When Cultures Move Apart

Twice this week cultural tension came up. Okay, it happened about a zillion times, but twice that I specifically thought of you and the topic.

1. This week I reviewed feedback from my editor on a project for Global Trellis. What stood out to me is that the project is not controversial, but because it talks about parenting and couples, there are far more choices in words than one might think. This the project will be used by a global community spread around the world do we say marriage? Couples? Partners? When referring to the parents instead of saying “the husband” or “the wife” do we simply say “dad” or “mom?”

(All this for checklists! Yes, the checklists are amazing and the topic of postpartum depression on the field is important . . . but let’s also have some perspective here. It’s not an overly controversial topic; yet the amount of thought and effort that has gone into wording because of how differently cultures talk about marriage and parenting . . . though worth the time and effort, it also points to something and I want to pay attention to what it’s pointing towards.)

2. I listened to a podcast that touched on worldwide denominations navigating topics such as who can marry each other and the clash between African countries and North America and parts of Europe.

You have probably experienced something similar. Where you are living and where other people who are dear to you are living are worlds apart . . . both physically and culturally.

You might experience a gap with:

  • Friends and family members in your passport country
  • Supporters and sending churches
  • Local friends and colleagues
  • Other people in your organization
  • Fellow cross-cultural workers in your country

Just consider these different areas over the last fifty years in three countries/cultures that you love:

who can be educated
what “healthy sexuality” includes
gender and gender roles
race and race relations
what a “good” childhood looks like
who has power and authority
who can marry
the role of the government
the role of citizens
the role of the church
the interpretation of history
and the list could go on

I’ve been wondering how you and I can navigate genuine differences as people who have convictions without our convictions being at the expense of relationships. I’ve come up with three suggestions:

1. Acknowledge the tension

I like for everyone to agree with me on everything. You probably do too. This is obviously not realistic. When someone holds a different opinion or belief from yours, do you focus on the difference too much, too little, or about the right amount?

Of course there will be seasons—like an election—where your attention to the gaps in convictions or beliefs are greater. But remember the difference between feeling a gap and feeding it. Find a safe person or group to explore and process the tension you feel between your passport culture and your host culture and you on each of the areas listed above.

2. Stay curious

Can I tell you how much this is a discipline for me? Left to my own, I can “stay judgmental” or “stay sure my interpretation is the one God would agree with because clearly it is right.” I am not advocating that you become uber relativistic. Absolutes exist. Truth is real.

But I also believe that curiosity is healthy. Curious about historical events and current events that are informing your host and passport cultures. Curious where Christians are in agreement with a cultural stance, even as a stance changes. Curious about where Christians are not in agreement with a cultural stance. Curious what feels threatening to you. Curious about the tone, word choice, and values coming out of a culture. Curious about what you are willing to die for and what you are not and how that might ebb and flow over time.

3. Be wise in when and where to engage

Not all spaces are created equal. “Be wise” does not mean “say nothing.” We are talking about complex and nuanced topics. A helpful question to add enough space for your brain to kick in so you’re not just reacting is, “Would Lady Sophia say this? Or is this Lady Folly chomping at the bit?” Lady Folly wants to prove she is right even if she breaks relationships, causes hurt and confusion, and leaves a path of destruction.

Lady Sophia will consider the medium: is this a private or public Facebook group? Is this a text message? A newsletter? Is this a voice memo where the other person can hear my tone?

This past week I learned about “2D” and “3D” conversations in another podcast I listened to. A 2D conversation can be easily handled in an email or text. A 3D conversation needs a phone call, video call, or to be in-person. Most of the topics were are talking about probably need to be 3D. If you start to have a 3D conversation in a 2D space, simply say, “Hey, I think this is a 3D conversation, let’s find a time to meet.”

In cases like the checklists my editor and I are working on, having another set of eyes has been invaluable. She notices word choice or phrasing that with a small tweak keep the focus on the topic at hand.

When I close my eyes and picture the throne room in heaven with the Triune God able to see and love at one time all of the cultures He created, I have a sense of his great joy in the variety . . . even in our different convictions.

While gaps will still exist between you and those you care about, you can decrease the chance that you drift too far apart by acknowledging the tensions that do exist between you, staying curious, and being wise about when and where to engage.

Photo by Possessed Photography on Unsplash

Which of these 3 barriers are tripping you up?

In his book Upstream, Dan Heath explores how to solve problems before they happen. Basically, when you are upstream you have different—better—options than you do downstream. Downstream you are forced to react to situations, whereas upstream you can anticipate and, in some cases, mitigate problems.

Many organizations have “home assignment” or “furlough” policies. About a year ago at Global Trellis I asked the question, what would an upstream approach to home assignments, furloughs, or sabbaticals look like? Is an upstream approach possible for a sabbatical? Or a life in ministry? It is.

However, according to Heath, three barriers can get in the way of an upstream approach:

1. Problem Blindness —  is the belief that negative outcomes are normal or inevitable. Phrases like “that’s just how it is” or to put a Christian spin on it, “that’s part of the call.” While it’s true that there is a cost to the call, too often we play that card without really thinking through if it is a cost or a result of problem blindness.
 

Sabbaticals are only for pastors or professors.

Home assignments aren’t really restful.

What a waste of my supporters’ money! I should be on the field.

2. A Lack of Ownership — occurs because many individuals or organizations are too overwhelmed or under resourced to move upstream. At Global Trellis, we want to be part of the solution and have pledged to be part of preparing you to function upstream when you can. 

My organization doesn’t have a plan for my home assignment, they just said I have to take one.

Sabbaticals are only for research, so this doesn’t apply to me.

What will supporters think of me? What will I tell them I’m doing?

3. Tunneling — occurs when people are juggling a lot of problems, they give up trying to solve them all and adopt tunnel vision. A clue that you’re tunneling is when you feel a sense of scarcity. You might feel that you don’t have enough time, money, supporters, teammates, options, or even favor from God. Tunneling forces you into short-term thinking. As Dan Heath said, “In the tunnel, there’s only forward.”

You have no idea how many churches and supporters I need to visit.

I already feel strapped for time! I cannot add a course to guide me through my sabbatical on top of it all.

I have a whole year . . . what’s the rush?

The Sabbatical Journey Course was created with these three barriers in mind and is available twice a year. The doors to the course will open on September 9, 2021 and you can notified when the Sabbatical Journey Course is available here.

While we might experience problem blindness, God never does. God will use the time you have for your home assignment, furlough, or sabbatical. He sees you, and loves you.

Photo by Heidi Fin on Unsplash

I love the Olympics

Today is the opening ceremony for the Olympics and to say that I love the Olympics might be an understatement.

I love, love, love the Olympics! This year COVID will be an unwanted influence and will make for a unique experience; but I’m still excited and you can guess what I’ll be doing for the next two weeks.

Like many of you, I’ve been both inside and outside of my passport country during the Olympics. We’ve gotten to experience how different cultures and countries both cover, experience, and celebrate them. Even ignore them.

One particularly painful taxi ride in Beijing comes to mind. I was stuck in traffic and the taxi driver was listening to an Olympic summary show on the radio.

Announcer: This is the national anthem when So-and-so won the gold for such-and-such event.

The national anthem was played. It was inspiring and fun to relive that moment.

Announcer: This is the national anthem when THIS famous athlete won the gold for this other event.

The national anthem was played. It was inspiring and but less fun to relive that moment. Why is the traffic not moving?!

Announcer: This is the national anthem when So-and-so won the gold for yet another event.

The national anthem was played. And I realized that I was going to be trapped, listening to the national anthem on repeat until Jesus came back or the traffic finally started moving.

Anyone else discover that are different sports than the ones you thought were key sports in the Olympics? Hours of badminton and pingpong . . . to say nothing of every single moment of diving being telecast. I’m all for diving, but hours and hours and hours and hours? No thank you. Where’s the track and field? Where’s the swimming or gymnastics?

You might think these experiences have dampened my enthusiasm. You, my dear friend, would be wrong. I understand that the Olympics are flawed. That in many ways they mirror what is wrong with our world and the inequity many experience daily.

But the Olympics are also a foretaste of heaven.

—The many flags and countries.

—The athletes and teams who get to showcase their talents and hard work.

—The inspiring stories and humanizing of the athletes and the obstacles they’ve faced.

—The inspiring of what I could do with my own body. (As a young child I distributed trashcans around the family room and “hurdled.” Every single Olympics I come away marveling at how God has made the human body. Amazing, amazing, amazing.)

—The taste of different cultures.

—Let’s not forget the playing of the national anthems. Though annoying on repeat in a taxi cab, they reflect an athlete playing for something greater than just him or herself. As the atheles stand on the podium and watch the three flags flutter, the athletes look up to a flag that represents more than just them.

—The surprises! The heartbreak of those who thought they’d win and didn’t. Those who experienced injury or illness at such an inopportune time. And the lesser known athletes who succeed far beyond their wildest dreams.

To my fellow Olympian Lovers, I raise my metaphorical glass to you and say, “To the next two weeks and to the many countries we love! May God remind the world how very much He loves it.”

Let the games begin! Thank you Tokyo for all you have overcome to bring us together.

P.S. For years I have contemplated what sports will be like in heaven. (I told you, I really love sports!) So I’ll d thinking about this also during the Olympics. What sport would you loved to see in a perfectly redeemed form?

What if you used these “7 Household Rules?”

I preached on Sunday about “What does it mean to be the family of God?” In preparation I studied about how family language is used in the Bible; I also pondered how family language forms us. The idea of being siblings (plural) is used more than 150 times and the singular form of a sibling (often “brother”) is used more than 120 times in the New Testament.

I’ve been wondering how it would form me, form us if we really, really, really thought of each other as siblings. If my default way of thinking of you, working with you, and interreacting with you was that of a sibling. 

If I saw you as my sister and my brother and I saw myself as your sister.

In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul tells his readers and listeners that the are “also members of his [God’s] household,built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone.”

Just think, we are members of the same household.

As I worked on my sermon I made a list of rules from the household I grew up in to help ground myself in this idea of “rules”:

1. “No hitting your sisters;” and as we got older I’m embarrassed to share that our parents had to institute “no hitting the driver of the car” for safe sibling driving. 

2. “Take a ‘no thank you’ serving of food.” (Being normal children, we did not love everything that Mom cooked; but out of respect for Mom we could not refuse to try something she had worked hard to make. “No thank you servings” were small, but they fostered less fussing because we knew the deal.)

3. “Write thank you notes for gifts.”

4. “When you hear your dad whistle, come home or see what he wants.” 

5. “Dinner as a family is important.”

These are good and reasonable rules, yes? They formed our family and created bonds and norms for interacting.

I got to thinking, what if we—this household of cross-cultural workers—had our own set of household rules? What might they be? How would it form us if we read them regularly? If they were tucked in a Bible, hung on the fridge, or placed in the bathroom?

So, I wrote seven household rules for us.

In this Cross-Cultural Workers’ “Household”
aka Team/Ministry/Big-Wide-Internet-World:

1. We are siblings. You are my sister. You are my brother. I am your sister/brother.

(We are not competitors. We are not strangers. We are not indifferent to each other. We are family.)

2. All have something to contribute and we do not rank contributions.

(What you do is not more or less valuable than what I do. And vice versa, what you do is not more or less valuable than what I do. What you do matters. What I do matters.)

3. We will speak kindly of and to each other (and hopefully in many languages, wink!)

(We do not have to agree and we can have lively discussions on important subjects, but we will “use our words” kindly.)

4. We will act out of love — love for God, love for cultural variety, love for each other.

(We will not act out of fear. Our words and actions will be fueled by love and curiosity, not fear or suspicion.)

5. We will confront each other in love.

(We will not turn a blind eye or “hope that things will get better” or wait for something to explode. When we know something is off, or questionable, or just plain wrong, out of love for everyone in this household, we will address it).

6. We will hope for the best for each other.

(Your “success” or open door does not diminish me, my hopes, or what I want to do.)

7. We are siblings. You are my sister. You are my brother. I am your sister/brother.

(This is where the household of God begins and ends: in relationship, in remembering who we are, in remembering whose we are, in thinking correctly of ourselves and others.)


Referring to us as “siblings” more than 150 times in the New Testament is no fluke. The authors were training Christ followers how to think of themselves and each other. I wonder what a difference it would make if we got back to using more family language in our conversations, correspondence, and even in our thoughts. It won’t magically change everything, but those sisters that I used to need the rule “not to hit the driver” when we were teens? They are still in my life. We are so, so, so different. If we weren’t sisters, I’m not sure they’d want to be my friend (kidding! Sort of). But because they are my sisters and we lived in the same household and operated under similar rules, our differences are far outweighed by our love and commitment for each other.

As I type this post to you, that is my fervent hope and prayer for us too—all of us who go in the name of Christ—that our differences are far outweighed by our love and commitment for each other. 

So, rooted in relationship, I don’t want to just end this post with a final sentence, but with a sisterly blessing for you, for us.

May we see each other as siblings and may we operate under these “household rules.”

Much love to you, my siblings,
Amy

P.S. Want to print out these “Household Rules?” You can 🙂

Photo by Andre Halim on Unsplash

7 Ways We Secretly Rank Each Other

Last week a friend wondered in passing, at the end of email, why some reasons to leave the field are more respected than others. She knew a couple who was leaving because their young adult children were not doing well in the US. Instead of being supported in their decision, they were asked why they didn’t “trust their children to the Lord.”

Yesterday I had tea with a woman who will move to the field in August. She is in the midst of sorting and pre-packing. We were discussing the number of bags she planned on taking. You could almost see the veil of shame come over her as she recounted other people’s comments.

Through ranking, we either feel better or worse about ourselves. Which of these areas have you ranked yourself, ranked others, or been ranked by others?

Why you left the field. More respectable? Illness or denied visa. More likely to be secretly questioned? Meeting someone on eharmony, adult children in some form of crisis (and faith crisis? Clearly you didn’t . . . .), or aging parents. The underlying question is: Where is your faith?

How many suitcases you travel with. Next time you pack, notice the comments you make to yourself or others make to you. Do you find yourself apologizing? Feeling embarrassed? Justifying how few or how many you have?

Form of education you choose. Oh the unspoken rules when it comes to schooling! The rank I sense from best to worst is: local schools (with some additional education from your home country on the side), home schooling, international schools (must be nice to have money grow on trees).

Language ability. Do you speak with the tongues of angels? Clearly you are a better missionary than those who speak like five-year-olds.

The numbers game. Number of converts. Size of your church. How many you have baptized. How many have joined your organization this year? If your numbers aren’t growing or at least impressive, the temptation is to justify, or explain, instead of merely report on facts.

Type of work. Are you translating the Bible? Helping with refugees? Freeing people from trafficking? Gold stars all around! How about balancing the books? Do people comment on how your job helps others to do their jobs? While it may be true, it also communicates that God values a well-conjugated verb more than a financially responsible organization. The subtle ranking in our language is more insipid than we realize. And those of you doing laundry and cooking? Thanks for enabling those who are “in the trenches”? As if what you do isn’t as the “real work?”

How large is the cultural divide you crossed? In other words, how exotic do your pictures look or stories sound? The more different your life, the higher you rank.

///

When Jesus said he came to make all things new, he meant it.

And he is going to start with us. We want to know what we are doing is significant. As image bearers of a God who is creative and purposeful and reveres work, this is good. Maybe even very good. We go off-rail, however, when we look to others and compare ourselves.

Can we stipulate a few areas? Of course we need to

  1. Pray about decisions and seek wise counsel. Having done both, any of the above could be viable options or not the best path for you, your family, or your situation.
  2. Be culturally aware and sensitive.
  3. Continue to grow as individuals, couples, and teams. A conviction or understanding you had needs to change over time as you learn more about the language and culture. If you have been on the field for five or more years, you know that the culture you live in not the exact same one you entered.

We also need to actively seek to please God and not other humans. We know we need to seek to please God and follow Him. But sometimes words are easy to say and hard to live. To help you live this lesson, print out this article or cut and paste this list. Spend some time with God reflecting on what you believe.

Ask yourself—What do I believe about:

Why somebody left the field.

How many suitcases a person or family travels with.

The form of education you or a fellow missionary chooses. 

The overall language ability. 

The numbers game. Consider what you believe high numbers and low numbers convey.

The type of work a person is doing.

The relationship between a big or small cultural divide between the passport and host country. Do you believe those who have to cross a larger gap are better than those who serve within a smaller culture gap?

—Ask yourself what you really believe about each area.

—Then go through the list again and ask God what He wants you to know.

—Is there one area He wants you to explore? Asking questions like: What experiences formed my belief? How is my belief now getting in the way of what God says? Where have I ranked or judged others? Do I tend to come out better than or worse than others when I rank?

I do not believe that God is after sameness. Part of the beauty of the Body of Christ is our variety. Without even realizing it, we have all been conditioned to rank callings and abilities. This is not the good news we preach! Instead, that is The Law repackaged.

The Psalmist declares:

You take care of the earth and water it, 
making it rich and fertile.
The river of God has plenty of water;
it provides a bountiful harvest of grain, 
for you have ordered it so. (65:9)

Let that wash over you.

The river of God has plenty of water.

The river of God has plenty of water.

Plenty of water.

When you fall into the ranking game—whether towards yourself or others—you may believe the river of God will run dry. So, you may feel compelled to get while you can, hoard what you have, or judge decisions others are making.

When Jesus said he came to make all things new, he meant it. Thankfully his mercies are new every morning and He can remind you (and me!) to keep your eyes on Him and not on each other.

How to grow your culture knowledge

In January Rachel Pieh Jones asked the question How Well Do You Know Your Host Nation? and challenged all of us to move beyond culture learning that focuses primarily on food and language. I have to admit that I fist pumped the air as I read and probably said a few too many

“Yes!”

“Yes!”

“Yes!”

Little did Rachel know, but I was working on just such a resource. Her words felt like a confirmation of God’s heart and desire for us to know the people we have come to serve.

One of the tricky parts of culture and cultural knowledge, however, is that it it’s easy to measure and judge each other, especially internally.

“My language skills will never be as good as hers!”

“Oh my word, I cannot believe that he didn’t know how rude he was being.”

The truth is, there is always someone who knows far more than you and someone who knows far less than you do. So, when it comes to culture, we need to be like runners who keep their eyes on their own lane and focus on making progress themselves. How about instead of judging each other, we encourage and equip each other to keep growing.

Sounds good, who is going to push back on that? But if you’re like me, I want to grow, but the busyness of life can get in the way of my good intentions. That’s why I created a four-week challenge that fosters a culture growth spurt by focusing on one area of culture each week: history, the arts, pop culture, and religion. 

The challenge has two tracks, one for those of you new to a culture, and one for those of you who are old hands in culture. Each week you will be emailed three options for how you could grow that area of your culture knowledge and you choose one of the options. The challenge is designed for a one-to-two-hour time commitment each week.

Growth doesn’t just happen, but you also don’t have to figure out what to do all on your own. This challenge works well for individuals, families, and teams to do together and is available until May 13th. You can join here.

Here is a taste of the challenge. The challenge uses the metaphor of a tree to picture your culture knowledge. This is part of the history week: 

History can be a mixed bag, can’t it?! If you’ve already completed the option you picked earlier this week, you might have learned something about your host culture that inspired you. But it is just as likely that you learned something that broke your heart, angered, or confused you.

History is all of these things! It is inspiring and angering. It is laced with beauty and laced with injustice. It reveals God’s character and reveals the need for God. You need all of these aspects for your culture tree to grow in a balanced way . . . not just one part—a lone branch or leaves without a trunk.

If you haven’t started on the history options yet, that’s okay. Take a moment to think about when you will. This weekend? Tonight? Don’t overthink it, but do block out thirty minutes to an hour.


Just think of where your culture knowledge will be in four weeks if you don’t take the challenge. Probably not that different from what it is right now. But with the guidance and support of this challenge over the next four weeks? When Rachel asks the question How Well Do You Know Your Host Nation? With this challenge you can answer, “Better than I did!” You can join the free challenge today here.

P.S. Thank you Rachel for calling all of us to keep climbing! And here is a Prayer for Old Hands in a Culture — you can pray it for yourself or old hands you know.

Photo by Magdalena Love on Unsplash

Book Discussion Guide For You and “Pillars”

For the most part I am able to control myself. But every now and then I read something that I cannot stop myself from annoying those around me with.

So, you are welcome that though I wanted to write to you every seven minutes as I read Pillars: How Muslim Friends Led Me Closer to Jesus by Rachel Pieh Jones, I didn’t. 

People, you need to get this book stat. Okay, it doesn’t come out until April 6th, but you need to preorder it now and clear your calendar on April 6th.

Pillars is organized around the five pillars of Islam in this part memoir, part religious reflection, part cultural context book. Rachel introduces each pillar, explains how it plays out in the horn of Africa, and explores how that pillar both invited and challenged her in her own Christian faith. 

As a brief reminder, the five pillars are:

Shahadah: There is no god but God

Salat: Prayer

Zakat: Almsgiving

Ramadan: Fasting

Hajj: Pilgrimage

I loved this book for 3 reasons:

1. Rachel is an engaging story teller. I planned to read just a little bit every night before going to bed, but that plan was ruined in a good way. 

2. As a cross-cultural worker, I love to read stories that are like mine, but different. Through Rachel’s experiences, I could revisit my own. Those early days of language learning, those times when I was hurt by being left out, the situations I thought I understood . . . but didn’t fully. Hearing Rachel’s experiences invited me to reflect on my own.

3. More than anything I have read, this book has me reflecting on how the context where I lived and served influenced and formed me spiritually. Rachel’s experiences are so very different from mine. As I read about her Muslim friends and how Islam is similar but different to Christianity, I thought about my own context. I lived in a place that was not very overtly religious. Instead religion was relegated to the uneducated poor or to the foreigners. The religious practice was more superstitious—visiting a temple before an exam, for instance—“just in case” than woven into daily life. Reflecting back on how being in this environment formed me, I can see that, just as it did with Rachel, it strengthen my faith. But differently than Rachel, my faith practices and Jesus himself were not held in contrast to another structure (in her case Islam) but to something more ethereal. Of course, my local friends had beliefs about the world, what it meant to be a good person, and where large concepts like “meaning” come from. But their instead of finding the answers within religion, often the answers were outside of religion. Where I lived, people placed hope in education, jobs, being able to live in “better cities,” and knowing enough people to have connections when they were needed. 

I thought about all this and more as I read. I thought about what formed me before going to the field, what formed me on the field. I thought about what I “got right” about the local culture and friends and what I “got wrong” but grew toward greater understanding as the years unfolded. I wondered what it would be like to live and serve and hope and dream amongst a people with such overt religious beliefs that were similar but different than mine. I wondered how convictions I have now might have been challenged or strengthened even more in a different context. And I wondered how we can respect people’s beliefs while also inviting them to learn about and grow in faith in the Triune God.

This is why I wanted to write to you every seven minutes. My head was exploding with “Me too!” and “Wow, that’s really different than my experience.” and “I didn’t have to navigate that situation, but I did have to navigate this situation.” This book was a mirror that helped me see myself more clearly.

I loved this book so much I wanted to make you a gift. So, I created a downloadable discussion guide designed specifically for cross-cultural workers like you:

1. What from stood out to you Rachel’s personal experiences? How were her experiences similar and different to yours?

2. How is the context you live and serve in different than you thought it would be before you came? What has helped you grow beyond what you used to know?

3. How do the five pillars play out in your cultural context? 

  • What does there is no god but God look like? 
  • What does Prayer look like?
  • What does Almsgiving look like?
  • What does Fasting look like?
  • What does Pilgrimage look like?

4. How did Rachel interact with each pillar? How have you interacted in your host culture with each pillar?

5. What would be the pillars of belief in your context? 

6. How has God used those pillars to lead you closer to Jesus?

7. What challenges or confusion to your faith have you experienced as a Christian in your context? 

8. Where did you respect and admire how Rachel handled a situation? Were there times when you would have handled a situation differently? What do you think you might have done?

9. The subtitle of the book is “How Muslim Friends Led Me Closer to Jesus.” If you substituted your own context, what is your answer to “How _______ Friends Led Me Closer to Jesus?” Share a few examples of where you are closer to Jesus because of them.

10. As you consider your own context, how has it informed you spiritually? How has it been used to form your beliefs and your interactions with the Triune God? What do you feel less sure about than you did before?

You can download it in Letter or A4.

Truth be told, I still want to discuss this book with you so much I think that one of the Town Halls (open forum talks) this summer at Global Trellis will be a chance for us to discuss this book. I look forward to discussing this book with you!

Thank you Rachel Pieh Jones for writing a book that provokes such a beautiful reaction and reflection in your readers. Happy reading all . . . you can get Pillars here!

A new answer to an old question

“Are you better?”

After two months of being in pain, thinking I had a tear in my left biceps, it was a relief for the doctor to say that I had not torn anything and would not need surgery. My doctor also said that I had probably been doing all of the things I needed to do to heal, but not all together for a prolonged time. 

He prescribed an anti-inflammatory, regular icing, and told me not to use my arm for five days. (This was by far the hardest part! And clearly the reason my “I hope this heals on its own” approach hadn’t worked.) He also gave me a list of exercises to start gingerly doing to rehab my muscle after my five days of radical rest.

In the ensuing days and weeks as people asked me, “Are you better?” I’d stumble over my words. I was better than I had been, but I was not better . . .  as in all better

As I stumbled over a much-too-long explanation to my sister, she said she had run into the same problem after shoulder surgery last summer and her PT suggested she was “bettering.”

I love it! 

“I am bettering” honors the progress I have experienced without denying or downplaying that there is still work, in my case, healing to occur.

As I thought about cross-cultural work, just think of how the concept of “I am bettering” could serve us.

Whether it is culture, racism, your call, or trusting God, when the subtle message is to be all better, we miss the reality of process. So, we hid our process, either waiting until we can share a more completed picture or we present a fantasy version of ourselves. Instead, what if in answer to the following questions you could say, “I’m bettering.”

How’s your culture knowledge? I am bettering.

What have you learned about power, gender dynamics, or racism? I am bettering.

How are you managing the need to lament and rejoice in the work that you’re called to? I am bettering.

In what ways are you trusting God with your children, singleness, marriage, health, support raising, or any number of areas of being human? I am bettering.

As I mulled over the idea and application of bettering, the truth is, in some areas I’m not bettering, I’m worsening. And while I don’t like that I’m worsening, I do like the idea. Instead of flat our failing or broken or sinful, the idea of worsening is like a rumble strip along the highway. The sound is obnoxious when my car starts driving on one, which is kind of the point! I hate the noise and almost immediately self-correct before driving into traffic or off the road.

How’s your tolerance with the culture? I notice that’s I’ve been worsening.

As you relate to those around you—maybe your neighbors, your teammates, or your family members—how are power dynamics factoring in? I’m worsening.

Or misogyny? Are you kidding me? Do not go there. I am fine. Oh wait, I want to be fine, but in truth I think with this one person I may be worsening.

Or racism? The “right” answer is I’m bettering; but honestly? I might be worsening.

How’s trust with God going? Sigh, I want it to be okay, I believe in Him, I love Him, but recent events have thrown me and I’m worsening.

Now more than two months after being diagnosed with biceps tendonitis, I am definitely better than I was, but I am not all better. While I look forward to the day that my arm is better, I am thankful to have the new language and understanding I have of my own state that I have acquired through this process.

If we were sitting togethering sharing a cup of tea and scone, I’d ask, “Where are you bettering?” And after talking about bettering for a while, I’d also be curious to know where you notice worsening in your responses, habits, and heart.

Grace and peace and bettering to you, my brothers and sisters. 

The question you might be asking

“Is this the end of the movie,” she whispers leaning towards me but keeping her eyes on the screen.

“No, sweetie, this is still the middle,” I whisper back.

Satisfied, she doesn’t ask again until near the end.

In recent weeks this scenario has repeated itself every time we watch a movie. At first I found it an interesting step in her development and wondered at what point she’d no longer need the clarification, sensing the story she is seeing. As an adult I can easily tell that we are in the middle of the movie – the horse hasn’t won the big race yet, the rat hasn’t gone public with his cooking, or the girl hasn’t learned to live with just one arm.  However, in her six-year-old way, she is echoing what we all long to know: does the story end here? In this mess? Is it going to get better? She is trying to orient herself to what is happening, looking for her “story sea legs.”

She’s not the only one.

What if David’s story had ended when Nathan said, “You are that man?”

What was going through Noah’s mind on day 117 after the rain had stopped and he sees nothing but water?

Imagine Peter’s horror when the rooster crowed. Have I blown it? Does the story end here?

In the middle of a messy story line—aka our lives—we want to know, “How much longer is this going to go on? Is there any end to this? How do I know where I am in the story? How do I know if this is near the end or if I am only just beginning? Will there be a happily-ever-after?”

Unlike a movie that is under time and budget constraints – and often looking for a happy ending—life doesn’t come with such tidy restraints to the plot. If you study scripture looking for exact answers to specific questions about your cancer, this government, that job, you won’t find them. Instead, we are promised a helper, a comforter, a companion to journey through the ups and downs as the plots of our lives take all kinds of twists. We are given truths that apply, yes! However, the Bible isn’t a magic eight ball.

David did repent, but his child still died and his story continued; it turns out that his conversation with Nathan was nowhere near the end of his story. Noah had thirty three more days before the water started receding, bringing that phase of the story to an end and launching his family into the next phase and more drama. And dear Peter had not ruined everything.

Your story is different than mine, but one thing is sure, our longing to know that we matter, that our story makes a difference and that we won’t be left in this mess are common to all. To these deep longings, Jesus crises out, “It is finished,” assuring that mess doesn’t win in the end. We matter, we are being used, and though we aren’t there yet, some day we will each turn a page in the stories of our lives and read:

The end


P.S. In these uncertain times, cross-cultural workers on a home assignment, furlough, or sabbatical might wonder where to even start. Start here. The Sabbatical Journey Course adapts to any length of sabbatical and is divided into four quarters: rest, refuel, reequip, and refocus. Early bird price available on January 21st. You can register between January 21 and January 31.

This post first appeared here and in light of the past year, I thought it a helpful reread.

Christ came for you too

Friend,

I love Christmas cards and letters because they remind me. They remind me of different stages of my life and people I have known. They bring people to mind I may not have thought of in months (maybe not since the last Christmas card!). They help me feel connected to a larger story than my own.

So, I’m writing this post more as a letter from me to you. It’s been, as we all know, quite the year. As I’ve prayed over this post and what it is that God would have me write, a list of ideas came to mind, but none of them seemed quite right.

I know that this year COVID has invited us to identify with those we have come to serve in unique—at at times annoying—ways. And these are important lessons for us. We cannot deny this. But if I’m honest, these lessons don’t get down to the core of what I need from God.

Advent is traditionally a season of lament and Christmas (December 25-January 6th) is a time of celebration. This week, as we round the bend of Advent and move towards Christmas, what is it you are longing for?

God sees individuals and groups. God sees you. In Advent he asks, “What are you longing for? What do you want me to do?”

Maybe you’re not sure.

Read over this list of desires or longings and see which catch your eye, or stir a longing in you:

Peace

Relief

Comfort

Revenge

Rest

Protection

Presence

Healing

///

As I said, I love Christmas cards and letters because they remind me and help me feel connected to a larger story than my own. My hope and prayer is that this letter reminds you that Christ came for you too.

Christ came to meet your deep longings. He sees your local friends and neighbors and he wants to meet their needs. He does. But you are not a mere conduit of his love to them. You are a vessel of longings and needs he wants to fill.

Christ came for you too. What you you longing for these days?

Grace and peace my brothers and sisters,
Amy

P.S. If you’re wanting something old and new, did you know that each verse of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” focuses on a name or attribute of Jesus? Global Trellis has partnered with The Invitation Project to create a bit sized way for you to daily encounter Christ through this song. This advent tradition begins on the 17th and ends on the 23rd – each day focusing on a verse of the song and the scripture that correlates “O Antiphons,” refers to the chorus that is repeated after each verse.


 Rejoice! Rejoice! Immanuel
Shall come to thee O Israel

You can get the special recording and short daily emails here. Christ came of you too.

Photo by freestocks on Unsplash

Stay Connected to God When You Move to the Field

Digging through my memories and as I try to uncover what I anticipated church would look like when I moved to the field, I knew that my teammates and I wouldn’t often go to a public church. That’s about it. Looking back, I can see that I forgot to imagine what we would do for church.

So, three people, a guitar, and a book about the Psalms sounded like . . . honestly nothing I had experienced and did not fit into the category “church.” Church was planned and executed by others; and by others, I meant more than three in the “congregation” and by people who were pastors. Though I grew to love the intimacy of a smaller group, no place exists to hide when it is just three of you.

Here’s what I didn’t know at that time: your relationship with God changes when you move to the field because you are responsible for it in ways you do not have to be when you are in your home country. 

Likely pre-field, your relationship with God was nurtured through regular church attendance in a language you understood, coupled with some form of church and ministry involvement, spiritual practices, and deep in-person relationships. In this context, you knew how to feed yourself. You knew annual rhythms and how to pace yourself. You had people to turn to in a pinch.

Over time you will have these in place, but during your first year, you might not have the language or be in a context where it is safe or wise to attend a public church.

To help those new to the field start off connected to God while other pieces of on the field life get in place, today I am excited to shared Connected: Starting Off Spiritually Fed on the Field. You might have underestimated how you will need to relearn everything . . . even connecting with God. 

As much as you love God, finding meaningful ways to spiritually feed yourself takes time. Connected is designed to feed your soul and nurture your relationship with God as you adjust to cross-cultural life. When so much of life is new, focus each month on one Fruit of the Spirit. Staying connected to God isn’t a given, but it can be cultivated. 

Picture your first nine months marked by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. This book will help that picture become your reality with seven questions per month to help you connect to God on the fruit of the month.

Because part of growing and developing as a cross-cultural work involves celebration, let’s celebrate this new resource! Leave a comment and two of you will win a copy (if mailed in the U.S.) or on Kindle (anywhere in the world). What fruit of the Spirit are you enjoying or needing these days?

Let’s celebrate that our God wants us to be Connected to Him and connected to the places and people He calls us!

(Winners selected Sunday evening, MST)

Watching what I invest in evaporate

On of my favorite things to look for in Chinese parks are the men (it’s almost always men) who write poetry on the sidewalk using a large sponge calligraphy brush:

It’s beautiful, living art.

It’s social with people hanging around and chatting about the stroke order, the ability of the writer, the words written.

It’s also fleeting. Writing with water is a different kind of creative endeavor than working with ink. You know from the beginning it will not last.

Isn’t that an apt summary of life: beautiful, social, fleeting.

As much as I don’t like it, it turns out that most of what I pour my time and energy into is fleeting, at least on the surface. Laundry? Sure it’s done, only to be done again. A great lesson plan leads to mixed feelings of pride, joy, fun, and a bit of a let down (now I need to start on the next one). Whether you are a foodie or live on peanut butter toast, food and dishes are on going. I’ll hit publish on this post and  as I do an internal happy dance, I’ll also be thinking about future posts.

In this season I wonder what I have done with this time that won’t evaporate? What has been built on rock and not sand?

It is right and good to reflect on the ways we invest our lives, time, and money. But it is also right and good to turn to each other and say:

“Just because something looks to be fleeting, that is not the full picture.”

What you do—the conversations you have, the games you play, the emails you write, the projects you work on, the loads of laundry you do—are the strands of life that when woven together build into something larger than the fleeting moments they represent.

So I turn to you and say, “Just because something looks to be fleeting or eternal, that’s not the full picture.”

Yes, I create with water, you create with water; but we need to remember the truth that it is not mere water. And your life story contains far more than you are I can see right now.

(P.S. This Global Trellis workshop this month is presented by Jonathan and Elizabeth Trotter! Want to learn from them about Marriage Abroad? Now you can! )

A version of this first appeared at The Messy Middle