Can You Talk the Talk? Swimming in the Alphabet Soup of CCW-ese

How are your language skills as a cross-cultural worker? No, I’m not talking about the language(s) you’ve learned for living and working in your new home. I’m referring to your fluency in CCW-ese, or the jargon that cross-cultural workers often find themselves swimming in. Immersion is the best way to learn, right?

I’ve put together a collection of vocabulary below to help you see just how fluent you are. Does it all make sense to you?

The next time you’re on home service and someone asks you to say something in your new language, call this up and start reading. (By the way, some of this may not apply to you, as it’s slanted toward the experience of someone with a US passport. In other words, your dialect may vary.)

Hello, I’m a CCW living overseas. I’m part of a larger group of expats that includes such people as EAWs working with NGOs to help IDPs in low GDP countries and FSOs serving with the DoS. My journey abroad started with PFO, where the MBTI showed me I’m an ENTP, and my spouse and I, along with several others, were briefed on CPM, DMM, M2M/M2DMM, T4T, BAM, and DBS strategies and were shown how to write an MOU. Then it wasn’t long before all of us were following directions from the TSA and walking through the AIT scanner at places like ORD, LAX, and ATL, headed for other places such as BKK, NBO, and PTY and parts beyond. It was hard for my MKs to leave our POMs behind, but they were looking forward to their new lives as TCKs, growing up with other GNs and CCKs, on their way to becoming ATCKs.

One of our first steps upon arriving at our new home—which is among a UUPG in the Two-Thirds World, just outside the 10/40 window—was language learning. We started out using LAMP and GPA with some TPR mixed in, as well. Someday, I think I might try my hand (so to speak) at ISL.

We’ve also had to make cultural adjustments, for instance switching from letter-sized paper to A4, switching from the NFL to FIFA, and learning how to switch out RO filters for our water. And when we take trips to other locales, we’re sure to bring along a voltage converter and adapters to knock the power down from 220/240 to 110/120 and to use C, D, E/F, G, H, I, J, L, M, and N plugins when necessary.

Then, before long, we were hosting STMs and engaging with the locals by using our TEFL certifications to teach ESOL. A few of our students are hoping to take the TOEFL or IELTS and get I-20s and F-1 visas.

At some point, we expect to fly back for good, filling out a CBP Form 6059B for the last time, again hoping that nothing in our bags will bother DHS’s CBP agents. That will mean no more yearly IRS Form 2555 to claim the FEIE, no more scheduled chats with fellow workers around the globe using P2Pe apps (every Saturday at 13:30 GMT), and no more jumping on the HSR for a quick getaway.

It’ll be another big change—RCS can be hard. But we’ll be prepared, because we’ll have built a RAFT, which should keep us afloat through the transition.

And, of course, we’ll be sure to keep connected through ALO.

[photo: “Alphabets,” by Tomohiro Tokunaga, used under a Creative Commons license]

We Are Mars Hill

I’ve listened to the entirety of Christianity Today’s Rise and Fall of Mars Hill podcast with great interest, eagerly waiting for each episode to be released. But I’ve held off recommending it too enthusiastically until the final segment aired, to be sure it didn’t go off the rails, or at least my set of rails.

Well, the twelfth*, and last, episode came out on December 4, and after listening to it, I encourage you to do the same. Even if you don’t take in the whole series, I think you should still listen to the ending segment, titled “Aftermath.” Why? Because I’ve come to the conclusion that We Are Mars Hill, and it is the closing episode that makes that clear to me.

Like many, I first heard of Mark Driscoll, co-founder and lead pastor of the Seattle-based Mars Hill Church, when Donald Miller introduced him in his 2003 book, Blue like Jazz (though at the time he was simply “Mark the Cussing Pastor”). And later, he caught my attention by infamously stating,

There is a pile of dead bodies behind the Mars Hill bus and by God’s grace it’ll be a mountain by the time we’re done. You either get on the bus or you get run over by the bus. Those are the options. But the bus ain’t gonna stop. . . . There’s a few kind of people. There’s people who get in the way of the bus. They gotta get run over. There are people who want to take turns driving the bus. They gotta get thrown off, cuz they want to go somewhere else.

In time, Mars Hill grew to, at its largest, around 13,000 attending at 15 sites in multiple states. Over the years I kept up with news coming from the church as Driscoll became more of a celebrity and accusations against him became more newsworthy, culminating in his departure from the church in 2014, followed by the dissolution of the church network. This came after Driscoll’s fellow elders declared him guilty of having a quick temper, using harsh words, displaying arrogance, and leading with a domineering manner, characteristics that had spread through church teaching and relationships.

One thing that makes the Mars Hill saga relevant is that there seems to be something of Mars Hill in so many of us—the desire to find something big and powerful that removes ambiguity and tells us how to to do things the right way, the desire to have confident leaders who aren’t afraid to brawl with easily identified enemies, the desire, especially for men, to regain significance in our culture and in our churches and in our families.

And if we’re not careful, very, very careful, we’ll climb aboard the bus and travel confidently down the same road. Yes, We Are Mars Hill.

By “we,” I mean the global church, because all of us must take care. But a smaller “we” are workers sent out from the Western church to take the gospel abroad. For better or worse, we are influenced by the values that have made their way through the church landscape back home, affecting how we do ministry and how we define success. It’s easy to believe that we will succeed if we can only get everyone on board, doing the right things—and if we don’t take our foot off the gas. How easy it is to measure our worth by what we are doing for Christ rather than what Christ has done for us . . . and we can never seem to do enough for Christ.

In the last episode of the podcast, David Zahl, editor in chief of the Mockingbird blog, warns against the kind of gospel that came out of Mars Hill, a gospel that first presents a “life shattering and extremely exciting” grace that saves us from the condemnation of the law, only to return to it again:

[W]hat happens is you bring the law back in so it becomes a kind of a . . . Law, grace, law is the way that we would normally put it. The disposition that comes through is this very sort of Get better . . . to try harder, to pull themselves together. Eventually what you’ll have is what you have in every other element of the culture, which is burnout. You’ll have people who wake up one day and’ll be like, Hey this isn’t actually working.

There’s also another way in which We Are Mars Hill—or we can be. It’s in taking our place alongside those who have been hurt by the church. In a followup interview, the podcast’s host, Mike Cosper, comments on those who were drawn to participate after listening to earlier episodes. One was “Lindsay,” who shares in the final segment about what she went through dealing with an abusive husband who was enabled by Mars Hill leadership. Cosper describes her reasoning as “I know I’m not alone. I know I’m not the only one who experienced something like this,” but it took hearing from others to come to that realization. Cosper adds, “Someone who’s been through an experience like that—domestic violence and church hurt and everything else—it’s like, man, that’s hard stuff. And so to have the courage to come forward took a lot.”

We honor that courage by showing those like Lindsay that they truly are not alone. Have you, too, ever been wounded by individuals or an organization or an institution in which you put your trust? Even if we haven’t been run over ourselves, we can still pull over to the side of the road and attend to those who’ve fallen under the bus’s tires.

And then there’s Jen Zug, a former member of Mars Hill and assistant to Driscoll. In 2014, she wrote an open letter to the church, “The Story of How Mars Hill Church Broke Up with Me,” which she reads from in episode twelve. Her letter ends with “I will always love you, Mars Hill, like a school girl remembers her first crush. But I choose to continue forward on the mission God gave me through your influence, even if you choose another direction.” Several years later, she and her husband, Bryan, visited another Seattle church that just so happened to be meeting in a building formerly owned by Mars Hill. That Sunday the church was spotlighting a ministry that offers therapists for pastors and missionaries. In her notes from that service, says Cosper, Zug wrote, “Christians are messy people, and sometimes Christians in full-time ministry are even messier than usual.” Cosper adds that “that posture and that ministry struck her as unimaginable at Mars Hill.” It is with this new congregation in an old Mars Hill building that the Zugs have now found the kind of authentic community that they originally had in Mars Hill’s earlier days.

If you haven’ t already, I would encourage you to listen to all of The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill. It fills in details for those not familiar with the whole story, with lots of interviews, sermon clips, and personal perspectives. It even takes off on a couple tangents with two “bonus” segments: In one, Cosper talks with Joshua Harris (of I Kissed Dating Goodbye) about his deconstructed faith, and in another, he looks at the Acts 29 church-planting network, of which Mars Hill was a product. In total, the podcast is over 17 hours, so if you don’t have that much time to give, the last episode presents a good overview, touching on many of the important issues. (It’s two-and-a-half hours long, so it still covers a lot of ground.)

The voices in “Aftermath” are striking, too. I’ve already mentioned Lindsay and the Zugs, but another poignant story comes from Benjamin Petry. His father is Paul Petry, one of two elders dismissed from the church in 2007, the day before Driscoll made his bus comments. This past September, the younger Petry travelled to Driscoll’s new church in Phoenix, seeking some sort of reconciliation. He asked Driscoll to call his father to say he was sorry, but that call hasn’t happened . . . at least not yet.

At Christmastime, we remember Jesus’ coming to the world to make things whole. But that celebration can also put a spotlight on the brokenness that will continue until he comes again, asking us to mourn with those who mourn. It was the podcasts’s final installment that brought tears to my eyes, in listening to the stories from people who once called Mars Hill their church. Some of them are now doing the hard work of asking for and offering forgiveness. Some are celebrating the holidays in their new churches. Some are picking up the pieces and trying to figure out what to hang on to and what to let go of.

All are worth hearing. They are part of our family. I hope you get to listen to them.

(*Counting the two bonus installments and a “side story,” there are fifteen episodes in all.)

(Mark Driscoll, clip at Joyful Exiles, October 1, 2007; Mark Cosper, “Aftermath,” The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill, Christianity Today, December 4, 2021; Cosper, “Why the Mars Hill Podcast Kept You Waiting,” interview by Stefani McDade, Christianity Today, December 8, 2021; Jen Zug, “The Story of How Mars Hill Church Broke Up with Me,” The Pile I’m Standing In, August 12, 2014)

[photo: “one-sixty-six/three-sixty-five,” by Laura LaRose, used under a Creative Commons license]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To Be or Not to Be . . . Yourself

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can You Hear Me Now?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


My CCW Top 40 “Playlist”

I’m not a very sophisticated musicophile. I like what I like without a lot of reasoning, don’t follow specific genres, can’t decipher a lot of lyrics (or don’t remember those I can), and don’t have targeted-enough tastes to pay for any online subscriptions. So I was recently listening to my free Beatles-ish Pandora station and the song “Nobody Told Me (There’d Be Days like These)” cued up. I thought to myself, “Now that would be a good descriptor for some of my time overseas.” And that got me thinking about what other titles could make up a top-40 “playlist” for when I was a cross-cultural worker (CCW).

After a little more thinking, here’s what I came up with. I can’t vouch for the lyrics to these songs (see “can’t decipher” and “don’t remember” above), so please show me some grace on that. Speaking of grace, my list doesn’t include any hymns or worship songs. If so, “Amazing Grace” would be on repeat throughout. Instead, I decided to go with church music’s secular cousins—twice removed—this time around.

Any titles you’d add? Maybe something a little more contemporary? As you can see, I’m kind of lacking in that area. Anyway, if you know these tunes, hum along with me.

  1. I’m Leaving on a Jet Plane
  2. Hello
  3. We’ve Only Just Begun
  4. Upside Down
  5. Tongue Tied
  6. Now I Know My ABCs
  7. All Shook Up
  8. Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood
  9. Homesick
  10. It’s Going to Take Some Time
  11. I Beg Your Pardon (I Never Promised You a Rose Garden)
  12. Don’t Stop Believin’
  13. I Will Survive
  14. With a Little Help from My Friends
  15. Stayin’ Alive
  16. Two Worlds
  17. The Same Moon
  18. On the Road Again
  19. Hello, Goodbye
  20. I’ve Been Everywhere
  21. Running on Empty
  22. Say a Little Prayer
  23. I’m a Believer
  24. Hallelujah
  25. Beautiful People
  26. Another Day in Paradise
  27. What a Wonderful World
  28. Tell It like It Is
  29. If I Were a Rich Man
  30. It’s a Small World
  31. We Don’t Need Another Hero
  32. Keeping the Faith
  33. Against All Odds
  34. Hit Me with Your Best Shot
  35. Nobody Told Me (There’d Be Days like These)
  36. I Will Survive (reprise)
  37. One Day More
  38. I’m Still Here
  39. Should I Stay or Should I go?
  40. Goodbye

[photo: “spinspinspin,” by Shannon, used under a Creative Commons license]

Regrets and Remembrances: A Prayer for Those Who Leave Home

With one plane ride the whole world as TCKs have known it can die. Every important place they’ve been, every tree climbed, pet owned, and virtually every close friend they’ve made are gone with the closing of the airplane door.
—David Pollock and Ruth Van Reken, Third Culture Kids

This closing door doesn’t just happen to Third Culture Kids. It’s also the experience of immigrants who leave behind many what-could-have-beens in their old country. Cross-cultural workers feel the door close when they leave their work and return “home.” (What other job requires you to leave the country once you’re no longer on the payroll?) International students close the door with the hopes that new opportunities will open many more. And refugees often see the door slammed and locked by soldiers carrying guns.

But while the door is closed, the mind is still open to thoughts about what was left behind. Some thoughts are joyous and life giving. Some are hurtful and life stealing. And often they come intricately, painfully intertwined, called up by a scent, a word, a sound, a flavor, a feeling or a dream. Bittersweet.

For those who find themselves on the other side of a closed door, I offer this prayer, inspired by Reinhold Niebuhr’s “Serenity Prayer“:

God, grant me the confidence to let go of the regrets that I should not hold on to,
The ability to hold on to the memories I should not let go of,
And the wisdom to separate the one from the other. Amen.

(David C. Pollock and Ruth E. Van Reken, Third Culture Kids: Growing Up among Worlds, Boston: Nicholas Brealey, 2009)

[photo: “over you,” by woodleywonderworks, used under a Creative Commons license]

(This post was originally published at ClearingCustoms.com.)

Journey from the Center of the Earth, and Back Again

When I was born, it was quite the event and a lot of really great people wanted to meet me, or so I’m told. Just a few years later, my kindergarten teacher praised me for being especially polite. And then, in grade school, I was awarded the red, white, and blue Good Citizen badge to wear on my day of honor. I guess I was a pretty big deal, but I’m not surprised, seeing how I was living at the very center of the earth.

Growing up, I remember that news from next door, no matter how trivial, was profoundly more important than what was going on anywhere else on the globe. Therefore, a friend who missed school because of the flu got more attention than a famine in Africa. Weather patterns focused on my home town, as well, as we prayed more for sunshine for a birthday party than we did for people in Asia facing a typhoon.

So it’s no wonder I grew up having to fight against selfish tendencies. Who can blame me, knowing how much God was fixated on me and those in my vicinity?

Somewhere along the way, though, I found out that there was a whole world out there, a world filled with people who were just as big a deal as me—people who missed school and had birthday parties and sometimes suffered calamities beyond my comprehension. Jesus loves all the little children of the world, adults, too, I learned, and he wants them to know about his love.

So as I built my life, getting an education, finding a job, and starting a family, I had an eye on the horizon, not content to stay within my tight borders. In time, I booked tickets from America to an uttermost part, and with my wife and children, stepped onto the plane. It was then that I traded my selfishness for selflessness and self-sacrifice and never looked back as I devoted myself to cross-cultural service.

Oh, that it were that easy.

In Genesis, God tells Cain to be wary, as “sin is crouching at the door,” ready to pounce like a wild animal. For me, self-centeredness is at my door, and it doesn’t hide and wait, it steps up and knocks, like an intrusive neighbor or a persistent salesman.

Knock, knock, knock.

No matter how far I’ve traveled, self-centeredness always knows my address and is able to relocate with me. Resisting that knocking is a daily challenge. And while I like to think that I usually ignore it, there are also times when I pull the door wide open and invite it in to sit with me on the couch. And there I am, at the center of the earth again.

When we first arrived at our new home in Asia, it was a temptation to think we’d arrived at the pinnacle of Christian service. Look at us! I got used to writing newsletters about exotic day-to-day happenings, sharing about our ministry, and eagerly anticipating answers to the prayer requests we emailed to supporters—supporters, those people who gave sacrificially to our work, to us, trusting we were worth the investment.

Before our move, we sold most of our possessions, and that was a good thing. Surely not having to keep up with the Joneses would help me focus less on myself. In a recent discussion of Eula Biss’s book Having and Being Had at Mockingbird, CJ Green quotes a missionary as saying “Americans spend their entire lives ministering to things.” “Her point,” Green explains, “was that material goods tend to distract from matters of the heart and soul, whether it’s the home you’re constantly renovating, or the phone you keep updating, or the car always in need of fixing.”

Yes, that’s true. But ministering to people rather than things still gave me enticements to elevate myself. I was American but not like those Americans. I may have left materialism behind (OK, not really), but it was easily replaced by more spiritual forms of self-focus. How does my ministry compare to that of other cross-cultural workers around me, and around the globe? How much does God value me and what I’m able to do? How much effort is Satan concentrating on me to stop my threats to his kingdom? How much more strategic is my work in this country, in this city, in this neighborhood?

And then, from time to time, when we travelled back Stateside, we got to speak on stages, attend carry-in dinners hosted in our honor, and accept thank yous and donations. And we were treated like royalty at the homes where we stayed. One time, someone even gifted us a trip to Silver Dollar City.

Knock, knock, knock.

OK, now here is where I need to interject something. Some of you are already feeling guilty about receiving funds, taking vacations, and the like, and it may sound as if I’m saying those things are the problem. They are not. The problem is the temptation to respond to them in the wrong way. It’s not as if removing all those things automatically makes that temptation disappear. The knocking can just move to a different door.

And to those of you who are underfunded or under-appreciated or worn out, to those who are praying for a hand up, not out of entitlement but out of need, please hear this clearly: Self-advocacy is not the same thing as self-centeredness. Self-care is not the same thing as selfishness. Self-compassion is not the same thing as self-importance. Being self-aware is not the same thing as being self-focused.

Ok, I needed to say that, but now back to me, because, you know. . . .

When we returned to the States for good, we got rid of most of our belongings again, but among the things we kept were a suitcase filled with been-there-done-that t-shirts and a desire to hit the ground running again. Reverse culture shock and a recession meant that we hit the ground at more of a slow crawl, but in time we made progress—and we now own an old house with plenty of repairs to be made, two cars that need upkeep, and several phones to update, upgrade, and replace. It’s hard not to be devoted to that ministry of things.

We like the community where our house is located. It has its own personality and the people here know each other and take pride in the neighborhood. We can see that in the Facebook page our neighbors use for sharing news and concerns. Their posts show us that there are lots of lost pets needing to be found. There are also lots of suspicious people walking around who look as if they don’t belong and are up to no good. We know that there are growing instances of crime in our area (rifling through unlocked parked cars and even a couple home intrusions and robberies), but there’s another kind if disturbance that’s got me concerned. It’s that pesky knocking at my door that’s started up again. I wish our neighborhood group would let me know when self-centeredness—and nationalism and ethnocentrism and egocentrism and other forms of meisms—are making the rounds, jiggling doorknobs and peaking in windows.

I like the community of cross-cultural workers we’re part of, too, those who are getting ready to go, those who are there, and those who have been. How about we share with each other the unwelcome guests doggedly trying to gain entrance into our homes? If your problem isn’t self-centeredness, I’m sure you have your own unwelcome visitors who keep dropping by. How about we keep an eye out for each other?

Knock, knock, knock.

Now If you’ll excuse me, I need to go and not answer my door.

[photo: “Target,” by Martin Deutsch, used under a Creative Commons license]

When Hard Things Happen There While We’re Here

Ten years.

That’s how long we served overseas. And next month, that will be how long since we moved back to the States.

This year, this month, is also a milestone for Joplin, MO, where we live. It’s the ten-year anniversary of the F5 tornado that devastated our city on May 22. I’ve mentioned the tornado here before, including in last year’s “Coming or Going during Turbulent Times,” but it was in reference to our repatriation. Now I’d like to talk about it in another context: dealing with difficulties that happen “there” when we’re “here.”

My memory’s not really clear on all the details, but I think one of our coworkers contacted us on the morning of May 23 (we were 13 hours ahead) to tell us to go to the Weather Channel online, that a storm had hit Joplin. He, his wife, and kids had also lived in Joplin and had family there, so this was much more than just “news” for them, as well. When we got on the Internet, we saw reports of major destruction. News anchors were saying that one third of the city, home to 50,000, was gone. Surely not! we thought. They showed video of the high school, saying it was “gone” too. But we could see it. There it was! They had to be exaggerating. And yet a storm chaser cried as he stood where houses had once been.

We tried to call our son who was a sophomore at the university in Joplin, but cell service was overwhelmed. He’d been at the house of our forwarding agents nearby when the storm hit. One of them was at work at the hospital but couldn’t get home because the cars in the parking lot were stacked into piles. When we finally got ahold of him, we’d seen more of the damage than he had, because of internet and electricity outages in Joplin. We were hesitant, though, to give many details for fear we were wrong.

As it turned out, the high school was gone, even though many of the walls were still standing. Also destroyed or damaged beyond repair were five other schools, the hospital where our forwarding agent worked, a Wal-Mart, the Home Depot, and Academy Sports. The city of 50,000 suffered a horrific amount of devastation from the rain-rapped, multi-vortex tornado—up to one mile wide and on the ground for 22 miles: 161 people killed, 4,000 residential dwellings destroyed, an estimated 9,200 people displaced, 553 businesses destroyed or severely damaged.

The destruction made the news in Taiwan, though most of our friends there didn’t know that that was our home town. It was a big topic of conversation for us as we gathered updates. We were also preparing for our move back to Joplin in a month. It was quite a stressful time.

One day on the way back from visiting my daughter’s school, as I neared the steps to the MRT, I saw a breeze catch some leaves on the sidewalk and swirl them in a circle. It was a small thing, but it filled me with emotion and I turned around and jogged quickly back to the school. I found the PE teacher, a friend (all of the teachers there were our friends), and told him how hard the last few days have been. He said he hadn’t realized how much it had affected us—neither had I—and he prayed for me and my family and the people of Joplin.

Knowing how much the movement of some scattered leaves had bothered me helped me understand how much, much, much more the people in Joplin were going through. My anxiety couldn’t compare because I wasn’t there. But oh, how I wished I were there, to help and console and listen and share in the stories unfolding. Simply to be present.

It’s hard to be here when bad things happen there. Sometimes it’s while we’re overseas and tragedy hits family and friends back home. Sometimes we’ve returned and tragedy hits family and friends back at our other home. It’s hard when you’re so far away.

Though the tornado had such a large impact, it wasn’t the most difficult distant event for us personally while we were abroad. Two years after our relocation to Taiwan my wife’s brother died suddenly from a massive stroke. Because of schooling and the cost of plane tickets, just my wife and young daughter travelled back for the funeral. Two years later, my father died from pneumonia. I flew back for the funeral by myself. And then, a year before the tornado, my wife’s mother died, also from pneumonia. My wife and oldest son (who was already stateside for college) attended her funeral. All very difficult times for us.

When we got the news that our parents were ill, we hurriedly made plans to travel to be with them, but in both instances, they passed away before we arrived. My father was initially placed on a respirator, but when he seemed to recover, I delayed my planning for the trip. Then he relapsed, went back on the respirator, and died soon thereafter. My wife found out that her mother had died after her plane landed in California.

At my father’s visitation, several people told me how happy they were that they’d been able to talk with him during that short window when he was better. I must say that I resented that they, instead of me, had been able to have those face-to-face conversations with him. But while I still regret my absence, I’m now glad for all those he got to talk with. He was far from alone.

As a cross-cultural worker, I served under the banner of Matthew 28:19, the “Great Commission,” a passage that is followed by what many have called the “Great Promise”: “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (NIV). It is a great comfort to know that Jesus is with us as we serve overseas. It is a great comfort to know that Jesus is with us whatever our vocation, wherever we are. And while we often look to this promise for the miraculous fruit it will bear as we spread the gospel, it is his presence, not his actions, that he pledges. He will be with us. He is with us.

It is a great comfort to know that he is with them, too.

He was with my father through my mom and sister and our neighbors who visited him in the hospital, encouraging him in the ICU. He was with my wife’s brother and mother and other family members through those in the community who gathered around them and ministered to them. He was with the people of Joplin through the first responders and medical workers attending to their injuries. He was with Joplin through the churches and volunteers (177,000 who registered in the first two years following the storm), handing out meals and supplies and cleaning up tons of debris. He was with our oldest son through our sending church and friends who were already looking out for him in our absence. And he was with our second son, who was attending university an hour and a half away, through friends we knew from college who checked in on him for us as storms continued to roll through the area.

And even when bad things happen and no other person is around, Jesus is there. How do I know it? Because he promised to always be close by, and he is trustworthy.

When hard things happen there while we’re here, we wish we were there, too. But we’ll never be all the places we wish we could be. That’s why we depend on others to be there for us. And we lean on Jesus, the one who is here and there and everywhere, now and then and always. Remembering that doesn’t completely take away the distance and the hurt, but it does help. When we can’t be there, he can. When we’re not present, he is. He says it’s so, and that’s a promise we can rely on.

[photo: “Horizon,” by Sandro Bisotti, public domain]

When in Rome . . . or Santiago or Nairobi or Chiang Mai

When in Rome, sometimes we do as the Romans do just to fit in. Sometimes it’s out of necessity. Sometimes it’s because their way is actually better. And sometimes it’s because, well—Why not give it a shot?

Has your host culture offered you ways of doing things different from what you’re used to, ways you’ve tried on for size, sometimes finding out they fit you to a T? Mine sure did.

There was the time in Taiwan when we hired a local moving company to help us relocate to another apartment. Much to my surprise, the movers, small, wiry gentlemen, carried most of our things backwards. I don’t mean that they carried them from our new place to our old one. Rather, they carried them on their backs, with their arms wrapped around behind. Big boxes. Heavy boxes. Small appliances. Where I’m from, most of us carry things in front, next to our bellies, and often need help doing so. And we ache the next day. I’ve tried carrying boxes their way, and it works. Maybe I’m the one who’s been doing it backwards. (The movers also taught me how to hold the elevator door open with a folded-up piece of cardboard, but I digress.)

And then there’s that oft-photographed tourist attraction in Asia—the squatty potty. Now using a true squatty potty still falls into the “out of necessity” category for me, but what I have bought into is the method of restful squatting that many in Asia practice—with one’s heels on the ground instead of balancing on the balls of one’s feet, as we’re more apt to do “back home.” It’s more stable and you can hold the position much longer. I kind of like it. (By the way, it seems that the benefits of the squatty potty are standing up and being noticed—pun intended—even in the West: A squatting adapter for Western toilets has turned out to be one of the biggest successes pitched on that funder of all things revolutionary, NBC’s Shark Tank. But I’m digressing again.)

Oh boy, after reading those two paragraphs, I think I’ve become preoccupied with issues of posture and orthopedics lately

I’m sure you have some things to share, too. Does anything come quickly to mind? Maybe you’ve been intrigued by or adopted a “new” way of cooking or eating or building or treating sickness or showing hospitality or passing time or . . . Before you click to another page, can you type up one or two of those discoveries for the comments below? Join in and let’s celebrate together the wisdom and ingenuity of the people of our host cultures, and celebrate, at the same time, our own curiosity and willingness to learn.

Oh, and I’m thinking of one more thing from my time in Taiwan: Many people there routinely wore surgical masks out in public when they weren’t feeling well, to protect the health of others—on the street, on the bus, at work. Hmmmm, I wonder when that would ever come in handy anywhere else.

[photo: “Chopsticks!” by lets.book, used under a Creative Commons license]

How’s Your Training Montage Coming Along?

I have swimmer’s shoulder, but I don’t swim.

It’s not that I can’t swim, I just don’t do it often enough to cause an injury. I’m in physical therapy for my shoulder now, but I actually started PT because of pain in my hip, and then my shoulder started acting up. I wish I could say that my hip problem was caused by swimming, or by mountain climbing or power lifting. Instead, I think it’s from stepping out of my car the wrong way. And my shoulder? It might be caused by painting our dining room. Or who knows? It could have come from brushing my teeth with too much reckless abandon.

I know what you’re thinking. But before you say that it’s clear I’m getting old and my body’s falling apart, let me first say that it’s clear I’m getting old and my body’s falling apart.

So every day I go through my series of exercises. If only my routine included things like “reverse suspended monster crunches” or “overhead double infantry lifts.” But no, I have “supine gluteal sets” and “seated shoulder flexion towel slides at table top.”

It’s not quite the stuff of a Rocky training montage. (If you haven’t seen any of the five Rocky movies, seven if you add the two Creeds, then just think about any film that includes a music video of the main character getting ready for battle.) In preparation for the next ultimate fight, set to stirring music, Rocky boxes with frozen meat (da-da-daaa), rips off dozens of one-handed pull-ups and push-ups (da-da-daaa), lifts log chains over his head (da-da-daaa), guzzles raw eggs (da-da-daaa), and outruns a car (da-da-da-da-da-da-da-daaa-da-daaa).

Here’s the thing about training montages in the movies: They’re in the movies. When you’re tackling challenges in real life, it’s not bigger than life and it’s not condensed down to just a few minutes. Seen from the inside, the real stuff of montages can feel slow, tedious, and monotonous, not monumental.

Do you have things in your life abroad that are necessary but mundane, things you do day to day on the path to your goals but that lack the flair of a movie workout? Things such as prepping for departure? Settling into a culture? Language learning? Wading through red tape? Forming relationships? Chipping away at overwhelming problems?

Here’s the thing about serving overseas—and life in general: Rarely do our efforts merit a rousing soundtrack. Now if your cross-cultural experiences are film-worthy, I won’t stand in your way, and I’ll cheer when your theme song reaches its crescendo in the cinema. But for most of us, rather than a fully orchestrated “Gonna Fly Now,” an “Amazing Grace” played by a toy xylophone and a kazoo may seem more appropriate.

It makes me wonder about the music behind the Psalms, when they read, “to the tune of ‘A Dove on Distant Oaks'” or “to the tune of ‘The Death of the Son.'” Wouldn’t it be nice to know what those songs sounded like? I’m guessing they weren’t pulse-pounding tunes but more in line with the normal, coarse warp and woof of a life serving Jesus.

And here’s another thing: Much of what you do in cross-cultural work doesn’t culminate in a resounding, definitive victory. Often, it’s more of a series of little victories mixed in with little failures. You know, that two-steps-forward-one-step-back thing. (Or is it the other way around?)

Take language learning for instance. What if your language study doesn’t culminate with nationals saying that you sound more native-born than they do? What if your language study never seems to end? Yes, you’ll have agency- and self-imposed benchmarks to meet, but you may never get to where you wish you could be—or to the level of your coworkers. That’s OK. It’s not about matching their good, it’s about doing your good. Wherever your best efforts lead you, there’s a place for you in God’s work. I hope others believe that, too.

Much the same could be said about “learning” your new culture. It takes a lot more time and effort to be a resident of a country than to be a tourist. In A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society, Eugene Peterson uses similar language when talking about the Christian life, making a distinction between those who are “tourists” and those who are “pilgrims.” He writes that most Christians “are impatient for results. They have adopted the lifestyle of a tourist and only want the high points.”

Peterson identifies the common assumption among Christians (and others)

that anything worthwhile can be acquired at once. We assume that if something can be done at all it can be done quickly and efficiently. Our attention spans have been conditioned by thirty-second commercials. Our sense of reality has been flattened by thirty-page abridgments.

“Thirty-second commercials.” “Thirty-page abridgments.” To those I could add three-minute training montages. But all of these may seem rather quaint compared to the norms of today’s culture (Peterson’s book was first published in 1980), with our current attention to Twitter and TikTok and all the other short bursts from social media.

Yes, the Christian life is “a long obedience.” And if I could paraphrase that, I’d say it could also be seen as a long series of short obediences. It’s exercising, stretching, pulling, pushing, lifting, running, jogging, walking, and resting, over and over again. It’s you, as a cross-cultural worker, doing all this with a God-ward aim, with your God-given abilities, at your God-given speed. It’s finishing your race, even if your finish line doesn’t end up being on foreign soil.

And it’s you, all the while, humming in the background the soundtrack of your own making.

(Eugene Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society, InterVarsity, 1980)

[photo: “Focus,” by Keith Ellwood, used under a Creative Commons license]

A Moral Gut Check for the Coming Year—and Beyond

If you’re like me, you saw at least one of the “those we lost” montages covering the deaths of notable people over the last year. And when you see some of the names and faces, you react for some with “I didn’t know they were gone” and for others with “That just happened this year?”

I recently saw a different kind of look back. It was a list of high-profile Christians who’d made the news for their failings in 2020. It included pastors, authors, and ministry leaders, among others. There were a couple I hadn’t heard about, but sadly, I thought of a couple more I could add. Not everyone’s transgressions took place last year, but that’s when some of them came to light.

Do cross-cultural workers also face temptations and sometimes give in to them? The answer, of course, is yes. Those abroad are not immune to temptations “common to man.” But added to that, new surroundings can present uncommon enticements seemingly around every corner—at least uncommon when compared to what used to happen at home.

Does the sin of cross-cultural workers sometimes become public? Does it sometimes cause them to leave the field? Does it sometimes bring their work into question? Does it sometimes destroy relationships? Yes, yes, yes, and yes. Many of us have seen it happen, to fellow workers, to teammates, to family members, to friends, to ourselves.

I’ve prepared the following questions as a beginning-of-the-year gut check, with the aim of helping us stay off of someone’s 2021 those-we-lost list. Yes, that’s an excellent goal. But I also realize that for some, having their failings exposed is a necessary step leading to healing and restoration. Being on the list doesn’t have to be an indication of lostness. It can also be an opportunity for being found.

Join me in the asking and the answering:

Do I have the accountability I need?

When asked how I am, do I answer only with platitudes or just talk about my work?

Do I have partners who can accompany me when my work requires me to go to risky places?

Do I recognize the increased temptations that my environment brings?

Are my words or actions abusive—physically, verbally, emotionally, sexually, psychologically, or spiritually—to those whom I have power or authority over?

Am I misusing my authority by requiring others to divulge personal secrets to me?

Am I silent when I see others being mistreated?

Do my jokes and flippant words reveal dark places in my heart?

Am I caught up in a pattern of lying?

Am I giving my spouse and children the time and attention they need? Would I know if I weren’t?

Am I allowing my emotions to lead me into unhealthy relationships?

Do I have needed content filters on all my internet devices? Do I know what options are available?

Am I using “curiosity” as an excuse for sin?

Am I doing anything because of anger towards God?

Am I making financial decisions that I know are unethical or that others would question?

Am I “borrowing” from non-personal accounts with the intent to pay it back when I’m able?

Am I giving enough time to reading the Bible and contemplating it’s lessons so that it can challenge my suspect behaviors and tendencies?

Am I praying for strength to resist and strength to repent?

Am I participating in any activity that is prohibited by my organization, even though I believe it’s OK?

Am I willing, if necessary, to accept discipline from my leadership?

Am I giving enough attention to self care and to healthy ways of dealing with stress?

Do I believe that the extra stresses of my position give me more latitude to look for relief in ways that others wouldn’t be allowed to do?

Am I abusing alcohol, drugs, or medications? Am I addicted to pornography or gambling? Can I really stop any time I want to?

Have I ended a negative behavior only to fall back into it again?

Am I able to accept the truth regardless the source, even if it comes from someone in a lower position who hasn’t followed the proper channels or protocols?

Am I afraid that someone will find out the secret things I’m doing?

Am I hoping that someone will find out the secret things I’m doing?

Am I more apt to say, “But for the grace of God, there go I,” or “None of that could happen to me”?

Do I have someone trustworthy I can share my faults and fears with? Should I give that person a call?

[photo: “Sunrise on the Rock,” by Giuseppe Milo, used under a Creative Commons license]

Back Away from That Keyboard: These Books for Cross-Cultural Workers Should Remain Unwritten

Seen any good best-of-the-year book lists lately?

I have, but this isn’t one of them.

Instead, I’ve created a much different kind of list. First, it is a collection of book titles—for cross-cultural workers—but there aren’t real books to go with the names. Second, these titles aren’t any kind of best, and probably shouldn’t even make it to the printing stage.

While compiling a list of made-up titles may not seem like much of an accomplishment, I do want to point out that, slowly but surely, I am moving up in the publishing world . . . sort of. Three years ago I created some clickbait headlines for expats that only lacked people to fill in their stories. Now I’ve come up with titles for whole books (see the progress?). This time, though, the stories don’t need to be filled in.

Solomon writes that “of making many books there is no end.” Let’s leave these books unmade:

Ethnocentrism, Ethnoshmentrism: Incontrovertible Proof that Your Customs Really Are the Best

How I Arrived in Country, Lost My Passport, Got Arrested, Wrestled a Crocodile, Built a Clinic, Organized a VBS . . . and Then Got Ready for My Second Day Abroad

This Airport’s Not My Home, I’m Just A-Passin’ Through: Wild and Wacky Tales from Gate C38

No Matter Where They Go, There They Are: An Anthropologist Circumnavigates the Globe to Chronicle the Unorthodox Migration Patterns of the Third Culture Kid

Can You Take a Look at This Rash? An Expat’s Illustrated Guide to Diseases That You’ve Never Heard of Before but Think You Might Have Caught but Probably Didn’t but Maybe You Did

The ABCs of XYZs: Overcoming Ministry Paralysis by Creating the Perfect Acronym

And They Said I Shouldn’t Go: How Cross-Cultural Work Saved My Marriage, Paid Off My Debts, and Otherwise Solved All My Problems

Oui, I Do Want Fries with That! Become Fluent in Any Language Just by Ordering at McDonald’s

Have Paintbrush Will Travel: 1001 Projects for Visiting Teams That Will Transform the World, Guaranteed!

Does This Spark Joy? Apply a Simple Formula to De-clutter Your To-Do List and Find Complete Serenity in Your Life Abroad

Red Rover, Red Rover, Send Form 2555 Right Over: Make Filing Taxes Overseas the Highlight of Your Year by Turning It into a Super-Fun Game

They Called Me “Little Jesus”: A Memoir

That Wasn’t So Hard: Lessons on Cross-Cultural Life from My Spring Break Overseas

From Expat to Flexpat: How to Up Your Game and Hopscotch Cultures like a Boss

Don’t Make Me Turn This Luggage Cart Around: More Traveling Advice for Parents, from the Author of the Bestselling It’s My Way or the Skyway and I Brought You into This Boarding Area and I can Take You Out

[photo: “Piles of old books,” by veronica_k, used under a Creative Commons license]

Questions about Going, and the Answering Thereof

You can learn a lot by asking questions. You can learn a lot by answering them, too.

Recently, a young couple came to my wife and me with a list of questions for us. They were trying to figure out how to respond to the stirrings they were feeling about ministry opportunities and wondering if they should consider serving cross-culturally someday.

I think our answers fell somewhat short of profound, but I hope they were helpful. What struck me, though, was how much their questions got me thinking. Good questions have a way of doing that. They’re beneficial for the ones asking and for the ones pondering the answers, as well.

So if you’re considering going overseas, here’s a list of questions you could ask those who’ve already gone. And if you’re one of those who’s already gone, here’s a list of questions to help you reflect on the process that got you there. I hope some of them make you say, “Hmmmm, good question. Let me think about that.”

All of the questions below are concerned with the lead up to departure. For what comes after that, well, we can come up with those lists some other time.

When did you first consider serving overseas?
When did you know for sure you should go?
What did you hope to achieve by going?
Did you and your spouse have the same level of commitment?
What did your parents and/or children think?
How were you supported?
How did you raise support and how long did it take?
How did you decide your income level?
Did you have debt when you left?
How did you choose your sending organization?
What role did your church play?
What would you have done if you’d not gone?
What did you leave behind?
What concerns did you have?
What made you excited?
What did you think success would look like?
How would you describe your stage of life when you started your cross-cultural work?
What sacrifices did you know you’d have to make?
How long did you plan on staying?
How did you decide where to go?
What did you know about your future host country/culture?
What kind of research did you do?
Did you know anyone in the place you were heading to?
What kind of support team did you develop?
What did you pray for?
What responses did you get to your prayers?
What kind of “calling” did you respond to?
How did you prepare?
What was your main motivation for going?
Who were your biggest cheerleaders?
Did you have people close to you who didn’t want you to go?
What hurdles did you need to overcome?
What disappointments did you encounter?
What plans for your children’s schooling did you make?
What did you do with your “things”?
Did you have any doubts?
Did you have any previous cross-cultural experience?
Did you study the language before going?
How did you pick a ministry target?
What verses in the Bible spoke to you?
Who were your role-models?
Why didn’t you go earlier?
Why didn’t you wait longer to go?
and . . .
What questions did you have?

[photo: “Which Way Is Home?” by Abby, used under a Creative Commons license]