How to Talk to People

In the first week at my new high school I dumped an entire bowl of chili on my lap. For a shy kid who didn’t know anyone, this was devastatingly embarrassing. After the chili incident, I resolved to never ever under any circumstances enter the cafeteria again. Through the rest of high school I ate lunch hiding in bathroom stalls, behind bookshelves in the library, or just ditched altogether.

I’m still a naturally shy and introverted person. If you meet me these days it might not seem like it, but I really am. Thankfully it’s possible to learn and even become good at meeting and talking to people.

Serving overseas generally requires lots of social interaction (read this post on how to survive all that). Now that we’re on furlough, I feel as though we’ve had to crank it up another notch. There are just so many people to meet and talk with. So, how do we do it?

Weird is good, too
When it comes down to it, I think the root of my shyness is insecurity. I worried about what someone else would think of me to the point it was easiest to just hide. I’m weird. I’m awkward. I’m not funny. I’m not interesting. I’m not pretty. All of these reasons kept me locked in fear, but the truth is it’s totally fine to be weird, awkward, laugh at stupid jokes, have my own interests, and have the body I have.

I still have a tendency to fall back into that kind of thinking, but generally can replace those “I’m not” insecurities with “I’m not” truths: I’m not mean. I’m not a gossip. I’m not rude. I’m not a liar. I’m not selfish. I’m a good friend!

You don’t have to click with everyone and that’s ok. Weird is good too, but it’s still important to identify and deal with the root emotions behind why you struggle to talk to people.

Bring an awesome friend
You’re booked to speak at a church or small group and dread the after presentation conversation. Bring an awesome friend! Ask someone who is naturally gifted at conversation to go with you and make a game plan with them ahead of time. At one time, I even had a code word to signal for help.

You can also copy what your friend says. Listen for their conversation openers and how they carry or shift the conversation along. A few key sentences and your confidence will increase by leaps and bounds. For me, copying the line, “Do you have an interest in (whatever type of mission you do)?” forever banished the awkwardness of manning a conference table and not knowing what to say to people who came up to look at our brochures.

Bringing along a friend who can help you initiate, carry, and bring conversations to a natural close is not only a huge confidence booster, but loads of practical help.

Arm yourself with information
Find out as much as you can about the people who will be there. If it’s a small group, see if you can get names and a general run down of what people do/are like. Church photo directories are a great help too. It’s not that you want to freak people out by knowing lots of details about their lives, you’re just trying to get a feel for who it is you’re mixing with. Saying, “I heard you have a new grandbaby. Congratulations!” is much easier than flailing about trying to find a talking point.

Reintroduce yourself
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been introduced as, “This is Anisha. She’s a missionary.” Unless the other person also serves overseas, for most people this type of introduction is the inevitable destroyer of genuine connection. So to salvage the conversation, I’ll reach out for a hand shake and offer a quick reintroduction, “Yeah, we’re in Indonesia now, but used to live around the corner from here and are back visiting for a few months. What’s your connection to this town?” Now we have somewhere to go.

I can follow-up with even more questions to broaden the conversation:
If they are from somewhere else: “What brought you to this town?”
If they’ve lived here all their life: “How lovely! I’ve moved so much that having a solid sense of home is something I’ve always wished I had. But maybe you feel the opposite? Ever wished you could live somewhere else?”

We can branch out further and talk about about Indonesia, or places we’ve been or would love to go, or experiences abroad, or maybe we do circle back and talk about missions. However the conversation turns, it’s less likely to be forced or awkward because we’ve established common ground.

Make your exit
Some days I am totally on it and conversations flow and I feel great. Other days, it’s not so hot. That’s ok! If a conversation is a struggle or it’s winding down and getting awkward, I can excuse myself. I could go to the restroom, get a drink, or even smile say something quirky like, “Well, that was fun. But I need a nap so I’d better go home before I get grouchy and you stop liking me!”

Still not a natural
Although I’ve come a long way since that mortifying incident in the high school cafeteria, I’m still not super great all the time at conversation with people I don’t know well. It doesn’t come naturally and I have to work at it. Sometimes those old lies drown out the truth and I can’t do it at all. That’s alright. I know that trying is worth it. I’ve met some remarkable people, had amazing conversations, and am richer for it.

Hard Truths

At a recent ladies’ retreat the speaker asked, “What are the hardest truths to believe about God?”

Before moving overseas, I thought I had a pretty good handle on Christianity. If you’d asked me about hard truths just 3 years ago, I might answer: Um, interpreting the book of Revelation?

Moving overseas complicated a lot of things. Sunday school answers quickly failed. Hard truths? Oh, yes. I’ve got ‘em…

Running Scared

About a month ago my son and I rounded a corner and walked into a crowd of about 50 men. A shop owner explained, “There was an accident. They are going to beat up the driver.”

My six year old shouted, “Let’s go, Mommy. I’m really scared!” I grabbed his hand. Run!

We began to move away. This wasn’t the first time we’d been on the street when violence erupted. Get out. Get to safety. Don’t let your son see this.

But this day, I froze. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t run away.

“I’m so sorry.” I said, “I know this is a lot to ask of you, but we need to stay. We need to call the police if they fight, I’m not sure anyone else will. We need to know the man in that truck will be ok.”

My son started to cry and I started to pray. God, are you really big enough? Are you big enough to meet my son in his fear, and stop that mob of men, to care for the man in the truck, and to make me bold?

Thankfully, this story ends without a fight. After a few tense moments the group disbursed. “Mommy, you were really brave,” my son said as we walked away. I didn’t feel brave. I felt scared and irresponsible.

That evening after the event in the street, I said to my husband, “It was right to stop and make sure the man would be ok, I know that. But what about our son? I’m not sure it was right for him.” We discussed some of the different scenarios we’ve faced on the street and the inevitability of encountering more. “You could look for a safe place he could wait so that he doesn’t have to see everything,” my husband suggested. We agreed our son should have a chance for debriefing and set up a counseling Skype call.

Big Questions

What are the hardest truths to believe about God? These days, for me it’s the most basic truths:

God, are you really big enough? Do you really see it all? Are you really at work here?

In his book Prayer, Tim Keller writes, “It is remarkable that in all of his writings Paul’s prayers for his friends contain no appeals for changes in their circumstances. It is certain that they lived in the midst of many dangers and hardships. They faced persecution, death from disease, oppression by powerful forces, and separation from loved ones. Their existence was far less secure than ours is today.”

Keller then explains it isn’t wrong to pray for protection or ask God to supply our needs, and that Paul also instructed believers to pray for these things. So what is it that occupies Paul’s recorded prayers for his friends? Keller writes, “It is to know him (God) better.”

God, are you big enough? is simply another way of saying, God, I need a profound sense and deep experience of the reality of your presence. I need to know you here.

The Big If

Is God present? Yes, of course He is. Can I know and be changed by His presence? Yes, of course I can.

Here’s where those yeses become real – If God is present, sees all, and is at work in all, then I can trust Him. That’s a mighty big if.

If God is present: I can trust Him with my son – God’s love for him is deeper than my own. I can trust Him with the man in the truck – God cares for him infinitely more than I do. I can trust Him with the mob of men – God’s sees and loves even them. I can trust Him with myself – God lives in me.

At this point in my life, these are the hardest truths about God for me to grasp. I wish a single event could cement in my mind and heart that God is indeed present and that I can indeed trust Him. But the cathedral of this truth isn’t built in an instant. Instead, it rises slowly through prayer and response, moment by moment, and brick by brick.

My Pre-Furlough Mind

In 32 days, it’s furlough time! After 3 years serving overseas, we’re heading back for 6 months. We are completely and ridiculously over the moon excited. My son keeps asking if we can go straight from the airport to the mall. The other day my husband sighed, “Right now I just want to be sitting in front of Simmon’s Bakery eating an iced bun.” As for me, I dream daily of swimming pools and running in the woods.

I can’t wait to see everyone, hug, laugh, and hold on tight because for the first time in years we are actually standing in front of one another. But, oh boy, there it is – the plain fact that it’s been years since we left. A lot of life happens in 3 years.

As I prepare for furlough, I’ve got 7 things on my mind…

1)When we left, Downton Abbey was on season 3
Is Downton Abby even still on? The last I know, Lady Mary and Matthew finally got engaged. Popular music? No clue. New words to make their way into pop culture? Again, no idea. Three years ago, the Harlem Shake ruled the internet and pre-teens lost their minds over Bieber swag.

2)My son is going to think something “normal” is really funny and weird.
My son has spent half his life in Indonesia. We’ve been coaching him on how things are done differently back in our family’s passport countries, but I’m sure we’ll miss something out. Last trip back, he loudly pointed out all the bare breasted statues at the garden centre. While other children walked by without so much as a glance, giggles and shouts of, “Look Mom, more nipples!” trailed after me through potted plants.

3)I’m afraid I won’t remember names
I feel really bad about this one and I might be panicking for no reason, but I’m still panicking. I can see it all play out in my mind – We’re at church. A familiar face heads towards me. I’m smiling and wracking my brain but no matter how hard I try, I just can’t remember a name. Perhaps this is all completely irrational, but it’s still freaking me out a bit.

4)My clothes are awful
Before going overseas, I promised myself I wouldn’t be one of those odd looking missionaries showing up to Sunday services in old, worn out clothes. Unless I make it to the store before Sunday, I absolutely am one of those missionaries. My clothes are old. They have holes and stains and are stretched from line drying. I need to go shopping. And a for haircut. I really need a haircut.

5)We’ve experienced trauma
We’ve had some bad things happen to us. We’ve scheduled a debriefing retreat, are getting counseling, and are working through hard things. We’re putting structure in place to better care for ourselves. Still, I worry people will think we’re a bit off or perhaps emotionally raw, but won’t understand why.

6)I need more than 5 minutes
When friends say, “So tell me about life in Indonesia”, I have no idea how to answer. I might say, “It’s good!” but really, what does that even mean? I’m holding out hope someone will say, “Welcome back! Let’s go for coffee and long catch up.” and we can both listen and share about our lives over the last 3 years.

7)My ‘Thank You’ isn’t enough
How can I adequately express just how thankful I am for everyone who prays, encourages, and supports us? I’ll bring back a woven bracelet or some other unique thing from my overseas home and say, “Thank you. We wouldn’t be here without you.” but am still so aware how short words and trinkets will fall. However sincere, my ‘thank you’ isn’t enough.

***

What’s on your mind pre-furlough?

The Measure of Success

The year I failed algebra for paying more attention to boys than the teacher, mom and dad grounded me for the entire summer. Freedom on one condition: I had to take algebra summer school and achieve an A in the class.

I worked my rear end off. I puzzled out each equation in the math book, stayed after class for tutoring, and turned in every imaginable form of extra credit. No matter how hard I tried, I still couldn’t break the B+ glass ceiling. On the last day of summer school, I finally hit an A- for the class by scoring 100% on the final exam which, by the way, I didn’t actually earn. My teacher learned of my plight, saw how desperately hard I worked, and in the end gave me an “A for effort”. With two weeks of summer break remaining, I finally earned my freedom.

That summer sucked, but it taught me two really important things –

  • No boy is worth summer school.
  • Struggling and failing are not the same thing.

Failing was simple. Smile and pass notes with the boys. Ignore the teacher. Get lazy with homework. Justify the uneasiness in your insides: You’re just not good at math, so why bother trying?

Struggling? That’s completely different.

At the end of that algebra filled summer, Mom told me, “If you’d worked as hard as you did over the summer and still didn’t pass, I wouldn’t have cared. I would have been proud.”

Fast forward 20 years.

I live overseas and, in an odd way, life is pretty comparable to that summer of algebra.

Perhaps there are people more naturally gifted at living overseas who sail through with minimal amounts of effort. I’m not sure such a person exists, but even if they did, I’m definitely not one of them. Life here for me is fraught with difficulty and it’s easy to feel like I’m failing. I’m still the struggling summer school student.

Despite how I feel, the good news is that struggle does not mean I’m failing. Let’s replace struggle with a synonym and you’ll see what I mean. Thesaurus.com gives us some great words and phrases for struggle like: strive, endeavor, go all out, make every effort, plug away, and try one’s hardest.

Ok, so maybe you’re reading this and saying, “I am trying my hardest, but I’m still failing!”

I’d like to challenge that.

Are you neglecting something important? Have you been lazy or idle? Do you ignore instruction? Are you justifying actions you know are wrong? No? Then shake off that guilt. You aren’t failing, at least not at what really matters.

Before we go on, I should point out that struggle also does not guarantee success as we see/define it. No matter how hard you try, you might not ever really learn the language. People will still reject you. Projects will be left unfinished or fall flat. You may never be fully funded. You’ll still get sick, have awful experiences, and probably need counseling. You may have to leave your overseas home.

The point is this – Sure failure and success matter, but not to the extent we credit them and probably not in the way we tend to define them either. What really matters is how you answer the question: Am I faithful?

I love the passage in Matthew 25 when Jesus tells the story of the master who went on a long journey and entrusted three servants with different amounts of money. When the master returns home and asks for an account the first and second servants report their success doubling the money, but the third servant makes excuses and says he dug a hole and hid his money. The master commends the first two servants, but reprimands the third.

You might be tempted to think this story is evidence of the high importance of results. It’s not. This story is more about character than it is about success or failure. David Guzik’s Study Guide for Matthew 25 puts it this way:

Well done, good and faithful servant: This shows that the master looked for goodness and faithfulness in His servants. Whatever financial success these servants enjoyed came because they were good and faithful. The master looked first for these character qualities, not for a specific amount of money.

Did you get that? Success is great, but it’s not the first thing. God is looking for goodness and faithfulness.

When it comes to children, we all know that’s the truth. We celebrate the child who works hard no matter what level of success they achieve. We are proud and pleased when they make every effort with what they have. Our heavenly Father does the same.

So let’s shirk off this guilt and fear of failing. We aren’t lazily burying our gifts; we’re investing and working hard. May success come, but may we also recognize that it’s the quality of our character, the condition of our hearts, that matters most to God.

God,
You know me. The life and talents you’ve given me are no mistake; they are not too much or too little. You know my fears, difficulties, and disappointments. It’s true that I would love success, but even more than that, I want to be found faithful with what you have given me. I want to be pleasing to you.
Amen.  

I Signed Up For This

highlands

In the early 2000’s when my husband and I talked about serving overseas, we knew we wanted to serve where the name of Jesus had not been heard. Today, we live in a mountain town accessible only by air. My husband, a helicopter pilot, flies local and foreign missionaries into isolated villages. The places we serve have no roads or airstrips. To reach one village it would take 4 days of hiking through jungle and over mountains, but that same trip is only about 20 minutes by helicopter.

Last year, missionaries in that particular village reached language fluency and taught through the bible from creation to the resurrection. We witnessed the very first people of this tribe become brothers and sisters in Christ. Amazing! When I talk about this tribe, I still get emotional.

For another tribe, the bible translation project was completed. After decades of effort, this tribe can finally read all of scripture in their own heart language. Imagine the joy! God speaks your language, too!

More than half our flights are medical evacuations. Lacking basic medical care, something simple to address in a hospital becomes life threatening as the sick or injured can’t hike to town. It could be a new mother who retained the placenta after giving birth, or perhaps there was an accident with a machete in a garden, or someone fell from a tree collecting the special branches near the top. Our helicopter can fly in a doctor or bring the patient out to the hospital.

All sounds pretty cool, right? I think so. I mean, isolated people groups? Bible translation? Church planting? Saving lives? Yes! I signed up for this!

I even signed up for power outages and limited internet. I knew that was part of the deal, plus tropical illnesses and home sickness, too. I signed up for living off of donations, studying a new language and culture, cooking from scratch, home schooling, and battling bugs in the kitchen. All of these challenges although difficult, at least were expected.

I’ll tell you what though, there’s a heck of a lot I didn’t sign up for.

I didn’t sign up for jealousy. For wishing I could be like her, and why does she do everything better than me? and It’s just not fair!

I didn’t sign up for shattered trust. For someone we employed and helped for 2 years to threaten us, or for the teenage girl I mentored to run off with her boyfriend.

I didn’t sign up for anger. For bitten tongue and clenched fists as men jeer at me, or for slapping a man for grabbing at my son.

I didn’t sign up for trauma. For helplessly watching a man beaten to death in the street, or getting caught up in an armed protest.

I didn’t sign up for fear, confusion, or grief, but they are ever willing companions.

I know it’s Christmas time, but it’s the back end of the story I keep thinking about.

In following Jesus, I’m sure the disciples signed up for miracles and teachings. They would have even signed up for life constantly on the road, for depending on donations, for crowds, lack of sleep, and being challenged by the religious authorities. But I bet they didn’t sign up for betrayals, arrest, and the cross.

It’s the cross, their unthinkable, that led us here.

Despite all the unthinkable things that happen, all that I didn’t sign up for, I know a day is coming when all suffering will cease. My heart clings to that good hope and the words of the Apostle Paul in Romans 8:18-21 take root. The Message puts it this way:

That’s why I don’t think there’s any comparison between the present hard times and the coming good times. The created world itself can hardly wait for what’s coming next. Everything in creation is being more or less held back. God reins it in until both creation and all the creatures are ready and can be released at the same moment into the glorious times ahead. Meanwhile, the joyful anticipation deepens.

One day, all will be set right. Sin and shame, both inside of me and all that I encounter in the world, will end. And this isn’t one figurative day or a nice thought of ‘perhaps one day’, but one specific, fixed day in time. In 1 Thessalonians 4, the Apostle Paul describes that coming day and concludes in verse 18, “Therefore, comfort one another with these words.”

This past year was full of unexpected events that cut deeply and left me crying out, “Oh God, I didn’t sign up for this!” I need the comfort of words pointing to the good reality coming.

There is no comparing these present hard times to what comes next.

The good, specific, appointed time is coming!

God is reining everything in until all are ready.

Let your joyful anticipation deepen!

This December, this is the truth I need: The baby Jesus grew into the man who gave His life for the world. He is coming back! At the appointed time, all will be set right.

That, after all, is the reason I’m here. It’s the reason I signed up.

So You’re Thinking About Serving Overseas?

conversation

Thinking about serving overseas? Great! These are exciting times!

I wish you and I were having coffee. This is definitely a coffee conversation. Hopes and dreams are meant to be shared face to face, but in the absence of that, this will have to do. You’ve got a lot to think about and if I may, I’d like to share some questions that I hope will help you in this process.

How long have you wanted to do this?
Maybe you grew up overseas and the thought of living long term in your passport country never even occurred to you. Or maybe in high school you found yourself praying “I’ll go, send me.” in an empty Mexican church (that’s my story). Or maybe you just finished a Perspectives class and a fire lit up inside you. When, how, and what happened? You need to know your story of how this wild idea took root in your heart because in all likelihood there’s a heavy hand of discouragement coming. Knowing your story will help keep you grounded when doubts begin.

Are you willing to commit the time?
Perhaps at this very moment you are superbly qualified and ready to go, but more likely you’ll need some training. Depending on the capacity you will serve in, this can include everything from months to many years. For my family, getting to the field was a 10 year process of training, gaining industry experience, attending bible school, and finally language school. Are you willing to take the long view and make every effort to obtain the skills and experience needed?

Are you in debt?
For some agencies, debt is a flat no go. I won’t tell you that you must be debt free to serve overseas, but I would definitely encourage you to make every effort to have as little debt as possible, especially if you will live on support. All sorts of unexpected expenses come up overseas and you’ll want to have as much freedom with finances as possible.

What do you expect to get out of serving overseas?
Hard question, huh? Do you expect to get to use your training/profession? Learn the language well? Make local friends? Be safe? Get along with your teammates? Experience God in a deeper way? Join a local church? It’s really important to carefully think this one through. Every one of those expectations has shattered for either me or for someone I’m close to. So own up to your expectations now before they confront you on the field and grief throws you off balance. Don’t think it won’t happen, because it absolutely will.

Do you know your inside sins?
If you thought analyzing expectations was difficult, this one’s the real kicker. We’ll use me as an example: I have a big mouth. I know it’s likely to get me in trouble if I don’t keep it in check. Mean and careless words are one of my outside sins, but they are rooted in my inside sins of self-centeredness and arrogance. Here’s the really important part – when you’re overseas, hiding inside sins gets real hard real quick. Overseas, keeping my mouth in check isn’t good enough, I have to let God address my inside sins. So if you’re like me and pretty good at keeping the outside stuff in check in your “normal” life, abandon all that now and let God do some poking around in your heart.

Who will support you? Who will do everything in their power to stop you?
It may come as a surprise, but not everyone will be as super thrilled as you are. Friends may think you’re crazy or taking this religious thing too far. Family members, especially if you have children, will grieve a very real loss. It may be that those you thought would support you are all out opposed. How will you handle this? Will you be so stung you respond in anger and shut down relationships? Can you acknowledge their grief as acute and painful? Can you walk with them with grace and love?

What if it doesn’t work out?
What if you go through all the training, all the support raising, all the goodbyes, then land in your field of service and you’re sick all the time? Or there was some kind of miscommunication between the field and recruitment and you’re actually not needed? Or your visa falls through? Have you considered the possibility that even if you are stepping out in faith and obedience right now, at some point in the future serving overseas just might not work out? Because it might not; it really might not. Can you hold all of this loosely in an open hand?

Do you have a Harry and a Connie?
Harry was one of our professors in bible school. He and his wife, Connie, served decades in Latin America and still make trips back to visit. Inside the classroom Harry taught from personal experience about burn out, serving under abusive leadership, raising a family cross-culturally, how to spot dangerous electrical wiring, and how the culture shock curve isn’t always spot on. Outside of the classroom over pancakes he and Connie gave us the best gifts someone aiming for overseas service could receive – they gave us their stories and their open hearts. If at all possible, find yourself a Harry and a Connie.

One last thought
I know you have a lot to think about, but before we sign off, I’ll leave you with one last thought– Serving overseas is a tremendous privilege, it really is. It’s a massive mixture of pain and joy that I wouldn’t trade for the world. If you choose to, I hope you get the opportunity to go. I’ll be cheering for you.

How to Encourage Your Overseas Worker

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Someone in your life serves overseas and you want to encourage them in a meaningful way, but aren’t quite sure how? It’s actually easier than you might think. Take it from me, when you live overseas, the biggest encouragements often come through small, heartfelt actions. Here are 7 suggestions for how to encourage:

1) “Thanks for the newsletter!”
Newsletters are such pesky things. It takes near miracle level effort to produce a readable glimpse of faraway service/life on a single side of A4. We agonize and write and re-write and finally lick the stamp or press the send button, and then…Chances are, not many people read it (no judgement, I don’t always read all the newsletters I receive). If you do read it, or even just scan it to get the gist, sending back a quick “Thanks for the news!” will literally make your overseas worker jump for joy. If you take it one step further and comment on what you’ve read and mention you’re praying for them (but only if you really do!), they may very well explode with happiness.

read-newsletter
How it feels when someone responds to my newsletter.

2)Ask me to pray for you
If you receive a newsletter from an overseas worker that includes the line, “Let me know how I can pray for you!” you need to know – they mean it. In fact, they are already praying for you. So share a little. Let them know you are burdened for your grandson, or need wisdom for how to deal with a work situation, or all your kids keep passing around colds. It is an absolute joy to pray for you.

3)Birth announcements, save the dates, and graduation pics
Send them. I know it will take a special trip to the post office and a bit more stamp money. I know your overseas worker probably won’t be able to make it to the event. I know it’s not practical. But while most everyone else you send that card to will chuck it after a short while, your overseas worker will cherish it for possibly years and want to hug you every time they see it.

4)There’s an app for that
If you want to keep in touch on a more regular basis, e-mail and skype calls are good, but in this age of technology we have so many more choices. The two apps I use most are Voxer and WhatsApp. With our limited internet, video messages are difficult, but voice messages mostly seem to go through just fine. It’s just plain fun to leave voice messages back and forth with friends and feel like even if we are multiple time zones apart, we’re still tightly connected. Ask your overseas worker what the best method of communication is for them and if they’d be up for giving an app a try.

5)About care packages
When it comes to care packages, the best advice is to ask before sending. Don’t assume your overseas worker needs taco seasoning and Skittles. Maybe what they really need is hand cream without skin whitening chemicals and play money to teach their kid about their home country’s currency. It can be pretty expensive to send a package overseas so if you’re going to go through all the effort, you’ll want to make sure to send the right items. Also, your worker will have specific instructions for how to write the address and how to fill out the customs form to avoid paying tax on a gift.

6)Help them rest
If your overseas worker depends on financial gifts from donors, you may want to ask if they have a vacation budget. If they don’t, or if it’s a really measly amount, consider sending a special financial gift for this. Help them save up to rent a place for a couple weeks or maybe what they really need is babysitter money for date nights. If you’ve been following along with your worker for a while and realize you haven’t seen them take a break, or far too few breaks, send a message and ask what you can do to help them get the rest they may be missing.

7)Visit
I’m not talking plan a short term missions trip and bring a team. I’m saying visit just for friendship’s sake. Visit so you can have coffee together, clean vegetables together, walk dusty roads together, talk by candlelight when the power goes out together. Experiencing life as your overseas worker lives it is an encouragement like no other. It can be tricky, depending on schedules and your relationship, but for my part at least, if you’re interested enough to come visit I would love to have you! I know many others feel exactly the same way.

Now that you’ve read my 7 suggestions for how to encourage your overseas worker, don’t feel obligated to do them all or even most of them. Just pick one to start. Give it a try and see what happens! I bet you’ll be encouraged too.

Culture Shock: On the Up Curve

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Coming up to three years in country and most days are finally ok. It’s been almost a year since I broke out in sobs because I burnt granola, or couldn’t find oats in town, or judged a friend better at everything than I am. Through the free fall from honeymoon into disillusionment and then the bottom scraping hostility stage of culture shock, I am now somewhere on the up curve. Life is evening out. I laugh a lot more. I feel at home. The contrast between the earlier stages of culture shock and life today is quite startling (take courage, newer friends! It really does get better!).

These days my emotions are a lot more subtle in their attempts at a hostile takeover, but separating the truth from intense feelings still remains a challenge. Here are some of the recent battlegrounds…

1) My neighbor is a jerk
My neighbor revs his motorcycle annoyingly loud, even early in the morning. What’s his problem? Doesn’t he know people are still sleeping? Then my husband’s motorcycle started to have the same problem – you have to rev the engine to warm it up so there’s enough power. Why? I don’t know, but it’s typical, really…

I feel like my neighbor is totally inconsiderate, but he’s actually just trying to get to work.

The truth is I was much more open-minded when I first arrived. Back then I knew I didn’t know anything. Now that I know some things I tend to take for granted that I still don’t most things and am way too quick to judge.

2) Cock-a-doodle-DON’T
Did you know roosters don’t start calling at dawn? That’s a myth. In reality roosters are much more flexible. The one that sleeps by the fence outside our bedroom window is somewhat of an overachiever – he starts around 1am.

A bit delusional after many sleepless nights, a friend once grabbed a shovel and whacked a rooster out of the tree by her bedroom window. Another friend, when woken in the night by his neighbor’s rooster, used go outside and loudly cock-a-doodle-do right back.

I feel like roosters are annoying, but I’ve got coffee to get through the day.

The truth is sleep deprivation amplifies stress in every area. When asked to peg to the general level of stress in my life I use the scale of Zero to “I’m gonna whack the rooster”.

3) Hallelujah I’m out of language school!
In language school (mine at least) we mainly learned the high/formal version of the language, how it’s printed in the newspaper and spoken by the highly educated. But in my town, where most people leave school by the third grade and everyone’s first language is one of hundreds of tribal languages, I quickly learned to speak more like the people around me. This is good in that it works well where I live, but go anywhere else and I speak very basically, even rudely depending on the situation.

I feel like I speak well enough and can just trust everyday conversations to eventually reach fluency.

The truth is I would get a lot out of formal language classes. Now that I have a framework for the language, places in my mind to hang new concepts (and I’m not totally overwhelmed by just trying to live every day), formal study should probably be revisited.

4) Why don’t I have friends?
Before moving overseas, I had the idea that making authentic local friends would be relatively easy. I’m nice. I’m honest. I like people. People like me. These things have always added up to friendships. But here, where the culture gap is so staggeringly wide? It’s a much different story. After a couple attempts at friendship that seemed to go nowhere, I finally thought I’d made an authentic friend. Then one day she just disappeared. I haven’t seen or heard from her in months. I’m told that’s pretty common.

I feel like it’s not worth all the effort.

The truth is I need to chuck my pre-overseas friendship expectations. My pastor in the States likes to say, “Trust plus time equals love.” Cross-culturally, establishing trust over time is long, hard work. It was a bit simplistic of me to think otherwise.

5) Watch it! You’re going to lose your witness!
I grew up in a church culture that spoke of ‘losing your witness’, the concept that you must be careful to live according to a standard of Christian holiness because to fail/sin in public would compromise the gospel message. Now, take that concept overseas where every moment is watched and evaluated. It’s pretty intense. We are openly stared at on the street and eyes peek through fence gaps while our voices carry through open windows.

I feel like I must never ever lose my temper, speak an ill word, act selfishly, or be unkind. If I do, I will be rejected by the people around me and all my hard work will be wasted.

The truth is that’s a bunch of hogwash. Yes, I am responsible for my actions and yes, my actions do impact how others perceive and respond to me – all the more reason to dump this white-washed perfectionism and live authentically. Sincerity, truthfulness, always aiming for love, owning my mistakes, genuine apologies, making amends, and forgiveness are the real witnesses.

It’s a curious thing, living cross-culturally. You do gradually start to get the hang of life, but there’s always something else waiting to happen. Still, I can’t help but feel optimistic. If I’ve learned anything through this culture shock roller coaster, it’s that while my feelings may shoot about wildly, I can trust truth to calm and guide them back.

Don’t Peak in Language School

peak

{Peaking: Mountain top experiences. The phrase “Peaked in High School” refers to an adult whose significant achievements all occurred in high school.}

Sophomore year of high school I joined the choir class (as opposed to the cool kid musical theater club, which required auditions. Choir class accepted anyone.), but since I’m actually a terrible singer, I spent most concerts silently mouthing “Watermelon, watermelon, watermelon.” along to the words.

During the mid-semester solo evaluation I struggled so badly the teacher finally took his hands off the piano keys and remarked with a sigh, “Well, uh, I guess at least you can transition between your head and chest voice relatively smoothly.” That was the closest I ever came to a compliment in choir class.

The next year, I joined track (no tryouts and a guarantee not to be kicked off the team). This went well and I enjoyed being part of a team until I realized that joining track wouldn’t magically fix my slow and clumsy pace, but would do an excellent job magnifying it in front of everyone I knew. And since you can’t mime a race, I quit running. (These days I do run, still slow and clumsy, but since nobody is depending on me to cross a finish line within a certain number of minutes, I can enjoy stumbling along).

One semester I took dance for gym class (as opposed to cheerleading, which required auditions. Apparently I have a thing for new experiences as long as there is no risk of rejection). Even though I worked really hard on my end of semester modern interpretive dance, I still got a C for the class (which when it comes to gym class is exactly a rejection).

While I floundered in extracurricular activities that could have made me cool, I did alright in history, writing, and language – things that didn’t make me cool. That’s ok though, because in the end it didn’t really matter.

In grownup life it doesn’t matter if you were the cool kid or the biggest nerd in school. This is really good news for run of the mill kids like me.

Language school is just like high school. Do your best and try new things, but don’t take yourself too seriously.

As a brand new missionary, it’s easy to freak out. You finally made it to the field and now supporters are counting on you, your agency is counting on you, God is counting on you. You’ve got to do this right and you’ve got to do this well. You’re a professional Christian now – time for results! At least, that’s how it felt for me.

In language school, there are cool kids everywhere and just like in high school it’s really easy to fall into the comparison/be like them trap. Don’t. No amount of choir lessons and miming concerts could turn me into a star alto in high school and no amount of flash card drills and choppy neighborhood conversations will turn you into a culturally savvy missionary in language school.

Ok yes, language school is important just as high school is, but in the big scheme of things, even just a year from now, nobody is going to care if you talked to 10 people a day or had a private tutor. It won’t matter if you did ministry after class and preached on Sundays, or holed up at home for the hottest part of the afternoon in the air conditioning watching funny YouTube videos with your family. No one will care if you aced every language evaluation or have test anxiety and barely scraped through.

When you’re done with language school, there are only three things people care about:

  • You learned the language sufficiently for your job.
  • You were flexible when things went wrong.
  • You were kind to others.

Just after the one year mark in country, smack in the middle of culture shock and lamenting my struggles to adjust, I received an e-mail from a 20 year veteran missionary to my area. To paraphrase, he wrote, Disillusionment is normal. You try really hard in the first year, but your efforts seem to go nowhere. My wife and I evaluated our work at the 4 year mark and realized we were just at the point of breaking even. Our presence in the culture was finally about 50% positive / 50% negative instead of a mostly negative impact. It’s a shame people tend to leave at the 4-5 year mark, just when they are starting to become effective for ministry.

Admittedly, at 2.5 years in, I’m writing this post mostly to myself. Anisha, don’t peak now. You’ve got a long way to go! I finished the required language classes more than a year ago, but am so aware of just how much I lack. For a while there, I did get caught up in the Be The Cool Kid trap, but thanks to repeated bouts of dysentery (if anything will keep you humble, diarrhea will) and since I’m hard wired to ask every long term missionary I meet, “What advice can you give me?” thankfully that stage only lasted a few months.

Taking myself too seriously now would be just as ridiculous as it is in high school. So I repeat the accumulated wise words of those who’ve been at this much longer than me:

Relax. Trust Jesus. Don’t stress. Keep learning. Stick with it. Keep investing. Be nice.

When all those teenage missionary insecurities rise to the surface and life feels like I’m jazz hands-ing my way through gym class, I like to remind myself – It’ll be ok. After all, you made it through high school.

***
Got advice? Go on and share it in the comments.

How to be a Real Missionary

Wonder woman

My first attempt at overseas missions was a rather spur of the moment decision. As I made plans to drop out of college and get an apartment with my best friend, Dad showed me the website of a medical mission in Africa and suggested I give it a try. So I did. I didn’t think about training, or have any idea of how long I’d serve. I just went.

Side Note: Although I served for 2+ years with that mission, I still didn’t consider myself a real missionary. I just dabbled in a life others spent decades in.

My next missionary attempt included nine years of preparation. From the start, my husband and I carefully considered training options and aimed for long-term service. This time I would finally be a real missionary. We joined an aviation mission and moved overseas again.

In those years of preparation, I began to develop a sense of what kind of missionary I wanted to be. I wouldn’t be like those missionaries, you know – the ones who might stay forever, but never really connect with the people or the culture. I would be a real missionary, you know – like Amy Carmichael (55 years in India without a furlough), Hudson Taylor (the man got huge results), Shane Claiborne (made the vow of poverty cool), Don Richardson (that clever ‘redemptive analogies’ guy), and Elisabeth Elliot (missionary to her husband’s murderers).

The trouble was, I couldn’t do it.

Truth: The only thing you need to do to be a real missionary, is to be a real person.

To be a real missionary, you don’t need to stay overseas for decades without a break. You don’t need to take a vow of poverty. You don’t need to start hundreds of projects. You don’t need to write books. You don’t even need huge results.

But I should tell you (and this is really important): you have to learn to be a missionary as the person that you are, not as the person you wish to be.

You are not too young or too old, too extroverted or too introverted, too technically minded or too artsy, too busy with a family or too single. It’s just you – and you are who you are.

Side Note: I really wanted to be an extrovert missionary. I’m not an extrovert. I failed in this. It’s ok though. God uses introverts too.

The whole of you becomes a missionary, not just the part that fits the job description. Your life experiences, your hang-ups, your sense of humor, your world view, your fitness level, your hopes and dreams – all of you, not a bit gets left out.

The real missionary is the person who takes all of who they are and willingly offers it back to the Lord. It’s not about striving to become a missionary, but willingly and joyfully surrendering who you actually, truthfully, really are.

Those other missionaries? The ones whose stories amaze and inspire? They are more like guides. Your own specific missions path is God’s to reveal, but you can still learn from theirs. You learn from their mistakes, successes, joys, and frustrations – but they do not define who you are.

Side Note: Corrie ten Boom is one of my heroes. I read her stories of simple acts of courage in Nazi-occupied Holland, her time in a concentration camp, and her incredible work in forgiveness and extending love to enemies. I’m inspired! I long to see that kind of fruit in my own life! Except… “God, It’s cool if you use me like Corrie, but can we just skip the whole concentration camp part?” Often I want the results of someone’s life, but not the suffering it took to get there.

Truth: You don’t have to be someone else, even if they are really cool. God’s got loads of good works prepared for you – yes, you!

What ultimately matters is that you are good clay. All the training, programs, aspirations, and strategies in the world don’t matter if you aren’t willing and pliable in God’s hands.

So you want to be a real missionary? Take a good look inside. With heart and hands wide open, offer yourself to the Lord.

“God, It’s me – just me. I’m not sure how you can use me, but I am willing.
Whatever you have in mind, I’m all in.”

Once you’ve laid it all out there, freed up from expectations and comparison, you can be who you really want to be – God’s own. Loved and loving others.

About Those Expats

flags

Before we start, I’ll own the fact that I’m writing from my personal/American perspective. So if you’ve got something to add, please do. We’ll all benefit.

I very much liked my Dutch roommate, right up until we had to decide where to hang a set of shelves. She wanted them on the outside of the cupboard door while I thought they should go on the inside. She called my idea stupid. I called her selfish. Our disagreement intensified until I finally yelled, “I can’t live with you! I’m going to the Chaplain’s office and asking to move!”

At 19 years old and less than a week on the mission field, I experienced my first relational blow-up…over shelves.

In the 15 years since those fateful shelves with my very first Dutchie friend (in the end we worked everything out) I’ve lived and worked with people from 64 different nations, including marrying a Brit. These relationships have provided a lot of hilarity, deep connections, and a very healthy dose of my-culture-isn’t-king growth.

If you’re part of an expat community, I bet you have relationships with expats from different countries too. I’ve learned a thing or two about navigating these relationships – mostly that I’m good at giving grace to the people I’ve come to serve, but it’s easy to be stingy with fellow expats.

Sugar and spice
Cinnamon rolls are one of my most favourite things. Light, fluffy, loaded with melted butter, cinnamon, sugar, and dripping with icing: pair all that with a hot cup of coffee and I’m in heaven. So imagine my dismay when I discovered many other cultures do not share America’s level of cinnamon devotion and many think our desserts are far too sweet.

My mental train went like this: Not like cinnamon? You’re kidding, who doesn’t like cinnamon??? And yes cake should be sweet! That’s why it’s called cake! WHAT’S WRONG WITH YOU PEOPLE?

The answer of course is that not liking cinnamon isn’t really so odd. I’d simply taken for granted that the pretty commonly loved cinnamon roll of my country is not universally adored. It rocked my world.

There are loads of things like that, not just cinnamon rolls or even food. Things from my culture that I want others to enjoy because I enjoy them and find them special.

Now we have a choice – Serve it up as is and accept that the beloved thing isn’t beloved by all. Or, change it.

If you choose to change it, this can make you feel kind of sad. Don’t worry, it’ll be ok. It won’t be Grandma’s blue ribbon recipe, and you’re going to have to lay off some on the cinnamon and sugar, but now everyone will love it. Plus there’s a bonus: Seeing their enjoyment will make you happy too.

Say What You Mean
“Hi. How are you?” smiled the American passing by.
“Oh, not too well. I’ve been ill and I’m behind on my work and this and that and the other…” said my British husband who stopped to give a real answer.

A common theme among friends of different nationalities is confusion over why Americans ask how someone is doing when the only expected answer before rushing off is, “Good. You?”

The result: I think I’m being friendly and my friend thinks I’m rude.

If you’re in a hurry, something like this would be much better… “Hi! I’m just rushing off, but didn’t want to miss saying hello to you. Please excuse me. Hope you are well!”

As a general conversation rule, just politely say what you really mean and ask what you really want to know. You’re still being friendly, and now your friend thinks so too.

Play Nice
Our family’s playground mantra is, “We play with everyone. More friends equal more fun!”

I am the Mama who just absolutely can’t stand seeing kids excluded – mine, yours, anybody’s. It hurts my heart too much. I’m all for letting squabbling kids work out their differences, but I also ultimately want to see everyone playing together and cooperating. I know. That’s a tall order for the playground, and for that matter, for expat relationships.

Play nicely and try to get along, I tell my five year old, and I also tell myself. Because here’s the thing – some cultural traits are really annoying and you might be tempted to just stick with those who are the most like you. You’ll be offended by Dutch directness, frustrated by German exactness, and exasperated by British pessimism. But you know what? You’re annoying too. Americans tend to be loud, prideful, and overly sensitive.

In the words of the Apostle Paul in Romans 12:18: If it is possible, as far as depends on you, live at peace with everyone.

Summing it Up

  • Accept that some things you love aren’t universally loved, or change it to be more palatable for all.
  • Say what you mean and ask what you really want to know – be clear and intentional.
  • As much as possible, try to get along with everyone.

Of course, this isn’t anywhere near an extensive list, but it’s a start. We all know the world of expat relationships is complicated, but it’s also a richly rewarding one.

And even after years and years, when you begin to think you’ve got the hang of it, you’ll move to a new community and realize you’re starting from scratch. You may have known a lot of Dutchies before, but these new friends are counter-cultural Dutch Reformed, and that changes everything.

***

P.S.: I recently asked a Dutch friend if she had any cross-cultural training before moving overseas. Her response, “Not really about the people here, but I did have training on how to relate to Americans.” Ha!

P.P.S.: Dutchies, You guys rock.

It’s Not That I Don’t Try

useful
I am a homemaker. My husband is a missionary helicopter pilot.

A while back we had a “How was your day?” conversation that went like this…

Husband: “We flew over to pick up a few people from the crash site and take them back to the hospital. Tom went back with stretchers to pick up a few more people. Then we flew three more external load trips. Then back to the crash site with the governor. And I need to wash my gloves. I got dead pig all over them.”

Me: “Oh. Well, umm… I mopped the floor today.”

Like homemakers the world over, my days are full with the regular stuff of raising my son and keeping house. I just happen to do it in a foreign country and under the banner of missionary service.

Being a full-time mom is busy, but I still try to accomplish a few meaningful missions-like things. I work on writing projects from home, organize a pre-school book club, mentor a young woman, and attend a local church. The trouble is, my meaningful missions life keeps getting interrupted.

Writing projects, estimated to take around 6 months or so to complete, have dragged on for a year.

Pre-school club activities are many times thrown together the night before.

The time and emotional investment of mentoring begins to feel like it’s all in vain.

I haven’t been to church in three weeks.

It’s not that I don’t try. But with all the laundry, cooking, cleaning, home schooling, play dates, shopping, bible studies, surprise visitors, planned visitors, and team meetings, ministry projects are relegated to late evenings (it’s currently 9pm) and weekends.

After several valiant attempts to get organized (including spreadsheets and a vision statement for motivation) I’ve come to one conclusion – It’s no use.

By the nature of my husband’s missionary job, he has tangible results. The aviation team can look back over any period of time and see, in calculable ways, just what kind of impact they’ve made. Flights, passengers, lives saved – all are recorded and many even photographed.

My impact? Well, a bunch of the missions-like stuff I set out to do got interrupted. But does mopping the floor count?

Of course, the truth is life can’t and shouldn’t be divided into categories of sacred and ordinary, of meaningful and interrupted. I already know this. We all know this. But it just doesn’t feel very true at the end of an interruption-filled day. I find myself wishing I had a more important (or at least more structured) contribution to missions.

My friend Amanda recently shared this story on Facebook:

“Last night we went on a family shopping trip. As we walked into the grocery story we saw an old man sitting on the ground at the entrance selling rugs… this is normal, but what wasn’t normal was he was bleeding through a plastic bag wrapped around his foot. My heart ached as we passed him. About 15 minutes into shopping Matt said he was going back to talk to him. Turns out he is blind, and cut his foot open, and they told him he wasn’t allowed to sell his rugs unless he wrapped his bleeding foot in a bag. Matt asked him what he needed, bought him medicine to sanitize his wound, and prayed with him. The man said he couldn’t go home until he sold all his rugs, there was only 1 left, so Matt bought it, and the man made his way home. Then back in the store to finish shopping…we met a lady who could speak a tiny bit of English, she was asking us why we were here. We ended up talking about Jesus, and all she wanted to talk about was the Bible, how Jesus sets us free! Yes! What a breath of fresh air to my soul. When Jesus brings these circumstances I love it! God could have allowed anyone to help that old man. But He allowed us to pass by him, not only to help, but to change and teach us.”

I need stories like this. Stories that remind me it doesn’t really matter how many floors I mop, essays I write, clubs I organize, or women I mentor. It doesn’t matter how many flights my husband has.

The really important stuff is what happens in the hearts of the people God places in our paths day by day – family, neighbours, visitors, friends, strangers – and for that matter, what happens in our own hearts too. And that isn’t limited to ministry projects; it just might be at the grocery store.

So shake off the guilt, I tell myself. Don’t let the fact that God is at work in each and every person around you get lost in your daily shuffle. You’ll risk missing the glory that is already yours for the taking- that God isn’t limited to ministry projects. He takes it all, the whole of life, and says, “Look around. The fields are ripe for the harvest! Get your gloves on. We’ve got work to do.”

I’ve got my gloves, the floor is mopped, and I’m ready.