Cultural Tug-Of-War

“This is not America” my colleague says under her breath as she rolls her eyes and walks past my conversation with another teacher, both of us caught up in a discussion as to how things “ought to be.”

“This is Liberia” is what another teacher says as he shrugs his shoulders and teases me in my frustration as we start yet another staff meeting 30 minutes late.

I grit my teeth and try to smile back; I don’t need either reminder.

When I left the US and came to Liberia, I traded my skinny jeans for flowy skirts and my cute workout shorts for baggy cargo pants. My sandwiches and salads for soup and rice. I traded my quick smile and wave greeting for a handshake and a lengthy conversation.

I’ve slowed down my speech, adjusted my grammar, learned new words, and adapted a new accent all for the sake of more effective communication. I’ve had to let go of my uncontrollable need for deadlines and structure and learn to wade in the waves of ambiguity. I’ve traded my watch for a bench and gotten used to passing the time rather than watching the time. I’ve learned to tame my desire to be independent and unique in an effort to belong and be unified with the larger group in harmony.

In the beginning when I moved to Liberia, I knew there would be things I would have to adjust to, but I didn’t mind. I’d been on mission trips and managed in a new setting for a few months at a time plenty of times before. Besides, there were so many things about the country that I admired. I was happy to adjust a few of my preferences and get rid of a few of my old habits. But then it all became too much.

Every single part of me, my clothes, food, dance, language, and rights, has been relinquished from my grip in some way or another. And still, it feels like this country keeps pulling and pulling and pulling on me, asking me to give up more and more.

Some days it feels like all I’m doing here is playing a constant game of tug-of-war. They pull me to become more Liberian, to talk this way, dress this way, and think this way. At times, I go along willingly, trying my best to please them or gain their adoration and approval, but other times I dig my feet into the ground and hold on tight, clinging to the American mantra of being “unapologetically myself” no matter what. I try to pull them towards me to see the worth of my American culture’s values like timeliness, efficiency, and independence. They look at me and shake their heads and laugh, leaving me to pull on the rope and falling back as they just simply let go, done with the game all together.

I never did like tug-of-war growing up, and I don’t like it now. And yet, I foolishly keep standing up, grabbing on to the rope, and tugging as hard as I can.

When will they will start bending toward me? When will they start loosening their grip as well? Haven’t I given up enough? Haven’t I let go of the rope and allowed them to tug me towards their side long enough? At what point do my needs and wants matter too? At what point will I stop being the American missionary and just be a friend, a friend worth changing just a little bit for? Doesn’t it go both ways?

Deep down, though, I know this is not what it’s all about.

Paul says in 1 Corinthians 9:22 that “I became all things for all people.” Why did he do this? Why did he give up his own rights and freedoms? Why did he give up his way of life? Why did he not dig his heels in and fight for what he believed to be right? Did he give up on the fight so that others would praise him about how well he was fitting in or how much he had sacrificed? Did he do it so he could make friends, expecting that others might do the same for him in return?

No, he did it for one reason and one reason only. He did it “so that by all means, I might save some (vs 22).” “We put up with anything rather than hinder the gospel of Christ (vs 13).” “I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings (vs 23).”

This cross-cultural ministry life is hard, and it is draining. It is life-altering and identity-shaping. There is a constant tension between who I was and who I am, and who I am and who I want to be. There is a constant tugging, stretching, and pulling.

My immediate tendency is to blame the ones I see in front of me for the pain and loss that this process entails, but I know that they are merely the pull of my Creator’s hands.  I feel the tension, and I attribute it to the horizontal tugging that I see between them and me, but in doing so I inadvertently ignore the upwards prying that is also at play as I wrestle with my own identity and rights.

Rather than pulling back and forth on this rope, sweat running down our faces and grunting and gritting at the other, what would happen if we instead directed our eyes to the center of the rope? It is there where I see God reaching His arm down and grabbing hold and pulling upwards. The further up He pulls, the closer we get to Him and therefore each other, and the further behind we leave our earthly identities and woes. I wonder, then, is this merely the pain of a tug-of-war between two cultures that we feel, or is it the deeper sanctification of our humanity?

The goal in our life and our ministry is not just a mere adaption or transformation from one culture or the other. Nor is it a total abandonment of culture altogether. But it’s also not a lifelong game of cultural tug-of-war where we pull each other from side to side endlessly.

It is neither my identity as an American or as a Liberian transplant that I should be grasping for the tightest; it is my identity in Christ. It is not the culture in which I was born into that I should be holding onto for dear life; it is my born-again identity in Christ which actually gives me life.

The goal for Christians is that we might pull each other more towards Christ, spurring one another upwards, not just tugging each other endlessly from side to side (Hebrews 10:24).

Rather than looking at our cultural differences as something that allows us to be pulled back and forth and side to side, what if we allowed them to instead be a rope that tugs us upwards, closer toward our Creator?

Rather than looking at all these cultural differences as things that God is doing to us, what if we looked at them as something that He was doing for us? What if those tugs on the rope were not from the host country nationals, but from God Himself? What if this tension was meant to show us where our priorities truly lie? Where we have been placing our trust and our hopes? Where we need to let go of some ground? What if instead of blaming one another and always trying to change one another, we thanked God for the gift of our differences and allowed them to instead be used as opportunities that can pull us closer towards Him?

I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of playing the same old game of cultural tug-of-war and falling face first in the dirt after fighting yet another losing battle against my host country. I don’t want to dig my feet in anymore and fight for my own rights when I could be using that energy to instead fight for the gospel. I can see the places where I’ve been digging in and wearing myself down for the sake of my own “freedom,” and I think it’s finally time to let go.

What Two Raw Vegans Taught Me About Sharing Jesus

A few months ago, I was talking with a Muslim friend about her beliefs.

“How do you know XYZ is true?” I asked. She stared at me for a moment.

“Because the Quran says it’s true.”

“How do you know the Quran is true?”

“I’m… not allowed to ask that question.”

“Okay. Here’s a totally different question. How do you know anything is true? If someone told you something, how would you verify it?”

“Oh. Well, I would research, and talk to people who knew, and try to find out.”

“Okay. So, would it be okay to do that with your beliefs?” She hesitated. Even though she answered in the negative, this way of looking at things shifted her perspective just slightly.

*

My friend isn’t the only one with religious baggage. I have it, too.

See, I really want to share the gospel without feeling like a used car salesman. But when I try to picture myself doing that, all these experiences come flooding into my mind: times I’ve tried to share, reactions people have had, the intense longing to obey God and to represent Him well, all the cheesy “witnessing instructions” I’ve heard, potential consequences for myself or others…

It’s complicated.

So, let’s just set that all aside for a moment. Let’s change the camera angle and take this from a different perspective.

What if there were something else I wanted to share? Something important and life-changing, but not spiritual? How would I share that thing?

*

I once met a couple who were raw. Like, they had discovered Raw Veganism, and they were like, into it. Yes, they sounded like walking infomercials for a $500 juicer. But they meant what they said. And they weren’t getting a commission.

“Like, ever since finding Raw, we’re like, so healthy, and my skin glows, and I just feel amazing.” This is the type of thing they said every five minutes. They were seriously satisfied customers of the Rawness movement.

So I googled going raw. I wondered how one goes raw, and what it entails. How to cook if you are raw. Where Rawness came from. I wondered if I had to go all in, or if I could try being “rawer” than mac and cheese and egg McMuffins. I began to explore. 

I didn’t convert. But we do eat a lot of salad now.

They say the best salesperson is a satisfied customer. These people were “selling” raw veganism with a capital RV.

Which leads me to ask — are you a satisfied customer of the gospel?

*

I once knew a guy who had a special talent for selling stuff. “D” was such a great salesman that my college psychology professor once brought him to class to do a demonstration about sales psychology.

Seven people in our class bought what he was selling.

Other than being a brilliant salesman, D always does one thing. He always chooses a product he, himself, truly believes in and uses. He is 100% confident in the product. If he wants to sell magical car wax, he scrapes his car and tries out the wax, and keeps a tub of the stuff in his glove compartment, and tests it, and has his friends test it, and in general, makes sure it works in his own life.

In our witnessing journey, is it possible to get into the headspace of a satisfied customer without sounding like a used car salesman? And is there anything we can do to make sure we are satisfied and ready to speak?

I’m not suggesting that we turn sharing our faith into selling a product. So let me bring it back into a spiritual context.

*

I have a friend I’ll call Meg. She was a member of my home church who consistently invited me into her world. I tagged along when she picked up day-old bread from the bakery to give away for free from the church porch. I helped when she cleaned the home of a depressed friend. When, because of extreme circumstances, she adopted her sister’s children, I saw her rearrange her life to love them.

But the very best thing Meg did for me was share her faith in real time. She would share scripture songs she’d written. She would tell me why she’d written them, the story behind them, why she needed God’s word so much, and how it changed things for her. She’d ask me to pray with her for her children, that she would concentrate fully on following Jesus herself, whether or not they chose to follow. She’d tell me, every time I saw her, something God had taught her that week.

Meg talked about Jesus like He sometimes stopped by for a slice of apple pie. Like He’d told her to say hi to me if she saw me. Meg was satisfied in the presence of Christ. And she told me what she saw Him do.

Meg is one of the (many) reasons why I write what really goes on in my heart. Because seeing her walk with Jesus is still a model for me.

Now I am asking God to show me how to share my faith in real time in a place very different from the town where I grew up. Instead of apple pie, there is bitter mint tea and semolina cake. Or, sometimes, when we’re back in India, there are chapattis and chai.

But God is still the same. So maybe authentic witness still begins in the same place: in my experience of God, in relying on Him, depending on Him, learning of Him, following Him, going through stuff with Him, seeing how He works, being changed by Him, enjoying His goodness and grace.

Right in front of people, out loud, in real time.

Lord, teach us how.

 

A version of this article first appeared on Abigail’s newsletter, Whatsoever Thoughts.

Can I Find Belonging in the American Church? {Wrestlings of an Adult MK}

by Jessi Bullis

As an adult missionary kid (MK) who grew up with a fairly mobile childhood, “home” and “belonging” have been tricky for me. I remember being as young as five years old and responding to the question “Where are you from?” with deer-in-the-headlights style anxious sputtering. 

As I’ve grown, I’ve spent oodles of time processing how each different country I was raised in has impacted who I am as a person, and I’ve learned to weave them together to make up the mosaic of my personal cultural complexity. Nowadays, I have a ready-made answer for the “Where are you from?” question. But just because I’m prepared to answer doesn’t mean that internal confusion and childhood longing aren’t sometimes set off. 

Over the years, digging into scripture and falling even more in love with Jesus, I came to know Him as my true Home. And since Christ’s bride is the Church, I desperately wanted the Church to be my earthly home.

Afterall, that was the one consistent “location” in my life. In England we attended a church with 300 members, while in Turkey we went to a house church that fluctuated from 20-30 people depending on the week and in whose apartment it was held. Visiting Tanzania, we worshiped in a mud structure, and in Germany church was held in the school auditorium. Each might have looked different, but the underlying feeling was the same.

So when I returned to the exotic, frightening, and magical land of the United States of America for college, my hope was that in the midst of my hardest transition, I would find a home-ful belonging in the Church.

However, while there was hope, I’ll admit there was also a bitter pessimism. 

The American church has often felt like an unsafe place for me growing up. As a child, whenever we would return to the U.S. on home assignment and enter the church circuit, raising support felt like a job requirement to be filled rather than a place to be known and loved.

I felt like a hidden immigrant in the church — misunderstood, but also laden with high expectations to be “the perfect MK.” It was assumed that I would know all the ‘right’ answers to any biblical questions thrown my way, while at the same time I was confused by the jokes and cultural references made in conversation. I learned to play the part, but internally I felt like an outsider.

I also noticed that it sometimes seemed like American patriotism and Christianity were intertwined. 

While my passport country is the United States, and I am legally a citizen, I have struggled to wrap my head around what that means. For many of my mono-cultural friends raised in the U.S., this has meant that the American flag elicits an emotional response, and July 4th comes with life-long traditions of celebration and reverence for American history. Because America was born from the drive for religious freedom, for some it seemed that being patriotic was the most Christian thing they could do.

I, on the other hand, didn’t know the words to “America the Beautiful” or even the Pledge of Allegiance. Whenever I attended sporting events (which I’ll admit wasn’t often), I moved my mouth around hoping it looked like I was saying the same thing as everyone else. 

So when I attended churches where I heard pastors talk from the pulpit about how “America is the best country in the world” and where church members discussed how great a blessing it is to be American, I felt like an outsider. Many cultures have informed my faith, and the global perspective I have impacts how I read my Bible. I love that about myself and my story, so hearing words of American patriotism in the church feels to me like a sucker punch. Suddenly the separation between me and my fellow American believers seemed even wider. 

In these church sanctuaries I found myself questioning: If I didn’t “feel” American, would I be fully accepted as a sister in Christ? Are we not brothers and sisters in Christ first – before our cultural backgrounds? If I voiced concern about patriotism and Christianity being conflated, would my character and faith be questioned? 

In the New Testament, I saw that Jesus spoke with Gentiles as cultural equals. On days when the fear of not belonging has felt strongest, I’ve turned to Philippians 3:20 for comfort (“we are citizens of heaven”). And I always drew hope from Revelation 7:9, where we see people from every tribe, tongue, and nation worshiping together in blessed harmony. 

As I considered these scriptures, I began seeing my own assumptions and prejudices arise. Sometimes my own religious comfort has been built from my cultural experiences, and I have had to repentantly unwind them at the feet of Jesus.

Culture impacts how we interact with God and how we worship. Sometimes this is beautiful and glorifies God in the diversity of His creation. But at other times culture becomes an obstacle to the true message of scripture. I have learned beautiful things about God, His creativity, the depths of His love, and so much more from every culture I’ve worshiped in — including in America. 

I write this article not as someone with all the answers, but as someone who has so very many questions: for myself, for my fellow believers, and for the American church. Questions like:

  • How does national culture play a role in my relationship with God? And with my fellow believer?
  • Do I have opportunities to view Christianity from different perspectives and cultures? If not, do I need to find them?
  • Could I have blind spots towards my faith due to my national culture? 
  • Do I feel closer to a believer from a different country than to an unbeliever from my own country? 

It’s important for all of us to consider questions like these. I pray that each day we, the Church, become more and more like the Bride of Christ that will meet God at the shore of eternity.

“…there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people, and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb…And they cried out in a loud voice: ‘Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.’” (Revelation 7:9-10)

A great resource on navigating God and culture is the Perspectives Course, and if you’d like to know how to support missionary kids in their walk with God, I recommend Tim Sanford’s book I Have To Be Perfect, along with this training for Churches Supporting Missionary Families.

Photo by Josh Eckstein on Unsplash

~~~~~~~~~

Jessi is an Adult MK who grew up in Singapore, England, Turkey, and Germany. She has a heart for TCKs and the unique struggles they face. She received her undergraduate in psychology and a seminary degree in counseling for the purpose of caring for TCKs well. Jessi loves getting to walk through the repatriation journey with Adult TCKs, as this season can be especially difficult to navigate. Her deepest passion is for TCKs to know and feel the love and goodness of God.

Boundary Lines and Haikus

by Roberta Adair

I spent many years wondering in the back of my head if being called to Japan was divine punishment for a flaw. To improperly use fancy Christian lingo, I wondered if God was sending me to Japan rather than other places I was willing and eager to go in order to sanctify me. I believed something like, “God loves me but needs to sandpaper and scrape a lot of Roberta away…and Japan is the sandpaper.”

In grad school I even wrote in my journal, “Lord, I’m willing to go anywhere — just not Japan,” yet now I view this country I said I’d never move to as one of the Psalmist’s “pleasant places.” I get teary as I consider God bringing me here for my good, not in a gross kale kind of way but in a warm, corner brownie kind of way.

In 2019 I attended a day of training with a more experienced missionary. She discussed some of the metaphors that people use to describe adjusting to Japan: feeling like a child, being in a dark tunnel, climbing a mountain. She talked with us about the importance and power of metaphors and led us in a few exercises to help us discover insights for ourselves. For years I had used phrases like “square peg, round hole” (not fitting well) and “like a little kid in a new school” (incompetent and unknown) to try to articulate what living here feels like.

One image that I hadn’t been able to verbalize but had felt over and over was the idea of feeling trapped and tied down – like having a rope wound around and around my arms and not being able to breathe freely, much less move. For a long time, I looked at “Japan” (written in quotation marks as I’m referring to it more as an idea than as a place or a people) as restricting, trapping, binding, and controlling.

There are so many rules: when to bow, when to use honorifics, how long to admire a business card that you received respectfully with two hands (“Always receive with two hands!”). If someone gives a gift, it is appropriate to give another gift at 30% of the estimated value of the original gift.

I found all of these rules exhausting, along with all of the formality, ceremony, and appropriateness (I generally like informal, spontaneous, and mildly-to-wildly inappropriate). There were rules about eye contact, precise expectations about what to wear to different ceremonies, and even how to laugh (many women cover their teeth when they laugh and maintain control, while I love to belly laugh with both friends and strangers). I found all of this overwhelming and exhausting and grating and tedious and irritating.

I know people who are drawn to Japan specifically for the same reasons I had prayed “anywhere but.” They like that it’s predictable, orderly, safe. They are the “learn the rules, and you’ll do well” type of people. I think perhaps this is one reason why my engineer husband adjusted to Japan years before I did.

At the training, as an exercise to start and end our sessions, we were asked to write haikus. I hadn’t written one since middle school, yet I was able to spit two out really quickly. 5-7-5…boom.

They weren’t amazing, but they were written quickly and lightly. I didn’t get bogged down with a gazillion possibilities from a more open-ended prompt like, “Write an essay. Draw a picture. Describe a situation.” The haiku was so simple. I think this exercise marked the beginning of my understanding that too many possibilities isn’t freedom; it’s exhausting.

Ever since that post-retreat time, I’ve tried to notice more of this limitation-as-freedom thing. Rather than feeling restrained, confined, and trapped in Japan, I’m trying to reframe that limitations can contribute to my freedom.

For example, the train. Although we have a car, I like to ride the train to the library. I prefer the boundaries of time with trains. There are consequences to trying to finish “just one more thing” (needing to wait for the next one), and knowing the train pulls away at a certain time helps me focus and get stuff done. It also gives me 10 minutes to check out on the ride home.

Then there’s our newsletter. I wrote freeform email updates during my three years living in another country. They were usually quite long. I didn’t like my husband’s suggestion a decade ago to pick a newsletter format and stick to it. I still occasionally struggle with the constraints of space. If anyone ever thinks, “Um, this paragraph is missing a sentence,” yes it is, but I simply deleted it to make it fit. Using this formula means we can make them faster than we could if they were more freestyle. Two articles with three to five pictures (2-3-5…boom).

Or consider our small house. I’ve seen these literal boundaries and limitations lead to freedom. I have a lot of new-to-me opinions about the lightness connected to having a small house and next-to-no yard. Perhaps this not-chosen-by-me minimalist lifestyle isn’t forever or for everyone. That said, I’ve experienced a lot of joy connected to exploring and playing that I simply wouldn’t have had time for if I had more space and stuff to manage and maintain.

Boundaries are helpful with anything related to reducing decision fatigue. I know this is a trendy topic, but it’s why I like restaurants with small menus, prefer the neighborhood veggie man over a larger grocery store, and have jumped from team self-expression to being a big fan of uniforms (very common for students and workers in Japan). It’s also why we’ve happily adjusted our wardrobes to our small closets. Our four boys share two chests of drawers with seven drawers between them. It works, and it’s (mostly) really good. I have the smallest wardrobe of my life, and (most of the time) I love it.

I think about limitations when I think about having kids. Oh, the laundry, dishes, cooking, time constraints, and adjusting so much of my life and schedule around them. Yet these little balls of Big Energy and Big Feelings also bring so many possibilities. They’ve opened the door to many deep friendships, and they’ve expanded my understanding of the world, people, and God.

These are just a few examples of the ways I experience the expansiveness of limitation. I’m finding that the boundary lines aren’t confining or trapping but instead have allowed me to more fully experience “pleasant places.” And for that, I’m grateful.

~~~~~~~~

Originally from Pennsylvania (USA), Roberta lived in Kosovo for three years before getting married and moving to northern Japan in 2012. She and her husband partner with a Japanese church and have four young and energetic boys. She enjoys hiking, camping, and having friends over for average and boisterous meals.

Send Help. My Husband Believes in Me.

My husband Joshua has the annoying habit of believing I am capable and strong, like some kind of Wonder Woman, except with a super-modest, incarnational wardrobe instead of a metal corset. He is always encouraging me and pep-talking me and going on about how I can do anything and change the world and blah blah blah. 

A perfect example of this was on our second day in our current country of service. There was a birthday in the family, so we piled into a taxi and went to one of the more interesting markets in our town, with its labyrinthian, Technicolor alleys.

Slatted wooden roofs kept the narrow streets cool, and we walked and walked and walked, past kaftans and brass lanterns, leather shoes and round bean bag chairs, stray cats and fresh juice and French pastries and fake scorpion fossils and hippie-dippie beaded jewelry. Four or five languages, along with the beeps of motorcycle horns and the lazy fluting of snake charmers, filled the air with sound. 

Next, we rode camels on a sidewalk. From atop my camel, whose name was, ironically, Madonna, I looked around. Traffic lurched and sped, then stopped suddenly for a wave of pedestrians. The white lines on the road made feeble suggestions that everyone ignored. How did people cross the street in this country? How did they drive? More importantly, how would I drive?!

I had driven in India. But we’d been in a rural mountain village, and there had been one road. I had never had to leave third gear.

But here we were in a new country, in the city, with all kinds of roads to take, “lanes” to drive in, and speed limits to adjust to, each representing a decision I must make in a fraction of a second. I told Joshua I would never, ever be able to drive in this country, so don’t even ask, because it ain’t happening, honey. Especially not a stick shift, which we would soon acquire.

“You can do it, Abby,” he told me, oozing with faith, hope, and love. I wished Joshua could just get in my head for five seconds and understand my anxiety on a visceral level. How it’s like being stuck in an endless game of whack-a-mole at a pizza joint. The second you conquer one anxiety, another one pops up. Sometimes you just want to go find a cabinet to crawl into where you can close your eyes and hug your knees and stop fighting the little varmints.

“You don’t know what it’s like,” I said.

“I know you can do it,” he said. 

I had been hoping Joshua would offer to drive me around for the rest of my life, like my grandfather had done for my grandma. Or like Richard did for Hyacinth in Keeping Up Appearances. Was that so unreasonable?

I examined Joshua’s face. He was so cute and eager, like a puppy who has just heard the word “walk.” All hopeful eyebrows. I even detected the hint of a little happy whine, as though he was imagining me going out in my cape and conquering the world. 

Later, I got a piece of scratch paper and wrote a couple of prayer requests on it: “1. Find a home in the country that can be the backdrop of the kids’ childhood. 2. Learn to drive here without feeling anxious.” I knew that last one was impossible, but I put the piece of paper in my Bible and told God He was going to have to pull out His Red Sea stick, His pillar of fire, and His spat-upon dirt. I needed a miracle.

*

“We’re moving,” I told my family one afternoon. “God provided a place!” And so we packed up our stuff and moved 45 minutes away from the city center to a house in the countryside.

Our kids were already enrolled in all kinds of activities that city children are involved in. Soccer, gymnastics, etc. Someone had to drive them there. Conveniently, or perhaps conspiratorially, my husband’s schedule would not allow him to be the chauffeur. 

I don’t remember the first time I transported my fragile young children in our smashable metal vehicle. Nor the second. Maybe it’s a traumatic memory buried deep in my amygdala, who knows? What I do know is that over the course of several months, a miracle happened. I got comfortable driving.

At first, I would literally talk to myself. The kids in the backseat would hear their mother say, “Water. We’re all just flowing like water. This intersection is a bend in the river and we’re just all flowing around it. Aaaand we’re flowing. We’re flowing.” 

Then I began to learn. I learned that people don’t drive in the right lane because there’s too much going on there—taxis stopping, motorcycles passing each other, carts peddling sweets. But they don’t move fully to the left lane because then they’d never get back over to make a right turn. 

Left turns are even more interesting. If you want to make a left turn, you have to swing your car as far into oncoming traffic as possible, and then complete your turn when enough other cars have built up in that area, or the oncoming lessens.

There was a road culture in this new place, with rules, just like a normal culture has. It seemed like chaos, but there was a system to it. And I had cracked the code. I felt like a feminine, slightly more mentally stable version of Champollion, the guy who figured out ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. I felt capable.

*

Sometimes Joshua’s faith in me can be tiring. If I’m honest, sometimes I would rather my anxieties be accepted as unchangeable. I would rather be coddled. To be helped down from tall buses, to sit helplessly a fair bit of the time. I would rather not be expected to keep whacking moles every day, rather not be expected to keep putting on my cape and showing up in situations where success will most certainly require miracles. 

But I am finding that what I want today, in this moment, is not the same as what I want for my life. Today I may want to hide in the cabinet. But for my life, I want a Wonder Woman story. I want to see miracles. I want to drive across town, to write, to share Christ, to sing, to pray aloud, to climb mountains, to laugh at the days to come.

I guess God knew that about me when He put Joshua in my life. 

Here’s to many more years of miracles.

This is What Courage Looks Like

Sandy was raising support, and she was stuck. She had exhausted all of her contacts – friends, relatives, acquaintances. She had contacted all of the churches where she knew someone, and had reached out to dozens of other churches with no response. Yet she was still far away from that elusive 100% funding goal. 

So she tried a different strategy. Each Sunday morning, she would pick out a church to attend – cold turkey – not knowing a solitary soul.  She would show up at this church where she knew no one, look for a friendly face, strike up a conversation with this complete stranger, and ask if this person could connect her with a pastor or missions leader. 

Sandy is an introvert. She is warm and confident but not the kind of person who especially enjoys entering new churches and striking up conversations with strangers. But she did it because she had to. She was determined to get to the country where God had called her and was ready to do whatever it took.

I was Sandy’s coach during her support-raising season. When she described this to me, my mouth gaped open and my eyes bugged out. All I knew was that I didn’t think I’d ever have the guts to do what she was doing, Sunday after Sunday. This took resolve. This took courage. 

I thought about my own support-raising journey. My husband and I would “divide and conquer” in our support-raising tasks. I wrote the newsletters and thank-you notes; he wrote the sermons. He fixed the printer when I was about to throw it out the window. And having him by my side every time I entered a new church gave me a measure of security.

I coach many single missionary women who are raising support, and they don’t get to delegate these tasks. If they hate public speaking, they don’t have a spouse to pass that off to. If they aren’t good at technology, they still have to figure it out themselves. When their pitch is rejected, there isn’t a partner by their side to share the burden. 

We laud the courage of single missionary women when they single-handedly figure out how to exterminate a rat invasion, stop the flood seeping into their house, or replace a blown-out tire. But we don’t often recognize the additional demands of everything they must do to build a support network on their own.

I realize that much of this could also apply to single men. However, I believe that single women often face unique challenges in earning others’ respect and attention – in foreign cultures, on their missionary teams, and in the churches of their home country. 

As I walk with these women on their journey to the mission field, I brim with tremendous admiration for their grit, perseverance, and resiliency. The truth is, most of these women would love to be married with a family. For many of them, it’s their deepest heart’s desire. Yet they are steadfast in obedience while they trust the Lord with their futures. 

This is what courage looks like. 

Do you have a single female missionary in your life? Probably more than anyone else, they need advocates to raise their support. Maybe that could be you. 

Dear younger self, what’s your motivation for missions?

by Roberta Adair

Growing up, I believed with my whole heart that Jesus was the Savior of the whole world and that missionaries were needed to “take his light into a dying world.” Missions Week at my church felt more exciting than Christmas, and I imagine I was one of many kids who grew up in that church in that era who wrote on commitment cards that they’d be willing to take His light into the dying world.

At some point, I think this morphed into a belief that it was my responsibility to learn about the things that were dark and wrong and dying and to do something about it.

Yet over the past several years I’ve found myself increasingly sensitive to how Christians talk about the countries they’re moving to and the places they hope to minister. In my own self-importance and ignorance, I have also been guilty of speaking in these ways.

Before I went to India for a six-month internship, I remember reading articles about poverty, trafficking, pollution, and the treatment of Dalit. I was participating in a program about international development, yet much of what I focused on were problems rather than the beauty, ingenuity, creativity, and generosity of the people who were teaching me.

Before moving to Kosovo for a three-year apprenticeship, I remember learning about the war, ethnic tensions, corruption, and unemployment rates. I talked to people about going to a “post-war, post-communist country that is 90% Muslim with 40% to 60% unemployment.”

I still feel embarrassed over how I misrepresented a country and a people I came to love. Now I wish I could go back to those who heard me speak and tell them about the Kosovo I came to know: a country with super motivated students who are largely self-taught in English, where families included and cared for me like a daughter, where I experienced remarkable hospitality through sacrificial meals, coffee, and time. I’d want to describe Kosovo’s circle dancing, cheek kissing, and big dramatic hand gestures more than rattling off statistics.

Before moving to Japan, I remember learning and telling people about mental health issues including hikikomori and high rates of suicide, low birth rates, and (related to my specific timing due to moving after March 2011) the earthquake and tsunami. I especially remember saying the phrase over and over: “Japan is the second largest unreached people group in the world.”

I don’t want to come across as cynical, as I still am motivated by these statistics. I grieve that millions of people in Japan live and die without knowing Jesus — without his forgiveness and hope, without freedom from shame, and without experiencing acceptance and love in the family of God. I also believe that issues related to poverty and injustice matter. They matter to God, and they should matter to me and to all of us who follow Him.

But if I could go back, here’s what I would say…

I would talk to Younger Roberta about how she talked as an outsider about things she knew little about — even if she’d respond with, “Hey, I read a book/read an article/watched a video on YouTube/heard on a podcast.”

But, you goofy, intense, bit-of-a-know-it-all Young Roberta, you neither know much about the people whom these issues impact, nor do you have meaningful relationships with actual, real life people there. Don’t go with a pointing finger and answers; please go with curiosity and a desire to see the image of God in those you seek to love.

I wish I could ask Younger Roberta about how it might feel as an American to hear someone preparing to come to the U.S. give presentations about gun violence, economic disparity, the opioid epidemic, homelessness, and our past and current divisions around race. Would she have felt defensive, ashamed, and frustrated that problems were drawing people to her country rather than love and curiosity?

These are incredibly complicated problems without simple answers, and no country is the sum of its problems. Do we think we can solve a country’s problems, or are we humbly willing to go and – in time – be part of the conversation?

I would tell Younger Roberta to be careful how she presents countries and people to others. Be cautious when pointing out problems, even though it’s sometimes necessary to communicate the why while raising support. Consider trying to frame issues and problems within a bigger picture including beauty, kindness, and shadows of the kingdom of God.

I would also ask Younger Roberta about her insecurity. Did pointing out problems in India, Kosovo, and Japan make you feel significant for going there? Specifically, why did you feel like you had to prove so hard that Japan is a real mission field? Did quoting disturbing statistics make you feel more important or less “soft?” Were you trying to prove to others or to yourself that your going mattered?

Rather than self-importantly reciting the statistic about Japan being “the second largest unreached people group in the world,” I would now prefer to explain that our boys are some of a handful of kids from Christian families in our city of 50,000 and how lonely this is for them. Or maybe I’d contrast driving by thousands of people going to the Shinto shrine on New Year’s Day with our church service on the same day with a few dozen faithful Christians.

Rather than citing suicide statistics, I’d want to consider the people we care about who have had their lives impacted and upended by suicide. What is an honorable way to talk about their lives and struggles?

Rather than quoting stats about aging pastors and churches, recognize that this is a huge, complex topic. It’s not made simple by Westerners giving money to young Japanese Christians to replicate Western churches in Japan. It’s not made simple by using a specific program or method.

A decade-plus after moving here, I have a lot fewer “answers” or accidentally judgmental questions (“Are they holding onto power? Are they not passing the baton well?”) and have a lot more respect for older pastors who have worked hard, sacrificed much, and tried their hardest to remain faithful.

Mostly I’d want to talk with Younger Roberta about how I’ve changed my mind on many things — or at least how I see aspects of the culture with a bit more nuance. I’d talk with her about my decades-long struggle with a savior complex and needing to learn again and again from Jesus who “moved into the neighborhood,” who “dwelt among us,” and who shared his life with a group of friends. In short, I’d want to tell Younger Roberta that I hope she will feel and demonstrate a lot more compassion and a lot less judgment the longer she’s here.

Of course there are problems here. There are problems related to loneliness, shame, demographics, and workaholism. There are problems for men, women, marriage, kids, the elderly. There are problems related to earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanoes, typhoons, mudslides, geopolitics.

But it’s not a country made up of the sum of its problems. It’s a country made up of people who are curious and quirky and kind and broken and shy and outgoing and proud and hilarious. And I’m a guest here.

There are shadows of the kingdom of God here which are more visible to me the longer I’m here, even in this place where 99% don’t identify as His followers and haven’t received new life in Jesus. Parts of the culture that I originally viewed as wrong, broken, and even damaging, I’ve come to see as the opposite. (The “It’s not wrong, it’s just different” axiom from mission training comes to mind here.)

I wonder how it works for missionaries who go to a country to do development work and have more of an expert role. I admire people who are doctors, community development leaders, teachers at seminaries, and human rights lawyers. I marvel at their commitment and courage, yet I’m genuinely curious how they maintain a learner’s posture when they arrive “on the field” as experts in their field.

Perhaps it’s a weird blessing that I’m not an expert in much. Most of the time I feel like I’m just fumbling along. Even so, I imagine Younger Roberta might have struggled to receive correction, guidance, and advice from Now Roberta with her grand opinions and scattered thoughts and unfinished sentences and a naughty toddler on one hip, shooing a kid out of the kitchen with her foot, and her hair getting frizzier by the moment as more neighborhood kids cycle through her small house. But I still hope she would listen and consider.

Because, my goodness, I don’t want us to be motivated by problems. I want us to be motivated by love.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Originally from Pennsylvania (USA), Roberta lived in Kosovo for three years before getting married and moving to northern Japan in 2012. She and her husband partner with a Japanese church and have four young and energetic boys. She enjoys hiking, camping, and having friends over for average and boisterous meals.

The God Who Comes Near to Save

In our predominantly Christian corner of East Africa, the prosperity gospel is often preached in churches and curses are often pronounced by witch doctors in villages. We have fewer encounters with other religions than with skewed interpretations and applications of our own religion.

As with anywhere in the world, there is still more room for the Gospel to go forth, to take root, and to grow deep. In our particular context, the message of Christ has gone forth and taken root in many hearts, but the soil is shallow and the roots are thin. As Jesus himself said, faith is easily uprooted in those conditions (Matthew 13:20-21).

With the intention of deepening and strengthening roots, we work to impart the truth of who God really is and how he interacts with us and our world. This deeply matters because who God is – and isn’t – shapes not only how we live our lives but how we relate to our Savior.

Last year I sat outside a Buddhist temple with my nine-year-old son and talked about what God requires of us. Our family had traveled to Thailand for a missions conference and had the privilege of visiting two temples during our time there. The first temple we visited was particularly memorable because of its design. We had never been to a place like that before and our fantasy-loving boys were instantly enamored with the dragons carved into the temple architecture.

Truth be told, I was enamored too. But it wasn’t just the dragons that intrigued me. The entire building was magnificent, clearly constructed with care and tended to with honor and respect. The red walls complimented the gold columns and statues and perfectly matched the red, white, and gold patterned tiles on the floor.

We admired the devotion of the Buddhists who had originally built the structure as well as the worshippers visiting the temple that day. We ourselves had walked through the temple, first taking off our shoes like everyone else, and marveled at the architectural masterpiece we found ourselves in. Incense filled our noses with unfamiliar scents and filled our minds with questions. The numerous Buddhas sprinkled throughout the temple drew our attention again and again.

The entire experience proved a powerful conversation tool for talking with our children about religion. We talked about why people were lighting incense, why they knelt before the Buddha, why they walked laps around the temple. The experience ignited their minds.

It was at the second temple we visited, with a golden Buddha as tall as the building itself, that our son asked me pointed questions about God and people as we sat outside putting our shoes back on. “Why are all these people doing this? God said we don’t have to do stuff like this to be saved.”

My son was right, but these people didn’t know that. When I told him such, he heaved a huge sigh. His heart was full of the truth of God and full of the grief that comes with knowing other people are unaware of that truth.

I told my son the worshippers walking in and out of the temple were doing what they thought was best, or even necessary, to please God. They wanted to please God, which is good. But our human nature thinks we need to do something to win God’s approval, to do something to earn salvation. “But we don’t need to,” my son said. And he was right – because he knows who God really is and who he isn’t.

Sometime later, back in Kenya, I read The Iliad with our boys as a part of our homeschool history unit on ancient civilizations. What stood out to us was how often the Greek gods meddled with the minds of men and women for their own selfish ends, or, perhaps worse, for their own entertainment.

It was shocking, really, to read about gods who came to earth to dwell among men but who did so to take advantage of them or to prove their own power and authority. Those gods deceived their worshippers, tearing them down in order to build themselves up.

After Ancient Greece we studied Ancient Rome, and then we had the privilege of visiting Rome during travels to Europe for a leadership conference where we walked the same ancient streets as emperors who attained godhood upon their deaths (and were sometimes worshipped as a god during their lifetime).

God didn’t have to come down; God was already here, an inherent deity running through the veins of a man in power over an empire. This “emperor god” had his own interests at heart – that of expanding the empire and ensuring his supreme authority by enforcing submissive “peace” throughout the empire, the same “peace” that destroyed Jerusalem in AD 70 and used the spoils of war to fund the building of the Colosseum back in Rome.

Our globally mobile lifestyle has helped us think about religions around the world, both ancient and contemporary. Learning about the gods of other religions helps us learn about our own God too – who He is and who He isn’t.

Our God is love, and our God is near. He is Love Come Down, not to have his own needs met but to meet our needs instead.

Our God makes no demands. He is graciously present – gracious because His very presence is an unmerited gift which expects nothing in return. He chooses to dwell with us not to exact punishment or mischief or deception, but to demonstrate His choice of us.

Our God is hope personified. We have eternal hope in Him because salvation comes to us, not because of us or our good deeds.

In the captivating book, God With Us: A Journey Home, Jeremy Pierre beautifully describes who our God is when he explains the two names of the Messiah: Jesus (The Lord Saves) and Immanuel (God With Us). “These two names are only good news when they go together. God With Us is dangerous news for sinners, unless he also comes as God is Salvation. Together, these names are the gospel.”

As we conclude this holiday season and enter the new year, we continue to celebrate this gospel story. We celebrate that God kept His promise to send a Savior. We celebrate that God came near. We celebrate that God came in love. We celebrate that His coming is our salvation. We celebrate that His salvation calls for repentance without penance.

We rejoice in these truths, and we proclaim them. This is the Good News, and we hope and pray it will not only go forth, but also take root and grow deep in our corner of the world.

The Burning Bush and a Fire Extinguisher

When I was a sophomore in university, I had the privilege of traveling for a semester in the Middle East. We started in Egypt, which was a packed two weeks of visiting monuments, pyramids, and holy sites. It was humbling to stand by these ancient structures, realizing that Moses and even Jesus probably saw the very same things – still standing today! We closed our time in Egypt by journeying into the wilderness, viewing first-hand the rocky desert that the Israelites wandered in for forty years.

At the foot of Mt. Sinai in the Monastery of Saint Catherine, we visited the location of the burning bush. Tourists and pilgrims can view the bush today, now quite large. What fascinated me was not the intellectual debate of whether this was, indeed, the actual bush that Moses saw; rather, what caught my attention was the placement of a fire extinguisher directly under the bush.

A sight some might find funny left a powerful mental image in my mind: the burning bush and a fire extinguisher.

If God were to appear in the burning bush again, we are prepared to extinguish the first sign of the miraculous. Do I really believe God can still do impossible things? Or do I shy away from the discomfort of the unexplainable?

Are we happy to invest in cross-cultural life, but get stressed when God takes things in His own hands?

I remember my first Christmas on the mission field. It was almost a year after I had arrived in Indonesia, and so many unexpected things had happened during those first months in the slum community where I lived and served. A devastating fire and ongoing eviction and demolition of houses made it a tenuous time. And yet somehow, I still believed I was where God wanted me: that God was up to something in this particular slum community and was inviting me to be a part of it.

We had a Christmas party with children who had lost their homes in the fire only two months earlier. Telling the nativity story and getting children to wear simple costumes and take part in the drama was a highlight of the day. In years to come, we would repeat this tradition many times. Now eleven Christmases later, I continue to be overwhelmed with gratitude that God invites us to take part in His story. While many parts of the journey have been unexpected and even painful, the Lord is always faithful.

Christmas is a time when the Church celebrates the miraculous. A young virgin gives birth to a baby through the work of the Holy Spirit and a profound move of God. When the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary, it was her burning bush moment. God was announcing the seemingly impossible to her and inviting her to be a part of it. Just as God spoke to Moses at the burning bush, inviting him to be God’s messenger, so Gabriel spoke God’s words to Mary.

And aren’t we glad that Mary obeyed? That she opened her heart and laid aside her five-year-plan for her life and accepted the move of God that would change history? Mary did not beg for someone else to be picked (as Moses had at the burning bush) or list off the reasons why she was inadequate for the task of mothering the Immanuel child. She simply answered, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (Luke 1.38 NRSV).

My prayer for us is that we, too, would answer God’s invitations with a simple: “Here I am, Lord.” May we not pick up the fire extinguishers to put out what God is starting to do in and around us, but let us open ourselves to the reality that God is still at work in this world, and inviting us to be a part of it.

In this Advent and Christmas season, may we look for Jesus in unexpected places, finding Immanuel with us and sharing the good news of his coming with those we meet.

Digging in the Dirt, a new book from Jonathan Trotter, is now available!

Hello, all!

I am so excited to announce the release of my new book! It’s called Digging in the Dirt: Musings on Missions, Emotions, and Life in the Mud, and you can find print and Kindle versions here.

Digging in the Dirt contains some of my most heartfelt writings, and addresses things ranging from depression and anxiety, to TCKs and what flying taught me about missions.

It addresses married sexuality on the field, as well as what to do when the thief steals and the power goes out. It’s got some poetry, some top ten lists, and some laments. It’s also got some seeds of hope, and it is my deepest desire that it would encourage and bless folks all over the globe.

I’ll post the text from the back cover and the preface below.

I’m so grateful for the community here, and I’m grateful for my editor, our very own Elizabeth Trotter! Have a wonderful weekend, and may the love and peace of God be very near to you and yours!

all for ONE,

Jonathan Trotter

 

From the back cover:

Welcome to ground level, to the dirt and the mess.

We like the mountain tops and the sunshine. We like green grass under a clear blue sky. We like victory and breakthrough and answered prayers. But sometimes it rains, the shadows deepen, and life turns muddy. Sometimes God seems quiet. What then? What happens when depression descends, or anxiety hangs like a sword overhead? What happens when loneliness suffocates, the thief steals more than stuff, and you get blood on your shoes?

In Digging in the Dirt, Jonathan Trotter delves into the disasters, the darkness, and the deluge, and he offers comfort, presence, and a gentle invitation to hope.

With humor and prose, with poetry and Top Ten lists, Jonathan welcomes us to the dirt, to the places where we actually live. He invites us to boldly see life as it is, with eyes wide open, and reminds us that even when the digging is scary, we are never alone.

To the ones who are dealing with devastation and distress, welcome. To the ones who need to uproot, to pull out, to clear ground, welcome. To the ones who seek desperately to plant seeds of grace and hope in once barren soil, welcome. To the missionary abroad and the believer at home, welcome. Receive the invitation, and join with Jonathan here at ground level, together.

Come, dig in the dirt.

From the preface:

Hello and Welcome!

I’m Jonathan, and it’s such a pleasure to meet you. I look forward to journeying with you through these pages. Together, we’ll delve into the dirt of life and relationships, of sorrows, pain, and loss. And maybe we’ll plant some things too.

Perhaps, along the way, we’ll see small, green stalks of life and hope begin to poke through, watered with the tears of the journey. Digging like this can be messy, but it can be good too.

These musings will meander from the hot dirt of Cambodia to the sticky mud of American politics. Some of these musings are inspired by international missionary life; some of them are firmly rooted in an American context. But whether you’re American or not, whether you’re a missionary or not, I hope that you find them all a blessing, an encouragement, and perhaps sometimes a challenge. I wrote them for you, and I share them with you with my whole heart.

Start reading Digging in the Dirt wherever you’d like, and feel free to skip ahead or go backwards. Are you a cross-cultural missionary? Start there if you want. Are you interested in developing emotional intelligence, or are you exploring whether or not Christians are allowed to have feelings? Consider starting in the Emotions section. Are you reeling from recent life events that have left you feeling like you’re choking on the mud and muck? First of all, I’m so sorry. Second, breathe a slow, deep breath, look over the Table of Contents, and start wherever you need to start.

Wherever you are, and whatever your story, welcome to ground level, to the dirt. It is here that the real work happens; the good, hard, sweet, healing work. It is my deepest hope that here, among these musings, you may find grace, peace, and a hope that just might be strong enough to crack through the crust.

All for ONE,
Jonathan Trotter

___________________________________

Check it out on Amazon here!

*Amazon affiliate links help support the work of A Life Overseas

Heaven’s Embrace

Pictured above: Mami Banla meets my daughter, Elaina, for the first time.

Eight Cameroonian mamas adjusted their head coverings and stopped their chatter to watch the colorless foreign family spill out of a truck and into their lives one day in the remote mountain village of Lassin. Father, mother, and four kids poured out of the vehicle, all with gecko-pale skin that the sun threatened to slice right through. Their hair looked unmanageably “slimy.” That’s the only word one chuckling mama could use to describe it.  

The women had heard from the leader of their large, extended family that this foreign family was to come live many years among their nest of eight clay huts and two block houses. The mamas respectfully greeted the strangers and then got back to work making cornmeal mush and spicy spinach to share with them that night.

That was my introduction as a seven-year-old to the eight ebony women who would spend the next 13 years sharing life with me on the Kinyang compound.

We shared space. Bamboo stools in small, smokey clay kitchens, cooking in the dark over open fire, waiting hours for beans to cook to fill rumbling tummies.

We shared life. Gathering minty eucalyptus branches for firewood, pounding clothes clean at the waterfall, hunting for bats in a land void of light pollution, tugging goats home to safety at dusk.

We shared family. Papas, mamas, and babies eating spinach and corn out of shared bowls, hauling heavy baskets of vegetables and dried fish home from the market, working together to save a roost of dying chickens, even a formal adoption ceremony of the six white foreigners into the Kinyang compound, complete with food and traditional clothes. 

We shared comedy. Listening to my best friend’s deep belly laugh as they told traditional folklore around the night fire, discovering sugar cubes together for the first time, playing hide and seek in thatched kitchens, and three kids piled high on my bike as we raced down dirt roads. 

We shared healing. Watching a mama boil eucalyptus and citrus leaves in a cast iron pot to “chase” my fever, praying life into a baby slipping into death, later naming that baby Kembonen or “Blessing,” driving friends on death’s door to the mission hospital two bumpy hours away, and mourning, nay, screaming grief out the healing and healthy way when loved ones died.

We shared education. Making a sprawling dollhouse fantasyland out of braided grass on the soccer field, twisting horse hair snares to catch live birds for pets (and secretly collecting the horse hair to begin with), quickly escaping the wrong side of a green mamba.  

We shared tragedy. My mom fishing two Fulani boys out of the bottom of a swirling river using only a rope and a hoe, visiting and praying over a deeply mentally disturbed woman, praying for the salvation of a boy whose body was being hollowed out by HIV/AIDS (the first case I witnessed), a baby falling into a fire.

We shared death. Losing one of my new best friends to traditional medicine malpractice, quietly staring at another best friend’s tear-stained cheeks as he stood over his father’s grave, two family friends being poisoned in a Salem-style witch hunt.

We shared new life. The most beautiful baby girl I’d ever seen with piercing ink eyes named Sheyen (“Stay and See”), a sweet nonverbal soul born into our compound family and named Peter, a young mama working in her cornfields up until the day of delivery, my mamas holding my own baby girl for the first time.

We shared love. Sharing meager amounts of corn, chickens, and firewood, being hugged tight by eight mamas when I went off to boarding school, and many years later, those same eight mamas washing my body with a bucket of water and dressing me for my traditional wedding to a very white husband who had to pay my bride price through a translator.

Love has a heavenly manifestation in Lassin. It is a literal physical embrace called “Ngocè,” specific to the region and used when someone has been away so long, you’re not sure if you’ll ever see them again. Short life spans, limited transportation, and no media communication at the time all contributed to the very real threat that you may never see someone again if they go off to the big city for college, boarding school, or a job. 

If and when they do return, you drop everything right out of your hands, run to them, grab them with every fiber in your body, pat their back, and squeeze their arms almost in disbelief that they are standing in front of you. It is a symbol of astonishment, of amazement, of deep understanding of shared experiences, and of intense joy at reunification. It’s recognizing the gift of a moment you don’t deserve but are so glad to have. Ngocè is endowed through blood lines or adoption into a family, as we were.  

I first experienced the Ngocè embrace from my mamas at age 12, after coming back from our first year-long furlough in America. I was back home, and I knew it. I experienced it again after coming home from boarding school in the capital city and when I brought my man home to negotiate a bride price of goats and rice with my mamas as a respectful (and fun) gesture. And again, years later from my dad, when I stepped off the plane from America to celebrate the 20-year project of the Nooni New Testament translation in Lassin.

A visiting friend happened to record the Ngocè heavenly embrace when I returned to Lassin that final visit for the New Testament dedication celebration. I hadn’t seen the video in years and pulled it up on youtube last night. Tears stung my eyes and a lump formed in my throat when I watched my dad, my mom, and my mamas Ngocè me back home. Just watching it felt intensely like coming home, and it broke open a piece of my heart that comes alive when I’m really, really home.

I can’t help but wonder if that’s exactly how I will meet Jesus in heaven. Running, arms flung open, in disbelief at the beauty of the moment and amazement at a new but long-awaited reunification, accepting a grace I know I don’t deserve but am so glad to have. We’ve shared space, life, family, comedy, healing, education, tragedy, death, new life, and love even longer and even more intimately than my Lassin family, he and I. The Ngocè embrace is the only way I can picture my first moments there with the one who so loves me. 

Just Keep Going: Lessons From a Newbie Runner

You know who you are. You’re the one who’s been on the border of transformation so many times. You’ve pulled into the parking lot of that gym multiple times only to pull a uwee to the first coffee shop because who actually has time for that and 5 am is out of the question. You’ve picked up that budgeting book because you know you want financial peace but the automatic transfer to your savings account eludes you. You’ve pulled out your computer to email that missionary therapist but quickly numb yourself with Facebook for the umpteenth time today instead. 

I’ve been there too.

I’m the one who ran all through high school, college, and young mommy days and then let life’s demands crowd out my passion when I moved overseas for missions. I’m the one who sat on the couch and watched my sister-in-law push herself out the door day after day to crush tar with her Adidas. I’m the one who longingly scrolled past pictures of my friend jogging with her family and wanted all the same rewards but just . . .got busy.  

I’m also the one who walked into our town’s family-owned shoe store a dozen times to buy all the right shoes for my kids and ask about their running programs. I hoped that my questions would unlock the mystery of what held me back from committing. And I’m the one who received a gracious and genuine answer every single time from the shop owner, Scott Gall. Scott gave me and my husband all of his attention and talked to us like we were already in the worldwide club of runners. Oh, how I wanted to be in that club, the club of people who possess discipline and who commit to run. Regularly.  

Scott never judged me for not starting. He was just always there to answer my questions with kindness and patience. Then one day the seeds of a dozen conversations finally sprouted. I mustered up the courage to ask him for his 5K training program, even though I felt like a baby. He sent it to me, and I set a date on my calendar to start. I knew that I needed external accountability, so I asked my friend to do it with me. “We have to send each other pictures every day to prove that we did it.”  

I was scared that I would last two weeks and then life would get busy as it always does. Or that the interruption of my move back to South Africa would interfere with my goals. Like it always has. But I set the start date and sent my friend a picture of day 1. Then I did day 2. I found out that I could re-prioritize my life and actually follow through with running when I moved back to South Africa.  

Then I just kept going. I missed day 19 but made up for it on day 21. And yes, I felt like a baby. Yes, there was a day when I cried through my last mile at how slow my pace was. Yes, I was sore and slow. But the days turned into one full month of following the program every single day. Then two full months. Then I shaved a few minutes off my time. I wasn’t as sore, and I could breathe a little easier up that hill by the beach. And yes, I got plantar fasciitis my third month and had to take a break. But guess who’s back on the trails this week?   

Through it all, I kept sharing photos with my friend, because some of us need support to crush our goals. Eventually, sharing daily photos was replaced with using a tracking app. As I reflected on all those visits to the shoe store, I began to think about the importance of patience and encouragement. I thought about all the times Scott answered my questions even though I hadn’t started. I thought about how many people walk in those doors asking him identical questions, promising themselves that they’ll start tomorrow. And I finally understood how vital it is for seeds of curiosity to be watered before they take root.  

I slipped on my Brooks and thought about how many times I’ve shared about the God who transformed my life and it seemed to fall on deaf ears. I pounded through the trail and thought about the people who have needed to ask me questions about faith but weren’t ready to commit yet. I jogged past an eight-point buck bedded in the woods and contemplated how many times we need to ask the same questions before our hearts are prompted to action. I remembered how many times my sister-in-law talked to me about hope in Christ on our high school campus before it finally took root in me.  

I was reminded of the patience, the conversations, and the people who had been part of my story of turning to Jesus. Sometimes we need to hear the same patient message repeated before something clicks and . . . it changes us. I clocked in my last slow mile and was glad that Scott hadn’t given up on our countless conversations about running. Because the day finally came when it took root in my heart and changed my life for the better.

So don’t be dismayed by the revolving door of conversations about faith that you’re having with the same person. Don’t push or judge. If they’re coming back for more, something might be happening under the surface. Those tenderly watered seeds might be ready to sprout. Keep nurturing those conversations, and you may become part of a beautiful transformation.