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. 

Could this cost me my “job?”

Friends, I (Amy) have been asked to present a workshop in late February called “Issues missionaries are dealing with that you’re not talking about.” In my description for the workshop I said, “Let’s talk about the things we normally avoid: sex, politics, and changing culture.” 

I could guess at some of this, but I wanted to ask you so that I can say, “Hey, here are real answers from real people.” I also like compiled results because it gives us a broader perspective than the little patch of grass that we each are standing on.

So far 170 people have taken the survey and themes are emerging, but I won’t dig into deeper analysis until the survey is closed.

Sometimes the way we tend our soul is by naming out loud what we fear or wonder about. These are not the type of topics that probably you can (or should) share publicly, but they do need to be given voice. Several people have commented that simply being asked these questions and given space to reflect on them has been helpful. That is my hope for you too.

This survey is 100% anonymous and open for a few more days; we will close it at the end of January. Thank you for sharing what you’re dealing with that maybe you haven’t been able to talk about out of fear for what might happen. I will share the findings with you and hopefully we can all learn from each other. Thank you, thank you. 

You can take the survey here.

Behold the Beautiful Tension at the End of a Year

Hello friend,

The end of a year can hold a beautiful tension, if we let it. Coming off of Advent and the annual reorienting to and celebration of Jesus’s birth, we enter muddied water. I call it muddied because of the minor clash of calendars: New Year (based on the Gregorian calendar) and Christmas Time (until January 6th and Epiphany based on the liturgical calendar).

Five years ago, I created a year-end reflecting packet for cross-cultural workers. (You can see it here.)

It has become a holy exercise for me (and others, but I am speaking for myself). I wish I had started doing it years ago because of the depth and space it creates in my soul. It turns out this annual practice mirrors that tension that we see reflected in the Bible: reflecting and preparing. 

How often is the phrase “The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” used? Or the call to remember? It’s as if God knows that left on our own, many of us would never look back. Likewise, how often does God reference the future generations, pointing to what’s coming next? God models how we can lean into the tension that reflecting and preparing offers us.

Though we live in this tension of the past and the future all the time, this is the time of year we are acutely aware of it. This holy invitation of reflecting has given me three gifts:

1. The ability to see themes and patterns in a year. Often in a day, week, or month, I might miss the bigger story. But when I step back, I can see things I forgot or hadn’t put together. Often, I realize that a little course correction in my thinking needs to occur. Perhaps the year wasn’t as bad, boring, or hard as I’d been thinking.. I notice God’s hand in meaningful ways.

2. The relationship between naming and honoring. Making a list or answering a few questions doesn’t seem that it would do that much. But for me, as I reflect on the year and answer questions about it, I picture myself like Adam and God in naming the animals. God and I name the good, bad, and ugly of the year. When someone says, “Hey, you” versus “Hey, Amy,” and smiles, it’s a small thing, that conveys honor. By naming my year, I’m honoring what happened (or didn’t happen) and the way God has used it to form me.

3. Processing, annoyingly, is important. I’m the kind of person that would rather not process because I don’t like to be slowed down from my doing. I love doing 😊. But here’s the paradox, processing is like preparing a field. If I just run around tossing seeds, the chances of a crop coming to life is slim. However, if I take time to pull out the dead plants, till up the earth a bit, and plant the seeds, guess what? More are likely to grow. So, for those of you who find reflecting and processing “not your thing” – tie them to what is your thing. Since I love doing, processing helps me actually do more of what’s important to me.

Herb Lamp said, “Without reflection, we lose the ability to see God at work in our lives. Without reflection, we lose perspective in regard to our lives and ministries. Without reflection, we lose the awareness that God is with us and not against us. Without reflection, we lose the sense of joyful delight that each day should bring.” 

(Journey with Me: Spiritual Formation for Global Workers, 57)

I titled this Behold the Beautiful Tension at the End of a Year because whether the Liturgical or Gregorian calendar, the beautiful tension is an invitation to reflect and prepare. If you’re interested in the Global Trellis packet, you can find it here. You don’t have to use year end packet prepared by Global Trellis, but I do hope you have a way to reflect this time of year.

With blessing,

Amy

Mom and Dad, Thanks for Letting Us Go without Letting Go of Us

 

My wife and I wrote this “open letter” nearly 19 years ago, in honor of our parents and the parents of other cross-cultural workers. We originally published it in our newsletter after my father died (and I later posted it on my blog). Nineteen years is a long time, so I thought about updating it, but I’ve decided to leave it as it is, with one exception. Apropos of this time of year, I’ve added the line “Thank you for missing us when we miss holiday gatherings.” I hope this resonates with you and yours.

Dear Mom and Dad:

Thank you for raising us to know about God and his love for the world.

Thank you for letting us go without letting go of us.

Thank you for forgiving late birthday cards.

Thank you for praying for us.

Thank you for giving up time with your grandchildren.

Thank you for your e-mails and letters and calls.

Thank  you for sending Barbie Dolls, Tic Tacs, Koolaid, socks, Reader’s Digests, and Lucky Charms cereal.

Thank you for your questions about our new home and work.

Thank you for being patient and understanding when we tell you how exciting it is to live in another part of the world.

Thank you for being patient and understanding when, two days later, we complain about living in that same place.

Thank you for not making us feel selfish for wanting to go.  Sometimes we feel that way on our own.

Thank you for listening to our stories about people you’ll never meet with names you can’t pronounce.

Thank you for being our ambassadors.

Thank you for sending clippings from our hometown newspaper.

Thank you for telling us about our neighbors, classmates, and cousins—all the stories that don’t make the news.

Thank you for letting our brothers and sisters stand in for us when we’re too far away to do our part in the family. (They really should get their own letter.)

Thank you for missing us when we miss holiday gatherings.

Thank you for loving us.

Thank you for trusting Jesus to take care of us when you can’t.

Thank you for being proud of us. We are proud of you.

We chose to be a missionary family, not you, and we understand that our move has meant many sacrifices for you. You are not only a part of our family but an invaluable part of our team.

With all our love,

Your children

[photo by Brant Copen]

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

It’s okay to be happy this Advent

I listened to the audio version of The Preacher’s Wife by Kate Bowler. While the book focuses on America and the “Precarious Power of Evangelical Women Celebrities,” I was struck by the pendulum swings of what worked in one era, sounded tone deaf in another.

In acknowledgement of our own pendulum swings, I find that currently most online spaces for cross-cultural workers emphasize the hard parts of being a cross-cultural worker. Which, I know, is in response to those hard parts not being given any space. This swing was a needed course correction. But as with many a course correction, the hyper focus on the hard parts of life on the field may not leave enough space for another story to coexist.

As I thought about my post this month, the book of Psalms came to mind. I love the richness of life represented by the different types of psalms and the variety of lengths.

So, in the spirit of Psalm 117, the shortest psalm, I remind us of this truth: life on the field can be confusing, disappointing, and hard. 

It is also true that on the field is interesting, exciting, and easy.

Part of happiness is comes from building pauses to that give space to notice. Here are a few options for cross-cultural workers to pause in Advent this year.

You do not have to hide your happiness. It is okay to be happy on the field.

Dear Sending Church: We Need to Get the Parents of Missionaries on Board

My mom sits at her mom’s breakfast table, wailing and pleading. My grandmother sits opposite her, wailing and angry. 

It is one of my earliest memories.

I’d never heard so much emotion out of either of them, and the sunny little room encircled by cabinets of glassware suddenly felt tense, alarming, to my five-year-old soul.

My Gram struggled to accept that we were moving to Africa, so that day at her table was one of many tense conversations. In her anger that my mom was taking away her grandchildren, Gram even consulted a lawyer to see if she could sue for custody. 

During our first two-year term in Liberia, we faithfully sent her letters and pictures. My mom tape-recorded my brother’s and my voices and mailed the cassettes off too. Gram didn’t call once during the entire two years. She didn’t send a single letter. Her anger and grief consumed her. 

My grandmother never understood my parents’ love for Jesus, so their motivation to become missionaries didn’t make sense to her either. But unfortunately, her response wasn’t all that different from many parents who do share their children’s faith. 

In Mobilizing Gen Z, Jolene Erlacher and Katy White quote the Future of Missions study from Barna: “Only 35 percent of engaged Christian parents of young adults say they would definitely encourage their child to serve in missions, while 25 percent are not open to the idea at all.”

They continue, “Career success and physical safety are the top concerns. Nearly half said, ‘I’d rather my child get a well-paying job than be a career missionary.’”

Reading this didn’t come as a surprise to me. I coach new missionaries as they are preparing to move overseas, so I hear their stories of conflict and heartache with parents who don’t approve. Keep in mind that this disapproval often comes from engaged Christian parents – people who have surrendered their lives to Christ, who are hearing the Word of God preached every Sunday. So what is happening here?

Maybe we’ve all just become a lot more fearful in the last few years. Maybe churches have let their missions programs fade away. Maybe Christians have latched on to the idea that two-week stints are all that’s needed for transformative ministry.

I hear many people protest that our own country has its own share of problems, so shouldn’t we narrow our focus here? And that’s true – but we also have churches on every corner. Have we forgotten that almost half of the world’s population has little or no access to the gospel of Jesus Christ? Will we remember that Christ’s final command to His followers was to disciple the nations? 

When every book tells us to live our best life now, when every advertisement whispers that we need more, deserve more, it’s easy to believe that this life is about our personal fulfillment. We forget that there has always been a cost to the gospel, and that cost might include our most significant treasures. Our comfort. Our dreams. Our children. Or perhaps even more gut-wrenching – our grandchildren. 

My own children are nearing adulthood, and I am beginning to comprehend the depth of the grief I would feel if one of them lived across an ocean. I don’t want to minimize the engulfing sorrow I would experience if I had to watch my grandchildren grow up over Zoom calls.

The sacrifice of missions is real, it’s deep, it’s enduring. Those who leave feel it acutely, but sometimes we forget that those who are left behind feel it just as much. 

The sacrifices only make sense in the light of eternity. Do we have the faith to believe that Christ is worth it? 

Churches are often good at inspiring young people with a fresh vision for the Great Commission, sparking in them a passion for bringing the gospel to the ends of the earth. We send our students to Urbana and Cross Con; we sponsor them on short-term trips. 

Yet I can’t help but wonder: How many young people have felt convicted to pursue career missions but can’t find the courage to devastate their God-fearing parents? 

So while we exhort our young people to serve God wherever He calls them in the world, let’s also rally their parents to be their biggest cheerleaders, to open their hands and release their fears and their dreams to the One who sacrificed His own Son so that we might be redeemed.    

And when we celebrate and send out new missionaries, let us also remember the pain of their parents. They need our special attention, a listening ear, a shoulder to cry on. They need the church to be their surrogate family when their own is ten thousand miles away. They need us to give them the vision of how their sacrifice is an equal part of the Great Commission. Our Savior is worth it. 

Resources for parents of missionaries:
A book: Missionary Mama’s Survival Guide: Compassionate Help for the Mothers of Cross-Cultural Workers by Tori Havercamp 
A website: Parents of Goers
An article: Senders Make Sacrifices Too
A ministry: Parents of Missionaries Ministry

Photo from Dobrila Vignjevic

Saints Amongst Us

pexels-photo-38186

Tomorrow is All Saints Day. I love All Saints Day for the way it anchors me in the past and points to the future. Hebrews 11 and 12 is one of the best known remembrances for the great cloud of witnesses that has gone before us. 

While I know that not all who serve on the field come from a rich faith heritage, when people start to share their story there is often at least someone in their family’s past who wasn’t a stranger to Truth.

Who are some of the saints in your family? Whose faithful shoulders are you standing on?

In my family it is my Grandma Young. Even as I type this memories of her come racing back though she has been gone from this world for more than 30 years. A strong memory that captures my grandma’s two great loves of Jesus and her family involves a weekend that our parents left my sisters and me at our grandparents.  

Grandma faithfully played the piano at her church.  We were too young to sit in church alone while she played, requiring our grandpa to attend with us. Grandma wore hearing aids to help her hear, but for some reason on that day the three of us belted out the hymns so loudly she probably didn’t need them! Grandpa was a sport to stand there, towering over the three of us when he probably wanted to shrink away from the smiling stares.

I wasn’t aware of Grandpa’s strong discomfort of everyone looking at us at the time. What I remember is watching my grandma play with gusto and joy as she beamed at the three of us joining her in singing to God. I have no doubt that I was in China as a result of her prayers and faithful life.

As the generational mantle is now being passed on in our family and I see the potential in my nieces, I wonder the ways in which they will join the cloud of witnesses. But on this day, instead of looking to the future, join with the author of Hebrews and as we fix our eyes on Jesus, be reminded of the ways he has worked in your life and family.

Who are the saints in your family?

For Those of Us Who Aren’t Fluent in a Second Language, Even in Our Dreams

I’ve heard it’s the holy grail of fluency: dreaming in your target language—walking around in your dream world, saying whatever you want to say and understanding everything that’s said. Sounds pretty cool.

Has that ever happened to me? Nope. I do sometimes dream that I’m back in Taiwan, but the people around me tend to say a lot of nonsense words, and when I open my mouth, I can only say the most basic of sentences. Sometimes I’m lost in the city, late for a meeting. I can’t remember the address of where I’m headed, can’t find the subway station, and have no money for a cab. It’s the cross-cultural equivalent of dreaming that I’m standing in my high school’s hallway, finding out I have a test I haven’t studied for and not knowing my locker combination. Oh yeah, and when I look down I’m not wearing pants. I think my dreams have found me pantsless on the streets of Taiwan a few times, too.

Or what about daydreaming about complete fluency, gleefully imagining the moment you take your seat as a translator for the UN? That, too, is a nope for me.

If your dreams are filled with fluent encounters in a second (or third or fourth) language, if language learning is your forte, if it’s as easy as ah, bay, tsay, or if it’s simply a piece of gâteau, this post probably isn’t for you.

But if your language learning has been a struggle, if you’re disappointed in your progress, or if you’ve reached a wall with no door in sight, read on. . . .

Before moving overseas, I’d earned a degree in English and considered myself a good communicator. I was a student of a language already, after all, and I thought picking up another one wouldn’t be too hard. But that’s not how it worked for me as I studied in Taipei. It was slow, difficult, and slow. After I’d worked on Chinese for several months, a more newly arrived, and much younger, cross-cultural worker at our school asked me how long I’d studied for one of the unit exams. He wanted to make sure that he didn’t waste too much time. I told him I hadn’t spent more than a few weeks reviewing. Oh, he said. He was hoping it wouldn’t take him more than a few days.

That was hard to swallow, but he didn’t mean to criticize me. Others weren’t so indirect, though. There was the cab driver who pointed out that my wife’s Chinese was better than mine and a Taiwanese acquaintance in a coffeeshop who overheard another foreigner speaking and said something like, “Now her Chinese is good.” Of course, the voice inside my head was even less gracious when comparing me to others. By “others” I mostly mean other foreigners. I figured I’d never speak like a local, but I was disappointed that I couldn’t reach the level of so many Chinese learners around me.

There was also our landlord who wasn’t very patient in her communication with us, especially over the phone. And there was the man I met on the street, whom I came to think of as a friend. But one day he became angry with me, complaining about my inability to understand what he was saying, stopping just short of accusing me of misrepresenting myself when we first talked.

And there was the helpful official who had me address an envelope to myself so he could mail a document to me. I had studiously practiced writing the characters in anticipation of such an opportunity, but when the letter arrived, he had rewritten it. He wanted to make sure it was legible so that the document would actually make it to our house.

Sometimes I could laugh at my mistakes, such as in low-stakes adventures ordering at McDonald’s, and when I called myself a bicycle instead of a missionary. (It helped that a friend said she’d done the very same thing.) But it’s easier to laugh when the mistakes seem like silly aberrations, rather than everyday occurrences. Those are the things we laugh about with others. It’s not so fun to be laughed at.

As with many language learners, it was easy for me to fall into the trap of simply agreeing with whatever was said to me, thinking I could figure out the meaning later. One day I was talking with the director of our language school to set up a one-session introductory language class for a group of college students visiting from the States. We were standing in the office surrounded by teachers at their desks—a group of people I really wanted to impress. She asked me a question that I only partially understood. Yes, I said. She asked me again. Yes, I said. She asked me again. Yes. But it wasn’t a yes-or-no question. The teachers laughed, the way I’ve laughed when hearing someone unskilled in English do the same thing.

There were some times when I did feel pretty good about my communication skills. It was fun to get a reaction from people who were amazed that someone who looked like me could say “Hello” in their language. And I was never more fluent than when groups from the States came to visit. For all they knew, my Chinese was flawless. And from time to time I’d have a deep, meaningful conversation with a national where my vocabulary didn’t fail me. That helped a lot. There were even times when I truly believed those who encouraged and complimented me. But mostly I was reminded of my limitations.

It wasn’t for a lack of trying on my part, though I now wish I’d tried harder smarter better. I’ve recently learned about the difference between fixed and growth mindsets, and if I could have a do over, I’d like to start with a mindset adjustment. Someone with a fixed mindset believes that talent is mostly innate. Either you’re born with it or not. Someone with a growth mindset believes you can increase your talent with effort and practice. There are a couple ways a fixed mindset can hinder you. One is when you believe you’ll never be good at something, so you don’t try. Another is when you think you are good at it, but avoid challenging yourself for fear you might fail and show others, and yourself, that you’re not what you think you are. As much as I want to have a growth mindset, I see how my tendencies point to the fixed end of that spectrum.

But I see a limit to the growth mindset, too. So if I could start over, or start again, I’d also want to develop a more complete understanding of who I am. While I shouldn’t give up improving myself, I don’t believe it’s true that “you can do anything you put your mind to.” There are just things I’m not going to achieve in this lifetime, whether because of my inner makeup or outside circumstances. I’m still working on being more comfortable, as they say, in my own skin. If I could do that, if I could try less to become more like the people around me and do a better job of trying to maximize who God has gifted me to be, then I think I wouldn’t wander around frantically nearly as much in the world of my dreams.

So how about you? Are you having a hard time with language learning? If so, I hope you’re able to continue to grow in your abilities. I hope that if you’re not thriving in your language acquisition, you’re able to keep on striving. And in your striving, I hope you’re given the time and space to do your best, or as close to that as you can get. When you struggle, I hope you can allow yourself to strive softer. And when your studies can’t take you any further and you fall short, I hope there’s still a place for you on your team and in the work you’re doing.

When encouragements are directed your way, I hope you can trust them. When others point out where you’re lacking, I hope you know you’re not alone.

And finally, when you move about in your dreams, if you feel lost and can’t understand what people are saying to you, I hope you run into some extremely kind people who make sure you get where you want to go, even if they have to use hand gestures for you to understand them. And if they’re extremely, extremely kind, they might even help you buy some pants.

[photo: “Sunny Spot of Greenery,” by Timothy Krause, used under a Creative Commons license]

Changing the Rules of the Game

The organization I used to be with had a “Career Program,” and anyone could apply after one year on the field.

Even though I’d been on the field for several years, it wasn’t until I was 30 that I attended a Career Conference as a one-time guest to check it out. The main question asked in the application (at least in my mind) was, “Are you open to making a ten-year commitment?”

Single 30-year-old Amy played chicken with Future 40-year-old AmyLet’s see, I’m single and 30 and if I do this for ten more years I’ll be single and 40. Blink, blink, blink! I couldn’t run fast enough from that conference, and I NEVER looked back. I was comfortable taking it year-by-year, and if it ended up I was 40 and single, I was cool with that. I just wasn’t cool committing to being single.

The aforementioned organization has a fairly large batch of new people joining each year with a good-sized portion being young single people. We also have a good-sized number stick around, find love, and get married. So, during the pre-field orientation there is a buzz of the potential from the newbies. Will this be my story? Will God honor my faithfulness by bringing me a mate? 

And then I (or any other number of singles stand up) and are active in their training and preparation. I joking tell them I’m there as a cautionary tale. Of course, you might fall in love and get married. Or, you might not. Either way, you can have a rich and invested life.

Talking about “singleness” is a bit like talking about the ocean. It’s vast. Parts are tingling with life and parts are dark and cold. There are schools of fish and loners. There are happy fish and those who want OUT OF THIS WATER right now. Over the next weeks and months and years we will swim around in the waters and hopefully you’ll see yourself reflected.

But when it comes to singleness, I can say this for sure: Jesus is into being a game changer.

Hours of my childhood was spent playing Old Maid, eating cheese puffs, and drinking milk with my two sisters and Grandma Young. The goal of the game is to gather pairs of delightful cards like Arnie Angler, Freddie Falloff, or Careless Carrie and not be stuck with the Old Maid card.

For some reason my sisters and I fell in love with the old maid card and changed the rules of the game to whoever had the old maid was the winner. Oh we worked so hard to hide her in our hands and protect her. She was the prize. She ended up being bent and worn from all the love.

old maid

My mom recalls cringing every time Grandma would say, “No, no! You don’t want to be an old maid!” Oh but we did! We did!

Grandma was one of the most faithful pray-ers in our family, and I have no doubt my many years in China are a direct answer to her faithful prayers. Looking back, I see five of us in that room eating cheese puffs, drinking milk, and playing. Jesus is there, smiling and nodding, knowing that one of us would indeed grow up and become an old maid, a spinster missionary, the most prized card in the deck.  That’s right my child, value will be placed firmly on her. And you. And all who define value by me and not some outside imposed rules.

I don’t know your story.  But I know that you have been fought over and bought with a price, and you are the most valued card in the hand Jesus is playing.

 

A version of this first appeared on Velvet Ashes.

Old maid photo credit: Amy emailed the etsy store owner and received written permission and a thank you for asking.

Empty Nesting When You Have No Nest

Help me out. We need a new term, and we missionary folks love discovering or creating words.

You knew exactly what I meant when I used the phrase “empty nest.” The chicks have launched and are on their own. “Empty nesters” are their parents.

Before I had nieces, I used to roll my eyes at aunts and uncles who went on and on about their nieces and nephews. Quietly I judged them as being pathetic and wanna-be parents. (I’m shooting straight with you, I’m not proud of the recesses of my heart and mind.)

And then my oldest niece was born. It took less than one day to turn me into the largest hypocrite on the planet. If Paul was the greatest sinner? I was the greatest eater-of-my-words. AND I DID NOT CARE. (Have I told you her latest antic? Would you like to see a photo? Can you even . . . can you?! She’s amazing.)

The time zones between us didn’t matter. The long plane rides when I could leave the field didn’t matter. Here’s what I learned—when love enters the picture, you don’t care what others think.

TCKs are the same. When you love them, really love them, they enter a category all their own in your heart.

This post and question isn’t just for singles. It’s for any adult. What I’m trying to put words to is about loving a kiddo who is not your child and who will one day grow up and move on to the next chapter in their lives.

The term “empty nester” rightly refers to the parents.

What word or phrase could we use for those of us who have a young person who’s been a part of our daily life and now they will not be? We will love them fiercely, cheer them on loudly, pray for them faithfully, and miss them dearly.

Whatever it is, that’s what I am. And I know I’m not alone.

Chesterton’s Fence: Understanding the Why of the Status Quo before Seeking Change

picket fence

The traveller sees what he sees; the tripper sees what he has come to see. —G. K. Chesterton (Autobiography)

G. K. Chesterton, the turn-of-the-20th-century English author, journalist, and Christian apologist, first came to my attention through quotations on travel taken from his writings. Along with the one above, there’s also

The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land. (—Tremendous Trifles)

and

They say travel broadens the mind; but you must have the mind. (—said by the character Gabriel Gale in “The Shadow and the Shark”)

While these aphorisms apply to travelers and “trippers,” they also are relevant to movers and shakers, those who relocate to other countries and cultures in order to make a difference there. In that vein, I’ve recently found another idea from Chesterton—often referred to as “Chesterton’s fence”—that can relate to the life of cross-cultural workers. Before explaining it, here’s a little background.

Chesterton, born in 1874, was well known in his day as an influential defender and explainer of the Christian faith. C. S. Lewis, a major Christian apologist in his own right, credits Chesterton for impacting his conversion from atheism. In his memoir, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life, Lewis writes that in reading Chesterton’s Everlasting Man, he “for the first time saw the whole Christian outline of history set out in a form that seemed to me to make sense.” And the prolific Christian author Philip Yancey writes that if he were stranded on a desert island and could have “only one book, apart from the Bible, I may well select Chesterton’s own spiritual autobiography, Orthodoxy.”

Chesterton began his faith as an Anglican, later converting to Roman Catholicism, with this conversion being the subject of his book The Thing: Why I Am a Catholic. It’s in this work that we find Chesterton’s fence. That concept in a nutshell is this:

When you come across something that you think needs to be changed, you should first find out why it is the way it is. Only after understanding why it came to be can you then follow through with the change.

Here it is again, this time in Chesterton’s words:

In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.

Chesterton aimed his warning at those of his day who would jettison the institution of the family, but it can also be applied to more-modern folks in cross-cultural contexts. Overseas workers are often in the business of “reformation,” helping people through personal and community change. That inevitably means coming across “fences” or “gates,” obstacles that we believe are hindering us or the people we want to serve. Throughout our history, Western workers have too often torn down these fences without the necessary contemplation. This has frequently produced negative effects, ranging from minor annoyances or irritations to major cultural offenses or physical, social, or spiritual harm. Even with the best intentions, our removal of obstacles, fixing of perceived problems, doing things the “best” way, and applying quick fixes can have unintended consequences.

“This principle,” says Chesterton, “applies to a thousand things, to trifles as well as true institutions, to convention as well as to conviction.” Those “thousand things” could range from painting a room a different color or changing a meeting time to overthrowing longstanding traditions or upending cultural norms.

Back in 2004, in Why the Rest Hates the West: Understanding the Roots of Global Rage, Christian historian Meic Pearse addressed the large-scale impact that years of heavy-handed, ill-advised change brought on by Western entities have had. He writes,

Very many, especially Third World, people have the sensation that everything they hold dear and sacred is being rolled over by an economic and cultural juggernaut that doesn’t even know it’s doing it . . . and wouldn’t understand why what it’s destroying is important or of value.

Gene Daniels, at Missio Nexus, responds to this passage in this way:

What bothers me most about this statement is not that it is generally true, but that it is often as true of Christian missionaries as it is of diplomats, generals, and international businesspeople. Of course, the gospel brings social and cultural changes to receptor societies; however, the careless and insensitive way missionaries often treat the things that others “hold dear and sacred” is disturbing. The rapid advance of Western culture, riding globalization as a wave, seems to have caused an epidemic of amnesia among Western missionaries, causing us to forget our roots.

Whether the changes we’re promoting are small or large, we first need to understand the origin of the status quo and what needs are being met by what’s currently in place. We also need to ponder possible outcomes and examine our motivations. And along the way we need to contemplate such broad (and sometimes competing) issues as ethnocentrism, colonialism, syncretism, contextualization, modernization, isolationism, and globalization. All of this requires investigating, asking questions, listening, partnering, and practicing patience and humility.

Chesterton goes on to further explain his metaphor:

This paradox rests on the most elementary common sense. The gate or fence did not grow there. It was not set up by somnambulists who built it in their sleep. It is highly improbable that it was put there by escaped lunatics who were for some reason loose in the street. Some person had some reason for thinking it would be a good thing for somebody. And until we know what the reason was, we really cannot judge whether the reason was reasonable. It is extremely probable that we have overlooked some whole aspect of the question, if something set up by human beings like ourselves seems to be entirely meaningless and mysterious. There are reformers who get over this difficulty by assuming that all their fathers were fools; but if that be so, we can only say that folly appears to be a hereditary disease. But the truth is that nobody has any business to destroy a social institution until he has really seen it as an historical institution. If he knows how it arose, and what purposes it was supposed to serve, he may really be able to say that they were bad purposes, or that they have since become bad purposes, or that they are purposes which are no longer served. But if he simply stares at the thing as a senseless monstrosity that has somehow sprung up in his path, it is he and not the traditionalist who is suffering from an illusion.

To be clear (as I said before), overseas workers are often agents of change. Some laws, some institutions, some practices, some mindsets should be replaced. Christian cross-cultural workers carry a transformative gospel. And while we shouldn’t mindlessly bulldoze everything that seems to stand in our way, neither should we propose that every fence should be left standing. After thoughtful, careful, sensitive consideration, some of them should come down. Sometimes there is a better way.

(C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life, Geoffrey Bles, 1955; Philip Yancey, Soul Survivor: How My Faith Survived the Church, Doubleday, 2001; G. K. Chesterton, The Thing: Why I Am a Catholic, Sheed & Ward, 1929; Meic Pearce, Why the Rest Hates the West: Understanding the Roots of Global Rage, InterVarsity Press, 2004; Gene Daniels, Decoupling Missionary Advance from Western Culture,” Missio Nexus, October 1, 2009)

[photo: “The Fence Line,” by Alan, used under a Creative Commons license]