On Your High School Graduation: A Letter to My Third Culture Kids

I’ve been watching parents in the international community say goodbye to their graduating seniors for a while now. I’ve been watching the seniors themselves say goodbye to their friends – fellow third culture kids like themselves.

Watching these parental goodbyes feels like a knife in my chest. I have to stop myself from thinking about it just so I can breathe again. Because I know that will be me, someday, saying goodbye to you.

“Goodbye.” We get a lot of practice saying it. We’ve said goodbye to short-term workers. They never planned to stay, but we welcomed them into our lives anyway. We’ve said goodbye to others — longer term workers whose time in this country, for a variety of reasons, has also come to a close.

And then, every year, I watch the graduating high school seniors. The ones who leave their families behind and travel to their passport country for their university years – and beyond.

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As I write this, all four of you are more than eight years away from entering your college years. Still, someday I will say goodbye to each of you in turn. My oldest son first, then a couple years later, my youngest son. A couple years after that, I will be saying goodbye to my oldest daughter. The next goodbye will be my last. My youngest daughter will leave too.

I must say goodbye to you like this, no matter where in the world I live. And when you do leave, there are things I want to tell you. Things like. . .

You are my child. You are now an adult, and I’m proud of who you are, but you will always be part of my family. Our home can always be your home.  No matter where we live, we will always welcome you into it.

We have endeavored to give you as stable a home life as possible in the ever-shifting international community in which we live. I am sorry for the consistent, repeated, prolonged, never-ending goodbyes you have endured. So say goodbye well. For many of your high school friends, the goodbye may be forever. You might return to Cambodia; you might not. And your friends may not. Even if they do, it most likely wouldn’t be at the same time as you. So honor your friends with good goodbyes.

Keep in touch with your TCK friends if you can. After my military upbringing, I finally found a small group of friends in high school. They were Christians. They buoyed my life and my faith at the time, and I regret not keeping in touch with them. Even with Facebook, I’ve only been able to find a couple of them, and I wish I could find more. So stay in touch. You won’t regret it. This journey has already separated you from many friends, so strive to keep the ones that still remain.

There won’t be any weekend trips home for you, as I had. You’ll live more than just a few hours away. So you’ll have to say goodbye to this place, not just the people. Again, make sure you say goodbye well. Write these places, and their memories, on your heart forever.

I was lonely and depressed my first year at college. My roommate was never around, and my hourly venture to the water fountain was the most exciting thing I did while I studied. Don’t do that; don’t be like me. I sequestered myself in my room. More time at a park probably would have lifted my low spirits, so for goodness sakes, go to a park every once in a while.

I did find friends in a campus ministry. So whatever you do, find a good campus ministry. A community of your peers following hard after God. Form deep friendships there, deep enough to last your whole life long. My campus ministry friends still inspire me to love Jesus more, and to serve Him in both the little things and the big things.

Find a good church. A church that loves, a church that lives and breathes and teaches both Grace and Truth. Churches are flawed because the people are flawed. But if the Grace is there, it will cover over the flaws. Hopefully these people will feed you and lend you their laundry rooms, and maybe even sometimes, when you really need it, their cars. They will be there to catch you when you fall to loneliness and depression and temptation. They will be people with whom you can worship every Sunday. Your studying will exhaust you, and you won’t feel like getting up on Sunday mornings, but if you show up, you will find God there.

Try to live your life in real time, with real people. Don’t waste your time getting drunk, playing video games, or looking at trashy pictures on the internet. That stuff doesn’t satisfy. But even if you do turn to those things, your Papa and I will always welcome you with open arms. We are always your family. Our hearts are open, our home is open. Possibly more importantly right now, though, is that our inboxes are always open.

And whatever happens, you must know that your Heavenly Father will always welcome you Home. He is always there for you. He will forgive anything. And should you ever stray from Him, don’t stay away forever out of fear that He doesn’t want you. He wants you. Believe it.

All my love, Mom

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To international parents who have already graduated a senior, I’d love to hear from you. I have never done what you have done. And in fact, I don’t really know what I’m talking about when it comes to TCK’s. I only wrote this in honest reflection of my past, and in painful anticipation of my future. So I’m curious — what things were helpful for both you and your teenager as you said goodbye??

From trotters41.com, February 2014

On Good Friday – A View From Above

Bab ZuweilaTwin minarets

In the city of Cairo twin minarets stand tall, their silhouettes marked against a clear blue sky. They stand distinguishable from the thousand other minarets because of their fame as a city landmark. The minarets frame a gate still standing since the 11th century, the gate of Bab Zuweila. The minaret towers are so high that they were used to look out for enemy troops coming up to attack the city. Now, centuries later, the minarets of Bab Zuweila provide an unparalleled view of the old city of Cairo.

Climbing up the minarets is a journey. Around ancient steps you walk – farther and farther up, dizzy from the spiral and half frightened from the dark staircase. You make it to the first area where you go out and stand looking over the vast city of 18 million people. But you’re compelled to go farther. So on you go. And it gets more rickety and frightening, the centuries-old steps become even narrower and darker. You can see nothing and you are grasping on to the steps in front of you for fear of falling. But you keep going.

You arrive at the second level. And it’s even more magnificent than the first. To your right you see Al Azhar Park, significant for its large and beautiful green space in a city that has so little. In this 360 degree view you see vast numbers of minarets, you hear the call to prayer going off at split-second intervals across the city – a cacophony echoing around you. You see thousands of people, tiny as they go from bazaar to mosque to bus. You see the tent makers bazaar, making out the beautiful colors even from this distance.

 

It’s the view from above. And it is glorious, breath-taking and conversation stopping. But you can go even farther. And once you get to the top, you don’t want to leave – because it took a while for you to get there and you’re so tired. And the stairs going down are still rickety and treacherous, they are still centuries old. But mostly you don’t want to go down because you want to continue to look out over the view, the view above the city, above the chaos. The view from above.

 

It’s this I think about today – for today is Good Friday. The day in the Christian faith where all of life stopped and the world darkened, a curtain in a temple torn from top to bottom. The day when Jesus, God incarnate, was condemned to the death of a criminal and bore our broken world on his shoulders. And today I set aside time to remember that day and focus on the view from above.

 

 That glorious, breath-taking, conversation stopping view. That view that sees the broken world that Jesus died for, the world that Jesus loves, knowing that each day that we fight this fight is worth it.

 

That view that remembers the words a Son called out to a Father “Why have you forsaken me?” A view that sees the grand Salvation narrative, taller and grander than a million minarets, a love that calls to us louder than a billion calls to prayer. The view where all ‘this’ will make sense, wrong will be made right, tears will turn to laughter, and sorrow to joy. We are invited into this view from above, a view where our story falls into the shadows for a time, and God’s great, redemptive narrative is remembered around the world. A story of mercy and grace, where good triumphs over evil and wrong is made right.

 

We from A Life Overseas hail from all parts of the globe. We are from Djibouti and Thailand, Bolivia and Botswana, Mexico and Cambodia, Haiti and Cameroon, Ethiopia and Niger, Egypt and China and so many more places. We go as idealists and we stay as realists. We live in the shadows of Hindu temples and near the courtyards of grand cathedrals; isolated near small villages and among millions in small apartments in Shanghai skyscrapers. We see poverty and suffering, starvation and crime, corruption and inequality. We learn to love when it’s hard and others learn to love us when we’re hard. We know failure, we know pain, we know how human and flawed we are. Yet daily we experience the persistence of God’s redemptive process.
And today no matter where we are in the world, we are invited to remember this view from above.

 

“Finally, as if everything had not been felt enough, Jesus cries out in an agonizing moment in the most powerful words that we will read in the world: ‘My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?’ And I am utterly convinced that the reason he said those words was so that you and I would never have to say them again.” – Ravi Zacharias
Where are you today, right now on this Good Friday? Where can you see the grand story? The view from above.
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My House Shall Be Called

Photographing weddings got me through college. It also taught me about the Church. Sometimes, your day is spent with really happy people. Sometimes, it’s spent with really stressed out people. Sometimes, the really stressed out people turn into the really happy people.

You get to be around radiant brides, people who dance but really shouldn’t, and people who sing but really can’t. And you get to photograph all.of.it.

You and your camera are invited behind the scenes. You’re paid to capture the excitement, the preparation, the emotion, in pixels and jpegs.

Oh, and there’s usually good food.

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I really like weddings, and I think God does too. In fact, I think God’s planning one.

In his book, The Prodigal God, Tim Keller says, “The climax of history is not a higher form of disembodied consciousness but a feast.” He’s talking, of course, about the Marriage Supper of the Lamb, vividly described in Revelation 19:6-8. The Church is the Beloved, the Bride.

During the Last Supper, Jesus pointed to the Great Supper and said, “I will not drink wine again until the day I drink it new with you in my Father’s Kingdom.” (Matthew 26:29) Mere hours before his crucifixion, Jesus points us towards that day, the day of his Wedding.

How we think about that day greatly impacts how we live this one. And what we talk about when we talk about the Church (the Bride) has tremendous bearing on missions. If we’re embarrassed by the Church, it’s sure going to be hard to plant it. If we see the Church as optional and only vaguely connected with the Gospel, we’re neglecting something that is very close to the heart of the Father. We’re also ignoring something that enthralls the heart of the Son.

What do we think of when we think of Church? Are we a group of people longing for a party? Are we longing to see our Beloved, face to face?

When we speak of the Church, do we speak of beauty and mystery and the Bride of Christ? Do we speak about God’s Kingdom, here, now, as a great force for good in a desperate world? Or do we speak of something else entirely?

The truth is that the Church is a gloriously magnificent idea straight from the heart of the Father.

The Church is a strong entity that will not lose, even against the full forces of hell itself.

The Church is the Bride of Jesus, stunningly radiant.

The Church carries the priceless message of salvation in Jesus alone, proclaiming that everyone’s invited to the imminent feast.

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But if you’ve been hurt by the Church, by people in the Church, those last few sentences were hard to stomach.

I’m convinced that one of our main obstacles to loving the Church like Jesus loves the Church is that we’ve been hurt within the Church. (And for the record, we’ve probably hurt people too.) Pain from within the Church sours the whole idea and tempts us to run away. It makes us angry at the Church. It makes us ashamed of the Church.

Sometimes the pain comes from rude comments and mean spirits. Sometimes it comes from rejection. Sometimes the pain comes from outright abuse.

This should NOT BE.

If you’ve experienced pain from within the Church, I.Am.So.Sorry.

Please, hear the voice of Jesus, clearly, and with great compassion, as he says, “My House shall be called a house of PRAYER, not a house of PAIN. Those people did NOT represent me. They were thieves and robbers.”

Look at this picture of a loving Bridegroom defending his Bride, and may it be to you a source of solace and comfort and healing. After showing up in Jerusalem to die, “Jesus entered the Temple and began to drive out the merchants and their customers. He knocked over the tables of the money changers and the stalls of those selling doves. He said, ‘The Scriptures declare, ‘My Temple will be called a place of prayer,’ but you have turned it into a den of thieves.’” (Matthew 21:12-13)

People are still thieving and robbing in the House of God. They turn a place of prayer into a place of pain. They’re messing with the Bride and ticking off the Groom.

But here’s the thing, Jesus doesn’t just kick out the bad guys and tell everyone to stay away from the Temple. He shows up in the place of pain and turns it into a place of peace and healing.  Right after he expels the “thieves,” we’re told that “The blind and the lame came to him, and he healed them there in the Temple. (Matthew 21:14)

Right there in the Temple! Why would he do that? Because he is passionate about His people, His Bride.

If you’ve been hurt in the Church, may you also find healing in the Church.

May our churches and teams, mission orgs and NGOs, be full of healed people who heal people. May they be full of loved people who love people. May we be so satisfied in Him, so amazed by Him, so filled with joy because of Him, that we are longing for that day as much as He is.

The day of our Wedding is coming, made possible by the passionate pursuit of a dying Savior who didn’t stay dead. Alleluia. Come Lord Jesus. Come for your Bride. 

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What does the idea of the Church as the Bride of Christ mean for you? What do you do with negative experiences within the Church?

College was a long time ago, so these photos are by my friend  Cherish Andrea and used with permission.

Dangerous Riches

I wrote last month about the troubling ways we sometimes talk about the poor – assigning the simplistic emotion of happiness while not allowing them a fuller, more complex array of human emotion. And about the way the poor are presented as inherently holy, simply because of their poverty.

Today I want to talk about the troubling ways rich Christians handle our wealth and our steadfast resistance to identifying with the poor, our endless and dangerous pursuit of riches, and the example Jesus set before all of us, poor and rich and everyone in between.

dangerous riches

I saw a commercial a few years ago that encapsulates the god of consumerism:

A man hands a boy a vanilla ice cream cone. The boy says, “And…?” The man adds sprinkles, hot fudge, and whip cream. The boy happily licks his treat.

A young man is offered a good job. The man says, “And…?” The interviewer gives him stock options, a corner office with a window, a month of paid vacation, and a major signing bonus. The man happily accepts the job.

A man spots the sexy butt of a woman wearing blue jeans. The man says, “And…?” The woman turns around and is gorgeous. They happily hop into bed.

A man drinks a Coke. The man says, “And…?” The Coke turns into Coke Lite. The man is happy.

This reminds me of the story in Luke 12. A farmer kept building bigger barns. He looked at his harvest and said, “And…?” And God struck him down dead. If that Coke commercial were in the Bible the ending would have been much different.

How much are we like the man, the farmer? We never have enough, we are never satisfied, we are never happy, we are never content, we are never as well-off as the person a few tiers above us. Gluttony, greed, discontent, comparison, envy, hoarding…they barely register as the serious sins they are. We take fighting poverty seriously (at least in word) and we explode over theological differences regarding the end times or marriage but we continue to consume and consume and consume and fail to recognize the danger to our souls. And just because I live and work with people of little to no income doesn’t mean I am exempt from this. Far from it.

I’m proud and I think: look how good I’m doing. I live at a lower standard than so-and-so. Or: compared to many Christians in the US, I look pretty good. As if holiness were based on how other people lived instead of being based on an absolute standard. And in the very next instant I can be self-pitying and think: I better get a good reward for this in heaven. Or: why can’t I just live in America where my standard of living would look poor and I could feel proud of my scarcity instead of ashamed of my abundance?

Lord have mercy.

There is a very real way in which the poor are free from the concerns of wealth, worry over protecting and maintaining their stuff, time wasted on managing bank accounts or caring for the goods that money buys. The Bible is clear that money is a hindrance to faith, contentment, and joy, that God has special concern for the poor, that the last will be first, that where our treasure is there our heart will also be. Did not God choose the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the Kingdom, which he promised to those who love him? (James 2:5)

A wise woman wrote this to me in response to last month’s essay, “I believe that when my tangible resources are fewer here, I have at least the possibility of depending on God in quite a different way, and I think that can reap powerful and eternal benefits.”

And this, “To discard the link between poverty and holiness, and between poverty and happiness, I think does overlook some inconvenient truths for our own lives.”

I struggle with this, I feel obscenely wealthy in Djibouti. I wonder what a ‘reasonable’ standard of living is. Is a generator for power cuts when it is 120-degrees excessive? Is it excessive to run an air conditioner, to eat meat, to have a refrigerator? when so many around me don’t? I struggle to be content in cold showers or while sharing a bedroom with my entire family while we run that air conditioner.

There is an inconvenient truth in my heart that I like comfort and ease. And yet, when I am comfortable and life is easy, I do not cast myself on God. I don’t beg and plead and demand that Jesus make his presence palpable. I don’t cry for miracles, I am less desperate in prayer.

I want more than this:

To know Christ and the power of his padded bank account, the participation in his glowing accolades, becoming like him in his affluent lifestyle, and so somehow, to attain to the comfort of treasures here on earth.

Jesus didn’t take on the nature of a ‘reasonably’ comfortable human. Though he was rich, for our sake Jesus didn’t become middle class. He took on the nature of a slave. For our sake he became poor.

While I challenged us not to oversimplify the experiences and personalities of people in poverty, I also challenge us to be like Jesus and to let go of the idol of wealth. To hold our stuff and money loosely, to be generous to the point of excess, to live unreasonably, to know, and live like we know, that godliness with contentment is great gain, for we brought nothing into this world and we can take nothing out of it.

How do you deal with economic disparity where you live? How do you address this issue of wealth and poverty in your own heart?

*image via Flickr

Romance, Science Fiction, and Missions (or, I Dreamed a Dream)

What motivated you to go into missions? What keeps you going?

Romance. I don’t know about you, but romance is what drove me into missions. The romance of being a great missionary, of changing an entire people group, of seeing a whole country turn to Christ. This romantic idea was first kindled during my children’s homeschool studies of St. Patrick — the man in the 5th century AD who took the Gospel to Ireland, where practically everyone turned from paganism to Christ.

This dream of mine was further fueled when I learned about one of our organization’s church planting teams in South America. Churches have been planted that have grown to membership in the thousands. Those churches have planted other churches. Those churches have even sent out missionaries themselves. When I first heard of this field, I thought Cambodia was going to be just like that. Woo hoo!

Never mind the fact that those missionaries had been building a reality from their dream for over 20 years by the time I ever heard of them. And never mind the fact that all you experienced missionaries are laughing at me right now — I still believe it’s those kinds of dreams that propel us forward, into missions.

Science Fiction. Maybe today, my initial missionary dream seems like unattainable science fiction to you. Completely unrealistic, and completely out of reach. But Ray Bradbury, notable author of the science fiction novel Fahrenheit 451, believed that science fiction actually drove real science:

“I think it’s part of the nature of man to start with romance and then build to a reality. There’s hardly a scientist or an astronaut I’ve met who wasn’t beholden to some romantic before him who led him to doing something in life.”

Ray Bradbury continued discussing the idea of romance versus reality:

“I think it’s so important to be excited about life. In order to get the facts we have to be excited to go out and get them, and there’s only one way to do that — through romance. We need this thing which makes us sit bolt upright when we are nine or ten and say, ‘I want to go out and devour the world, I want to do these things.’”

Does the reality of life as a missionary start as a dream, somewhere deep in our pasts? In order to go out and teach Christ’s love, do we have to be excited about it? Do we need something that makes us sit bolt upright when we are nine or ten and want to go into all the world? [Or perhaps,  if you are like me, something made you sit bolt upright much later, more like age 29.]

Bradbury also said, “We may reject it later, we may give it up, but we move on to other romances then.” He clearly thought scientists needed something to motivate their work, even if they shift their focus. I wonder then, do missionaries need the same? To survive on the field, year after year after year, do we need a dream? But is it the original dream that keeps us going, or do our dreams change?

Science, like missions, is not all guts and glory. There are the countless experimental trials. There’s the disappointment when your data doesn’t support your hypotheses, or worse, it doesn’t make any sense at all. And there’s the frustration when your equipment breaks down, or not everyone interprets the lab results the way you do. Science is not mostly sudden breakthroughs – and working with the hearts of people isn’t, either.

My dream has changed. . . sort of. I’m still beholden to the romantic idea that the entire nation of Cambodia could turn to Jesus. But I no longer think that might happen simply because I showed up in obedience to His call.

It’s true that some days seem like a never-ending clinical trial, but I do still dream of nationwide revival. I long for it, I pray for it, I want it, just the same as I did when I first studied St. Patrick or learned of those thriving South American churches. That dream keeps me here, believing there’s a purpose to living through countless, repeated trials.

So today, I want to invite you to reminisce along with me.

What missionary dream did you first dream? Is that still your dream, or do you dream differently now?

What happens if you’ve lost your dreams altogether? Do you keep going without one, or do you ask God for new dreams?

The Hard Questions

and-more-minarets

It was late afternoon and the sun was slowly setting across the solid blue, desert sky. The call to prayer echoed across the city of a thousand minarets. My blonde-haired 7-year-old looked at me, her deep blue eyes serious. “Is Faiza going to Heaven?”

We were living in Cairo, Egypt and Faiza was our baby sitter extraordinaire. But she was so much more.

She was our informal language teacher, our cultural broker, our friend. And she would iron our clothes just to be kind so that we looked like we stepped out of a dry cleaner’s shop. We had been in Cairo for 3 years and Faiza was an essential part of our lives.

We loved Faiza.

Faiza was a devout Muslim and our children knew this. She prayed five times a day and faithfully fasted during Ramadan. She gave to the poor and cared for those in need. She had even gone on the Hajj to Mecca – something every Muslim is encouraged to do in their lifetime if possible, but for a woman who was a widow and had only the money she made from babysitting this was a huge sacrifice.

Faiza would arrive at our house clad in a long, plain galabeya(traditional Egyptian dress) with her hair completely covered by a white hijab, always carrying with her pita bread and crumbly white cheese known as ‘gibna beda.’ This was her lunch but my kids grew to think of it as their snack. She lived her faith out loud, praying in our living room as soon as she heard the call to prayer from the mosque down the street. She was ever patient and cared for my kids the way she would her own grandchildren.

“Is Faiza going to Heaven?” I knew my response was critically important to this little girl – and to myself. I sighed internally and shot up an arrow prayer to the One who’s always listening.

“I don’t know” I said finally. “I know that Faiza loves God very much. I don’t know if Faiza knows Jesus.”

The blue eyes continued to search mine. “But she loves God – isn’t that the same thing as loving Jesus?”

Now hear this: I believe with all my heart the words of John 14:6. They are memorized, branded on my heart. “I am the way, the truth, the life…

I believe there is one way to the Father.

But I have learned that there are many ways to the Son. God is infinitely creative in the way he draws people to his heart. Our God is not defined by nation or nation building; he holds citizenship nowhere but Heaven and extends his grace throughout the world. And so I have seen people find Jesus, find ‘the way’, through white steepled Baptist churches and through gold-trimmed icons in Orthodox churches; through Bible studies and small groups and through reading of Jesus in the Koran; through the irritating street evangelist on a busy city corner and through reading Mere Christianity. Those nail-scarred hands stretch out to us in unlikely spaces and places and we marvel at the mystery of Grace.

The way to Jesus must not be dictated by a North American construct for it is like trying to fit the ocean into a bathtub – it is far too limited.

So my words “I don’t know” were truth and honesty.

But I prayed then and I pray now for the Faiza’s of the world — those zealous for God, searching for truth. And I prayed then and I pray now for the children asking these questions, questions of eternal significance.

In talking with my mom, a long-time missionary to the Muslim world, she said this: “I remember hearing the late William Miller speak about his many years of work in Iran.  One statement stood out, and although this may not be an accurate quote, it is how I remember it:  ‘We will be amazed on the Day of Resurrection to see how many will rise from the Muslim cemeteries of the world.’

The mystery of grace will continue to confound and comfort until the day when all is made clear. Until that day I will continue to pray as I grapple with the hard questions even as I continue to proclaim the name of Jesus wherever and however I can.

So I ask you now: How do you answer the hard questions? The questions of eternal significance?

 

 

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Please Don’t Say, “They Are Poor But They’re Happy.”

Katherine Boo talks about the western ‘conceit that poverty is ennobling.’

Tracy Kidder, in his book Mountains Beyond Mountains, quotes Paul Farmer,

“There’s a WL (white liberal) line – the ‘They’re poor but they’re happy’ line.’ They do have nice smiles and good senses of humor, but that’s entirely different.”

I am of the opinion that the stories of the poor need to be told and that sometimes it takes an outsider to get those stories heard, ála Katherine Boo or Nicholas Kristof, author of Half the Sky. But we need to be careful about the attitudes we bring to these stories.

Some of the gravest offenders in this regard are bloggers and people on short-term missions or aid trips. Talented writers, loving and creative people who maybe haven’t wrestled deeply with the implications of their words and involvement. Understandable, as international aid and development isn’t their focus, but also regrettable because they are the ones people listen to and form ideas, assumptions, and expectations through.

Bloggers and writers and tourists and expatriates and development workers, I have two questions/challenges for us.

  1. Can we stop finding holiness in poverty?
  2. Can we stop saying: ‘they’re poor but they’re happy’?

noble poor

Holiness in Poverty

There are poor people who live lives of holiness and pursuing God but this is not because they are poor. It is because they live lives of holiness and pursuing God.

Poor people and rich people deal with selfishness, envy, greed, gossip. They feel joy, pride, satisfaction. They are violent and cruel. They are generous and creative. They oppress and take advantage of others, they lift up the downtrodden and care for the weak. They tell hilarious jokes and suffer debilitating addictions.

Again to quote Boo, “When I’ve had hardships in my own life, it doesn’t make me a better or nobler person,” she says. “Suffering doesn’t necessarily make people good in my experience.”

Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor,” he didn’t say “holy are the poor.” He said, “It is easier for a camel to go through an eye of the needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” He did not say, “The poor flow into the Kingdom of God like water over Victoria Falls.”

Desperation can lead to evil and abuse and depravity. There is nothing inherent about poverty that makes people holy or noble. However, there is incredible nobility in how certain people bear their poverty, a holiness in how they interact with others. We need to see what is there and not what we want to project. If the poor are noble or holy in their suffering, the wealthy can be relieved of an urgent need to examine our own complicity and apathy.

Poor but Happy

This article on Humanosphere found that in sub-Saharan Africa among those stuck in poverty, their happiness index was far below those in wealthy countries. Poverty is not just the lack of wads of cash. It is the lack of options, choices, autonomy. It often means disease, children dying young, lack of education, illiteracy, hunger, hard labor, oppression. I don’t know many people in these circumstances for whom ‘happy’ is the primary appropriate adjective. This is intensely not hypothetical for me, I know a lot of people in these circumstances.

Denying that inequality is problematic, based on happiness being important and the poor being happy, offers a pretext for not thinking more deeply about the impacts of inequality. Anna Barford 

If the poor are so happy, that alleviates some of the rich person’s guilt. The wealthy outsider can praise their good attitudes, their thankfulness, they can categorize their smiles in the face of dire circumstances as evidence of happiness. And in doing so, they remove the burden of guilt, complicity, and the pressure to act. The also remove the poor person’s natural human ability to feel complex emotions, happiness being one of the most simplistic emotions there is.

That the poor are happy is an easier narrative to swallow than that the poor are desperate and will flash a smile, a good attitude, and gratitude when the rich westerner has come around to offer something of short-term benefit.

The other, more nuanced and complicated narrative is that the poor have beautiful smiles and wonderful senses of humor because they are human and fabulously diverse. But learning this requires time and personal investment, it requires listening and careful observation. It requires blunt honesty with ourselves and with those we want to help. And it requires that we remember they would do almost anything to get out of their dire, used-shoe-strained-gratitude circumstances.

There are so many other issues to be discussed and addressed under the banner of writing about the poor and sharing the stories of others, but I think if we start with these two questions, which I set before us as a sincere challenge, we will be taking long strides in the right direction.

What do you think about the ‘poor but happy’ narrative?

(This post was partly inspired by the book discussion going on this month at SheLoves. I’ve noticed cross-over in readership and authorship and so am happy to send you over to the SheLoves Red Couch where Wednesday March 26 they will discuss Katherine Boo’s book Behind the Beautiful Forevers. I have read every single article this woman has written and almost every single interview she has given, multiple times. She’s one of my writing heroes.)

Airlines We’ve Known

It’s Friday. Friday means different things in different parts of the world. For some of us, Friday is our day of worship. How well I remember Scotch Presbyterians arguing that “One could never worship on a Friday” when Pakistan changed its weekend to Friday and Saturday.  A year later said Scots were worshiping on a Friday.

For others Friday signifies the start of the weekend where all things feel possible. At least for the middle-class among us.

Still others close out their weekend with Fridays, rushing to finish tasks that will remain undone until the next weekend if we don’t get to them.

So in the spirit of this start or end of a weekend we offer something fun today.

A chance to rate your favorite airline.

Airports

I flew before I walked and can’t count the number of flights I’ve taken, or airlines and airports I have had the privilege to meet. At the risk of sounding annoying and “remembering the good old days”, when it comes to airlines, it was the good old days.

When I was tiny international flights often included overnights in major cities world-wide at the cost of the airline. All inclusive packages with meals and transportation vouchers to and from the airport were the norm. In-flight meals, drinks and toys were complimentary and we even got little wing pins to proudly place on shirts or jackets that said “Fly the Friendly Skies.“ Extra baggage didn’t come at an exorbitant fee and you could often talk your way out of the cost through smiles and thanks.

So in “Airlines We’ve Known” we want to hear from you: what airlines do you recommend and why? What airlines do you avoid like a plague?

To start us off I vote for Swiss. With their hot towels to refresh you in economy class and their attention to detail and comfort, even with a delayed plane, they rise to the top.  A stop in Zürich, particularly if you have young children, is a treat as the airport has a fully equipped play room/nursery with a special room just for babies. Memories of hours in that nursery remind me that it saved us from what could have been miserable times of waiting by gates during long lay overs – we owe this airport our sanity. A close runner-up could be British Airways as I have always had lovely flights on British Air.

Virgin Air gives a cheap but uncomfortable flight to London, and if you are patient you can usually find British Air tickets for almost the same price. I have heard that Singapore Air could probably get a world-wide award for the best airline (which I tend to believe as the efficiency in Singapore is legendary) but I can’t speak from experience on the airline. Lufthansa could be up there as a competitor, though not winner, and after our recent trip to Egypt, we would swear by the Egypt Air New York/Cairo Nonstop flight.

I’ve been told that Iceland Air is the bottom of the barrel internationally so I will not be swayed by their cheap prices, realizing I will pay the cost some other way (like having to make sure of change in my pocket in order to use the bathroom). I assure you I am not being dramatic – Ryan Air out of Ireland I’ve been told does have a “pay when you go” policy on using the loo. You may be able to change my mind on that if you’ve got a good story or review.

So what about the airlines you’ve known? Who gets the awards from your experience? Would love to have you weigh in – Favorite Airlines, Worst airlines, Worst airline stories – we want to hear it all!

 

Image credit: forestpath / 123RF Stock Photo

 

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Its Not About You

“You will not receive praise in heaven; no one will glorify your name. No one will say to you, ‘This person is here because of you.’ The praise will all belong to him because he has accomplished it all,” Elyse Fitzpatrick, Comforts from the Cross

You know the song, that tear-jerker everyone sang for special music in church in the 80’s and early 90’s, Thank You For Giving to the Lord by Ray Boltz? I used to love that song.

Now I think it is a bunch of baloney.

Okay, maybe not entirely baloney. But mostly.

Because guess what? Nothing is about you. Or me. Not even the people who will be in heaven.

I know. Shocker.

glory in the heavens

I once sat at the beach with a young woman who had lived in Ethiopia for six months. After hearing her speak for five minutes I had to leave the conversation. I climbed the nearby hill, past the French Danger of Death sign, and ranted at God.

My husband saw me leave and knew exactly why because he knows my tendency to keep score, to compare, to either wallow in self-pity or bloat with pride. He started praying, down below.

“Who does she think she is?” I said. “She has been here barely six months. She doesn’t speak the language or understand the culture or have actual relationships. She talks about her project at the clinic as though it were changing lives. Can her stories even be true? Maybe she is a compulsive liar. Probably that’s it. Or at least she has a pride issue and need to address her boastful attitude.”

But maybe people are actually being healed. Maybe she is communicating miraculously.

Where does that leave me after all these years?

A big fat loser.

And so on…

This internal dialogue was all about me, what I had accomplished so far, and what I felt I deserved, had earned. I was jealous to the point of furious tears at the idea that this clueless newbie was earning a better reward, would encounter more changed lives on earth and in paradise. That she was, was apparently, more pleasing to God.

What.an.idiot.

Me, not her. After I paced on the hill for a while, after I confessed my sin, I descended and later apologized to the young woman for my cold attitude.

Clearly I had a sin issue that needed to be addressed but I also think there is a larger lesson here.

Focusing on my good deeds and on my reward runs the risk of stealing the freedom to rejoice with those who rejoice. Instead, if I focus on what God accomplishes and on the glory Jesus will receive, all I can do is delight in the joys and good works of others because that delight isn’t about them, it is about God.

Yes, we are promised a reward in heaven and yes, there is the real hope of hearing, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant.’

But our response will not be, “Thanks. Now show me all the people here because of my sacrifices. Show me all the things my good works have earned.”

Our response will be, “Not to us, O Lord, not to us be the glory. We have only done our duty. Now show me all the people here because of your sacrifice, because of the cross.”

We perform our duty while clothed in the righteousness given by grace not earned by works, a duty that brings deep joy and abiding peace. A duty that is assigned to each, to accomplish the good works God has prepared in advance for us to do and which cannot be compared. A duty that does not earn one iota of saving grace or eternal glory.

“I am the Lord, that is my name. My glory I give to no other,” Isaiah 42:8

A question for private pondering: Are you ever inclined to steal a piece of God’s glory?

And a question for public discussion: What helps you battle the monster of envy or pride?

 -Rachel Pieh Jones, development worker, Djibouti

                         Blog: Djibouti Jones, Twitter: @RachelPiehJones, Facebook: Rachel Pieh Jones

*image via Flickr

You Take Yourself With You (And Other Important Things About Living Overseas)

Airport Check-in

The call from the American University in Cairo came on a Sunday morning, a business day in the Middle East. I had worked the night shift as a nurse and arrived home in time to eat breakfast and  hug my husband and three children, sending them on their way to church while I got much needed sleep.

As I lay on my bed in the warmth of that August morning, the phone rang. It was an administrator from the American University in Cairo. I don’t remember much about that phone call but her final words to me were these: “Tell your husband that his future at the American University in Cairo looks very promising”

Two weeks later we were in Cairo with our youth, our passion, and our three little ones. 

And that’s when it got hard. Because there are some important things that we didn’t realize when we were on one side of the pond – the side where churches applauded us and raised prayers on our behalf; the side where Christian fellowship was easy to find and when I was tired I could open up a box of macaroni and cheese for dinner.

Here are some of the things I learned as I unpacked my bags and hung my heart.

  • You take yourself with you. You pack your suitcases with your belongings, and you pack yourself with your past and your problems. All those quirks and insecurities? They are magnified in cross-cultural situations. Think you are an introvert in your passport country? Try being at a party knowing two sentences of the local language. Struggle with expressing yourself? With anger? With self-righteousness? It will all come back at you in spades.  You don’t become a different person on the airplane. The beauty is that the God who called you, who knew you as you were being knit in the womb, who knows your comings and your goings, he knows that and he has chosen to use you – the real you. The late Ruth Siemens says this: “We are all damaged goods in a spoiled, enemy-occupied world.”  The good news of that quote is that he longs to transform us and he uses our time overseas to refine and change us. 
  • You leave a hero, you arrive a servant. When we left for Cairo someone at our church said “It’s like reading the Old Testament!” and indeed it was. The miracles that happened defied common sense, were beyond earthly understanding. And throughout we were the main stage, we were the center of attention. As hands were laid on us at a church service I remember a young pastor saying “Lord, we pray for this unique, gifted couple” and I felt overwhelmed with humility and fear. After 20 hours of travel, children bleary eyed from Benadryl, we arrived. We left with cute clothes and perky smiles, we arrived with bad breath, smelling like limp wash rags. We didn’t even know how to ask for water or where to find the nearest bathroom. We fell from the skyscraper to the dusty ground, hitting balconies on the way down. It was so hard and it was so good, a quick transition from hero to servant.
  • There will be times when you hate where you live. Nothing will be easy. From visas to setting up a telephone, life overseas involves tremendous patience. Patience with never-ending bureaucracy, patience with the concept of “Mañana” or in our case “Bukhara”. Patience with the people you are supposed to love, realizing it was easy to love one person in your home country, but not so easy to love millions of them when you are in the minority. We had to learn “In’Sh’allah, Bukrah, Maalesh” the IBM principal of Egypt translated as “Tomorrow, God-willing. Don’t worry about it!” I  learned that it’s okay to have a complex set of emotions about the places I’ve lived, loving them one day and hating them the next.
  • Travel challenges you, travel changes you.  I love travel. I’m a third culture kid – I flew before I walked. But it’s still a challenge. Crossing time zones, making connections, dealing with tired kids and spouse? It’s all a challenge. Travel is a bit like a mirror that shows your real character, and it’s not always pretty. Travel is exotic only in retrospect, rarely in real-time.  It’s during those times where you pray desperately that you will learn more of what it is to reflect the character of Christ, to love the unlovely, to cope with the unpleasant.
  • Loneliness is a part of the journey. Sometimes I think that when we sign up for this life of pilgrimage there should be a clause that says: “This life will bring you to points of loneliness that you can hardly bear. Signing here indicates that you have been warned.”  David writes this in Psalm 13:

How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
and day after day have sorrow in my heart?

The Psalm poetically voices the anguish of a heart that feels alone and abandoned. This is what it feels like at times to be away from those you love, to be in a place where you have to learn everything from how to cook to how to say thank you. Loneliness is part of this journey. There is no easy way to say it, there are no platitudes. But if we read farther on in the Psalm, we see the author come to a place of peace:

But I trust in your unfailing love;
my heart rejoices in your salvation.
I will sing the Lord’s praise,
for he has been good to me.

Our years in Egypt took us through pregnancies, conflicts, and marriage crises, and they are still counted among our best.  Our hearts learned to trust in his unfailing love, to rejoice in salvation, to sing the Lord’s praise.

What about you? What are some of the things you learned as you got off the plane and entered into your new life overseas?

Marilyn Gardner loves God, her family, and her passport and can be found

blogging at Communicating Across Boundaries.

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Image credit: flik47 / 123RF Stock Photo

The Dreaded Question: Where Are You From?

airport

A young white woman asked my daughter Lucy to spin the globe and point at where she was from. Lucy rotated the globe until her hand hovered over Africa. Before she could be more specific the woman laughed and said, ‘no, tell me where you are from,’ and spun the globe toward the United States.

“I’m from Djibouti,” Lucy said and forcefully turned the globe, jabbed a finger at the tiny nation in the Horn of Africa. “I was born right there.”

The woman, who happened to be South African, was surprised but gracious. And Lucy, of course, was right. She was born there. She once said to me, “I don’t know why the rest of you live here, I’m the only one who was born here.” Another time Lucy saw a group of black women selling food under a banner that read African American Dishes. Lucy ran up to them and said, “African American, like me!” These women were also surprised but gracious.

More and more I hear people asking my children where they are from. For now, for Lucy, the answer seems obvious. She was born in Djibouti, she has spent her whole life except first grade there. She is eight years old and sees things in black and white. But already she is picking up on nuances that counter her assumption. Like that people in Djibouti, Kenya, and the US greet us by saying, “Welcome home.”

For our teenagers the answer is also complicated and they are becoming more aware of the complications. Their responses to the question vary.

My parents live in Djibouti, where I still have a bed and friends and where I lived for 10 years. But I also lived in Somaliland. But now I go to school in Kenya. I also went to school in France for a while. But I was born in Minnesota…

where are you from

I realized, after a trip to the US for Christmas this December, that we needed to talk about this question. Not so that we would come up with a satisfactory answer, there probably isn’t one, at least not one that would work in all circumstances. But so that my kids could hear me affirm whatever choices they made in describing where they came from, or where home is. So that I could help them find words, develop a vocabulary, begin to name the places that, when all pulled together, form the answer to ‘where are you from?’

I don’t know how to answer the question myself. One morning in Nairobi, an hour after landing via London from Minneapolis en route to Djibouti via Ethiopia, someone asked me where I was from.

Did she mean where had I just come from? London.

Did she mean where had I originated? Minneapolis.

Passport nation? America.

Did she mean where I keep my precious photo albums and fill up my daily routines? Djibouti.

Did she mean where half my heart lives nine months out of the year? Kenya.

I stumbled. It could have been jetlag but I think it was uncertainty. I couldn’t figure out what she wanted to know and the question flustered me until I nearly spilled my coffee. Rather than answering with whatever words came out my mind, I was frantically trying to decipher what she wanted to know and I couldn’t handle it.

“The airport,” I finally answered. Which was also true, we were, most recently, from the airport.

Is there a better question than ‘where are you from?’ How do you answer? And how does that answer cross over into what you consider home?

 -Rachel Pieh Jones, development worker, Djibouti

                         Blog: Djibouti Jones, Twitter: @RachelPiehJones, Facebook: Rachel Pieh Jones

*image credit

How to Transition to the Foreign Field and not Croak (Part 2)

In Part 1, we looked at three issues that can cause heartache for missionaries. Today I’ll explain three more issues that affect daily life overseas.

4)      Pornography/sexual sin

5)      Team stress

6)      Not getting enough pre-field training

 

4) PORNOGRAPHY/ SEXUAL SIN

Our neighborhood brothel.

Unaddressed sin problems are going to show up on the mission field. There are a lot of unique stressors to living cross-culturally, and that stress can be a trigger for issues like pornography, which absolutely destroys intimacy, trust, and happiness (yes, even among missionaries).

And I hate to be the one to tell you the ugly truth, but in Southeast Asia, porn problems can easily slip into prostitution problems.

So please, if you have a pornography problem or some other serious struggle, either address it before you go to the field, or just don’t go. Seek counseling and find freedom first, because that deep, dark, buried secret will bubble to the surface a lot when you live within the stress of a new culture. (Although my husband did not have a pornography problem either before or after coming to Cambodia, I do know Team Expansion’s policy is to address porn problems through addiction counseling, before they will clear you to leave.)

 

5) TEAM STRESS

I love the vision that is born when people collaborate on a team. As wonderful as working on a team can be, teams also provide an opportunity for conflict and interpersonal stress.  Conversely, sometimes missionaries have no team, either because they arrived without a team, or their team broke apart at some point. Neither a stressful team nor lack of a team is ideal.

In addition to taking conflict-resolution training (which is part of the training I discuss in the next point), you need to accept that your team situation may change over the years. Teams lose members, and they gain members. For varying reasons, you might need to choose teammates again after you get to the field, and you need to know that is ok. Your commitment to serving God needs to be deeper than your commitment to your team.

 

6) NOT GETTING ENOUGH PRE-FIELD TRAINING

You really need specific missions training before you move overseas. Our agency’s required training is very thorough, and each step along the way we learned something more about cross-cultural work or about ourselves. The two most life-changing trainings we took were Mission Training International’s pre-field course and the Kairos worldview course. I consider Mission Training International (MTI) to be essential preparation for cross-cultural service, and it should be attended in addition to any Bible school or seminary training you may already have.

Before becoming missionaries-in-training, we had been involved in paid or volunteer ministry for several years. That ministry experience has been very helpful to us in setting boundaries between family time and ministry time (something that especially affects a wife’s happiness). It’s also easy for missionaries to become frustrated with nationals who change slowly or not at all, but I remember times in the States when we worked with people stuck in harmful behavior patterns who weren’t showing evidence of positive change. So we’ve concluded that some of the stresses of missionary life are just ministry stresses, located in another country. It would be useful to get some ministry experience before leaving.

Here’s a review of the second set of issues and some practical steps you can take to prepare for missionary life:

4)      Pornography/sexual sin

                     — Tackle big problems like pornography before leaving.

5)      Team stress

                     — Be prepared for the possibility of team issues.

6)      Not getting enough pre-field training

                     — Get ministry experience in addition to specific pre-field missions training.

 

May you never lose sight of the dream God has given you. May you walk with God in every land and on every sea. May He steady you in your every uprooting and in your every re-planting, and may you ever only “not croak” as you transition between the two.

 

After a military childhood, a teenaged Elizabeth Trotter crash landed into American civilian life. When she married her high school sweetheart, her life plan was to be a chemical engineer while he practiced law. Instead, they both fell headlong into youth ministry and spent the next ten years serving the local church. When her husband later decided he wanted to move overseas, Elizabeth didn’t want to join him. But now, after two years of life in Cambodia with him and their four children, she can’t imagine doing anything else. She blogs at trotters41.com.

On Twitter (@trotters41) and Facebook (trotters41)