Learning to Live Flexibly and Intentionally

by Marilyn on May 19, 2014

intentional and flexible

Several years ago I read a newsletter from a couple who have spent many years living and working in Amman, Jordan. The letter was an honest look at how they decide to spend their time. In it they described their particular styles and personalities — she was relaxed and spontaneous, always ready for an interruption and an adventure. He was methodical and loved to stick to a schedule, order was important and intentionality paramount. He was a planner.

They recalled the many negotiations they had to make in their marriage through the years and how this related to their living cross-culturally, blending American and Jordanian cultural norms and attitudes.   The parallel between their marriage and  cross-cultural negotiations and the words they used “learning to live flexibly but intentionally” resonated with me.  

With purpose and goals, but always willing to bend those for the sake of people coming into their lives and unexpected circumstances demanding adjustment, flexibility and of course, time.  This sounds like a balanced way to live, a critical mix of East, where people and relationships are paramount and West, where goals and ideas yield some amazing results.

A life overseas carries with it incredible joys and tough challenges. It is easy to become results-oriented to please both funders and fulfill our own sense of purpose, sense of worth. This too often brings with it a rigid way of life that demands control and order. And burnout is inevitable. But — a life overseas can also hold endless distractions and at times, utter chaos. It can be easy within that chaos to give up on any goals, to throw up our hands and succumb to endless interruptions.  Auto-correcting in both modes can swing us one direction or another when what is best is a balance.

The “how-to’s” of achieving this is the challenge.  From a practical point of view, I have found that life overseas takes more planning. At one point in Pakistan if I wanted to serve egg salad sandwiches for a late lunch I had to get up at the earliest call to prayer and begin making bread. I then went on to make the mayonnaise so it could sit in the refrigerator and get cold, boil the eggs and cool them off and finally end the process by making the sandwiches. A mundane example to be sure, but any of us who have been in that place know that without the many conveniences available in the western world intentional planning is a necessity just to get food on the table. When we’re interrupted in the middle of the process by someone spontaneously dropping by for tea, there are moments of throwing up our hands in despair. How do we do this life? Practical tips like having a high tolerance for ambiguity can sound good on paper but sometimes doesn’t provide the comfort or encouragement we crave.

Life overseas provides endless opportunities for projects and people. How can we be purposeful about these, always leaving room for God-given interruptions? Can we learn to live intentionally and flexibly in the world where God has placed us?  Can we be spontaneous planners – creating the perfect oxymoron?

It’s when I stop and listen for the voice of God, a voice of wisdom and truth, that I learn more of living intentionally and flexibly. Because one look at the life of Jesus shows the perfect balance. He was intent on purpose and spoke truth in Galilee, but he recognized human need and stopped to make sure all were fed. He was on a journey with a destination in mind, but he stopped and took a drink from a woman by a well in Samaria. He was beaten and bruised, hanging on a cross but he paused and made sure to secure a promise that his mother would have a son, would be taken care of by someone who would love her.

In the book Hearing God, Dallas Willard says this: “His [Jesus] union with the Father was so great that he was at all times obedient. This obedience was something that rested in his mature will and understanding of his life before God, not on always being told “Now do this” and “Now do that” with regard to every detail of his life or work.” 

The life of Jesus, lived in obedience to the Father and reflecting perfect balance, offers hope on this journey.

Do you struggle to live intentionally but flexibly? With purpose but room for the Spirit to intervene? What have you found to be key to living this way? 

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About Marilyn

An adult third culture kid, Marilyn grew up in Pakistan and then raised her own 5 third culture kids in Pakistan and Egypt. She currently lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts 15 minutes from the international terminal. She works with underserved, minority communities as a public health nurse and flies to the Middle East & Pakistan as often as possible. She is the author of Between Worlds: Essays on Culture and Belonging and you can find her blogging at Communicating Across Boundaries.

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