; this is your pilot speaking. I’m 21 years old, and I’m excited to tell you that this is my first commercial flight! But don’t you worry; I’ve flown my Daddy’s crop duster at least a half dozen times. What I don’t have in experience or education, I make up with passion. I’m just about as willing as they come; my heart is practically bursting with willingness! Now buckle up your seatbelts; we’ll be off as soon as I find that user’s manual.”

I don’t know about you, but I’d be out of that plane faster than a fried egg off a Teflon pan.

Yet sometimes we approach missions in the same way. Willing hearts filled with passion are awesome, but they are not enough. So here’s where things get awkward: I’ve titled this “What to Know Before You Go,” when actually it should be more like, “What I Wish I Had Known Before I Went.” Because when I got on a plane to Tanzania almost twenty years ago, I was just about as bad as that pilot. Thankfully I didn’t completely crash and burn, but I learned the hard way, over and over again. Had I taken the time early on to do a little more study and a lot more wrestling, I could have spared myself a lot of grief, and certainly increased my effectiveness in those early years. Learn from my mistakes.


1. You need to have a basic understanding of worldviews.

This goes much deeper than a knowledge of world religions. For example, a person can call himself a Christian, but that doesn’t mean that his thinking, choices, and actions line up with the Bible. The same is true for those who follow other faiths. The religious labels people give themselves just scratch the surface of what they really believe. This is where a study of worldview comes in. If you are hoping to live, work, and have a gospel-impact on people of a different culture, that’s got to start with understanding their worldview–and your own.

Darrow Miller’s Discipling Nations: The Power of Truth to Transform Cultures should be required reading for any new missionary.

2. You need to know how to interpret the Bible on your own.

Most new missionaries have been nurtured in spiritually rich environments–strong Christian colleges and solid churches that often include discipleship, biblical teaching, and small groups. This is wonderful–but what happens when you end up in a city where there are no strong churches? Or those that do exist are in another language? What happens when you find yourself in a spiritually harsh environment with only a small team of other believers who can help you stay afloat?

Online sermons can help. Rich Christian literature can help. But at the end of the day, it’s going to be you and your Bible. Do you have the skills you need to interpret it without a pastor or small group leader’s help? Do you know enough about the various genres of Scripture, the historical context, and sound interpretation practices so that you can be confident of what it’s really saying?

The technical word for this is “hermeneutics,” or Bible study methods. Our family favorite is Living by the Book: The Art and Science of Reading the Bible by Howard Hendricks, but there are many other great resources out there.

3. You need to have worked out a biblical theology of suffering–or at least started to.

Of course, suffering can be found on every corner of the globe, in every social sphere. But any ministry that takes you up close and personal with the messiness of people’s lives, especially amongst the poor and disadvantaged, has the possibility of knocking you breathless with the depth of the suffering you will witness.

What will it do to your soul to see the blind child begging on the street corner? To be friends with the woman who lost her twins due to an unconscionable doctor’s error? To see the little albino boy whose arm was chopped off for witchcraft purposes….by his own uncle? If you haven’t already wrestled with God over the reality of suffering and the problem of evil, you may risk disillusionment, burn-out, or even losing your faith.  

Jerry Bridges’ Trusting God: Even When Life Hurts has had a profound influence on my life on this topic.

4. You need to know the theology of poverty alleviation.

What do you do about the beggars on the street corner? Or the constant requests by your neighbors for loans or favors? How do you assuage your guilty conscience when you go out to dinner or spend money on a vacation, knowing that people around you are hungry? Guilt will slowly strangle you unless you have already thought through how you will respond.

A theology of suffering answers, “How can God allow this?” A theology of poverty alleviation answers, “How should I respond?”

If you haven’t yet read When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor….and Yourself, now is the time. It’s an absolute must-read for any missionary (or any Christian, for that matter).

5. You need to know the history of your host country.

Are you able to identify the five most important events in your host country’s history? Do you know how the government is structured? Are you familiar with the nation’s holidays and why they are celebrated? What is every child taught? If you want to get to the soul of a people, then you must understand where they came from. Take the time find out.

All of these areas can be learned by dedicated study on your own. I learn best by reading, so I’ve given my recommendations for my favorite books. But I’m sure there are audiobooks, podcasts, or videos on all of these subjects. If you’ve got other suggestions, please share! Utilize the massive amount of internet resources at our fingertips, and educate yourself on these important issues–ideally, before you go.

When You Want to Want to Stay Longer

When living overseas, sometimes there’s no doubt that you need to leave. A denied visa, a medical emergency, a government coup, a burn-out, an unresolvable conflict.

Sometimes there’s no doubt you want to stay. You’ve adapted; you’ve found community, ministry, purpose, and most of the time, you’re loving life.

But what about when you think you should stay, but you really don’t want to?

When the need is great, and right now, you’re the best person to fill it. When you’ve received affirmation from local believers and leadership from home that you are a good fit for your role. When you are seeing fruit–or you can almost see it, just over the horizon.

But you are weary of this life. You are sick and tired of the long lines at government offices, of bugs in your kitchen drawers, of being misunderstood (again). The pollution aggravates your daughter’s asthma, and it takes you five hours to run one errand, and suddenly the price of milk doubles over night. Again.

And your old life is looking pretty great. Your friends’ lives on Instagram are looking even better.

You don’t really want to stay. But you’re pretty sure you should. You want to want to stay. How do you get there?

Maybe sometimes you just need a vacation. Or some counseling. Maybe you need to consider a new neighborhood. Maybe you just need to bite the bullet and buy that air conditioner.

But after fifteen years living overseas, do you want to know what has kept me here longer? Changing my perspective from This is an experience to This is my life.

What’s the difference?

An experience is temporary. It’s something that you check off your bucket list before going back to your “normal” life. You’re likely to expect fun and adventure. You’re likely to have high expectations of what you’re going to get out of it, and lower lows when you don’t.

Since an experience has a defined beginning and end, you also aren’t necessarily looking for the normal rhythms of work and rest. You might be thinking that you need to pack in as much as you can because you know your time is limited. And when you’re looking at your time overseas as an experience, when times get hard, you just dig in your heels and endure it. (Buy an air conditioner? Pish! I’m here to be tough.) The end is always in sight, and you are counting the days till it’s over.

When it comes time to decide if you should stay longer, it’s not even a consideration. The experience is over; so why should you stay? Your sights are already set on home; they have been for a long time. Staying longer seems unfathomable.

But when you enter your time overseas with the mindset that This is my life, then there is no end in sight. You realize that adaptation is key. Of course, this does not mean that you try to recreate your life back home. But it does mean that you are actively looking for that “new normal.” When times get tough, you aren’t counting the days until it’s over. Instead, you’re thinking about how you can make this work. How you can adapt. How you can either change your circumstances or change your perspective so that you aren’t utterly miserable all of the time.

What does this tangibly look like? Put pictures up on your walls. Plant a garden. Spend the extra money to get the couch you love, instead of someone’s old ugly hand-me-down. These are little things, but can help significantly with your mindset. Slow down. Watch TV sometimes. Don’t fret over “wasted” time learning language and culture, chomping at the bit to get your “real” ministry started. Watch. Wait. Listen. Learn. When the power goes out or you get three flat tires in a week, pay attention to your thinking. Are you telling yourself, “Just a few more months and this will be over,” or rather “How can I learn to live this way?”

You want to want to stay? Let me tell you something I’ve learned about contentment in this overseas life: The more you think about leaving, the more you will want to leave. The more you resolve yourself to stay, the more content you will be.

And one more thing: There will always be a reason to leave if you are looking for it. Always. If you want a reason, you will find it. So here’s my challenge: Instead of just asking yourself, Do I want to leave?, consider asking yourself, Is there a good reason why I shouldn’t stay longer?

Full disclosure: My family is in that place right now, asking ourselves that question. I realize that finding the answer is not simple, because it can be easy to mingle God’s calling with our own desires. Knowing when has been “long enough” can often become more complicated the longer you stay….because the experience has become life! That’s what’s kept us here fifteen years, and the depth of our friendships, the wealth of what we have learned, and the multiplying impact of ministry have made all of these years more than worth it. I pray it will be for you too.

Go Ahead and Criticize Missions (Constructively)

When raising children, we know that it’s only God who can draw their hearts to himself. But that doesn’t stop us from reading the best books and looking for the best advice. We search for the church with the best youth group and spend way too much money on the best camps.

When we’re sick, we know that ultimately it’s God who heals. But that doesn’t stop us from buying insurance, looking for the best hospital, and researching the best methods.

When we travel, we know that God is the one who protects us. But that doesn’t stop us from finding the safest car seats, getting our brakes serviced, and using only reputable airlines.

When we do evangelism and missions, we know that God is ultimately the one who saves souls. But why then are we supposed to check our brains at the door?

I am a firm believer in the Sovereignty of God–that God is in control of all situations and all hearts. I also have no doubt that God can take our worst failures, our biggest sins, or even downright evil, and use it for his will and his glory.

Of course, God can take the most abusive parent and bring forth the most kind-hearted child. God can take the most run-down hospital or ill-equipped doctor and bring healing. He can preserve and protect us despite a rickety vehicle or failing brakes.

But that doesn’t mean we stop thinking. We don’t go recklessly running after failure if a better option is right in front of us. So why then, when it comes to evangelism and missions, are discussions about best practices considered taboo?

I keep hearing things like this:

If God called her, then who are we to judge if she is qualified or equipped?

If God led them to do that, then what right do we have to criticize?

If just one person is reached with the gospel, then it’s worth any expense of time, energy, and money. It doesn’t matter if there could be a better way to steward those resources.

Whether or not his evangelism method was effective, that’s between him and God. We should just keep our mouths shut.

If she says God called her, then she must be doing the right thing. Whether she was a success or not is between her and God.

If their intentions were good, then that’s all that really matters. God only cares about the heart, not the end result.

We wouldn’t say that about anything else. If 90% of the people who entered a hospital ended up dead, we wouldn’t say, “Well, as long as one life is saved, why try to improve it?” If a car seat got terrible safety reviews, we wouldn’t buy it anyway and say, “Well, ultimately it’s God who will protect my child.”

Of course, there is a balance to keep here. For example, as missionaries, sometimes we do choose to live in places where medical care or road conditions aren’t exactly stellar. And in those times, it absolutely is our comfort and confidence to rest in God’s sovereignty. Similarly, when we’ve laboured hard on the mission field and seen very little (if any) fruit, we can lean heavily on the promise that ultimately it is God who saves souls.

But that shouldn’t shut down conversation on how we could do it better next time!

Remember, saying “God called me” can be dangerous. So yeah, you do have a right to ask the hard questions of the under-equipped young person who wants to go out and change the world. We do have the responsibility of evaluating the fruit of evangelism methods of the past. It’s okay to delve into the potentially harmful impact of the short-term team. It’s important to question the methods of a ministry strategy that may actually be hindering the gospel. Robust discussion, constructive criticism, and listening with humility are all ways God uses to provide checks and balances for what could be sinful inclinations or just plain foolishness.

So for all of us involved in local evangelism or overseas missions–whether that be as a short or long-term missionary, financial supporter, trainer, recruiter, or partner–we must ask ourselves:  Are we willing to humbly listen to our biblically-based critics? In light of that criticism, are we willing to honestly evaluate our motives and methods? As iron sharpens iron, let us make each other better.  

Saying “God Called Me” Can Be Dangerous

Back when I was 23 and raising support to be a missionary in Tanzania, you would have heard me say, “God is calling me.” I would have told you that I had a heart for teaching missionary kids. I would have told you that I loved Africa and wanted to see God’s kingdom built there. And those things were 100% true. I wasn’t a deceiver who was trying to pull the wool over my supporter’s eyes. But there was more to it than that.

As a teenager, I was terrible at sports and fashion, and my very introverted personality meant that I had all sorts of interesting thoughts going around in my head but they rarely came out articulately. My best friend was a cello player and a track runner and Valedictorian; I was always a few steps behind. But I had spent six years of my childhood in Africa. That was my thing. That I had experienced this whole other life–that’s what made me different. And I clung to it. A guy in college told me that boys wouldn’t want to date me because I was so set on living in Africa, but that just made me more resolute.

And evangelical Christian culture made it easy. I could express my individuality and get lots of gold stars and pats on the back at the same time. Saying “God is calling me to Africa” put me on a higher spiritual plane; so very few people probed with deeper questions. But sometimes saying “God called me” can actually mask a lot of other motives.

When we want to be missionaries, it’s easier to say, “God called me,” than to say

“I really love traveling.”

“I’m looking for adventure.”

“I want to stand out, to be different.”

“If I start a new life, I can leave my problems behind.”

“If I do this big thing for God, he will give me what I want.”

“I really like looking/feeling spiritual and all the attention that gets me.”

“I want my life to feel significant.”

 

Equally important, when we want to go back home, it’s easier to say, “God called me,” than to say

“I don’t get along with my co-workers.”

“I can’t hack the way of life here.”

“My leadership hasn’t given me the support I wanted.”

“I miss my family too much.”

“I hate feeling incompetent all the time.”

“I’m so depressed/anxious/burned out that I can’t function anymore.”

The reality is, everyone falls for it. Saying, “God called me” shuts down any questions. No one is allowed to argue with that statement. Because who wants to argue with God?  But that’s why saying “God called me” can be dangerous. And we need to challenge the culture that allows it.

What do we even mean when we say, “God called me?” Christians will give various answers, but a call from God often boils down to some kind of supernatural experience or a very strong feeling. The same line of reasoning is used with “God hasn’t called me.” If a person hasn’t experienced some sort of supernatural experience or strong feeling, then we believe that is an indication that the status quo is sufficient.

Let’s be honest with ourselves. Often, “God called me” basically means, “I want to” but with a spiritual veneer. So let’s think this through. Can God work through our desires? Absolutely. God gave us our emotions, our personalities, and the way we’re “wired,” and he will use all of these to lead us and guide us.

But.

Our emotions are often selfish, fickle, and foolish. It’s quite possible for us to feel good about a terribly sinful choice (at least for a while). We are very capable of ignoring the Holy Spirit, misinterpreting Scripture, or “hearing” what we want to hear from God.

So how do we know when God is actually leading us in a certain direction? And if we discover that hiding behind “God called me” are some selfish motives, does that mean he hasn’t?

Not necessarily. It’s very possible to have noble motives and selfish ones mixed in together. I once read that as fallen people, our motives are never going to be completely pure. We must remember that we are complex beings–capable of feeling multiple emotions and desires at once. We aren’t usually honest even with ourselves, and sin will always be there, even when we’re being our most honorable.

So what does that mean for us as missionaries, whose whole lives are built on “a calling?” It means we need to ask ourselves the hard questions. We need to root out our deeper motives–all of them, even the ugly ones. And senders need to be careful not to be so dazzled by “God called me” that they hold back from asking those same hard questions. We (both the goers and the senders) need to remember that being a missionary doesn’t put us on a higher spiritual plane, immune from sinful motives.

When someone says, “God called me,” that should be the starting point for a lot of good questions and conversations. Why do you want to go (or return)? Why is it important? What does your church think about this? What does the team on the field think about this? What might you be running away from? How has God uniquely prepared you–not someone else–for this specific time and place? Or if you are leaving, what circumstances assure you that God is releasing you? And how does all of this match up with what God has spoken to us through Scripture?

This is why we need the Body of Christ. This is why we need to put ourselves under godly, strong, but humble leadership. This is why God intended the Church to be a part how he calls us.

When I think back to the mess of motives and emotions I felt when I was 23, I truly believe God did call me to Africa. But I was equipped: I had grown up on the African continent; I had been certified as a teacher; I had spent years in cross-cultural ministry in the States. I had the blessing of my church family. I had been well-vetted by my mission organization. Yes, I wanted to go. But it was the culmination of all of those things that confirmed that God was calling me.

Did that mean my motives were entirely pure? Absolutely not. And it would have been helpful if I had been honest with myself about it, or if I had someone in my life who asked me the hard, penetrating questions. Back then, coming to the realization about my desire to be different and significant probably would not have negated my assurance that I should go, but it would have helped me to learn some hard lessons a lot sooner.

Because that’s the thing about selfish motives–they are always there, but God has his ways of purifying them. Every missionary who stays on the mission field for any length of time knows this. I might have dreamed of gold stars or adventure or fulfillment, but that all came crashing down pretty quickly. And when it did, I needed a strong foothold to assure me that God really had directed me. But the weight behind “God called me” had to go a lot farther than just a feeling. God’s promises in Scripture, the Body of Christ back at home and on the field, and the ways God had uniquely prepared me for my role gave me assurance of his calling. Seventeen years later, that’s the calling I still lean on.

Don’t Touch My Bacon: Eating, Drinking, and Dressing Overseas

The American teacher stood in the staff lounge with a cup of yellow broth. Look at this, he laughed. It looks just like beer!

A Tanzanian staff member just stared at him. Do you drink beer? she solemnly asked.

He paused for a moment. Yes, he said. I do sometimes.

That was the end of the relationship. From that moment on, she wouldn’t make eye contact with him. Because for many Christian denominations in Tanzania, drinking alcohol is not compatible with Christianity.

When we move overseas, we give up a lot. Christmas at Grandma’s, Girl Scout Cookies, garbage disposals, 24-hour stores, our own language, feeling competent.

So we should be able to hold onto some of what’s important, comfortable, and familiar to us, right?

Sometimes we sure would like to think so.

I should be able to wear what I want in my new culture, because clothes express my unique identity. So if I look cute in bikinis, then I’m going to wear my bikini. If I am comfortable in shorts, I’m going to wear shorts. I’m not comfortable in long skirts or head coverings. And my tattoo is an expression of who I am, so why would I want to cover it up?

I should be able to eat what I want to eat, because asking me to give up pork or eat only vegetarian–well, that’s asking too much. I should be able to drink alcohol, because it’s not a sin, and it’s something I enjoy.

You might take away Starbucks and Target, but don’t touch my bacon.

For those of us from western cultures, we might be nodding in agreement. Of course. We’re used to a culture where self-expression reigns supreme. Conformity is viewed with disdain. Even our churches are pushing the boundaries of what was considered taboo or morally unacceptable. We aren’t legalists, right?

So when our host culture conflicts with our forms of comfort or self-expression, who wins?

Scripture tells us that for those so-called gray areas–which include issues of food, drink, or dress, there is some wiggle room. And in those cases, the Bible is clear that for the sake of the gospel, we submit to the culture’s moral norms. I Corinthians 9 says, To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.

So that might mean that if our host culture believes that drinking alcohol is incompatible with being a Christian, then for the sake of our witness, we refrain. That means that if our host culture doesn’t eat pork or even meat, it might be important for us to keep away from it as well. At the least, it’s a way of showing respect, and more importantly, a way for others to feel comfortable in our home.

It means recognizing that modesty is cultural and covering up the way our hosts do is a way to honor them. If shorts or bikinis or short skirts are offensive in our host culture, then we leave those packed in our parents’ attic. Maybe it means taking out the nose ring (or maybe it means getting one), or maybe it means covering up tattoos some or all of the time.

But does it really matter? Yes, it does. As in my introductory story, I’ve seen relationships between expats and locals completely derailed over these issues. And on the other hand, I have a friend who was told, If you didn’t dress the way you do (which included ankle-length skirts and long sleeves), we would never have invited you into our home.

Isn’t that just capitulating to legalism? Why should we condone cultural expectations that feel demeaning to women or suffocatingly oppressive or just plain wrong? Well, sometimes it might be as simple as humbly asking Why? The answers might surprise you. Maybe what we consider an innocuous accessory is associated with witchcraft in our host country. Or maybe what we would consider oppressive is actually a garment of pride for women.

What if there isn’t a good explanation? Then that’s when we have to remember that life isn’t about us, or our rights, or what makes us comfortable. On the contrary, Jesus said we need to die to ourselves. Die to our rights. And when we move overseas, even more so. Life isn’t about us, it’s about the gospel we are representing.

Sure, when a strong relationship is established and the opportunity arises, we can gently train Christian friends on what the Bible has to say about legalism. (And they’ll certainly be able to point out our own blind spots!)  But to get there, we’ll probably need to start by respecting them enough to do things their way.

We must ask ourselves: What’s more important–my rights or my witness?

Of course, figuring this all out is tricky. What is despised in one culture may be expected in another. If you live in a big city, you may be navigating several subcultures that have different moral expectations. How do we even know what offends our hosts? There aren’t any black and white answers, but starting with a posture of humility and self-denial is a great place to start. Here’s some other advice:

Pay attention. Seriously, pay attention. I can’t tell you how many times in Tanzania when I’ve seen some young white girl walking along the side of the road in short shorts. I want to slow down my car, roll down my window and holler at her, Look around! Do you see any Tanzanian women around here dressed like that?  (I know, I know, I’m proving I’m a grouchy old lady for even thinking this.)

But sometimes this can mean more than just modesty. For many years, I dutifully wore my long skirts and loose pants until I realized that in many situations, I was way under-dressed. Tanzanian women may cover their legs, but they are rarely casual and never frumpy. If I was going to present myself as a respectable pastor’s wife or school principal, I needed to beef up my wardrobe.

When in doubt, ask. Ask more than one person and find the right people to ask. Many cultures are very gracious to ex-pats and won’t confront us even if we are being blatantly offensive. Cultivate relationships with people who will be honest with you about cultural expectations. When you are humble and teachable, people will open up. Yes, there will inevitably still be some contradictions in what they tell you. But should our goal be to push the boundaries of what we can get away with in the culture, or rather how we can show respect to the most people?

Don’t take your cues from other ex-pats. Just because another ex-pat eats it or wears it or does it, doesn’t mean it’s acceptable. I’ve lived in Tanzania 14 years and I am still learning. In fact, just a few weeks ago, I discovered that ankle bracelets are associated with either prostitution or witchcraft in this culture. Yikes. I wasn’t an ankle-bracelet-wearer before, but now I definitely am not. So please, don’t ask me about what’s appropriate. But if you do, I’ll point you to some amazing Tanzanian friends who can fill you in.

The Apostle Paul sums it up really well, so I’ll end with him.

Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak.

“I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but not everything is constructive. No one should seek their own good, but the good of others.

So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God— even as I try to please everyone in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved.

Is Missions a Joke? Answering the Critics

Editorial note: A Life Overseas is a place to share stories and have conversations about cross-cultural missions and international living. In this space we avoid personal attacks. The following piece is a critique of ideas currently being circulated among the missions crowd. It is not a personal attack on anyone whose words are quoted here, and personal attacks of any kind will be deleted from the comment section. Thank you in advance for honoring this request.  ~Elizabeth Trotter, Jonathan Trotter, and Marilyn Gardner

I came off the mission field with a new mission which is to burn down missions. ~Jamie Wright

You come [to the mission field] with the veil of, ‘I’m called, not qualified’ and then when everything falls to s*** and you decide to go back home, it completely negates the authority of the God you said called you in the first place. And it’s just a damaging cycle that just goes on and on. ~Emily Worrall

Missionaries are trying to save themselves. There’s this sense of ‘God is going to come through for me.’ So you have a lot–a lot–of addiction…tons and tons and tons of sexual sin. Deeply wounded people who need help, who need therapy, who need support systems. But we give them permission to leave all that behind and go to a foreign country where it is all exacerbated and everything gets way worse. It’s a rampant problem in long-term missions. ~Jamie Wright

The long-term missionary lifestyle is almost, like, insidious. Because long-term missionaries are the ones really using the manipulative language. They are really misrepresenting their purpose and the necessity for them to live in these other countries. Or they are hiding information about their behavior or the things they are doing. It’s just not good. There are so many people living abroad on the church-dime who have no accountability. It’s really ugly. ~Jamie Wright

Corey Pigg: They [our organization] were sending us out to the 10/40 window.

Jamie Wright: Yes, the 10/40 window. Everybody loves that.

Corey: They felt it was imperative that we went to closed nations to be superheroes. Because those are the last places that need to hear the gospel.

Jamie. Which is hilarious. ……All that matters is that you use the lingo.

Corey: That’s what sells, right?

 

Hi, I’m Amy Medina, and I’m a missionary.

I was a missionary kid in Liberia and Ethiopia for six years of my childhood. I’m now 41 years old and have been living in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, for fourteen years as an evangelical Christian missionary. My husband trains pastors and I am the elementary school principal at Haven of Peace Academy. We’ve adopted four Tanzanian kids.

We live off of the financial gifts of churches and friends from the States. We write newsletters every month. We use phrases like “fruit of our ministry” and “unreached people groups” and “discipleship.” I blog. And my blog header has zebras on it. And a rainbow encircling an orphan.

So is my life a joke?

I’ve been mulling over what I read in Jamie Wright’s memoir, The Very Worst Missionary: A Memoir or Whatever and what I heard in the “Failed Missionary” podcasts with Corey Pigg, Emily Worrall of Barbie Savior, and Jamie Wright. I’ve known all along that some non-Christians scoff at my life as a misguided, ridiculous attempt to “save the world,” but I must admit I was surprised to find out that there are some of “our own” who feel the same way–and are loudly proclaiming it.

Ironically, I actually agree with a lot of what these critical voices have to say about missions. I believe that “calling” can be misguided and even idolatrous. I believe that missionaries need to be well-vetted, well-trained, and held accountable. I’m confident that there is a temptation among missionaries to hide their struggles and beef up their successes. I believe that the “white savior complex” is real and sinister, and I definitely hold that Americans need to stop shipping stuff overseas for poor people. And I do think that missions in general, but especially short-term missions, can often bring more harm than help.

So I don’t believe we should write off these critical voices. If we stand against them with scowling faces and hands over our ears, angry at their profanity or their bluntness or their criticism of our sacred cows, then we walk right into the realm of the Pharisees. I’m not saying we have to agree with everything they say or how they say it, but we need to listen.

The truth is, it’s not a bad thing to knock missionaries off those pedestals. And it’s not a bad thing for us missionaries to ask ourselves the hard questions, or for those who send us to ask those questions of us.

Why did I really become a missionary?

Was I running away from something? Was I just looking for more meaning in my life? Was I thinking that missions would elevate my life to a higher spiritual level?

Does my dependence on financial support make me cover up the truth or portray myself as something I am not?

Am I afraid of what would happen if people could see bank records or my internet history, or if they saw what a day in my life really looked like?

Am I really the best person at this time and in this place to be doing this job? Am I submitting myself to accountability? Am I humbling myself and my ideas to the local people?

Almost my entire life has been devoted to missions, in one way or another. And I’ve seen what these critics are talking about. I’ve seen terrible short-term teams who offend the local people or steal jobs in a struggling economy. In rare instances, I’ve known of missionaries who preach the gospel on Sunday and have affairs during the week. More commonly, I’ve seen ignorance and arrogance and racism among missionaries–including myself.

But my conclusion is different. I don’t believe missions needs “gasoline and a match,” as Jamie writes in her memoir.

Really what it comes down to is this: Do we have a message worth sharing?

The data suggests we do. Robert Woodberry has done extensive, peer-reviewed analysis of historical data that demonstrates that the impact of the gospel is overwhelmingly positive. In “The Truth About Missionaries,” Hugh Whelchel writes, “[Woodberry’s] research finds that where Protestant missionaries had a significant historical presence, those countries on average are now more economically developed. These countries have comparatively better health, lower infant mortality, lower corruption, greater literacy, higher educational attainment (especially for women), and more robust membership in non-governmental associations.”

In fact, Woodberry’s research shows that contrary to popular belief, protestant missionaries often stood in direct opposition to white colonialism. He writes, “[M]issionaries punished abusive colonial officials and counterbalanced white settlers, which fostered the rule of law, encouraged less violent repression of anti-colonial political organization, and facilitated peaceful decolonization.” Andrea Palpant Dilley, referring to Woodberry, concludes, “In short: Want a blossoming democracy today? The solution is simple – if you have a time machine: Send a 19th-century missionary.”

These missionaries weren’t just do-gooders who were looking to make the world a better place. They were “conversionary Protestants” who, frankly, were trying to convert people to Christianity. Christian missions, when done correctly, is “both/and” when it comes to sharing the gospel and helping to effect social change.

Why is that? Because a person who has truly been transformed by the gospel of Jesus Christ isn’t just trying to earn gold stars for converts. That person has had an entire shift in worldview–a worldview that values all human life as sacred, understands that sin has broken the relationships that mankind has with himself, others, and creation, and that redemption in all of that brokenness starts with a relationship with Jesus Christ. So despite how missionaries over the centuries have royally messed up a lot of the time, their success was based on how well they embraced a biblical worldview, and how well they shared it with others. History shows us they have been surprisingly successful.

Nancy Pearcey writes, “That’s why C. S. Lewis calls Christianity ‘a fighting religion.’ He means that disciples of Jesus are not meant to passively allow evil to flourish on earth, while looking forward to escaping someday to a higher realm. Instead they are called to actively fight evil here and now. The doctrine of the resurrection means that the physical world matters. It matters to God and it should matter to God’s people.”  

According to the critical voices, our message should be–and only be–one of love. Jamie writes, “Let’s agree to write an epic of love to the benefit of others.” She wants us to make missions not about ourselves and how it makes us feel, but about what’s best for others.

I wholeheartedly agree. I’m just not sure we would agree on what “love” actually looks like. Emily Worrall says, “Basically what the [Great Commission] boils down to is ‘kindness.’ That’s something that I don’t see a lot of in the mission field. Period.”

Point taken. Missionaries–or Christians in general–often should be reminded to get in touch with their kind side. The gospel is not about forcing rules upon others. It’s not about molding others into our image. But does ‘love’ start and end with only kindness? What makes the gospel so transformative is by recognizing the depth of our sin, the rampant effects of that sin, and how surrender and faith in Jesus is the means of redemption–and our only hope of heaven.

That means that loving others isn’t just standing by and allowing people to self-destruct in the name of acceptance. It doesn’t mean being okay with others’ futile attempts to work their way to heaven. There are times when love needs to confront sin–whether that be the sin of an individual or the sin of a culture. That doesn’t mean we should be arrogant or unkind, but it does mean that we say, “Look! This is why we all need Jesus!”

As an American, I’m certainly not insinuating that American Christians have this all figured out and are the only ones who should be going out to “save the world.” This notion is there and it’s sinister, and it’s not okay. But as God’s Church becomes more global, I think that all of us, from all nations, can take a posture of humility in learning from each other–including and perhaps especially the people who we may be evangelizing. And therefore, the Global Church, under the authority of Scripture, should be working together to bring the gospel to those parts of the world where it’s never been heard. And that’s exactly what’s happening! I see this right here in my corner of East Africa. A cross-cultural global group of Americans, Europeans, South Africans, and South Koreans are working alongside Tanzanians to bring the gospel to the uttermost parts of the earth. It is an amazing, beautiful thing.

Are missionaries a joke? Sometimes. People are sinners, including missionaries. Please, by all means, let’s topple missionaries off of our pedestals. Let’s remember that missionaries are just as much in need of the redemption they preach to others. Let’s hold them accountable. Let’s redefine “calling” to include gifting and training. Let’s be wise and sacrificial about how we steward God’s people and God’s resources. Let’s examine ourselves to make sure the mission isn’t all about us.

But is missions a joke? God forbid. Missions exists to elevate Jesus Christ above all, to bring glory to him in places and among people where he is not known. If he really is the Son of God, the Way, the Truth, and the Life, the First and the Last, the Redeemer of Mankind, and the Light of the World, then let’s go out….and make his name Glorious.

 

Forbidden Roots

Moving overseas starts as an experience.

When you move to a new country, the remnants of your old life stay with you for a long time. At first, keeping in touch with your friends back at home is a big priority. You get lots of packages in the mail. You grieve the loss of all that you left behind. But you are excited to be in this new place you dreamed about for so long, and that excitement keeps you going for a while. After the honeymoon wears off–which could happen in a week or a year–then it just takes grit. A lot of grit. As in, I’m going to grit my teeth and stay here even though I hate it.

That stage also can vary in length. But it usually morphs into the next stage, which is a settled acceptance. You re-learn how to do everything you used to be good at–how to shop, how to clean, how to drive, how to relax, how to keep the electricity on, where the best place is to buy mangos. You find a new normal and you forget that it’s weird that there’s a gecko on your wall watching you brush your teeth.

But quite often, you still need that grit to get you through another water shortage or your third flat tire in one week or another Christmas without grandma. The lure of your old life is still there, and your heart will regularly long for what you left behind.

Your new life is still an experience. It’s something temporary—even if it lasts years—because in the back of your mind is the assumption that someday you will return to your real life.

And then, somewhere along the road, so slowly that you don’t even realize it, you adapt. You fully transition. I don’t know when it happened for me. But I’ve lived in Tanzania for fourteen years now, and I don’t think it starting happening until somewhere around year eight. It’s different for everyone, I’m sure. It happens a lot faster to children.

It’s a strange, strange feeling. It’s not that I’ve stopped missing those I love who I have left behind. It’s that I have stopped missing that life. I used to long to return to that life, and now I can’t fathom leaving this life. The good things are so numerous that I hardly notice the hard things anymore.

My roots have crept down into this rich foreign earth, grasping firmly to the people and amongst the culture and way of life, intertwining my life with places and events and relationships. And the tree above is vibrant and thriving.

This normal has become so normal that I can’t imagine leaving it.

Except, I know that someday I will. We don’t have plans to leave Tanzania, but I’m certain that we eventually will. I am not a citizen, or even an immigrant. My passport is still American blue; Tanzania is not my country. Our residence here is dependent on a fragile balance of health, financial support, ministry opportunity, and government favor. Yet the thought of leaving someday fills me with an intense grief, knowing that it will tear away part of my being. Not just a loss of place, but a loss of who I am.

The experience has become real life.

Which is a good thing, of course. It’s what every expat should want to attain. But it’s also a tragic thing. It’s like coming to the realization that I’ve fallen in love with something that I can’t keep. I know that my deeply planted roots will one day be unceremoniously yanked up again. It will hurt, and pieces will surely be ripped off.

And I’m not sure I want to think about that.

Dear Missionary Mom of Littles

Dear Missionary Mom of Littles,

I see you.

I’m starting with that, because I know that often you don’t feel seen. You stay home with the kids while your husband goes out to teach the Bible study. You hang around the back of the church, trying to keep the baby quiet. You have to leave the team meeting early so that your toddler gets his nap.

Of course, every mom of littles, in any culture, is going to struggle with similar things. But I think that this particular season of life is even harder on missionary moms.

Quite likely, you are raising your kids in isolation. You don’t have your own parents or other relatives nearby to help out. There isn’t a Mommy-group at your church or a pee-wee soccer league in your city. There might not even be a McDonald’s Playland or a safe park to walk to. And you feel trapped.

Yes, there are other ladies in your host country with small children. But they may be parenting their children very differently from you. They might live in their mother-in-law’s house. They might put their kids in all-day preschool at two years old, or hire a full-time nanny, or be okay with letting their children freely roam the streets. They might criticize you for not keeping your child warm enough or spoiling them too much or not spoiling them enough or for giving your child a popsicle, even when it’s 90 degrees outside. And you feel very alone.

Maybe you’re remembering earlier days, when you worked right alongside your husband, or when your job felt significant. When your ministry was thriving and you could look back at the end of the day and feel satisfied with all you accomplished. Now you feel exhausted but have nothing to show for it. Your newsletters are full of your husband’s adventures, but you don’t have anything to contribute. And your life just feels….boring.

And you may wonder, What’s the point? Why am I here? You know the importance of spending these years with your little ones, but it feels like you could be doing the exact same job in your home country. Except there, your life would be less lonely and less difficult.

I was you for ten years. When I see you, I remember.

This is what I learned, and this is what I want you to know today.

Be creative. You get the opportunity to take the best parts of parenting from multiple cultures. You don’t have to do it exactly like they do, but you also don’t have to raise your children exactly the way you were raised. Work within your host culture’s expectations of raising children. Maybe that means hiring a part-time nanny or housekeeper. Maybe that means letting your kids play outside in much colder or hotter weather than your home country.

Find your ministry niche. This is so, so important for moms of littles. True, you probably won’t be able to engage in full-time ministry during this season. But find something. Something that will allow you to use your gifts and interests in your host culture. Maybe it’s hospitality. Maybe it’s doing accounting while your kids are napping. Maybe it’s teaching for a few hours a week. Maybe it’s connected to what your husband is doing, but maybe it’s not. Either way is okay.

Embrace the advantages of this season. Adorable small children are a great way to start relationships. Even better, people talk slower and more simply to children—which is exactly what you need as a language learner. And if the combination of your kids and your city restrict you to your house most of the time, then think of this as an excellent season for learning. Listen to language lessons during playtime. Read books on culture during nap time. Pepper your neighbor with questions about culture. You will learn a side of your host country that your husband or teammates won’t see, and that is an important contribution.

Be brave. Cross-cultural work is always hard, but it might be easier for your husband, who has a school or office or business to go off to every day. It can be a lot harder for a mom who needs to summon up the courage to knock on the neighbor’s door, initiate the conversation in a new language, get to know the woman who just criticized your baby’s sockless feet. Sometimes it feels easier to just stay home. Fight against that tendency.

Be faithful. This season will not last forever. It feels like it—trust me, I know. The days are endless and mind-numbing, but one day you will throw away your last diaper or brush your last set of teeth. Your kids will become more independent and you won’t have to watch them every waking second. Your life will not always be this restrictive or exhausting.

Hang in there, Mom of Littles. Take joy in their giggles, pray through the long nights, and get up in the morning. God will not waste your faithfulness.

 

If you live cross-culturally and are not a mom of littles, I encourage you: Show these missionary moms you see them. Hold the baby. Offer to baby-sit. Ask for their contributions in your strategic planning. Value their voices. Work around their schedules. Look for ways to use their gifts. You and your team will be stronger for it.

My littles from nine years ago. Seems like yesterday.

So You Want to Cross Oceans and Cultures. Are You Ready?

Is your passion for the glory of Jesus Christ stronger than anything else?  Do you believe in the depths of your soul that he is the greatest treasure of the universe, and that heaven and hell are real?

You may envision the glory of adventure, you might be full of noble good works, and maybe new challenges thrill you.  But all of this will be crushed under the magnitude of the difficulty of learning another language, the isolation of being away from your home and culture, and the tears of your parents….or your children.

It’s got to be about Jesus, not you.  Not your fulfillment.  Not your vision.  Not your success. Ultimately, it’s got to be just about him.

If you are married, is your spouse steadfastly unified with you in this passion?  In work such as this, there is no such thing as a spouse that is along for the ride.  After Jesus, prioritize your spouse.  If God wants you to do this, he’ll make you united in your vision.  Or at the very least, he’ll give your spouse the willingness to humbly seek after that vision.

Are you willing to submit yourself to stringent accountability?  Hundreds of people will be keeping you accountable.  Every church who puts your picture on their wall.  Every person who writes a check each month.  Every child who prays for you at bedtime.  All of them will expect you to live a life of integrity and humility.  All of them will be expecting to hear from you regularly.  Are you—or are you willing to become—a good communicator?  Are you willing to vulnerably share with people beyond your group of close friends?  Are you even willing to share your life in front of large crowds?

Are you adequately trained?  Good intentions are great, but they are not enough.  You can have the most willing, servant-like heart, and yet be more of a liability than a help overseas. Do you have a valuable skill to share?  Education, business, agriculture, linguistics?  If you are planning to be a leader, administrator, or church planter, have you proven yourself first in your home country?  Are you an avid, dedicated student of the Word of God?  If not, then now is not the time for you to go.  Get trained first.

Are you willing to be more teachable than you ever have been in your life?  Forget everything you thought you knew about people. Be ready to reconsider what church looks like, what productivity looks like, what wealth and poverty look like. You’ll be starting from scratch with an entirely different worldview, and even right and wrong won’t seem so black and white anymore. Think every aspect of your theology is set in stone?  Get ready to have your world rocked.

Are you ready to be patient and to persevere?  There certainly is a place and a purpose for those who serve overseas for just weeks or months. But real fruit and lasting change?  Be prepared for it to take much longer than you ever expected. Years longer. Know that God will need to do some serious work on you first, before your impact will be measurable.

Do you feel inadequate, weak, and overwhelmed with this task?  If so, then that’s right where God needs you to be in order to use you. Open your hands, your heart, your plans. Be willing. Be weak. Be okay with failure. You don’t need to have strength, or super-spirituality, or even courage.

You just need to trust.  Trust, obey, and be faithful.

Missions Means Choosing the Desert

Earlier this year, I went through a season of insomnia.  A chaotic furlough, a new job, and lots of life change brought on anxiety, which bred sleeplessness, which bred more anxiety, until I was a mess.

I lay awake many nights and begged God, “You know I need to sleep.  You know I can’t function without it.  I believe you want me to be productive.  So why won’t you help me sleep?”

And the Word of God spoke to me through Deuteronomy 6:

Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the wilderness these forty years, to humble and test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands.

There I was, wandering in the desert, feeling desperate, crushed, and abandoned by God.  Until I remembered that the desert is the very best place for God to meet me.   

He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna….to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.

God caused you to hunger.  Just like sleep, bread is necessary for life itself, yet God wanted his people to remember that their very existence depended on God and his Word.

Thousands of years later, our Savior voluntarily went into the desert, and learned for himself that man does not live by bread alone.  And not long after that, he stood tall and declared himself to be our Bread of Life, sent down from Heaven.

Unlike many in the world, I’ve had the incredible privilege of never needing to worry about my daily bread.  Perhaps that’s why God allowed me to be deprived of my daily sleep.  And there are a myriad of other ways we can be sent into the desert involuntarily—cancer, hurricane, betrayal.

As insomnia helped me to understand the value of the desert, I realized that choosing missions is one of the ways we voluntarily choose the desert. 

In choosing missions, we leave behind our support structures:  family, church, friends.

Choosing missions means learning new ways of survival:  how to communicate, how to care for our children, how to provide for our basic needs.  Most of the time, we give up many of the comforts of home, whether it be as simple as McDonald’s Playland or as complex as feeling understood by the people around us.

Missions sometimes means we find ourselves in a spiritual wasteland:  a city where we are one of only handful of believers.  Where the oppression, whether seen or unseen, lies heavy on our shoulders.

Choosing missions means choosing the life of a stranger, an outsider.  We are often misunderstood.  We often feel alone, and as time goes by, we often feel disconnected in our “home” countries as well.  Like it did for our Savior, the desert brings on temptation strong and thick.  But unlike our Savior, we often cave to it.

So why, why, why do we choose this life?  Why on earth would we choose this desert? 

Because man does not live by bread alone, or cream cheese, or even Starbucks.  Man does not live by running water, or air conditioning, or indoor heating.  He is not sustained by paved roads, or fast internet, or stylish clothes.  He even does not live by English education for his kids, by real turkey on Thanksgiving or by cold Christmases and the smell of pine trees.

No.

We live by every Word that comes from the mouth of God. 

This desert will humble us, and test us, and we will see within our hearts whether we are truly keeping his commands.  But the hunger and the thirst we experience in our chosen wilderness will enable us to have a greater, fuller understanding of our true Bread of Life.  Our manna from Heaven.  The gift of his presence, the knowledge of his suffering, the tremendous depth of grace—all of these things are worth more than anything the world has to offer.  More than home.  More than sleep.  More than bread.

Just as he promised, God fed me with himself during that season of insomnia.  And I was reminded:  The knowledge of God’s presence is more important to him than my productivity, than my comfort, than my health.  How often has he taught me that in this chosen life overseas.  In the great mystery of the universe, I lose my life to find it.  I choose the desert and find the Bread of Life.

Dear New Missionary

Dear New Missionary,

I spent last week with about 40 of you, helping with your training.

I saw the fire in your eyes and the urgency in your prayers but heard the waver in your voice. 

I saw myself in you, 16 years ago, when it was I who sat in your chair with the same simultaneous passion and anxiety.

What do I wish I’d known?  What do I wish I could tell you now?

 

It’s going to be hard.  Really hard.

And it won’t just be the things you anticipate will be hard.  Sure, there will be the bugs and you might hate your kitchen and driving might terrify you.  You might cry because the potatoes are just not cooking right and you accidentally insult someone and no one speaks to you at your new church.  Your kids might get a strange rash and you will buy the wrong medicine and you’ll wonder what on earth you were thinking to bring your family to this strange place.

Then there’s the fear.  You won’t let your kids play outside without you; you’ll hold your purse a lot more tightly; you’ll worry about the pollution affecting your lungs.  You’ll sleep a lot less soundly and get up at night just to check out the windows, one more time.  It might feel like everyone is smirking at you behind your back.  And you’ll wonder why you ever thought you could have an impact on this new place. 

But then there will be the things you didn’t anticipate would be hard.  Your sin won’t stay in your home country, in fact, it will seem to ooze out of you in buckets.  Your team leader won’t have enough time for you, and you’ll feel left dangling, high and dry and bewildered.  The poverty surrounding you will hang constant guilt around your neck.  You will communicate like a two-year-old.  You’ll lose your sense of self-respect.  You won’t feel good at anything anymore.

You will, in essence, lose yourself.  And it might feel like dying.

But, in that losing, you will find yourself.  And in that dying, you will live.

In the hardness, you will find that you are capable of enduring more than you thought possible.  You will find that you actually can drive in that traffic, that you can make a pumpkin pie from scratch, that you can say something intelligible in another language.  You will look back after a year, two, three years and be amazed at all the things you can do that you never thought you could do.

You will experience the astonishing joy of realizing that different does not have to be scary The woman behind the veil is more like you than you would have guessed; the foreign pastor has the same worries for his congregation as you do.  The alley that looked so dark will one day feel familiar; the words on billboards will start to make sense.

You will find that having less means that you find more joy with less.  A can of root beer will make a great Christmas present; sticks and rocks will entertain your children far more than Toys R Us ever did.  The poverty surrounding you will build a deep and abiding sense of gratefulness for what you do have.

And the sin and loneliness and conflict and fear?  They will give you daily invitation to press into the One who is your refuge.  In deeper ways than you ever realized, you will come to know the One who emptied himself and left heaven for a foreign land.  Names like Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace will find new and rich meaning.  The saving power of the gospel will not just apply to those you are preaching to, but daily to your own heart.

The longer you stay, you will find that this journey has been a whole lot more about what you needed to learn than what you had to give.  Maybe, just maybe, you’ll wake up one day and realize that you have made an impact on this new place.  But in the same moment, you’ll realize that this place has had a far greater impact on you.

And you’ll find you have experienced the biggest privilege of your life.

Godspeed, New Missionary.  It will be hard, but it will be worth it.

 

When Missionaries Think They Know Everything

A few years ago, a video started making its way around my Facebook feed–shared by lots foreigners who live in my part of Africa.  The video showed two African men shoveling sand.  There was a very large pile of sand to their left.  The two men were shoveling the sand into a wheelbarrow, filling it up, and then dumping it…two feet away.

The person filming this video obviously thought the men were complete idiots.  “Watch this!  Wait for it…wait for it…” she gleefully exclaimed.  And when the men dumped out another wheelbarrow of sand just inches away, she could be heard bursting into giggles.

By the time I saw the video, it had over 13 million views and 300,000 shares by people who obviously thought the men’s idiocy was equally hilarious.  I didn’t share it, but I had to admit that it did seem pretty amusing.

That is, I thought it was funny until two African friends set us all straight.  They explained:  While making concrete, in the absence of a cement mixer, a builder will use a wheelbarrow to measure.  One part cement, two parts sand, three parts gravel.  These men were not idiots.  They knew exactly what they were doing.  They were using the resources they had to do something that was actually quite rational.

Oh.

Oops.

I was terribly ashamed.  Not just for myself, but for the millions of foreigners who come to Africa and think that we know everything.  That one little video made me re-evaluate how I view my host country.  It made me wonder how many other times I had the same attitude of condescension about something I knew nothing about.

There was a tag on that video:  #TIA:  “This is Africa.”  This is a common hashtag in my part of the world, but foreigners often turn it into something demeaning.  For example, “Spent all day waiting for my car to be fixed, and then realized they ‘fixed’ the wrong part.  #TIA.”

But let’s step back a minute and take a look at that from a distance.  What is “TIA” communicating in this instance?  That everything always goes wrong in Africa?   That no one knows how to fix anything?  That we should have the expectation that everyone in Africa is an idiot?  What would the mechanic think if he read it?

As Christian missionaries, it’s easy to assume that we are above this kind of behavior.  After all, we’ve been vetted, interviewed, and scrutinized more than most people will be in their lifetime.  We’re supposed to be godly, right?  We’re supposed to love the nations, right?   Missionaries could never be racist….right?

Call it racism, stereotyping, or ethnocentrism, but one thing we need to get really clear is that it dwells in all of our hearts in some form or another.  If we’re really honest with ourselves, we have to admit that we really do think we know what’s best.  Our way of doing things is really the most effective.  Basically, I am better than you.  Or at the very least, my culture is better than yours.

We assume that we could never be that person, yet that’s just the problem.  We ignore the fact that despite the pedestals we have been put on, we actually aren’t saints; that signing on to missionary work didn’t actually get rid of our sin.  We are, by nature, prideful and arrogant.  Insisting that we aren’t just allows it to come out in unintended ways.  The first step to rooting out sin in our lives is by acknowledging that it’s there—in all of us.

Of course, I’m not suggesting that we put on rose-colored glasses and pretend that our frustrations don’t exist.  Inefficiency, foolishness, and downright evil exist in every culture, in various forms.  I’m saying we need to check our attitude towards these things.  Are we holding ourselves above the culture as if we’re better than it, and insisting we have all the answers?  Or are we sitting down in the dust next to our local friends, learning to love the things they love and experience the frustrations they feel within their culture?

Marilyn Gardner writes, “Cultural humility demands self-evaluation and critique, constant effort to understand the view of another before we react.  It requires that we recognize our tendency toward cultural superiority. Cultural humility gives up the role of expert, instead seeing ourselves as students of our host culture.  It puts us on our knees, the best posture possible for learning.”

We need to ask ourselves:

  • Would I make this complaint if I knew a government official would hear it?
  • Would I tell this joke about my host country in front of my local friends?
  • Would I write this Facebook post if I knew the pastor of my local church would see it?

And what about my own kids?  How are my children going to perceive our host country if they absorb my attitude about the government, the police, the mechanic, the drivers on the road?  Are they learning from my words and actions to show grace or to display arrogance?

Even if you think you are just kidding around, be careful.  Obviously, even local people complain about certain things in their country and even make jokes.  But remember that playground rule when you were a kid:  It’s okay for you to tease your little sister, but if your friend does it, then “them’s fighting words.”  Even if your local friends disparage or mock aspects of their own culture, that doesn’t mean it’s okay for you to do it too.  We are guests in our host countries.  Let’s be considerate ones.

Of course, there’s a fine line here.  If I see a Facebook post that says, “Saw a baboon on the back of a motorcycle today. #TIA,” well, that’s fun all around.  No problem there.  But keep in mind that it may take you many years before you know where that line is.  And the longer I’ve lived overseas, the further I back up from that line.  I continue to realize how much I have to learn.  As I understand more and more that I don’t have the answers, the more deeply I appreciate the differences that I originally may have mocked.

In humility, consider others better than yourselves.

Even if it means giving the benefit of the doubt to two guys shoveling sand.