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.