To the New Expat…

A few weeks ago, someone who is moving overseas contacted me. This is her first time living overseas, she is going into the unknown, and wants to be as prepared as possible.

Here is what I said to her:

Dear Lucy (name has been changed)

Wow – I’m excited for you and not a little envious! This is an amazing opportunity, and though I know based on your email that you are scared, I think you may find this is one of those gifts that is given to you and your family for this time of your life.

That being said, you asked for practical, not philosophical advice – so here goes:

  1. Learn the numbers as quickly as possible. You will find them everywhere and it will help you to tell time, understand the prices of items, and tell people how many children you have!
  2. Learn the currency and don’t translate it into US dollars. If you do, you will either spend too much money thinking “everything is so cheap,” or too little money and thus, not get the things you need.
  3. Take things that will immediately make your new space feel like home – a few pictures, candles, a couple of books. That way, even as you’re waiting for the rest of your household goods, you can begin to create a home.
  4. Recognize that your children’s grief is real, real, real. Allow them to be sad without putting caveats on the sadness (eg “I know you’re sad, but think how much fun travel will be…”) Travel may be fun, but it will not give them back their friends and schools. Allow them to grieve, and grieve with them.
  5. You are arriving in the summer, a time when expat communities dwindle, so it will probably take some time to connect with others. Still – limit the amount of time that your kids spend on social media, just as you would limit social media in your home country. You cannot, I repeat, you cannot live in two places at once. Believe me, I’ve tried, and it doesn’t work. So limit the time they spend, and try to get out and explore.
  6. By the same token, don’t allow yourself to spend too much time on Skype, Facebook, or any other social media sites. It will be all you can do sometimes, to tear yourself away. But tear yourself away you must. This is not the end of your world, this is the beginning of a new world. Allow it to be just that.
  7. Don’t be afraid to initially be a tourist. If you don’t explore the area, you may come to the end of your time and find you’ve not seen the world-famous sites there are to see. Use those first weeks to create adventure and have your kids journal about it.
  8. Remember that your culture is just that – your culture. Others have different ways of doing things. They aren’t bad – they are just different. Learn cultural humility, a life skill you will never regret.
  9. News flash: Life wasn’t perfect in your home country. It will be easy to think it was when you are faced with the newness of life and culture shock in its monstrous intensity. But it wasn’t. There are relationship problems, infrastructure issues, and just plain life wherever we live.
  10. You take yourself and your family with you. You aren’t all going to change on the plane. Sure, this is a new start, but you are who you are. At the same time, you are also capable of change and being shaped by the country where you will make your home. Allow that shape to happen.
  11. Have a high tolerance of ambiguity and be capable of complexity. The country where you’re going is dismissed in the western world with a few stereotypical statements. Those are not the complete story. If you allow yourself, you will be able to understand a more complete, and thus richer version of the story.
  12. Give yourself grace. This move is huge! You won’t understand the impact until sometime later, so give yourself, your husband, and your kids grace.
  13. Laugh.Laugh.Laugh. Laughter is a holy gift that will take you through culture shock and culture conflict. It will take you through the hard days and you will be able to look back on them with much joy. So allow yourself the holy gift of laughter.
  14. Most of all, know that “He who began a good work in you, will be faithful to complete it!” God lives in other places. He is alive and well across the world, continuing his good work in the redemption story. You are a part of that Story and He is faithful.

I’ve included a picture here that I think you will enjoy! Print it out, and put it on your refrigerator so you remember these ten commandments.

Much love to you,

Marilyn

What would you add for Lucy? Please share in the comments and we will compile the comments for a new post!

Note: This was previously published in July 2015

How’s Your Training Montage Coming Along?

I have swimmer’s shoulder, but I don’t swim.

It’s not that I can’t swim, I just don’t do it often enough to cause an injury. I’m in physical therapy for my shoulder now, but I actually started PT because of pain in my hip, and then my shoulder started acting up. I wish I could say that my hip problem was caused by swimming, or by mountain climbing or power lifting. Instead, I think it’s from stepping out of my car the wrong way. And my shoulder? It might be caused by painting our dining room. Or who knows? It could have come from brushing my teeth with too much reckless abandon.

I know what you’re thinking. But before you say that it’s clear I’m getting old and my body’s falling apart, let me first say that it’s clear I’m getting old and my body’s falling apart.

So every day I go through my series of exercises. If only my routine included things like “reverse suspended monster crunches” or “overhead double infantry lifts.” But no, I have “supine gluteal sets” and “seated shoulder flexion towel slides at table top.”

It’s not quite the stuff of a Rocky training montage. (If you haven’t seen any of the five Rocky movies, seven if you add the two Creeds, then just think about any film that includes a music video of the main character getting ready for battle.) In preparation for the next ultimate fight, set to stirring music, Rocky boxes with frozen meat (da-da-daaa), rips off dozens of one-handed pull-ups and push-ups (da-da-daaa), lifts log chains over his head (da-da-daaa), guzzles raw eggs (da-da-daaa), and outruns a car (da-da-da-da-da-da-da-daaa-da-daaa).

Here’s the thing about training montages in the movies: They’re in the movies. When you’re tackling challenges in real life, it’s not bigger than life and it’s not condensed down to just a few minutes. Seen from the inside, the real stuff of montages can feel slow, tedious, and monotonous, not monumental.

Do you have things in your life abroad that are necessary but mundane, things you do day to day on the path to your goals but that lack the flair of a movie workout? Things such as prepping for departure? Settling into a culture? Language learning? Wading through red tape? Forming relationships? Chipping away at overwhelming problems?

Here’s the thing about serving overseas—and life in general: Rarely do our efforts merit a rousing soundtrack. Now if your cross-cultural experiences are film-worthy, I won’t stand in your way, and I’ll cheer when your theme song reaches its crescendo in the cinema. But for most of us, rather than a fully orchestrated “Gonna Fly Now,” an “Amazing Grace” played by a toy xylophone and a kazoo may seem more appropriate.

It makes me wonder about the music behind the Psalms, when they read, “to the tune of ‘A Dove on Distant Oaks'” or “to the tune of ‘The Death of the Son.'” Wouldn’t it be nice to know what those songs sounded like? I’m guessing they weren’t pulse-pounding tunes but more in line with the normal, coarse warp and woof of a life serving Jesus.

And here’s another thing: Much of what you do in cross-cultural work doesn’t culminate in a resounding, definitive victory. Often, it’s more of a series of little victories mixed in with little failures. You know, that two-steps-forward-one-step-back thing. (Or is it the other way around?)

Take language learning for instance. What if your language study doesn’t culminate with nationals saying that you sound more native-born than they do? What if your language study never seems to end? Yes, you’ll have agency- and self-imposed benchmarks to meet, but you may never get to where you wish you could be—or to the level of your coworkers. That’s OK. It’s not about matching their good, it’s about doing your good. Wherever your best efforts lead you, there’s a place for you in God’s work. I hope others believe that, too.

Much the same could be said about “learning” your new culture. It takes a lot more time and effort to be a resident of a country than to be a tourist. In A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society, Eugene Peterson uses similar language when talking about the Christian life, making a distinction between those who are “tourists” and those who are “pilgrims.” He writes that most Christians “are impatient for results. They have adopted the lifestyle of a tourist and only want the high points.”

Peterson identifies the common assumption among Christians (and others)

that anything worthwhile can be acquired at once. We assume that if something can be done at all it can be done quickly and efficiently. Our attention spans have been conditioned by thirty-second commercials. Our sense of reality has been flattened by thirty-page abridgments.

“Thirty-second commercials.” “Thirty-page abridgments.” To those I could add three-minute training montages. But all of these may seem rather quaint compared to the norms of today’s culture (Peterson’s book was first published in 1980), with our current attention to Twitter and TikTok and all the other short bursts from social media.

Yes, the Christian life is “a long obedience.” And if I could paraphrase that, I’d say it could also be seen as a long series of short obediences. It’s exercising, stretching, pulling, pushing, lifting, running, jogging, walking, and resting, over and over again. It’s you, as a cross-cultural worker, doing all this with a God-ward aim, with your God-given abilities, at your God-given speed. It’s finishing your race, even if your finish line doesn’t end up being on foreign soil.

And it’s you, all the while, humming in the background the soundtrack of your own making.

(Eugene Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society, InterVarsity, 1980)

[photo: “Focus,” by Keith Ellwood, used under a Creative Commons license]

Freefall and Float: Following God on Non-Linear Adventures

by Alyson Rockhold

I landed in Tanzania in 2007 as a fresh-faced college kid taking a semester off to teach English. Those four months altered the course of my life. When school called me home, I vowed to return to Tanzania soon. It took 7 years to fulfill that promise. Those years were filled with great tension and worry: Would I ever get back “there”?

The homing device that had burrowed under my skin eventually returned me to Tanzania in 2013. What relief to finally be living the life I’d always dreamed of! What confusion when I had to go back to the states in 2015!  Another vow to return “there” soon: More long years of waiting.

In 2019, I got close to “there” when my husband and I moved to Zambia. I kept whispering in his ear about how desperate I was to go to Tanzania. So, when our organization planned to transfer us to Kenya in early 2020, all I could think about was that Tanzania was right on the way!

We got to Tanzania on March 9th. Within a few days, Corona rumors became reality. The borders closed on March 16th. Ultimately, our three-week vacation turned into 4 months of living in limbo. I was finally “there,” but everything felt wrong.

When I dreamed of going to the missions field, I thought it was all about getting “there.” Once I got “there,” I would establish a thriving ministry, become fluent in a new language, and get connected to the local community. In essence, I would live like the missional heroes whose biographies I had devoured in high school. I never envisioned living in 4 different countries over 7 years, preparing to move to a 5th but stopped by political unrest, and then being en route to a 6th only to be halted by a deadly virus.

My story looks nothing like I imagined it would. It does not follow the pattern set before me by my heroes. There are many curved roads, roundabouts, and U-turns on my journey. I’ve expended so much energy fighting to get “there,” consumed with the fear that being “here” meant I was a failure. But what if instead of teaching me how to march in a straight line, God has been equipping me with the tools needed to attain freefall and float?

I learned this phrase when I stumbled upon Denise Levertov’s poem, “The Avowal.”

As swimmers dare

to lie face to the sky

and water bears them,

as hawks rest upon air

and air sustains them,

so would I learn to attain

freefall, and float

into Creator Spirit’s deep embrace,

knowing no effort earns

that all-surrounding grace.

As I try (and mostly fail) to get “there,” God embraces me right where I am. Surrounded by his grace, I find contentment unbound from circumstance.

I release my goals: freefall.

I  relax into grace: float.

I freefall: The ground beneath me is slippery, but His grace bears me up.

I float: The way ahead of me is unclear, but God sustains me.

I freefall and float: Surrendering my quest for straight lines and discovering beauty in each unexpected turn.

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

Alyson’s medical missions work has taken her to Tanzania, Haiti, and Zambia.  Along the way, she’s discovered a passion for sharing stories that honor God and encourage people.  Her writing has been featured on A Life Overseas, Busted Halo, Verge Magazine, Red Letter Christians, and more.  You can follow her at www.alysonrockhold.com.

You Are Going to Hate It

You know that country you’ve been dreaming about? The one that you have been praying over and researching? You’ve been talking about it endlessly these days, building a team who will support you when you move there. You are ready to uproot your family, your job, your entire life to pour your soul into the place you love so much.

Call me a party pooper, but today I’m here to tell you something important: Shortly after you finally arrive in that country, you are going to hate it.

It might take a few weeks, or maybe a few months, but at some point it’s going to happen: You will wonder why on earth you thought you would love this country. You will question why you enthusiastically raised support for so many months to go live in a place that you actually despise.

It might happen when you come to the realization that this doesn’t feel like a fun adventure anymore. The public transportation is claustrophobic and smelly. You are tired of eating baked potatoes and scrambled eggs and yet the idea of facing the grocery store again makes you want to cry. You feel like a frizzy, unattractive mess. The pollution is triggering your little girl’s asthma or your four-year-old has gotten malaria twice in two months.

It might be because the people you meet are cold and suspicious of you. Or in your face and critical. Or just in your face, all the time, peeking through your windows. You feel like a curiosity on display, or you feel like an ignored, cast aside monstrosity. You wonder why you ever thought you could love these people who apparently abhor you. 

Or maybe you find yourself spending all day every day learning the difference between a past perfect continuous verb and an intransitive verb. Your body hurts from sitting all day and your brain hurts from thinking all day, yet you know you still have 16 months of this same horrible task ahead of you. And you wonder why you uprooted your happy, productive, meaningful life so that you could spend all of your time looking at meaningless squiggles on a piece of paper. 

Maybe you’ll hate it because your team leader seems distant or your co-workers are too busy for you, and you feel very alone. Maybe it will be because you are a woman in a country that demeans women, and you’ve never felt so insignificant. Maybe it will be because you didn’t anticipate how this new country would change your family dynamics, and it’s so hard and so painful to try to figure out new ways of helping your children find joy.

There are a million reasons why you could hate it. But one thing is for certain: At some point, it will happen.

Yeah, I know, just call me a dream smasher. I can hear you imploring, Do you have a point? Do you even want me to move overseas? 

Absolutely. Stay with me. I’m going somewhere with this.

Here’s my point: I want you to know what you are getting yourself into. When you get to the point of hating your country and your life and your calling, you need to know that this doesn’t mean there is something wrong with you. Or with your country. Or with your calling.

There are three things you need to know:

Make your calling sure. Do this now, before you go overseas. Your calling to this country needs to be more than just a really strong feeling. It needs to come from hours of prayer, consultation with your pastor, soul-searching with godly friends. You need to know the reasons for why God is sending you to this country: What is the need? How are you uniquely qualified to fill that need? Write it down. Plaster it to your refrigerator. You will want to remind yourself of these reasons when you find yourself hating life. 

Make your faith sure. Do this now, before you go overseas. You must fully understand your worldview. Read a book on how to study the Bible on your own. Read a book on the theology of suffering. Read a book on the theology of poverty. Wrestle with the big questions before you go, so that when they hit you in the face and seek to destroy you, you will already be prepared. 

Perseverance is the whole battle. Not half the battle, not 90% of the battle. The entire battle. Do not give up. Do not give up. Let me tell you something: There will always be a reason to leave. Always. If you want to leave, you will find a reason, and it will be a good reason that will sound honorable to your supporters. 

I know, this is tricky. You are not going to live in this country forever; the right time to leave will come at some point, sooner or later. But make sure your call to leave has just as many prayer-filled, logical reasons as your call was to go. Because if not, then maybe you just need to persevere. Learn one more verb. Meet one more person. Go out your front door, one more time.

And here’s the part where I give you hope. You will not hate this country forever. I promise. Cross my heart; hope to die. If you stick this out and keep your heart open, a lasting love for your host country will sneak up on you. It might take 6 months, or a year, or even five years, but you will not hate it forever. There may be some things about it that you always dislike, of course, but your capacity to love this country will stretch and expand and deepen the longer you are there. One day, it will dawn on you that you don’t hate it, quite so much. And one morning, you will wake up and realize that you love this country. And you will never want to leave. 

How Well Do You Know Your Host Nation?

I’m a bit out of words lately. I’m in seminary full-time. Covid. Elections. Wars. Planes crashing. Racial tension. Political violence. Conspiracy theories.

It’s a lot.

I have way more questions than answers. Some of my questions are around the gaps in the training I received before moving abroad and in the ongoing trainings and mentorships I have access to. By not addressing these gaps, we risk perpetuating problems as expatriates continue to export our culture and values without fully engaging in our new contexts.

I’m going to share some of the questions I am asking myself. I hope you will take some time to think about them.

Do you know the history of your host country from the perspective of its citizens?

            Ancient history, precolonial history, colonial history, and post-colonial history?

            National heroes? Legends, myths, folktales?

            Religious history, from multiple perspectives?

            Racial, class, gender history?

When did women gain the right to vote? How many women serve in leadership? How are they perceived?

Did your country have slavery? Were the people enslaved by others? 

What have been recent and historic conflicts? What were they about? How were they resolved?

Do you know what role your passport nation has played in any of this history?

Did you learn this from Westerners writing about them or from them? Does this knowledge come tainted from an outsider’s viewpoint?

Do you read book written by authors from your host country? 

Do you listen to local music?

Do you read the local newspaper, listen to the radio, follow leaders on social media?

Do you know how people view people of your gender, race, ethnicity, class, stature? Do you know why?

Do you know what people who look like you have done here in the past? For better and for worse?

I meet far too many people who could care less about these things in the countries where they work and are supposedly “serving.” I don’t understand how a person hopes to “make a difference” if they don’t know how things are. What do they hope will be “different?” Unless they mean more like themselves.

Before leaving your passport nation there are some things you need to do, namely start learning about where you are going and commit to never, never stopping. Those of us who are already gone need to do this work. 

I now believe ongoing local cultural training must be required by all organizations who send people abroad. I don’t mean “culture” like food and clothing and language. I mean deep, heart level, historic, worldview forming topics. The possibilities are endless. 

What would you add?

Questions about Going, and the Answering Thereof

You can learn a lot by asking questions. You can learn a lot by answering them, too.

Recently, a young couple came to my wife and me with a list of questions for us. They were trying to figure out how to respond to the stirrings they were feeling about ministry opportunities and wondering if they should consider serving cross-culturally someday.

I think our answers fell somewhat short of profound, but I hope they were helpful. What struck me, though, was how much their questions got me thinking. Good questions have a way of doing that. They’re beneficial for the ones asking and for the ones pondering the answers, as well.

So if you’re considering going overseas, here’s a list of questions you could ask those who’ve already gone. And if you’re one of those who’s already gone, here’s a list of questions to help you reflect on the process that got you there. I hope some of them make you say, “Hmmmm, good question. Let me think about that.”

All of the questions below are concerned with the lead up to departure. For what comes after that, well, we can come up with those lists some other time.

When did you first consider serving overseas?
When did you know for sure you should go?
What did you hope to achieve by going?
Did you and your spouse have the same level of commitment?
What did your parents and/or children think?
How were you supported?
How did you raise support and how long did it take?
How did you decide your income level?
Did you have debt when you left?
How did you choose your sending organization?
What role did your church play?
What would you have done if you’d not gone?
What did you leave behind?
What concerns did you have?
What made you excited?
What did you think success would look like?
How would you describe your stage of life when you started your cross-cultural work?
What sacrifices did you know you’d have to make?
How long did you plan on staying?
How did you decide where to go?
What did you know about your future host country/culture?
What kind of research did you do?
Did you know anyone in the place you were heading to?
What kind of support team did you develop?
What did you pray for?
What responses did you get to your prayers?
What kind of “calling” did you respond to?
How did you prepare?
What was your main motivation for going?
Who were your biggest cheerleaders?
Did you have people close to you who didn’t want you to go?
What hurdles did you need to overcome?
What disappointments did you encounter?
What plans for your children’s schooling did you make?
What did you do with your “things”?
Did you have any doubts?
Did you have any previous cross-cultural experience?
Did you study the language before going?
How did you pick a ministry target?
What verses in the Bible spoke to you?
Who were your role-models?
Why didn’t you go earlier?
Why didn’t you wait longer to go?
and . . .
What questions did you have?

[photo: “Which Way Is Home?” by Abby, used under a Creative Commons license]

7 Tips for Finding and Choosing a Sending Agency

by Naomi Johnston

When my husband and I decided we wanted to go and do long term missions we literally had no idea where to start. We had both been on short term mission trips separately, but both of us hadn’t really done anything typical. My husband had gone to Russia and ended up designing and welding up a fire escape for the local church there. And I had gone to India on a more personal trip with my Dad where we built upon personal relationships my Dad had made previously, strengthened church leadership and visited a lot of people in the community. Both experiences were life-changing, but not what you would call ‘normal missions,’ if there even is such a phrase.

Here are some steps that helped us research and choose a sending agency.

 

1. Forget Google
While in general I’m a huge fan of Google and the ease it brings to my life, I had no idea about how much of a monster Missions is and how many agencies there are out there. When I finally saw what I was trying to put a handle on, I had to put my computer away and take a breath. I tried to go back a couple of times, and I even reached out to one of the organisations on the list that sounded vaguely familiar.

But honestly, how is anyone supposed to make an informed decision while making the 3373625125637348949 calls necessary to get in touch with each agency? You can’t, so I highly recommend taking another route.

 

2. Look for Communication Quality.
While looking through Google, I managed to get in touch with an organisation that sounded familiar, and I organised an online interview. We seemed to fit, and it was all positive, but the communication dropped off after that. They didn’t seem to need us, and we didn’t want to bother them. This taught me that how an organisation communicates with new leads is very important and could be a clue as to how they run as an organisation.

Just remember, if this is your path, you’re going to be on the field in a foreign country with only small strings of attachment linking you back to the world you just left. So we decided that we wanted our sending organisation to make communication a priority, because that’s one giant key to keeping us sane once we finally get out there.

 

3. Use personal and local connections.
Personal and local connections are so much easier to set up, follow up, and evaluate. After failing at a few attempts of finding Missions agencies through Google, my husband approached the agency with whom he had gone to Russia. The director also happened to attend our church. He arranged a meeting to discuss our ideas and see if there was any way of going forward. This part of the process was remarkably quick and simple compared to what had been happening before, and that was mostly due to the fact that we could meet in person, catch up regularly, and track the process in real time. It also meant he could answer our questions and allay our fears pretty quickly and very organically.

 

4. Make sure the organisation values align with your values.
Because we were chatting to the director through our church connection, we took for granted that the organisation values would be the same as ours. As the process went on, we found out that there are some differences in opinion with some things, but luckily for us, these weren’t deal breakers. It would have been a shame to get most of the way through the process before potentially finding out that the differences were too many.

So if possible, look into the organisation and their beliefs, especially about things that are known to differ between Christian denominations. Be clear and concise with yourself about which issues are deal breakers and which differences you can accept.

 

5. If possible, take a short-term trip with the organisation.
At first I thought this option to be both frivolous and a waste of time. If we were going to work towards a short-term trip, wouldn’t that would take time and money away from our efforts to get out there long term? However, my husband still wasn’t firm on the idea of leaving his dream job, family, and the familiarity of home in order to chase a vague idea on the other side of the globe. So for us, a short-term trip became necessary.

However, even when not absolutely necessary, I would still highly recommend what is known in some circles as a ‘Vision Trip’. This gives the opportunity to experience firsthand how the sending organisation works in getting you on the field, without the pressure of it being the ‘long term launch.’ It also gives an opportunity to visit the field that you want to be a part of, and to be directly involved with the culture of that team and the dynamics of how they work. For me, meeting the destination team and seeing firsthand how they worked together was another confirmation that we had chosen the right country and the right sending agency.

Post-Covid, this can prove a real challenge, and maybe this option won’t be available for some time. However, I think when possible, a Vision Trip is such an irreplaceable course of action, and frankly, we wouldn’t be going long-term had we not done it. 

 

6. If you’re married, both spouses must agree.
This may conflict with how others feel, but there is no doubt in my mind that if you are married and you feel called to overseas missions, your partner must also be called. God would never call you to a relationship, to then call only one of you to the other side of the world for an extended period of time. The calling must come to both of you. To make it even more complicated, in my experience and from the experience of others I have talked with, sometimes the calling comes to each of you at different times.

I cannot stress enough to you how important it is, as the person who first gets the calling, to shut up and let God do the talking. Convincing a partner through colourful words, pleas, and stories to follow you across the globe without their own concrete belief that God is calling them there very often ends in disaster. Don’t let that be your story. If God truly wills it, it will happen in His timing and he will speak to both of you, albeit at different times.

 

7. Prayer and confirmation from God.
This can look different for each person, so I can’t speak as to what everyone will feel when confirmation comes. However, our confirming experiences included the approval of key mentors, the approval of both the sending and receiving teams, the peace that comes from God even as situations were tricky and scary, and the confusing combo of clarity, clear direction, and spiritual struggle. This final confirmation is something along the lines of knowing that you know that you know, and experiencing things that lean into your weaknesses and spiritual deficits. It can be challenging, but is very different from lack of peace.

While this is by no means an exhaustive list, it has been our personal journey. In the end we were able to confidently choose our sending agency, knowing that it was God’s will and that we were a great fit for them, as they were for us.

I’m curious to know if you have other suggestions for finding and choosing a sending agency.

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

Naomi Johnston is a photographer and designer based in Hamilton, New Zealand. Along with her husband Glyn and daughter Minna May, she is currently fundraising on her way to joining the One Mission Society team in Budapest, Hungary. She will be part of the media team, and is also hoping to work in Human Trafficking Prevention. Naomi writes regularly on her blog at www.thejohnstonjourney.com and @thejohnstonjourney on FB and Insta.

A Trip to the Embassy

by Seth Lewis

I was excited. We’d only lived in Ireland a few months—long enough to begin to feel the reality of deep differences, but not nearly long enough to adjust to them. Our second son had just been born, a different experience in a different medical system, and we needed to register his birth at the United States embassy. American soil, in Ireland. It would be nice to get a little taste of all we’d left behind. A few hours on the motorway got us to Dublin, where we found the US embassy—a big round thing looking out of place on its street-corner, like a landed UFO. Like us. 

To get through the outer wall, we had to go through security. I hadn’t anticipated that, but it made sense, and I knew what to do. On the other side of the metal detector, the ground was American. Even the flowers were red, white, and blue. This was going to be fun.

I opened the door to the UFO, and was immediately struck by the lack of country music. Not even rock. Nothing. Just another security guard, another metal detector, and a sign that said “Please take a number”. A number? I’m not a number, I’m an American! This is my embassy! 

I took a number. White walls and tiles. Uncomfortable chairs. Drop ceiling. I knew there was a ballroom in the building, but no one offered to show it to me. Come to think of it, the room did look familiar. I’d seen this set up before, in America, at the Department of Motor Vehicles and the Social Security Office. 

An embassy is a US government office. I should have known it would look like one. That I would hear several people being refused before I got a turn to hand my number through the thick (bullet proof?) glass and hope I had every form and supporting document exactly right. Somehow I had thought they would be as happy as I was to see another American. I had wanted a taste of things we left behind. I got one.

We walked out past the red, white, and blue flowers and through the security gate. On the other side, the Irish ground felt a little more like home. In the car, I played country music.

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

Seth Lewis has lived on the south coast of the Republic of Ireland for the last ten years with his wife Jessica; two of their three children were born there. He works with a network of local churches who are committed to church planting and also assists with a local Bible college and youth camp ministry. Before moving overseas, Seth worked with a church in Virginia. His accent doesn’t really fit anywhere anymore, and he’s okay with that. You can find him online at sethlewis.ie.

What Are You Even Doing Here?

by Corella Roberts

Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, I was a fresh, excited, bi-vocational missionary-teacher in Alaska. I wanted to make a difference. I wanted to partner with God. I wanted to use my gifts and my training and my time to spread the gospel. I wanted to shine His glory to the uttermost parts of the earth.

And then … it was really, really, REALLY hard. I barely made it two months into village life before finding myself gasping for air.

“During this overwhelming, unpredictable season, we were invited to go to a church service in a nearby village; and we welcomed the opportunity to see a new place and worship with other believers. A travelling, Native pastor picked us up in his four-seater airplane, and we hopped down the river to an even smaller village for church.  Before the service began, this well-intentioned pastor asked us if we’d met the only other Christian couple in our village. They were in their forties, had been following Christ for about four years, and had been praying for Christian teachers to fellowship with. 

They didn’t have any kids in the school, where our lives had been consumed with the task of adjusting to teaching; so no, we hadn’t met them yet.

‘Then what are you even doing here?’ this short, fiery man retorted. 

Somehow, I held it together in the moment, but I was absolutely pierced, soul deep.  . . .

I tried to sit through the worship, but the pain inside was too strong. I got up, closed myself in the small bathroom, and tried to stifle my sobs.  Is THIS your plan, God? This mess of a job I’m calling teaching? . . . This crushing expectation to support the other Christian couple? Seriously, God. I don’t like it. I can’t do it. Why am I even here? I knew I needed to pull it together, but I had no answer. No peace. Only pain. Some missionary I was.” (I recounted that story in my new book, Colliding with the Call.)

I didn’t stay in that place of despair or those feelings of failure forever. In fact, I didn’t even give up on our bush teaching assignment. My husband and I hacked out another seven years in rural Alaska before moving to teach in Thailand, but I can tell you, I still hear that question buzzing in my ear now and then. What are you even doing here? It’s like a dengue-carrying mosquito, and I know if I let it land and bite, my faith will be in critical condition for a while. (If you don’t know what Dengue Fever is, feel free to substitute the imagery for the cough of a COVID-19 carrier who forgot to wear a mask.)

I think that question is so particularly hurtful because if there’s one thing a missionary wants to be, it’s useful. So when we start doubting our purpose, our calling, it’s often a direct attack on ourselves and our identity. But that right there–the feeling of a loss of identity when we feel like we’re failing at our tasks–is the real danger.

It’s easy to say, “My identity is in Christ,” but a whole other thing to live it. I won’t expand on that because Amy Young already wrote about it here. And you can find a huge list of scriptures about it here. But what I do want to touch on is that right now, during this global pandemic and the frustration of social distancing, what we can do is most likely being affected. Which means we’re all swatting at that question, What are you even doing here?

So, let’s answer it once and for all.

 

WHAT are you even doing here?
Are you sheltering your family by practicing social distancing? Do it in love. Are you preparing online lessons or teaching your stir-crazy kiddos from home? Do it in love. Did you make the painful decision to go? To stay? To be near those who need you most at this time? Be there in love. Are you distributing food? Sharing words of encouragement? Worshiping and praying? Learning to be still and listen? Do it in love.

There is no small task in the kingdom of God. What you see as menial, He sees as faithful service. I am convinced that nothing poured out in worship is ever wasted. Keep doing what you’re doing in love, as worship, and know that it is enough, because He is enough.

“The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed . . .” Matthew 13:31-32

 

What are YOU even doing here?
You are you on purpose–created and designed to fill that very special niche in God’s plan. He has not put anyone else in your particular position, he has put you there. Wherever you are and whatever you’re doing (or feel like you’re not doing), you’re there, doing it, on divine purpose. No one else can speak to that one hurting heart in your home, next door, or through the screen, the way you can. And no one else can represent that very special facet of His heart to the world the way you can. Just keep being you–He’s never asked you to be anyone else.

“For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works . . .” Ephesians 2:10

 

What are you even doing HERE?
I have a friend right now who has been stuck in Australia, trying to return to her family and her graduating senior in Thailand, since this whole global shut-down began. Others have been able to repatriate but now are unsure how they’ll get visas again when it’s time to return to their host countries. And many of us (myself included) are separated from vulnerable family members and questioning if we made the right choice not to be with them when this all started going down. It’s incredibly frustrating to feel trapped or blocked from being where we want to be, but I’m holding onto this:

“. . . your life is now hidden with Christ in God.” Colossians 3:2-4

God has my feet on this chunk of the planet, in this moment in time, for a reason. But more than that, I belong to Him. He is my true home, and my heart is safely cupped in His hands. 

No matter where you are, what you’re doing, or how you’re feeling productive and useful or not, you are sheltered and dearly loved in Christ for all eternity. 

I think if someone were to furrow their brows at me today and pointedly ask, “What are you even doing here?” I’d be miffed, certainly, but then I hope I’d say, “You know, I’m not always sure. But I am sure that God is pursuing my heart. And I hope I can love some other people into His kingdom along the way.”

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

Corella Roberts makes her home in Northern Thailand where she and her husband partner with an international school to “Serve the Servants.” Their first missionary teaching assignment landed them in the remote bush of Alaska, which you can read about in her newly released book, Colliding with the Call. From tundra to tropics, she seeks to follow Jesus, and she encourages others to connect deeply with God at corellaroberts.com. You can also find her cleaning up legos or meandering their local market in search of mangosteen and lychee fruit.

Plans Unfurled, Change the World: A Poem for Cross-Cultural Workers

sandals on pavement

My son asked for a poem for Christmas, so I wrote one for him, on the theme of travel. That was fun, so I thought I’d try it again, this time on working cross culturally. Here it is—

Hear the call
Like St. Paul?
Kneel to pray
Lots to say
Plans unfurled
Change the world!
Ready, set
Not quite yet
Funds to raise
Counting days
Contacts made
Some unswayed
Goal in sight
Pay for flight
Say goodbye
You can cry
Made it there
People stare
Life abroad
Food seems odd
Language class
No free pass
Verbs agree?
“I drinks tea”
Culture, too
So much new
See the needs
Plant some seeds
Do your part
It’s a start
New friends there
Lives to share
TCKs
Holidays
Street-side meals
Sidewalk deals
Furlough trips
Travel tips
Team will grow
Ebb and flow
Who will stay?
Hard to say
Who will go?
Hard to know
Wonder who
Maybe you?
Say goodbye
You can cry

[photo: “Sandles,” by midnightcomm, used under a Creative Commons license]

How Equipped is Equipped Enough?

I recently read an article about a young woman who moved to Uganda at 19 and started a center for malnourished children. This ministry grew over the course of ten years. Some of those children died, and she is now being sued for deceiving parents into thinking she was a trained doctor running a medical clinic.

I considered this story with conflicting feelings. This young woman was extremely young to have taken on such a complicated problem as dying children. I don’t know all the details, but it does seem like this she crossed some ethical boundaries. It’s difficult to tell if she deliberately deceived people or if she just wasn’t wise about how she presented herself. It seems like she didn’t work hard enough to maintain proper licensing with the authorities. 

However, it does seem like the opportunity to care for starving babies kind of threw itself in her lap. She saw a need, and she wanted to fill it. She believed strongly that there weren’t better options available for these children. She did hire Ugandan medical personnel, and at least at one point, she was licensed by the government. So was she helping more than hurting? Was she wise to jump into this opportunity even though she wasn’t equipped? 

This story makes me think about several missionary friends who moved to remote African villages to do church planting or community development, but ended up doing medical work on the side. With very few medical options available in the community, people came to them to dress wounds or help a sick child simply because having a supply of antibiotics and Google made them more equipped than anyone else in the community. Should they have refused to help because they weren’t trained medical workers? 

And what about other types of service? Realizing that you are in way over your head is like a rite of passage in missions work. Wait, what? Your missions training didn’t teach you how to kill snakes? Or how to deal with the demon-possessed child foaming at the mouth on your doorstep? You weren’t trained in children’s ministry? Too bad, you get to do children’s ministry. You can’t carry a tune? Oh well, when the pastor asks you to lead worship, you get to do it anyway. You don’t know anything about eating disorders? Well, if there are no psychologists in your area, I guess you’ll be the one to help the girl in your youth group.

Gladys Aylward, the famous British missionary to China, was a housemaid from a poor family and had almost no formal education. A missions agency turned her down, saying that she wasn’t learning the language fast enough. Yet she went on to serve the poor of China for 25 years, save the lives of many orphans, advocate against foot-binding and for prison reform, and bring many to know Jesus. She once said, “I wasn’t God’s first choice for what I’ve done for China…It must have been a well-educated man. I don’t know what happened. Perhaps he died. Perhaps he wasn’t willing and God looked down and saw Gladys Aylward. And God said–’Well, she’s willing.’”

Don’t all of us who serve overseas think this sometimes….or often? Wouldn’t a person who learned languages faster be better at this job? Shouldn’t someone be doing this who has a seminary degree, or teaching experience, or who studied social work? Wouldn’t someone older than me be better at this? What missionary hasn’t felt like she was drowning in a sea of her own incompetence? Is there any cross-cultural worker who has moved overseas and felt truly equipped for what he ended up doing? 

Yet, at the same time, those of us who have had some experience in missions keep banging the same drum to those desiring to move overseas: Get equipped. Get trained. Stop sending people who don’t know what they are doing. Ill-equipped people often hurt more than they help. For every successful Gladys Aylward, there are a dozen others who burn out or burn others out….or get sued for doing medical work they weren’t qualified for. 

So how do we find that balance? How do we have high expectations of preparation for those who move overseas, while still recognizing that none of us can ever be fully equipped for what we will face? How do we honor the passionate hearts who are willing to say, “Here I am. Send me!” while remembering that saying “God called me” can be dangerous

Like so many things in life, I think that the answer lies right in the middle. I think we can say, “Get as equipped as you can” while simultaneously saying, “Recognize that you will never be fully equipped.” And remember that attitude is everything. If we go overseas with the notion that by simply being white, educated, or from a developed country makes us qualified to help people, we are setting ourselves up for disaster. We must be very careful to examine our motives, because the “white savior” mentality is sinister; it sneaks into our thinking very subtly. 

I asked a village missionary friend how she and her husband handled the issue of people coming to them for medical help. Yes, they would do what they could to help people. But they always insisted the person visit the local clinic first. Then they would look for ways to help if the clinic wasn’t able to meet needs. They also asked a qualified missionary doctor to start visiting the village a couple of times a month. They did everything they could to work within the cultural system and not usurp what was already in place. 

And what if you find yourself called to pour your whole heart into a ministry, but you aren’t qualified? Then get qualified. If you find yourself unexpectedly teaching Bible, take some online Bible courses and read some quality theology. If you realize your community needs medical help, then go back home for a nursing degree or get yourself trained in Community Health Evangelism. If you discover that what your village needs is agricultural advice, then look into getting trained through ECHO. Yes, God can (and will) use us despite our incompetence, but that doesn’t mean we should be satisfied to continue offering anything less than what could be our best. 

In the end, remember that an attitude of humility makes all the difference. Even if we already feel well-educated or equipped in the area where we are serving, we still need to recognize that we have a lot we must learn from local people in order to be effective. Asian or African answers to problems might not look the same as American answers. We need to earn the right to speak into those problems through listening, learning, and longevity. 

4 Myths About Missions Preparation

by Naomi Johnston

Preparation for the journey has not been all I thought it would be. Here are four myths I’ve slowly found my way through, as we prepare to leave one way of living for another.

 

1. Speed signifies the favor of God.

This is so subtle, and yet so incredibly overwhelming in the mindset of today’s culture. Why are things taking so long? Isn’t God’s blessing like oil on the cog of ‘getting things done’? Well no, no it’s not. There are so many stories of people in the Bible, and other Christians through history, where the cog was not greased and the Christian had to fight his way uphill and battle obstacle after obstacle to finally get where he had been called to go. And that’s because this is a marathon, not a sprint.

One incredible example of this – and I could spout off a thousand here – is the incredible story of Joseph, the son of Jacob. My pastor shared this story this past Sunday and renewed in me the sense that everything could be going wrong on the outside, but God is using that time to develop character and place you in circumstances that lead to the dream being fulfilled.

How was Joseph supposed to know that the pit led to slavery, which led to temptation, which led to prison, which led to Pharaoh’s palace, which ultimately led to a childhood dream coming true? Sometimes when we’re in the pit, we don’t understand the timeline, but God can see the whole thing. Speed is not necessarily a sign of favor.

Solution: Rest and slow down. Find the ways that God is using slowness to develop character in you, and take time to appreciate that.

 

2. We should be able to financially support ourselves somehow.

Modern missions should move with the times and move into tentmaking. Or at least this is something we get told a lot. And I understand the heart of it, and at times I agree. However, God develops something special when he calls on us to rely upon the obedience and calling of others. It’s along the lines of humility and patience, both words that are absolute nightmares to develop, but when achieved, are so refreshing in the character of a friend.

God sometimes does call us to use our talents and earn our way. Most of the people we know live this way! We study, we work, we earn. And that’s God’s blessing. But this should never be used as a cop out when God is asking something uncomfortable of us. And that’s exactly what I had been doing for first few months of this whole process, I had been relying upon my own ability to get me to Budapest, when God has been asking us all along to trust him, to obey him, to ask other people along on this journey with us.

Solution: Allow yourself to feel the discomfort of relying upon God for your life. That’s how it’s been all along anyhow, you just didn’t realise the extent of it, until now.

 

3. Things will start to change a lot when we move.

Actually, things will start changing now. When you change the focus of your life, things will begin to change around you. Things you found important before will seem trivial, and things that were small in your mind will become the things that you value the most. Friends that were a huge part of your life may start drifting off. And other people may slowly come into focus. Things you thought you needed in life to be happy and content will start to seem meaningless.

God is using this time to develop character in us that will make us fit for the field. I dread to think of what it would have been like if God waited until we were in Budapest to begin making changes in our character that would make us fit for the role. And when you see it like that, doesn’t it seem so silly to think otherwise? Allow flexibility in your life now, before you leave, for God to change things and adjust characteristics.

Solution: Lean into the change. Write down the ways you are changing so that the future you can look back and understand the necessity of change and the rewards of it.

 

4. Failure is a sign of doing something wrong.

If I could convey to you the anxiety I feel when cold calling a church or an organisation, no one would want to become a missionary. Thankfully, it’s one of those things I warm up to once I’ve started and I can bust out a few calls in one sitting. However, there is a massive rate of failure when it comes to this approach. And there are a huge amount of people we’ve talked to that simply did not feel our journey was something they connected with and wanted to support. Now, that does feel like a failure, and that failure hurts a lot.

My instinct when I’ve spoken to a group of people and have no response, nada, zip, is to ask myself “What am I doing wrong?” But because of my confidence in what God has asked me to do, I am sure that it is not a sign that we are on the wrong journey. And this wonderful quote from Karen E. Quinones Miller sums it up for me completely:

“When someone tells me “no,” it doesn’t mean I can’t do it, it simply means I can’t do it with them.”

So simple and yet so true. When we face disappointment and feel like it’s failure, I like to remind myself now that it was not because I’m doing the wrong thing, simply that they were not called to be on the journey with us. And when we remove that sting, cold calling and approaching people becomes much more manageable. Failure is not always a failure. It can sometimes simply be God closing the wrong door. Joseph would never have become Prince of Egypt if he had remained prince of his family. He needed the pit and the prison to get where he needed to be.

Solution: Don’t take the no’s personally. Remove the sting by being aware that it is simply the wrong door closing so that you don’t miss the right one.

 

What myths did you have to unlearn on your journey to the field?

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

Naomi Johnston is a photographer and designer based in Hamilton, New Zealand. Along with her husband Glyn and daughter Minna May, she is currently fundraising on her way to joining the One Mission Society team in Budapest, Hungary. She will be part of the media team, and is also hoping to work in Human Trafficking Prevention. Naomi writes regularly on her blog at www.thejohnstonjourney.com and @thejohnstonjourney on FB and Insta.