You’re Doing It Wrong

I wrote this ‘letter’ when I first arrived on the field and found myself trying to navigate all the different opinions around me. It’s completely tongue-in-cheek. Well, maybe not completely 😉

Dear Missionary,

It’s pretty clear you’re doing this all wrong.

You missionaries living in guarded compounds, you’re obviously not really invested in your community. You alienate your neighbours with barbedwire topped fences.

You missionaries living in houses and apartments in local neighbourhoods, you are risking the safety and well-being of your family. Thank God for those missionaries in that guarded compound nearby that welcome you with open arms and shelter you in times of trouble.

You who buy imported western food; don’t you know how important food is to a culture and that by avoiding it you are avoiding connecting with your host culture?

You who buy food from the local market and street vendors, don’t complain when you get typhoid or amoebic dysentery. It’s your own fault. You know how unsanitary all that is.

You who use cars and drive everywhere you go, how will you ever become part of your community if your neighbours only see you coming and going through tinted windows?

You who walk or bicycle everywhere, your community is embarrassed to have the only missionary without a car. If you had a vehicle you could use it to better help the community.

To the missionary full-on embracing your new culture and abandoning your own, you’re “going tribal” and that’s a pretty foolish thing to do. You’re headed towards a cultural identity crisis.

To the missionary clinging tightly to your home culture, opening up those clenched fists won’t make you un-American or whatever. You’re alienating yourself by not loosening up.

You who go on furlough every summer are basically telling the people you serve that your vacation is more important than pastoring that young congregation, translating scripture, or helping the suffering community through that health crisis. Your actions don’t match your message.

You who wait years and years before taking a few months away are going to have a nervous breakdown. Missionary burnout is well documented and you jeopardize the long term work.

To the missionaries who own modern appliances, what a frivolous waste of donations. You should be living at the same standard as the people you serve.

To the missionaries without modern appliances, you are frivolously wasting time doing things the hard way when you could be spending that time ministering instead.

You who attend language school, you are probably substituting a classroom for relationships within your community.

You who learn language on your neighbourhood streets, your approach takes forever and if you just went to a school it would be a much more efficient use of time. You could get to actually ministry sooner.

You who attend the expat church on Sundays, think about the message you are sending to the local Christians. It might not be with words, but with your actions you’re saying there’s something wrong with their churches.

You who attend the local church are neglecting worshipping in your own language and culture. You hypocritically insist the local Christians should worship authentically in their own cultural way, but you don’t do it yourself.

To the missionaries who send their teenagers off to boarding school, you are risking the emotional health of your kids when they are already at their most vulnerable ages.

To the missionaries who home school their teenagers, you alienate them from all their friends who have all gone off to boarding school and you’re risking your child’s academic development.

You who pastor and translate and evangelize but don’t include seeking justice and meeting physical needs because that’s just not your ministry, aren’t ushering in God’s Kingdom here on earth.

You who spend all your time doctoring and building clinics and teaching new farming methods are forsaking the gospel and might as well just be humanitarian workers. There are more important and eternal things at stake.

You who hire house helpers, gardeners, and cooks should be ashamed of your colonial attitude.

You who do it all yourself without house helpers, gardeners, and cooks, are pretty selfish and stingy for not providing employment when you clearly have the funds to do so.

To the missionary already decades in the field, your methods and mind-set are outdated.

To the brand new missionary, you haven’t been here long enough to understand the complex layers of this culture and in your zeal you’re making some really stupid and damaging mistakes.

Hope this helps and you feel suitably convicted.

Thanks and yours truly,

Judgmental, but totally righteous, Missionary Me

I am Peculiar Here, Might As Well Embrace It

This morning I made my children soft boiled eggs and served them in egg cups. Yes, egg cups. Watching my children eat their breakfast out of a somewhat obscure dish in the realm of dishes, it struck me as quite strange. I live in the highlands of Papua in a valley accessible only by air and inhabited by thousands of tribal people, many of whom still live in traditional grass roof, dirt floor wooden huts. At the same moment my children were scooping runny yolks and spreading it on crunchy toast, my neighbors would be enjoying their own breakfasts of rice, or instant noodles, or sweet potatoes roasted in a fire.

Yes. In the world I live in, egg cups are strange. But then again so are forks and knives.

We had invited a local colleague over for dinner and decided we’d treat him to a traditional English dinner of Shepherd’s Pie. Actually, if you’re wondering, I am American. My husband is British, but after living in England and coming up to 16 years of marriage, I rather inevitably learned how to cook British food. I make a decent cup of tea too – the proper way. Anyway, back to the story…

Our colleague sat down at the table with us and hesitated to start eating. “Is it ok? Do you have any questions?” I asked. “Well, this is the first time I’ve used these.” he said pointing to the fork and knife beside his plate. My husband gave a fork-holding, knife-cutting demonstration. “Would you like a spoon?” I asked and quickly got up from the table to fetch one.

Another time the mothers of my son’s friends came by to collect their boys. They had all been playing with cars in the living room of our small apartment, and since usually an older brother came by when it was going-home time, I was delighted to have these two women in my home. We chatted for a bit and I offered to show them pictures of my parents and family. They had never met a westerner before and so were quite curious about us.

I stepped out to the bedroom to collect the photos. and as I walked back into the living area, the ladies had opened my refrigerator and were peering inside. As far as they were concerned only shops had refrigerators. I stopped before they saw me, backed up and cleared my throat to give them a chance to shut the fridge before I walked in. They did, and I stepped in to show photos, pretending nothing unusual had happened.

Egg cups…cutlery…. home refrigeration… let’s add buying in bulk to the list, too. I do a big shop once a month and can read the checkout clerk’s thoughts every time, “Do you have some sort of problem? Why would you possibly need that much toilet paper?”

We are in our fifth year in our highland home. I’d like to think I’ve got the hang of living here, but the reality is I probably truly understand about 20% of the cultural happenings around me. The society here is so complex, and I am so bizarre to them.

Back in language school, I tried really hard to integrate. I wanted acceptance and deep friendships. I wanted to be treated like “one of us” instead of “that westerner.” I thought success was in my grasp as I’d made many friends. Then one day I overheard a friend explaining who I was to someone else. She didn’t know I was there listening and said, “She’s that westerner, I forget her name.” I teasingly called her out and we all had a giggle, but still the disappointment remained – she didn’t even know my name.

Five years later, I’m still mostly “that westerner.” I guess I can take comfort in the fact that at this point a lot more people do know my name, but it still isn’t what primarily defines me. Nowadays I’ve given up the integration dream in favor of peculiarity.

You see, peculiar is something I can do. I can serve dinner with a fork and knife, along with the optional spoon, to a friend who does know my name. I can buy 24 rolls of toilet paper and address the clerk’s inner confusion with a joke about weak western stomachs. I can use and explain egg cups, my daughter’s stroller, duvet covers, eating raw greens (aka salad), our gas stove, and a thousand other peculiar things.

Peculiarity is something I can embrace because it’s what I really am. Of course I am hopeful the longer I live here the more I’ll understand the intricacies of this culture. But why fool myself? Someone will probably always want to sneak a peek in my fridge.

Accompanying Spouse Job Description

I used to have a job description. I had hours, and a lunch break, and yearly goals. I knew what was expected of me and someone paid me to do it. Then I moved overseas as an accompanying spouse.

“What will you do when you move overseas?” people would ask. As an accompanying spouse without a specific job I would answer, “Oh, I’ll be a full time mom and who knows what else.”

Who knows what else turned out to be a legit part of my new unwritten job description.

Of course over the last five years there have been a lot of predictable tasks. Language learning, culture learning, home schooling, cooking, cleaning… But this post isn’t about those predictable tasks. This post is all about the Who knows what else that we find ourselves doing without any explanation other than, someone has to do it so it might as well be me.

Animal nurse: After the local vet killed 4 of our kittens with a vaccine overdose, I sucked up my ick factor and got to it. I can dusk chickens for mites, clean and tend wounds, and keep a dog’s persistent case of mange in check.

Gardener: I’m not naturally a green thumb. In fact, I have yet to successfully grow cilantro or jalapenos. This is one of the great sadnesses of living where I do. However, I have successfully grown tomatoes, cabbage, green onions, pear squash, basil, and lettuces. There are no less than 19 lettuces in my garden at present because while flavorful Mexican food may be out of reach, salad is not.

Medical advice enthusiast: “Please let me take you to the doctor.” is a request I’ve made numerous times. I’ve portioned out pills, given endless reminders of doctor’s orders, tended wounds, and felt the helplessness of watching a hurting person seek help from a traditional method that harms more than it heals.

Club Starter: I led a chess club today. Never saw that one coming. But here, you quickly realize if you want your children to have an opportunity to participate in activities they are interested in, you will probably have to start it yourself.

Local fool: Wish my neighbors a Happy Birthday instead of a Merry Christmas? That was me. Insult someone’s cooking when I meant to compliment it? Yep. Smile and nod when I have no idea what’s going on? Absolutely.

Butcher: The first time my meat arrived in a black plastic bag still attached to the fur was a bit of a shock. I lifted the hunk of flesh and was grateful ears were still attached so at least I had an idea what part of the pig we received.

Pro Tip: Soak the chunks of cleaned up meat in bleach water to kill off maggots and eggs, and don’t forget to semi freeze meat before grinding to minimize blood splatter.

Librarian: Children’s literature is one of my loves and I’ve managed to collect hundreds of books, even here overseas. Anisha, I’m looking for a book. Do you have a book about… is a request I can usually help with.

Baggage mule: My hand luggage has included spices, shoes, mobile phones, seeds, frozen ground beef, sausages, exercise equipment, medicines, letters, broccoli, strawberries, papaya… When you live in a town only accessible by air, “Can you take with you…” and “Can you bring back…” are common and reasonable requests.

I think I’ll write myself a new job description. It’ll be short and to the point. Narrow enough so I know what’s expected of me, but broad enough to cover other eventualities. Maybe something like:

Position: Accompanying Spouse.
Duties to include:

Nope. Can’t be done. At least I tried.

Adopting While Living Overseas

We did something I thought was impossible. We adopted a child while living overseas.

Adoption has been on my heart for years. Even before we were married I shared with my husband my dream of building a family entirely through adoption. In 2012 we adopted our son from the US foster care system and a year later moved to Indonesia. Since Indonesia has very restrictive adoption rules and while abroad we couldn’t adopt again from foster care, I thought one adoption must be it. All doors were closed…except they really weren’t.

There are so many reasons people pursue adoption. This post isn’t really meant to tackle the Big Why. I’m going to assume if you’re reading this it’s because adoption is already on your heart. You know why you want to adopt. You know what a huge blessing children are. Now you just need to know whether or not you should, or even can take the next step.

So many questions…

What about all the paperwork?
For Americans living abroad, there are a handful of adoption agencies specializing in expat adoptions. A simple google search will bring up some of the most well-known. Each agency will have different country programs. You’ll need to find an agency that can work with you as an expat and can legally facilitate an adoption in the country you wish to adopt from. The paperwork process is hugely intimidating, but a good agency can guide you through each step. (For other nationalities, the process may be different. You’ll need to contact the government office that overseas adoptions in your home country and ask for guidance.)

Isn’t it an expensive process?
Yes, at least it was for us. And no, we didn’t have the funds upfront. Paying two separate governments’ fees for immigration paperwork and adoption approvals, plus travel and agency fees all added up quite quickly. In the end, we were able to fund the adoption process through savings, donations from friends and family, grants, and an interest free adoption loan. Our agency supplied a list of grant organizations and I took on writing grant applications like it was a full-time job.

What if we can’t handle our child’s needs and we have to leave the field?
It could happen, but it could also happen if you have a child by birth.  Or something else could happen that causes you to leave. The fact is that we have no guarantees for the future. Today is all we have been given. Today I am able to serve overseas and am grateful for it. Today I am able to trust God with my family. Today I am able to trust God with my future.

Also, exercise wisdom. In adoption, unlike birthing a child, we have a choice about who we adopt. Look around your community – who do you have serving with you? In my team there is a physical therapist and in the community two very competent medical doctors. As we chose to adopt a child with special needs, we looked over the list of medical conditions supplied by our agency and discussed what needs we could reasonably expect to be able to handle in our community. For us it went like this… Hydrocephalus? No. Limb deformities? Possibly. Albinism? Yes. Heart disease? Possibly…  Narrowing down medical conditions will greatly help in guiding the process.

But what about emotional and mental health needs?
It is very possible the child you adopt will have significant emotional and mental health needs. A child living in an institution their entire lives will have no idea how to live in a family. Abuse, hunger, trauma, and lack of stimulation are all very real experiences for many children. Even if a child experienced none of those things, adoption itself only exists because a child has experienced the huge loss of their family.

In the lead up to the adoption, you’ll have to complete agency specified training. Attachment-based, trauma-informed intervention parenting is a real thing. Equip yourself well, but also connect yourself well. By far, the most help we’ve received has been from other been-there-done-that parents of children from hard places.

Ultimately remember this – the security of a loving forever family is a tremendously powerful healer. And while you’re on the road to healing, there is a lot of help out there if you look for it.

What if I start the process and it never works out?
About the middle of our adoption process, the country we were applying to changed their rules and under the new rules we did not qualify to adopt. For one agonizing week I worried we’d spent our savings, raised donations, and invested an enormous amount of time in paperwork for nothing. Thankfully we were grandfathered in as we’d already been registered in the country’s central adoption authority’s system. But for many other families, the door closed and they were left heart broken.

While I’ve never experienced a failed adoption process, I have lost a child. I know the excitement and hope of expecting a little one only to have the doctor say, “I’m sorry. You’ve lost the baby.” Hope cut short in adoption is much the same.

Just as the risk of losing a child in pregnancy is very real and even common, so is the risk of losing an adoption placement. But the risk doesn’t stop you from trying.

If you’re considering adoption as an expat, can I just encourage you to take it one step at a time? So many children around the world need families. I can’t guarantee it will all work out. I can’t guarantee a happily ever after, even if it does. But here’s what we do know about God:

A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows,
is God in his holy dwelling.
God sets the lonely in families,
he leads out the prisoners with singing;
but the rebellious live in a sun-scorched land.
Psalm 68:5,6

God loves and seeks out the vulnerable. He sets the lonely in families…maybe even in yours.

***

Life in 4 Suitcases, 22 Kilos Each

Last night I dreamt our visa paperwork came through and when I woke in the morning packing panic woke too.

Imagine with me: You have to figure out how to fit your family’s current and 1.5years of future life into 4 suitcases, 22kilos each.

Why don’t we just buy what we need when we get there? Because in our overseas home men’s shoe sizes stop at a 10 and my husband is an 11.5 and never mind trying to find trousers to fit his long legs. I may be a medium in the US, but there I’m a XXL and there just isn’t much XXL on the island of petite and slender. They don’t sell kid underwear. Or English books. Or chocolate chips. Or body lotion without added bleaching agent. Or allergy medicine.

Daunting, isn’t it? I’ve become an obsessive list maker.

I’d like to think I’m naturally organized, but more likely the lists came about as a coping mechanism, my little bit of felt control when life shifts continents.

I’ve got lists for…

Kid clothes – Not just what fits now, but several pairs in graduating sizes because if they are comfortable now we can reasonably trust they’ll be comfortable in the next size up.

School supplies – Chose curriculum that doesn’t require a lot of printing or anything beyond basic science supplies. (Red cabbage juice is not basic. Neither are Styrofoam balls, masking tape, or lemons)

Groceries – Tea. Gum. Taco seasoning. Pepperoni. Vanilla. Chocolate. Dried fruit. Pecans if at all possible.

Birthday decor – Black Panther napkins for the 7 year old and something with rainbows for the 3 year old. If there’s room add themed plates and maybe even a table cloth.

Clothes for grownups or at least new underwear
Christmas and birthday presents
Stationary
Sheets
Flea and tick meds for the dogs and cats
Can I fit a bread machine this time?
What about an ice cream bowl for the kitchenaid?
Vitamins: (1 vitamin/day x 4 people) x 548 days = 2,192 chewables
How heavy are pizza pans? Google light weight pizza pan.

The lists are alive with items added, erased, and prioritized over and over in the lead up to leaving. Still, no matter how thorough and specific the list making, I will inevitably unpack overseas and think, Dang. Sure wish I’d remembered to bring roach killer… or some other essential thing.

A wise expat friend told me, “I try to be content. If I can’t bring it or find it here then I don’t really need it.”

She’s right. I can be content even if everything on my list doesn’t make it. I’ll be sad if I forget the chocolate chips or have to scratch the bread machine off the packing list, but I guess I don’t really need them. A couple new bread pans from town may not be my favorite, but would do just fine. Sugar cookies will work too, even if I’d rather have chocolate chip.

Hands down the attitude I bring wins over any number of essential items I may forget or not be able to bring. I can pack up contentment right alongside everything else.

(And hopefully that bread machine will fit too.)

Where Love Leads

Four years ago my husband and I moved our family to Indonesia. We’d spent the previous decade studying and working to gain the experience needed to serve in a highly skilled capacity overseas. Just when we paid off all our debt and actually started making nice salaries with great benefits, we left and began living on donations from friends and family.

On the one hand, it was an incredibly exciting time. We were finally doing it! We made the leap! On the other hand, it seemed really stupid.

We made good money – Why not just donate?
Our skills are useful in the US too – Why not stay and serve in our own community?

But moving overseas isn’t the first crazy thing we’ve done. It was just the biggest in a long chain of little events spread throughout the previous decade. If you looked at the pattern of our life, you could see it coming.

When people ask about why we moved overseas they usually start the conversation by asking about our calling, as if one day God just dropped the missions bomb and said, “You are called to Indonesia. Go.” Maybe this happens to some people, but it didn’t happen to us.

It’s more that we like other cultures, see in scripture how much God loves the world, want to use our skills to serve where needed most, and enjoy the added bonus of feeling a great sense of personal fulfillment serving overseas.

If I get right down to it, we chose to serve overseas because we really wanted to.

The want to has been growing in us since directionless teenage years. When we got married we took that want to and prayed for direction, discussed it with mentors and family, and looked for opportunity. In the process God did something really wonderful – He opened doors for us to go.

Recently I thought back over some of the doubts I had before we left. It can feel like we chose some hard alternate reality to live in. Especially in the difficult times overseas I wonder what would have happened if we’d just stayed, if we hadn’t chosen this other life when God brought the opportunity.

Would we be happier? Would we feel more secure financially? Would we be healthier people?

In our case, we actually have a lot of the answers to our doubts. The job I loved with a great salary has changed dramatically. My husband’s job would likely have been terminated. Even the center I’d volunteered at and considered my ministry has closed down. I would have lost my old life whether we moved overseas or not.

Herein lies my peace: There are no guarantees in life save God’s unshakeable love.

That’s where we plant ourselves, driving roots deep in the love of Christ. As we know and experience Christ’s love for us as individuals it grows and extends, pushing outward towards the hurting. Our want to merges with God’s passionate pursing love for the lost and His want to becomes our own.

We moved overseas because we wanted to and God gave the opportunity to. We’ve stayed because the love of Christ compels us.

I don’t know how long we will have opportunity to serve overseas, but I know we can trust Him with our future. We can continue to bring our desires to God and step through the doors He opens. We can delve deep into God’s love and let it lead.

Overseas or not, that love always leads to the hurting.

***

For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.
(2 Corinthians 5: 14-15)

40 Ways to Build Community Overseas

Community: When it’s good, it’s so good! When it’s bad, it’ll knock the stuffing out of you. Trust me, I’ve been a part of both.

Moving overseas, this longing for good community seemed to increase a hundred fold in me. It’s so easy to feel isolated and alone even if we really aren’t.

In my quest for good community, I initially believed some myths. I thought we should all be friends, all agree, and all be happy with each other all the time. Perhaps we needed some grand manifesto we’d all agree to, some bold outspoken commitment to community.

What I found instead was a vibrant community of differing opinions, personalities, and even people I don’t necessarily get along with. We don’t have a manifesto and we aren’t all best friends, but I’ve found a home here. Good community is worth the tension of navigating differences.

I think community grows stronger through persistent, seemingly unremarkable actions. Grand gestures are sometimes needed too, but they aren’t the foundation of good community. It’s simple things like sharing a meal or helping someone solve a problem that builds up trust and respect over time.

Reflecting back on my time overseas, I put together a list of community encouraging actions that I’ve witnessed, received, or done myself. This isn’t written as a “must do” list, but rather as an encouragement for you to think through what you can do to build the community you long for.

40 Ways…

  1. Invite someone over for a meal
  2. Drop off a meal
  3. Send a spontaneous letter or card
  4. Babysit
  5. Host a party or open house
  6. Teach someone a new skill
  7. Ask someone to teach you a new skill
  8. Join a sport
  9. Organize a community event like a yard sale or Christmas program
  10. Attend a community event
  11. Greet people
  12. Give a special welcome gift when someone new arrives
  13. Play games together
  14. Host a movie night
  15. Help fix someone’s computer, stove, motorcycle, whatever…
  16. Invite someone camping, on a hike, a picnic, or bike ride
  17. Tutor children or host a home school co-op
  18. Set aside space in your luggage to carry back items for someone
  19. Bring small gifts back when you return from furlough
  20. Join a bible study or prayer group
  21. Host a bible study or prayer group
  22. Don’t gossip
  23. Keep confidential sharing confidential
  24. Offer to help someone with gardening
  25. Say “Thanks” when you see someone helping the community
  26. Offer to drive someone
  27. Ask someone about their day
  28. Do a task that needs to be done, even if you’re not responsible for it
  29. Ask about someone’s family back home
  30. Send a card to someone who moved away
  31. Read someone’s newsletter and comment back on it
  32. Bring snacks to a meeting
  33. Make special snacks for someone with food allergies/sensitivities
  34. Let others know when you see special items available in the store
  35. Lend things
  36. Donate to a financial need
  37. Be an emergency contact
  38. Check up on someone ill or injured
  39. Help someone even if it isn’t convenient
  40. Be nice even if you don’t like or agree with someone

I’d love for you to add to this list or share your stories of building a good community. Feel free to do so in the comments.

Managing Stress Overseas

Moving overseas, I thought trusting Jesus and obeying what he asked me to do would get me through thick and thin. I’d been through some major tough stressy stuff in my pre-overseas life, and leaning hard into my bible study and prayer led me through. So I should be good, right?

I’d like to give an uber spiritual Yes! Just trust Jesus!, but I can’t. Sorry about that.

The problem was I hadn’t expected smaller pockets of stress and grief building on one another. I’d never been home sick, and unable to communicate well with people around me, and friendless, and struggling in my marriage, and battling armies of ants in my kitchen, and home schooling an unwilling child, and unable to find basic groceries, and dealing with unwanted visitors, and intestinal acrobatics, and…and… and… all on a daily basis.

After years of stress upon stress with no real understanding of how to handle any of it, I knew either something must change or I would burn out. I could not sustain the life I lived.

Recognizing and addressing the compounding nature of stress takes a lot of practice. And unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be a magic formula either. However, we have found helpful ways to address stress when it rises and also some routines to help protect ourselves from overdoing it in the first place.

The list shared below is what works for my family right now. It doesn’t mean we’re immune to the effects of stress, just that we have a plan to deal with it. Also, each person in my family experiences and deals with stress differently, no doubt you will too. So we do some things together as a family, but we also pick and choose what works for us as individuals. Ok, ready for the list? Here it goes…

Get more sleep.
Pre-overseas, 6-7hours was a great night sleep. It took a long time for us to realize we could no longer function on that amount of sleep. If I’m to function well I need 8-9hours of sleep each night. To get those extra hours, I actually have to be in bed by 9pm. At first it was really hard to lose my alone time evening hours, but the payoff for sleeping longer is well worth it.

Practice thankfulness.
Every evening we each write down at least one thing that happened during the day that we are thankful for and collect these notes in a jar. On the really crummy days, thankfulness is so hard. We have written things like, “I’m thankful I didn’t yell at anyone today.” and “I’m thankful I cried instead of eating all the chocolate.”

Every Sunday evening we dump out all the notes and read them together as a family. These notes are precious reminders that even when things are looking bleak, God is steadily and tenderly caring for us.

Name it.
Saying, “I’m very tired.” or “I feel sad right now.” or “I feel very angry.” may seem basic, but it gives a lot of freedom to actually deal with emotions instead of snapping at each other.

Have a physical outlet.
We have a punching bag, balance ball, pull up bar, jump rope, and resistance bands all out and available in our living room. Sometimes all you need is to give a sturdy bag few good hard punches and you’re on the road to feeling better. We also do gardening, jog, ride bikes, walk – anything to give our bodies a physical outlet for stress.

Protect your hobbies.
I love painting, drawing, and playing piano. My husband plays guitar and drums, and enjoys video editing. But when we moved overseas, creativity ceased. For 3 years I didn’t draw or paint, he rarely had time to create videos, and only very occasionally would we play music together. These extra activities were simply lost in the chaos of our new lives. We considered them hobbies and although enjoyable, thought hobbies are expendable.

This time around, we’ve smartened up. Although engaging in creative hobbies does take time, they are also life giving. So we commit to play music together every Sunday and to make space in our week for creativity. Hobbies are not expendable.

Get regular pastoral care.
One of the big things we miss living overseas is having access to pastoral care. In difficult times we ached for someone to sit with us, pray with us, and point our eyes to Jesus. Setting up skype calls isn’t the same thing as sitting together, but does bridge the gap. Having someone from the outside who you give freedom to speak into your life is a tremendous help.

***

There you have it, my family’s self-care list.  These are the routines that work now for us. We may need to reassess in the future and that’s ok. How about you? What routines have you found helpful in managing stress?


The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

One of my favourite stories of all time is Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. If you haven’t read it, you really should! This post is written with thankfulness to Judith Viorst, the author of Alexander’s bad day, who taught me many years ago that, “Some days are like that”.

The Very Bad Day

We lost power last night and it was so hot without the fan I couldn’t sleep. Then my neighbour’s rooster decided to take advantage of the fan-less quiet night and crow under my window till dawn. I definitely couldn’t sleep. This morning my clothes on the line still weren’t dry so I had to wear damp underwear and I could tell it was going to be, as Judith Viorst says, a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.

At breakfast my husband ate weet-bix and my son ate coco puffs and I picked the cornflakes and there were ants in my cornflakes. My powdered milk was lumpy even though I used a whisk.

I think I’ll move back to Florida.

On the way to the market my son kicked off his flip flop and it fell into the ditch. I tried to be nice and get it out, but the ditch is a sewer and I couldn’t reach his shoe with a stick and it made me gag. I cried and yelled at him for kicking off his shoe and he cried and yelled at me for being a mean mom.

Before heading out to teach kindergarten co-op I forgot to make coffee and so forgot to bring craft supplies. Instead of an educational activity to finish off the lesson I sent the kids to the playground for 45 minutes because who can remember craft supplies with no coffee?

When I got home I checked e-mail and saw a message from another missionary mom. I’d told her I was tired and it’s hard to parent and home school my son overseas and she said she was pregnant and homeschooling three children when she was overseas. Yeah well that’s nice for you, I thought. And even though Jesus says to love your enemies I hated her for being able to do what I can’t. I’m pretty sure Jesus wasn’t talking about other missionary moms.

I think I’ll move back to Florida.

For lunch I ate tofu and rice for the 186th time in a row. My food was dry so I added hot sauce, but I added too much and it burned my mouth and made my eyes water.

It was a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.

After lunch we called for an update on our visa renewals and after months of waiting and promises that today would be the day we were told to try again tomorrow.

Yeah well tomorrow I’ll be in Florida.

This afternoon the neighbours threw a party and parked motorcycles in front of our house and blocked the gate. I couldn’t open the gate. I hate the neighbours.

For dinner I ate tofu and rice for the 187th time in a row because the cargo planes are down for maintenance and the shops ran out of flour and chicken.

In the evening the power went out during my shower and I had to stand in the pitch black hoping there was still fuel in the generator so I didn’t have to go to sleep with shampoo in my hair. My husband said there was no fuel so I had to rinse as best I could with the water still in the pipes. I cried in the dark. I hate the dark.

When I went to bed the rooster crowed beneath my window. I really hate that rooster.

It’s been a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.

But Judith Viorst is right, “Some days are like that.”

Even in Florida.

***
On the very bad days, humour and writing keep me from packing my bags and moving back to Florida. Have you had a very bad day recently? Write your own in the comments and share it with us.

Furlough (for the uninitiated)

After three years serving overseas, our agency asks personnel to take a 6 month furlough to reconnect with supporters, spend time with loved ones, and decompress. As we geared up for spending half a year jobless and living out of suitcases in other peoples’ houses I wondered: Will we even survive?

Yes, change and transition are difficult, but I fear boredom above all else. For my family, boredom is bad. We are the kind that thrive on somewhat predictable days and gain a good sense of fulfillment from having a job to do. We just aren’t very good at being bored and still being nice to each other.

Five months in and I have no idea where the time went. Visiting supporters and sharing about our overseas work definitely takes up time, but it doesn’t come close to filling up all our days.

Furlough, it turns out, is for much more than I initially imagined it would be…

Furlough is for rest. It’s for emotionally and mentally unpacking all the good and bad of the previous term and starting to make some sense of it – maybe with the help of a counselor. It’s time for finally getting a full night’s sleep. It’s time for creative rest by indulging in the hobbies you neglected overseas. Your fingers still remember how to work a paint brush even if you haven’t touched one in years.

Furlough is for food. It’s recovering hours you’d normally spend disinfecting and peeling and slicing. It’s having all ingredients on hand. It’s the absence of typhoid and dysentery. Furlough is all the meals you grew up with and love. It’s for all things dairy, especially cheese.

Furlough is for connection. It’s realising that although many won’t have the time or interest to hear your stories, some will. Furlough is for thankfulness that grandparents are still around to spend time with. It’s family reunions and weddings and new nieces and nephews. Furlough is treasuring those special friendships that neither time nor distance can fade.

Furlough is many little jobs instead of one big one. It’s pressure washing great grandma’s house, clearing out garages, mowing, weeding, and chopping down trees.

Furlough is for medical appointments. It’s for doctors and procedures and really hoping all that insisting, “Brush your teeth!” to your child has paid off with no cavities.

Furlough is for sharing cultural experiences with your third culture kid. It’s public swimming pools, church in English, regionally popular sports, movie theatres, and theme parks. It’s whispering cultural cues like, “This song is called the national anthem. Stand up and put your hand over your heart while we sing.”

Furlough is for missing your overseas home. It’s wondering about your house, your friends, your animals. It’s listening in on every Asian speaker to see if they are speaking ‘your’ language. Furlough is for finding an international fellowship to help you feel more at home.

Furlough is for education. It’s enrolling in courses to better equip you in serving. It’s books and school supplies. It’s library days and internet fast enough to enroll in an online class.

Furlough is for shopping. So. Much. Shopping. It’s spice packets, kitchen appliances, insecticides, clothes, books, sunscreen, Christmas and birthday presents, water purification systems, electronics, nerf guns, and Lego. It’s making purchasing decisions based on suitcase weight.

But there’s no denying – for everything that furlough is, it’s also for boredom. Some days all the jobs are done and you just want to go home. Some days you’re tired of suitcases and other peoples’ houses.

Although there are frustratingly boring days, thankfully most are the good kind. The kind of boredom that’s for naps, walks in the woods, novels, and bike rides.

You’ll be busy again soon enough. For now, it’s ok to be a little bored.

Living the Dream

By all accounts — we’ve made it. Our decade long dreams are today’s reality. My husband’s dream of flying helicopters in mission aviation is his actual job. My dream of stay-at-home mommying and writing biographies is my everyday life. Our together dream of living in a foreign country found us setting up home in Indonesia.

We’re living the dream!

I’m not trying to be a downer, but let me just put this out there — if you’re working and planning and dreaming towards some lifelong goal and putting everything you’ve got into that future pot — it might not be all it’s cracked up to be.

Maybe you want to get married or have children. Maybe you want to serve overseas, to learn the language well, to finally be able to put all your training into action. So you, like us, scrimp and save and work your tail off. You make a five year plan, a ten year plan, whatever it takes. You tell yourself all the sacrifice now will be worth it in the end. You’ll get your dream and you’ll be happy. You’ll finally be fulfilled.

But what if you’re not? I mean, I’m not.

Oh you might have a really good honeymoon phase once you get that dream. That marriage, it’ll be so romantic in the beginning. You’ll be with the love of your life and feel like you can take on the world together. Then you’ll get in a stupid fight over whether to add milk to scrambled eggs.

That beautiful child you bring home, the one you look at and think he is so perfect! He’ll turn four and speak to you with more sass and rolled eyes than your 15-year-old self ever did to your parents.

That life overseas will feel so good, you’ve finally got the life you’ve been working towards. Except there’s now that one super annoying teammate and never enough time to get even close to everything done.

Don’t get me wrong. This isn’t a forget about your dreams message. It’s more of a Hey, your dreams are cool, but they’ll split you sideways. 

I am living my dream, but my left eye has been twitching for a week from stress. I’m so thankful to be a stay-at-home mom, but this morning all my son did was argue and fight. I can’t believe how privileged I am to record life stories for a biography project, but my brain literally aches from thinking so much in a foreign language. I’m enormously proud of my husband’s flying, but he comes home exhausted. I love living in another country, but I miss the anonymity of just blending in.

Sometimes, it all gets too much to handle and just really sucks.

Bottom line — if you’re assuming that dream is going to usher in some new joyous existence, that your self-esteem will flourish, you’ll finally feel fulfilled, you’ll wake up each morning knowing beyond a shadow of a doubt this is what you were born to do, well…

That’s not exactly what happens, or at least it’s not what happened for me.

It’s more like Wow, this is a lot more than I thought it would be. I’d better get to work.

****

This post originally appeared on www.namasayamommy.blogspot.com and has been modified for this site.

Debriefing: Do I need it?

My husband and I didn’t know if we needed debriefing, we just knew we needed help. By the end of our first term we were worn out, angry all the time, and felt like our emotional buffers were paper thin. It didn’t take much to send us from seemingly content to all guns blazing.

I’d already started skyping regularly with a counselor and made some progress. Talking with her was like having someone open your eyes to the reality that you are not just having a series of bad days/weeks/months/years, you’re actually in a pot of boiling water and unless you can turn down the heat, you’ll croak.

But how to turn down the heat? Wasn’t this just life here? Wasn’t this what I signed up for? Well, yes and no. She recommended debriefing.

It just so happened teammates were also looking for ways to turn down the heat and had booked into a weeklong debriefing retreat. We were intrigued and booked in too. We weren’t sure what debriefing was or how it would help us, but felt good about going with friends.

On Day 1 of the retreat we anonymously wrote our expectations on a board displayed in the meeting room. I wrote, “To learn how to live well and parent well in a violent and stressful environment.”

Each day following we were assigned homework, a “tool” to work on, and scheduled time to meet with our individual debriefers. Over the week we would create event timelines for the period we wanted to debrief, identify losses, discuss grief, open the scriptures, and address needs.

A particularly poignant time for me was the discussion of primary and secondary losses. It goes like this:

Event: A man attempted to rob me.
Primary loss: Nothing. I managed to keep hold of my bag.

So I’m fine, right?

Maybe. Maybe if this was an isolated incident or maybe if I had a different personality, I might be able to just move on. But it wasn’t and I don’t. This attempted robbery joined a long string of stressful/scary events. This is where secondary losses come into play.

Secondary losses usually go deeper and are harder to identify. While I kept my bag, my sense of security in my surroundings was once again shaken and my trust in the people of my host country took another blow.

As I talked with my debriefer and worked through identifying all the events and losses of the last three years, I felt a lot of sadness and disappointment.

Why had God allowed all these bad things to happen?
Where was God in all of this?
Why won’t He act?
Does He even really care?
Is He trustworthy?

My debriefer leaned forward, “So, in light of all this you need to ask yourself –  If this is who God is, why keep Him?”

That moment. In that moment right there all the weight of events and sadness of the last 3 years came to a screeching halt. All my questions and doubts replaced with a new question:

“God, would you show me who you are and who I am to you?”

At the beginning of the week we read the story of the Walk to Emmaus in Luke 24. Jesus had just been crucified and buried. His followers hoped Jesus would be the one to restore everything, but now he was dead. Their hopes were crushed.

As the disciples walked along the road discussing all that happened, Jesus, unrecognized, came and walked with them. He chided their wrong thinking and opened the scriptures to them. As the story unfolds the disciples eventually realize Jesus is walking with them. There was still hope, unimaginable hope!

I went into debriefing looking for a plan of action. I wanted someone to tell me what to do to live well. I didn’t get that. Instead, throughout the week as I looked back and talked over all the events of the last three years, I hadn’t realized that Jesus would be there – walking with me, chiding me, pointing out truth, revealing who He is.

Although we still have many challenges, we now also have tools to help us walk through hard times, feel freedom to set better boundaries, and are working on a self care plan for this next term. Mostly, we have hope.

***
If you’re considering debriefing, I hope you find this post helpful. I’d love to tell you debriefing will fix everything. It won’t. But if you are having a hard time seeing clearly and need some help to do it, debriefing may be a good first step. A great list of missionary care and burnout resources can be found here: http://www.saritahartz.com/missionary-care-burnout-resources/