When the Mission Field Hurts Your Marriage

The words flew like arrows, each piercing through the thick air between us, not one missing it’s target, cutting deep into the flesh and tearing what we once held dear.  No amount of armor could protect us in this place, our hearts were open, bare, raw, and being ripped to shreds.

Yes we had taken that oath, we had stood before hundreds of our dearest friends and family and promised.

I will always love you.

I will always cherish you.

I will go through the fire with you.

I will always take your side.

And yet today here we stood, battle ready, armed to the teeth with every harsh word and criticism we could muster.  Fighting not as one, but against each other.

What was once one was very near to becoming tw0.

Although time (and the counsel of good friends) has helped reveal the things in our hearts that needed to change, and brought to light the errors in our thinking that took us to this awful place, I blame the mission field for our struggles.

Yes, we were not giving one another the attention we deserved.

Yes, we even had somewhere along the way stopped praying together.

Yes, we had allowed all sorts of weeds to grow in the field of our marriage.

But the question I have been asking this past season as we focus our attention together on building back what was lost is this– how did we get here?  What was it that distracted us or pulled us apart?  Like I said before, I blame the mission field.

Yes, I know all sorts of people are already looking for the comment button to tell me how any marriage can slip, and that no matter where you are, you have to work at it.

Yeah, I get that.

But the truth is most mission fields are like wild fires, burning out of control and consuming everything in their path.

We come in with a passion in our hearts for the lost, but instead often our entire lives are consumed in the flames.

(Know please that I say all this with out any hint of ‘better than thou sinner who liveth in the country you were born in’, I just need to say it like it is today. This gig is tough.)

In a few months we will celebrate our fourth year here in Ethiopia. We won’t likely throw a party, or even talk about it much. We’ve never been big on sentimental dates in our family. But as I sit here reflecting on what we have endured, as I look back to the struggles that our marriage has borne in these years, I feel that a celebration is in order.

Because we are survivors.

You see the conversation above was not the first like it, nor will it likely be the last. We have seen this desolate place in our marriage more times than I can count, and most of them have been since we moved here.  The constant frustration of clashing cultures, the feeling of not accomplishing much, the patience it takes to get through one day, it all threatens to rip a marriage from its foundation.

When we first moved here, I thought that it was funny that missionaries were so focused on when their “furlough” would take place or when they were going to get a “vacation,” I scoffed at their petty behavior and dove in head first to the work that we had come for. Soon after, things started to take their toll, our passion began to wane, and then I saw what they were talking about.

Today can I just honestly say what I’ve learned the past four years? Living on the mission field is hard on a marriage.

Brutal, in fact.

Jessie and I have realized that we need to do whatever it takes before it is too late. We are being more intentional about communicating, giving one another the time we need to rest, and trying to slow down the pace of life.

We’re learning that we must work hard to protect our marriages while overseas, and that God has to stay center.

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I wrote a book that came out several months ago, and one of the criticisms I have gotten was that I was too honest about the struggles that we bore when moving our family to Ethiopia. The book, ‘No Greater Love’ (Tyndale Press) came out in July and was quickly named the number one hot new release on Amazon.  I write about our journey overseas and into our current ministry, placing local widows with local orphans.

This week, I’m donating TEN copies of  No Greater Love to the community here at A Life Overseas. To enter, simply click on the rafflecopter giveaway below.

Entries will close Feb. 18, and you’d help us all out by sharing this post and giveaway with your friends. Good Luck!

* You can read more about Levi’s family and their journey bringing orphans and widows together locally at www.bringlove.in 

 a Rafflecopter giveaway

Leaving On A Jet Plane

Way back in June of last year, the same weekend that I published my latest book, Love At The Speed Of Email, Mike and I learned that we would be leaving Luang Prabang in April 2013.

Mike’s position is being handed over to a Lao national staff member, which is good. Working yourself out of a job is exactly what you want to do in international development, and Mike’s good at that sort of capacity building.

So this move is a good thing, and we always knew we wouldn’t be here long term.

And, yet.

There’s a difference between knowing you won’t be somewhere long term – that you might be moving in “oh, a year, maybe two” – and suddenly knowing that the clock is ticking.

When we first received the news we had ten months. Now we have less than three.

We’ve spent that seven months alternately thrashing out possible next steps and avoiding discussing the topic because it had gotten all too exhausting. We’ve tried on one possible future after another – holding them up to us mentally and looking them up and down to see how they fit.

The possibilities, and the questions, seem endless. Where will be we most useful? Doing what? Where do we want to be? Doing what?

Australia? The US? Stay in Laos? Move somewhere in Africa? East Timor? How important is it to have access to decent medical care during this season? How much permanent damage am I risking by continuing to live in the tropics with a health condition that’s aggravated by heat? How important is it to my sanity to be able to keep doing some work myself while also being our children’s primary caregiver? Where am I going to have this new baby that’s due to join us in six months? How important is it to Mike’s well-being and the health of the whole family system for him to be doing work he enjoys and believes makes a difference? Does that work have to be in the humanitarian sector? If not, what else is out there? Where do we start looking? Do we want to put down some roots – we who don’t even own a car at the moment, much less a house? Where?

And so it goes. It’s been a long, hard discussion with no easy answers. Mike and I have been forced to acknowledge that as well matched as we are, we are still different people, who want some different things in and from life. We’ve come to realize that some of what first drew us together five years ago has shifted and changed. We’ve had to confront, again, some of the constraints that my health condition and parenthood place upon us. We’ve repeatedly collided with the myth – the hope – that there is an option out there that will be a perfect fit for everyone. That neither of us will really have to forgo some things that we really want.

Ironically, during the six months when people all around the world have been reading the memoir that details the fairytale of our early romance, Mike and have been getting dirty in the trenches of our marriage. We’ve been battling depression, injuries, and some growing and unacknowledged resentments. Failing to communicate well. Trying to come to grips, still, with the earthquake that parenthood has been in our lives. Getting up in the middle of the night again and again and again. Praying for that perfect option (or, failing that, clear guidance) and having neither materialize. Replaying conversations about the future that we’ve already had dozens of times in an exhausting, maddening, spiral of thoughtful decision-making. Waiting.

We’ve been struggling to figure out how to love each other well when it doesn’t come nearly as easily. 

I have moved countries almost a dozen times so far, and these sort of limbo seasons that herald drastic change are my least favourite part of living overseas. There is some excitement at the thought of a brand new adventure, but there is also sadness and a numb sort of exhaustion. Especially when you’re leaving something familiar for the unknown, it’s easy to identify the good in what you’ll be leaving behind and impossible to fully visualize the good that might be lurking just around the next bend in your path. Do this too many times and you risk never really sinking deeply into places or people, never really tasting the good of the present, because part of you is always aware of a looming horizon. Of more coming change. Of yet another inevitable departure.

I don’t know how many more of these transitions my life will hold, but this one, at least, is inevitable. We have fewer than 100 days left in this little town we’ve grown to love and then we’ll be leaving on a jet plane. It’s just … we still don’t know where that plane will be going.

What’s a tough decision you’ve had to make in your own relationship – one where all the pieces didn’t seem to fit neatly? What did you decide to do?

And, what is your least favourite season of living overseas?

Lisa McKayauthor, psychologist, sojourner in Laos

Blog: www.lisamckaywriting.com      Books: Love At The Speed Of Email and My Hands Came Away Red

Thieves, Cannibals, and other Comic Relief

This guest post comes to us from Colleen Mitchell, missionary in Costa Rica.

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Because the stress levels that accompany missionary life can often be so over the top and we are constantly battling our fears and fighting for peace, it is imperative that we as missionaries keep our sense of humor and ability to laugh at ourselves.

Nothing can cut through the stress of a miserable day or a humiliating cultural mistake like a good laugh. It’s important for us to remember that as serious minded as we missionaries can be, there are many aspects of our lives that are truly humorous.

The other night, our family enjoyed a good long laugh reliving our favorite missionary mishaps. It was so good to enjoy a little comic relief.

We laughed recalling my confusion of trying to make sense of the English that the islanders spoke at our first mission post in the West Indies. We thought we had taken the easy way by heading to a mission post where they spoke our language. Only they didn’t. It might have been English words, but it was not my English.

Our first day on the island I befriended a young girl and her cousin who was very pregnant. A few days later when I saw my new friend again, I asked her how her cousin was. She responded, “She go up she make she baby.” I smiled and said “good” and hoped it was. Later when I saw the cousin arrive back on the island with a newborn baby in her arms, I realized that “she go up she make she baby” translated to “She went to hospital on the mainland to have the baby.” Relief.  It was good.

One afternoon, my neighbor across the street cornered me on the road to my house. Her face was set stern and her tone harsh. I had not yet learned that our perception about this was wrong and that it was just the natural countenance of these people, so my stomach did a flip when she blurted out, “You take things from people?” I stared blankly. She repeated it more loudly, “You take things from people?” I tried to figure out what in the world she could possibly think we had stolen from her. My southern upbringing told me to be gracious as my head spun and I responded, “Oh no, ma’am. We’d never take anything from anyone.”

She looked back at me crestfallen and said, “Oh, because I bake you some bread.”

“OH! That kind of take things from people! Yes, yes, we do that!” said the missionary standing in the street feeling like a total fool. By the way, it was the best bread I have ever eaten and I’m so glad I took it.

One of our kids’ favorite memories is the morning in Costa Rica. In the midst of breakfast men peddling chairs arrived at our door. With three little ones and morning sick wife looking on my husband tried to politely turn them down. They were quite insistent that we really needed these chairs. The kids were screaming for their breakfast. I was totally incapacitated. In his frenzied state to get back to the chaos taking over our home, my husband closed the door, proclaiming loudly what he meant to be “No thank you, I have to go feed my children now.” Only in the confusion of the moment, he declared that he needed to go EAT his children.

Well, it worked anyway. Those men backed down the walkway with their plastic chairs and never came back again. If you ever run across a Costa Rican who is under the impression that Americans are cannibals, it’s our fault. Sorry.

We try hard, we missionaries. We try to learn the language. We try to learn the culture. But in the process, we mess up. A lot. Sometimes it’s awful and it’s stressful. But other times, it’s just plain funny.

And it’s good to laugh about it. Because if we take ourselves too seriously, we’ll never survive this wild ride called life overseas.

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So, today, let’s take the time to laugh together. Tell us about a communication/cultural mishap you’ve had in the field that you can laugh at now. Let’s lighten up our missionary hearts today and share a bit of laughter and fun.

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Colleen Mitchell, missionary in Costa Rica

blog: Blessed Are The Feet work: www.saintbryce.org and Mercy Covers initiative

Previous post here on A Life Overseas: When Your Missionary Teen Struggles

Want Exotic? Go Live Overseas.

One of the most wonderful things about raising a family overseas is the unique experiences the entire family gains from the local culture. And while culture shock is a beast and culture pain can strip you bare, there is a deep goodness in tasting life in a foreign land.

Below is a small collection of videos which depict different aspects of life for our family of five in SE Asia. I found that one of my roles involved documenting our life abroad (in the original site “alifeoverseas”), which I was able to do often through videos and blogging. I found that when I took the time to do fun videos or posts about the things that were exotic, interesting or funny about our lifestyle in Asia, it turned difficult realities into more hopeful ones. Here are a few snapshots:

A local market:

A local snack (yup, worms):

A local spa treatment (fish eat your feet, for real):

A local past-time (that would be an ostrich, and I’ve actually never seen a local ride one):

A local lunch experience (bikes are awesome):

And more food (whole family eats for 5 bucks):

Some local transport (in which I screw up the language):

Subscribers, if you can’t see the above five videos, please click through to the site.

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And, so now, it’s your turn. What is an exotic aspect of living where you live right now? What do you love? Do you have a video or photos or a blog post you can link for us to see? Please post it in the comments, would you?

Laura Parker, former missionary to SE Asia

Reminiscing and Dreaming

Today’s guest post comes from missionary mom Shannon Kelley. Here, Shannon shares a practical idea for being intentional as family as we leave last year behind and look forward to the New Year.

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I’m a big fan of the New Year. There is something hopeful and exciting about it. I love reminiscing over the past year and dreaming about what will be in the next. This New Year was very different from years past.  Instead of hanging with family and watching the ball drop went to sleep at 8, since the sun goes down here at about 6pm and we now think 8pm is late. We celebrated by pumping water into buckets for a shower and trying to not jump every time a homemade firework went off right outside our window.

Before we moved to Haiti our family made a couple promises. One was to sit down yearly and have a family meeting where we are truly honest about: where we are, what needs to change, and are we still aligned with what God called us to. In an effort to spice up New Years in a little remote fishing village in Haiti, and keep our promise of sitting down as a family to really talk about where we are in this crazy journey of following God, we did just that on New Year’s Eve.

It’s not really about resolutions. It’s about coming together to be honest and take inventory over the past year and prepare as best we can for the New Year. It’s about realizing life is too short to not really dive in to what God is calling us to. Want to join us?

Make it fun. Make snacks, give everyone fun paper and a pen to write on, make it a game or sharing time. Give the kids crayons so they can draw their answers if they want. Or if your kids are older, designate a “scribe”. Take is seriously but make it fun! If you are single or want to do this alone, find your favorite place to cozy up, grab your favorite journal and make it a special moment just for you.

Write it down. Don’t just talk about it. Writing it down makes it a memory, holds you accountable, and helps propel you after this exercise is over.

Pray.  Ask for blessings and honesty during this time. Take time for the questions; force yourself to authentic answers, past the pat answers.

Here’s the list we use. Feel free to modify the questions to suit your situation. Grab some pens and paper, get some popcorn popping and ask your family some or all of these questions.

-Think back over the past year. What would the theme of the year be for you?

-Where did you see God specifically move?

-What worked for you and your family and ministry?

-What could have been better?

-Set aside 5 minutes of brainstorming big dreams for the New Year.

-What are you letting go of in 2013.  Quit something.

-2012 was the year….

-2013 is the year I will…

Now share some of your answers, even if it’s just with your immediate family. Telling others has boldness in it and inspires others while empowering you.

You can leave a comment here with some of your family’s answers so we can motivate each other. I added some of the answers from our family below.

Shannon Kelley – lives in a remote fishing village in Haiti working with Harvest Field Ministries.  blog: www.shannon-kelley.com/blog   twitter: @alohashannon

Merry (Tacky) Christmas

This Christmas Eve, I’m remembering another Eve not so long ago which was spent in flip-flops and not snowboots, with skype and not flesh-and-blood. And this season, as I pray for you, my friends who are living internationally, I will ask that your holidays be rich with the love of Jesus– even if you are forced to decorate in epic-tackiness. Maybe you can identify with this post I wrote last year in SE Asia: 

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I’m not afraid to say that we’re having a tacky Christmas this year–  tackier than I experienced while growing up in the deep South, and tackier than when we were married-young and living-in-government-housing college students.  I’m finding that celebrating a Christian holiday in a country that’s 96% Buddhist limits your decorating options, and so, we’ve settled for a

sadly sparse, and glaringly-obvious fake tree,

plastic ornaments and a foil star, reminiscent of last year’s sale items at the Dollar Tree,

and, {perhaps the ultimate in Tacky} a fringed and foil Merry Christmas sign that adorns our kitchen wall.

But, I am learning this year some important lessons, in terms of cheap garland and plastic evergreen and celebrating so very far away from home.  I am learning that

The Spirit of Christmas far outweighs the decorations of it,

That the Holidays are about what you DO experience and not about what you DON’T have,

and that the message of December 25th is the same on the remaining 364 days of the year, and it has always been that

Love Wins.

His Love.  My Love.  Our Love.

And the rest is really just decorated plastic, anyway.

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How are you feeling this Christmas season? What are the gifts of spending the holidays internationally?

– Laura Parker, Former aid worker in SE Asia

Surviving Christmas as a Missionary

As a missionary, Christmas can be a season which summons our most intense feelings of homesickness.

-You are away from friends and family. No matter how broken family structures become, people always get together over the holidays.

-The nation you serve in often does not “feel” like Christmas. The first warm weather Christmas I experienced was a shock to my senses. Now, I find Christmas sneaks up on me as I serve in a nation with a lesser degree of the materialistic, “mall decorated prior to Thanksgiving” kind of atmosphere. It just doesn’t look or feel like the holidays.

– Most individuals and families have more traditions wrapped up in Christmas than any other time of the year. Missing those family gatherings or celebrations can bring a sense of isolation and loneliness.

As I write this, my family is on a short furlough in the United States for Christmas. We attempt to return once every three years for the holidays. But in those other two years, we have incorporated a few strategies to both survive and celebrate being away during the “merriest” time of the year.

Some rights reserved by riverrunner22 on Flckr.com

Here are some tips I have learned from 20 plus years on the missions field:

1. Acknowledge Things Will Be Different
In order to succeed in celebrating, you have to be in the right frame of mind, or you start miserable. Don’t deceive yourself into thinking we can make a “mini-American” (or wherever you are from) Christmas on location.

2. Establish New Traditions
How does the nation you are in celebrate? Embracing a new custom can be one of the best parts of the season.

South African’s celebrate with the braai. A braai is a  BBQ on steroids. It take most of the day while you slowly cook food and socialize. The main course is meat and more meat. Chicken is considered a vegetable. We started a tradition of cooking some nice meat, making a casual afternoon of relaxing and enjoying the company of some of our friends.

We have also added a camping vacation to this season as Christmas falls over the kid’s summer school holidays.

3. Something Old, Something New
Find a tradition you can replicate in addition to new customs. We still find a Christmas tree, even though it makes the tree from “A Charlie Brown Christmas” look like a prize winner! Our kids make ornaments rather than pulling antiques out of storage.

4. Find Community
Don’t spend it alone.

Let me say this again. Find someone to celebrate with.

Self pity and mourning will creep in otherwise. Invite friends, others missionaries, or even some of your co-workers for a meal and fellowship.

5. Use Technology
You can still “attend” the gatherings back home with the increase in technology. As you tell the stories of your celebration, don’t be surprised if people at home are a bit jealous of the nice weather and fun you are having!

So, if you are discouraged. Don’t give up.

Keep trying things till you embrace a new tradition.

Whether you are home or abroad, invest the time it takes to make this celebration special.

All throughout the Bible, celebrations were times of remembrance. Israel needed to pause and takes stock; remembering who they were and what God had done for them.

Don’t let a change in geography rob you or your family from creating memories. And of course, celebrate Jesus breaking into time and space, forever changing the planet.

Merry Christmas!

What are some of your overseas (or domestic) tips for missionaries or expats?

 

– Chris Lautsbaugh, Missionary teacher and author with Youth With A Mission, living in S. Africa.
Blog: NoSuperHeroes   Twitter: @lautsbaugh   Facebook: NoSuperHeroes 

Fighting Fear: Peace Like A River

Last month I wrote about how much I miss the promise and illusion of safety the developed world offers when my baby is sick over here in Laos. I know, however, that the fears that underpin my longings aren’t caused by living in Laos. They are only magnified.

This month I thought I’d take another look at those fears from a different angle, and share a piece that I wrote almost a year ago now, Peace Like A River. In one of life’s painful ironies, this essay was published the day before the accident that broke Dominic’s femur. It is a piece I’ve returned to several times since then, and the triangular relationship between peace, fear and love is one I continue to puzzle over.

 Peace Like A River

Two weeks after Dominic was born, my husband, Mike, announced that he was going out for a bike ride.

“Just a 50km loop,” he said. “I’ll be back within two hours.”

I nodded and told him to have a good ride, but that wasn’t what I wanted to do. I wanted to cry. I wanted to clutch him and beg him not to go. I wanted to demand that he tell me how I would survive if a car hit him – which happens to cyclists all the time, you know – while he was being so irresponsible as to be out riding for fun. Fun. What was he thinking to be indulging in something so very dangerous and call it fun?

I had expected my son’s birth to deliver love into my life. What I had not expected was that right alongside love would come something else, something that would assault me more often and more viciously than I had ever imagined.

Fear.

In the weeks following the miraculous trauma of Dominic’s arrival, I found myself battling fear at every turn. I would see myself dropping the baby, or accidentally smothering him while I was feeding him in bed. The thought of unintentionally stepping on his tiny hand while he was lying on the floor made me stop breathing. Whenever I left the house I visualized car accidents. I lay awake at night when I should have been getting desperately needed sleep thinking about the plane ticket that had my name on it – the ticket for the flight that would take all three of us back to Laos.

How, I wondered, am I ever going to be able to take this baby to Laos when I don’t even want to take him to the local grocery store? What if he catches dengue fever? What if he picks up a parasite that ravages his tiny insides? What if he gets meningitis and we can’t get him to a doctor in Bangkok fast enough? What if the worst happens?

What if?

One of my favorite hymns was written by a man who was living through one such horrific “what if”. After learning that all four of his children had drowned when the ship they were traveling on collided with another boat and sank, Spafford left immediately to join his grieving wife on the other side of the Atlantic. As his own ship passed near the waters where his daughters had died, he wrote It Is Well With My Soul.

When peace like a river attendeth my way
When sorrows like sea billows roll
Whatever my lot, thou has taught me to say
It is well, it is well with my soul

This hymn is one of my favorites because it puzzles me. I’m awed and confused by Spafford’s ability to write these words in the face of such loss. Because of the story behind it, the song demands my respect.

Plus, I really like that image in the first line of peace like a river.

I think of this line sometimes when I’m out walking around town, for Luang Prabang is nestled between two rivers. The Mekong is a force to be reckoned with – wide, muddy, and determined. Watching the frothy drag on the longboats as they putt between banks gives you some hint of the forces at play underneath the surface. Mike likes the Mekong, but my favorite is the other river, the Khan. The Khan is much smaller, and at this time of year it runs clear and green, skipping over gravelly sand banks and slipping smoothly between the poles of the bamboo bridge that fords it.

I used to think of peace primarily as a stillness – a pause, a silence, a clarity – but that sort of peace is not the peace of rivers. There is a majestic, hushed sort of calm to rivers. But they are not silent and they are certainly not still – even the most placid of rivers is going somewhere. They don’t always run clear, either. But all that silt that muddies the waters of the Mekong? It ends up nourishing vegetables growing on the riverbanks.

Dominic is five months old now and the worst of the post-natal anxiety appears to have subsided. I managed to get myself to board that plane back to Laos and it no longer terrifies me to see Mike head out the door to ride his bike to work (most days, anyway). My fear of what ifs never leaves completely, though – it’s always lurking around waiting to be nurtured by my attention and amplified by my imagination.

I used to feel like a failure that I couldn’t banish that fear altogether – that I never felt “perfectly” peaceful – but I don’t feel that way any more. I’m learning to greet that sort of fear respectfully without bowing before it. I’m learning to use it as a reminder to turn toward gratitude rather than worry. And I’ve stopped expecting peace to look like the pristine silence that follows a midnight snowfall. I’m coming to appreciate a different sort of peace instead – a peace that pushes forward, rich with mud, swelling and splashing and alive with the music of water meeting rock.

Peace like a river.

What does peace mean to you? What does it look like?
If you live overseas, have you learned anything new about peace from your host culture?

Lisa McKayauthor, psychologist, sojourner in Laos

Blog: www.lisamckaywriting.com      Books: Love At The Speed Of Email and My Hands Came Away Red

The Beast of Culture Shock

Culture Shock can be a beast. It can be an unexpected, slow drain that leaves you stressed and angry without really knowing why. This culture shock typically hits hardest during the first year of living overseas, but it can creep back in unexpectedly after a furlough or a vacation or even 6 straight hours at immigration in a foreign country (we all know how fun that can be).

My husband and I said that culture shock was like learning to live on 50% oxygen. People also say that the process of adjusting to a new culture is a bit like going through the stages of grief. In this vlog, which I made almost a year and a half ago, I talk about our own process of dealing with culture shock in SE Asia.

(Subscribers may need to click through to the site to view the above video)

Thoughts? How has culture shock affected you or your kids? How do you handle it? Funny stories, advice, tips? 

More on Culture Shock: Stressed Out Missionary (LauraParkerBlog)  |  5 Mistakes I Made My First Year on the Field

~ Laura Parker,  former humanitarian worker in SE Asia

 

When Your Missionary Teen Struggles

Today’s guest post comes from missionary mom Colleen Mitchell. Here, Colleen talks honestly about the struggle of watching a teenager battle isolation overseas.

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I have often written about how one of my greatest struggles in living life as a missionary is a battle with loneliness. After nearly a year in our current mission, I find that some hard growing up over the last couple of years has helped me to accept the burden of loneliness that comes with this life. But I’m facing a new struggle this time around, one that pains my heart worse than my own loneliness ever did. It is watching my teenage son adjust to the reality of life in this place, battle the unavoidable loneliness it brings.

In our past mission posts, I was always a mom to little guys, little enough that being with their mom and dad was all they needed to be content. This time around, we headed into the field with a much different dynamic. Our five boys are now fourteen, eleven, nine, seven and five. The middle two boys tend to pair into a nice friendship (when they’re not trying to kill each other) and the two youngest boys form such an adventurous little pair that we’ve affectionately labeled them our little hobbits.

My oldest is the one who is left without a built-in companion among his brothers. He also happens to be my most reserved kid when it comes to meeting new people and trying new things. Not so much an introvert, but a thinker and a reader who is a little slow to jump in.

This child has spent most of his life surrounded by a large and exuberantly loving extended family, a lively faith community and lots of like-minded families. Friends were built in to his life without much effort required. As he headed toward his teen years, we encouraged his participation in activities that allowed him to initiate new friendships and relate to a variety of people.

And just when he’d hit a social groove that I firmly believe would have carried him through his teen years with rewarding friendships, we made the decision to head back into the mission field. And I sometimes struggle with the cost this young man has had to pay. 

Making friends in a different culture is more than challenging. It seems impossible at times. And the majority of his life-long friends at home have gone on with lives that now seem exactly as they are, a world away.

I try to remember that fourteen was probably going to be hard and fraught with social issues wherever he found himself. I try to remember that there is much good to be learned in a slow, intentional and somewhat lonely life. But, this Mama Bear wants all to be well for her cubs. And watching this man-cub’s transition has been hard.

I find my heart constantly crying out for him, begging God to give him a friend at his side. I remind myself that if this life was God’s calling for our family, then it is God’s calling for this child as well, part of God’s plan for his life. And I cling to the notion that His plan is undoubtedly for this young man’s welfare and not for his woe.

He is noble and strong in this walk. He is learning. He is growing. Now for my mother’s heart to find the courage to let her son be the man he is meant to be.

Maybe that is the real challenge here.

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Do you have teens living abroad with you? How have you helped them make the adjustment to life in a foreign culture? What are some ways to help them find friendships? 

Colleen Mitchell is a wife, mother to five sons walking this side of heaven and one already home, and foreign missionary serving in the Chirripo mountains of Costa Rica. She has heeded her mother’s command to use her words when she needs to express something and blogs her missionary heart at Blessed Are The Feet.  She is actively engaged in the work of her family’s non-profit foundation St.Bryce Missions (www.saintbryce.org) and in founding the Mercy Covers initiative, a micro-enterprise cooperative for women reaching out to orphans and trafficking victims through its work.

When my child is sick: Missing the promise and illusion of safety

On Friday my fifteen-month old baby, Dominic, started running a fever for the first time in his life. We live in Northern Laos. The hospital beds here are full of dengue fever patients at the moment, and fevers of any kind aren’t to be taken lightly.

I did what any worried mama living out of reach of good medical care does nowadays … I googled. And after 24 hours of fever and fussiness, my husband and I put Dominic in his stroller and set out for the doctor who runs an after-hours clinic out of her house down at the end of the little dirt lane we live on.

Going to the doctor here is a little different than going to a doctor at home. There is no such thing as an appointment. The clinic opens when the doctor comes home from her work at the hospital at about 5:30pm, and she sees patients on a first come first served basis.

When you arrive at the clinic you take off your shoes and pick up a number outside the door. Then you wait your turn on a bench in the front of the room while Dr Payang sees people in the back of the room where she has set up a desk, a chair and a camp bed. Only a large dresser that acts as a partial screen separates the waiting room and the consultation area.

We waited our turn with half a dozen other families, and exhaled in relief when the tired doctor peered into Dominic’s mouth with a small flashlight and then showed us the source of all that heat – a throat infection. She handed over some antibiotics, wrote down the dosage instructions on a sheet of paper to make sure that we had the details right, and we headed home.

Living outside the reach of carpeted, colorful pediatricians’ offices is possibly my least favorite aspect of our life in Laos. I miss ambulances with their purposeful sirens and English speaking paramedics. I miss emergency hotlines. I miss gleaming hospitals with their bright lights and shiny instruments and reliable X-ray machines. I look at my baby when he’s running a fever and I really miss the promise and illusion of safety that all provides.

I say promise because, let’s face it, medically-speaking, Dominic would be safer if we were living in the more developed world. Malaria, dengue fever, and the tropical parasites that thrive in our garden here don’t even exist in most of Australia. And some of the more globally equitable childhood maladies, like meningitis, you really want to catch and address fast. As we learned the hard way when Dominic broke his femur at five months of age, you can’t address things fast when you live in a small town in Northern Laos.

But I say illusion because living right next door to the best hospital in the world can’t guarantee you safety or grant you total control. It just can’t. No matter how much we might want to shield our children from catastrophic injury or illness, we never erase those risks entirely. In fact, Dominic would be more at risk of experiencing something like a car accident in that situation. We don’t own a car here in Laos, so he rarely rides in one. The same could not be said if we were still living in our previous home, Los Angeles.

So the questions that I must continually confront are these: How do we calculate risk? How much risk are we willing to tolerate, and to what end? What do I do about fear? We are living in Laos because my husband is doing work we both believe makes an important, tangible difference in the lives of people poorer and much more vulnerable to the vicissitudes of life than we are. Is that a good enough reason to have my baby risk dengue fever? On average, the answer to that question so far has been yes. On average.

Now, three days after starting antibiotics, Dominic’s fever is gone. He had seemed to be much improved, but two hours after going to bed last night we woke to the sounds of retching and screaming. It heralded the start of Dominic’s first all-night vomiting marathon. This morning has brought more vomiting for him and more questions for me.

So now I’m off to consult google again, this time about oral rehydration. If only I could search out answers to all of my questions so easily.

Do you feel any tension over how your choices impact your children?
How do you resolve that tension?

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Lisa McKayauthor, psychologist, sojourner in Laos

Blog: www.lisamckaywriting.com      Books: Love At The Speed Of Email and My Hands Came Away Red

10 Reasons Not To Become a Missionary

1. Don’t Become a Missionary if You Think You Are Going to Change the World. First, high expectations doom to disappoint, but, also, maybe your desire to change the world is trumping your desire to serve. Ask yourself if you would be happy moving overseas to a much harsher environment in order to quietly help a local, while getting no recognition and seeing no fruit in the process.  If you can answer honestly yes, then maybe you’re still in the running. {Don’t worry, we thought we would’ve answered yes, but found out that we really had some unhealthy saviour-complexes to begin with. You can read about that here: On Living a Good Story and Not Trying So Hard and The Guy in the Orange Shirt .}

2. Don’t Become a Missionary to Make Yourself Better. My first mission trip was as a middle schooler to Jamaica. I’m not really sure how much good we actually did, but I do remember one of the missionaries we worked with. His name was Craig, and he had some of the biggest glasses I’d ever seen. And the dude talked to everybody about Jesus. Everyone– the pot-smoking Rastafarian in the line, the tourists at the store, the check-out guy at the food stand. And I remember turning one time to another missionary who worked with him and asked what made him so “good” at evangelizing.  The older missionary said, “Craig?  Oh, he didn’t come to Jamaica and become like that. He was already like that in the States.”

And I think Craig with the big glasses dispels the lie that if you move overseas, then you will magically become a superhero Christian. Um, false. What you are here, you’ll be there. And while it’s true that the change of environment can spark growth, it doesn’t mean you’ll go from luke-warm average Christian to Rob-Bell-Cool-On-Fire-Mother-Theresa just because you suddenly find yourself on another continent. Pretty sure it doesn’t work that way.

3. Don’t Become a Missionary if You Think You Have the Answers and the Nationals Don’t. Westerners have clunky shoes.  This is just true. We are loud and obnoxious and, good Lord, arrogant. Our DNA has us descending on other cultures and dictating ways they can “fix” themselves, while throwing money at their problems. I think I’ve learned that every good missionary LISTENS, first. And listens, a lot. {Don’t worry, I suck at this still. You can read about that here, Rich Guy with the Crappy Car or Quiet Heroes.}

4. Don’t Become a Missionary if You Can’t Hack Transition. We’ve been overseas now for less than two years, and we have moved houses three times, taken two major trips, and have gotten close to and then had to say goodbye to over 15 good family friends. People come and go on the mission field. Terms are up and governments change the visa laws. You find a deal on a house or the house you are in has rats. When you sign up for missions, like it or not, realize it or not, you are signing up for a transient lifestyle. {On Moving House, Like A Lot and New Girl both speak to this reality.}

5. Don’t Become a Missionary if You Think You Are Really Pretty Great, Spiritually-Speaking. There’s nothing like moving to a foreign country to reveal all the crap that’s in your heart.  Seriously. I have cussed more, cried more, been more angry, had less faith, been more cynical and, generally speaking, have become in many ways a worser person during my last two years of serving in Asia. Call it culture-shock if you will, but I tend to think the stress of an overseas move thrusts the junk that was conveniently- covered before out into the blazing-hot-open.

6. Don’t Become a Missionary if You Think Living on Support is Cake. It might look easy, but it is most definitelynot– this monthly process of holding your breath and praying that you get a full paycheck , while knowing that even thatpaycheck is based on the kindness of your parents or your friends or the lady you know hardly has two pennies to rub together anyway. And then, when you do have a little money, you stress about how you should spend it —  Should I treat myself to a coffee? Do the kids really need to go to the pool today? Should I buy the more reliable scooter or the used one that will {probably?} be just fine?

And then, and then, shudder, there’s that awkward process of asking for it in the first place and feeling like you are annoying-the-heck out of the same people, who happen to be the only people you know  — like that pushy lady selling Tupperware down the street.

The whole thing might be great for your faith, but it can sure be a killer on your . . .  heart, finances, sense of self-worth, savings, relationships, budget, fun, and freedom.

7. Don’t Become a Missionary if You Aren’t Willing to Change. Flexibility is more important than I ever thought it would be in an overseas life. So is humility, actually. Unfortunately, neither of these qualities is naturally at the top of my Character-I.Q. However, I have learned that the more determined you are to stick to your original plan– regarding ministry or living situation or friendships or organizations or personal growth– the more painful it is when that plan changes, and change it most definitely will. It’s the ones who humbly hold things loosely that I think can go the distance with far less collateral damage.

8. Don’t Become a Missionary at the Last Minute, on a Spiritual-Whim, Spontaneously. And yes, my Charismatic friends may disagree a bit here, but moving overseas, especially with a family and especially in any kind of committed-capacity, is not something to be taken lightly. It’s not necessarily a move that should be felt at a tent-meeting on Friday and plane tickets bought for the the next Monday. Training is important. Spiritual, emotional and cultural preparation has immense value. Turning your heart to a new place often takes time to fully root. So, give it a little time. Don’t be afraid to put the brakes on a bit, and heaven’s sake, don’t think that you’re more godly if you decide, pack and go in record time. This is not the Olympics, and sloppy leaving can take more time to clean up than you realize.

  1.  Don’t Become a Missionary to Fix Your Kids. Jerking a rebellious teenager from liberal American society and sticking them in an African hut so they can “find God,” is not a valid parenting technique. Family and personal problems will follow you overseas, in fact, they may be amplified. It’s important not to buy into the lie that forcing your kids to be missionaries will supernaturally make them love Jesus. That might happen, but moving a rebellious teen might also royally backfire on you, and should never, ever, ever be the primary reason a family takes up missions.

10. Don’t Become a Missionary to Find Cool Friends. Now, I’m not saying you won’t find amazing friends– maybe the best in your life– but there is no denying that the mission field can draw some pretty odd ducks. {Of which, I, of course, am not one. See #7 regarding my natural humility.} Don’t be surprised, though, if you find yourself in a church service with ladies wearing clothes from the 80?s singing praise songs from your middle-school years like Awesome God, but without even the drums. Don’t be surprised, too, if your social interactions are awkward at best with many of your fellow mission-souls. Living out the in jungles for twenty years might do wonders for your character and strength and important things, like, oh, the translation of the Bible into another language, but it can sure do a number on a person’s ability to shoot the breeze in a church lobby somewhere.

But, there, again, maybe there’s a necessary shifting that has to happen to your definition of cool, anyway.

– Revised and Extended from LauraParkerBlog‘s original list, posted Jan 2012

Laura Parker, former missionary in SE Asia.

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What would you add to the list?  Bring it. Even if you are not a missionary, pretend and add to the list.