The Joys and Pains of Making New Friends

Last November, I wrote a post about finding community, pointing to the danger of relying mostly on a virtual world and not connecting well with people around you. But saying, “Find community,” is almost like simply saying, “Lose weight” without sharing ideas on how to go about doing so.

In real life—or perhaps I should say, in life back in our home culture?—making friends is often uncomplicated. But when you’re living overseas—or, when you’re returning home after living overseas—making friends can be a bit lot more tricky. (Of course, being a global citizen, I realize the term home conjures up much confusion for many of us.)

Nevertheless, despite the risk of oversimplifying, here are some thoughts on ways to find community, realizing that your environment, your personality, your culture and your host culture are all factors that play a role insofar as what will work and what won’t. Here are some thoughts about what’s worked for me, and some thoughts about the joys and the pains of making new friends.

Whitewater rafting with friends on Java, Indonesia: Making new friends can be a scary yet very rewarding experience

Today, I feel like my heart’s been put through a wringer. Two weeks ago, I was in Bangladesh, participating in an emerging leader training camp. Once I got back to Thailand, a colleague arrived for a week worth on intensive training, site visits, meetings, and more meetings. All of the above was very good, and I can still indubitably say, “I love my job.”

Last night, though, after I had dropped off my colleague, I went to dinner at the home of dear, dear friends. I smiled as I walked into their house, the aroma of a dinner prepared with love filling the air. My friend Becky wasn’t home at that moment. She was taking their dog for a walk. Still, I walked in and set the dinner table, simply because that’s what good friends do. And then I curled up in a chair in their living room and took a nap till everyone was at home and we visited about our day.

All was OK till after dinner, when I helped Becky take photos of furniture. See, they’re moving back to the US this summer, and they’re getting ready to sell some furniture. Suddenly, their leaving became a painful reality that stabbed and simply wouldn’t stop hurting. I realize that the pain is exacerbated by me being tired. But it doesn’t change the fact that I am saddened by the fact that my dear friends are leaving, that I’m not just losing one friend, but I’m losing family.

It’s not that I’ve not gone through transition before. In the past 20 years alone, I have lived in more than 10 different cities and in 6 different countries. I’m no stranger to good-byes. But for many of those moves, I was the one leaving, and I had gotten good at guarding my heart.

This time around, I’m staying, watching as my friends are packing up their world bit by bit, selling stuff, preparing for the uncertain transition, and I know that though we’ll remain friends, much will inevitably change.

Here’s the deal, though: When I first met these friends a short few months ago, I knew they were leaving. I could have played it safe and chosen to protect my heart and not accepted a hand of friendship. But I didn’t. Nor did Becky play it safe and opt not to forge a new friendship so soon before having to wrap up many years of living in Thailand.

Does it hurt to know that Becky and her family are leaving soon? More than I care to admit. If I could start over and avert the pain of loss, would I choose not to befriend Becky and her family? Not for a moment! I’d be poorer for it. In that sense, I have to agree with one of my favorite philosophers, Winnie the Pooh, who said,

How lucky I am to have something that makes saying good-bye so hard.

It’s also not that I don’t have other friends in town. I’m blessed that I have several other friends, though none of my other friends here represent what Becky’s family represents for me as a single person: Theirs is a home away from home away from home.

Nor is it that I won’t be able to make new friends, or deepen existing relationships. But I realize that it is a rare gift to be such good friends with an entire family.

Floating on a lake with friends from church: Jamie, me, Becky, Holli and Sandra

And so, tonight, as a reminder to myself and perhaps an incentive for one or two of you, I’ll list a few ways in which I was able to find community in the past. Here’s what’s worked for me over the years of living abroad:

  • Years ago in Taiwan, when I realized that my circle of friends included hardly anyone outside my work world, let alone outside my circle of faith, I joined a choir where I was challenged in so many ways: musically, linguistically, socially and spiritually. Several years later, when I moved back to Taiwan after time in the US and Kenya, I was welcomed right back and started building new relationships among my choir friends. (Ironically, some of my non-Christian friends were much more instrumental in my return adjustment than Christian friends were. But that’s another topic all by itself!) To be sure, I didn’t expect my non-Christian friends to meet my need for spiritual community. What they did do, though, was leave me with amazing memories of making incredible music to God’s glory—even though they saw it merely as culture.
  • Ironically, making close friends in the US was hard in California, yet very easy in Iowa (where I did support raising). Perhaps that would be my advice for moving to the US then: Move to the Midwest! 😉
  • In Kenya, finding community looked differently yet again. At a stage during my three years in Kenya, I moved to a different village in order to be closer to a few friends with whom I could share some cultural commonalities. It is in the village that I learned the importance of having friends who share more than created and learned common bonds.
  • In Indonesia, where I worked at an international school where I was one of very few Christian teachers, I had good friends at school. But since I knew I also needed a faith community in order to thrive, I chose to attend a women’s retreat to get to know other Christian women. May I add that I don’t particularly like women’s church camps? At that camp, though, I made amazing friends with whom I’m still in touch.
  • After moving to Thailand, I tried the same route of attending an interdenominational church camp. This time around, it didn’t work for me at all! I didn’t make any new friends at camp. In Thailand, finding community has worked differently yet again.
  • In Chiang Mai, making friends at first happened as a result of accepting an invitation to a Thai small group even through I understood no Thai yet. In the process, however, I got to know some precious Thai friends.
  • And while our new Compassion office was not yet open and I got to work from home, I chose to leave home daily and work from a coffee shop instead. Though I like variety and like exploring new places, I chose to keep going to the same coffee shop every day so I could get to know the names of the staff, and so someone would smile back when they recognized me.
  • Another key to finding friends came by way of the church where I chose to worship. Rather than visiting several churches in town, trying to find a place that felt just right, I opted to chose between two options only, and soon started going to just one church, even though I knew no-one there. There, I tried out various Bible study groups as a way not only to grow, but to connect to community. (I chose not to stay at any of those studies.)
  • Despite not knowing anyone at church, because I kept going to the same church and kept just being my friendly self, a stranger walked up to me after church one day and struck up a conversation. Viv became a cherished friend, even though I learned very soon that she and her family were returning to New Zealand hardly four months after we met.
  • Over one of our first coffee visits, when I commented that I was looking for a place to exercise, Viv told me about a women’s Bible study that I could join as well as about a taekwondo class at the local Korean church. Me? Do taekwondo?! I wondered. I’ve never done martial arts, and had I known then what I know now what amount of coordination it takes to do taekwondo well, I might never have thought to give it a try… But give taekwondo a try I did, and at class, I met a wonderful new friend, Sandra, who introduced me to a whole slew of friends, including our mutual friend Becky.
I’m one of the oldest members in taekwondo class. What fun!

I would say God has answered my prayers for close community here in Chiang Mai, and as hard as it is to prepare to say good-bye to some friends, I know I’ll make new friends again. If I’ve learned anything in the 20 years’-10 cities’-25 homes’-6 countries’ worth of moves, it is that making good friends takes risk. It takes stepping out of your comfort zone. It takes being yourself, yet allowing God to challenge you to not be too comfortable hiding behind “being yourself.” The introvert in me, for example, wouldn’t mind just waiting for others to come to me. But, as as Philosopher (Winnie the) Pooh says,

“You can’t stay in your corner of the Forest waiting for others to come to you. You have to go to them sometimes.”

Through my connections with Viv and then with Sandra and Becky, I have connected with a rich variety of friends, men and women who challenge and bless me in a different ways, people who have caused me to say, “This, too, has become home to me.”

  • How about you? What’s worked for you in terms of making friends in a new culture?

Adéle lives in Chiang Mai, Thailand,
and considers herself blessed having a rich variety of friends in many places.
Some of her adventures are found at www.AdeleBooysen.com.

The Changing Face of Missions

I want us to consider how globalization is effecting us as missionaries. Fritz Kling wrote a book entitled “The Meeting of the Waters: 7 Global Currents That Will Propel the Future Church” His book will be the backdrop for our discussion. In it he identifies two characters; Missions Marm and Apple Guy.

The Missionary
By: Marc Milligan

Missions Marm – An older, single woman who loaded her trunk (or perhaps even a coffin packed with belongings) onto a ship or plane for her trip to the field, knowing she would only see “home” for an extended furlough every five years. Communication was by sporadic mail service. A lifetime of service seemed too short to accomplish the task.

Brett, the surfer  dude with a taste for big fat............
By: thefuturistics

Apple Guy – a young, hip family man, wearing shorts, flip-flops, and sporting scraggly facial hair who excels at multi-tasking and staying in constant communication with those at home. His family would soon fly into join him for a three-year commitment after renting out the house they were maintaining in the United States. The goodbyes were brief because family is planning a  visit for a sight-seeing trip in a few months.

“Mission Marm” had given up all of her Western accoutrements and conveniences to serve in any way or place that she was needed. “Apple Guy” brought his gadgets and toys with him to a place he had chosen.

The changing of the missions guard brings up several questions:
– Will the next generation bring enough depth and commitment to difficult cross-cultural assignments?
– Are older missionaries prepared to minister and teach Christian faith to people in complex and changing cultures?
– Will Apple Guy and contemporaries know how to forge relationships in less developed and less powerful countries?

Kling states, “Right now, over 400,000 Christian missionaries are living in countries other than their own…the future of the global church will look very different. Hockey great Wayne Gretzky is reputed to have explained why he always seemed to be the first player to the puck: “I don’t skate to where the puck is; I skate to where the puck is going to be.” I wonder…if the global church (is) skating to where the puck was going to be.”

While many of us identify with Apple Guy (we are, after all, reading a blog), can we learn from and embrace the strength of a Mission Marm? In my twenty plus years I have seen many changes in missions (think no email, Skype, or smart phones). While toting my Apple products, I can see a distinct difference in the thinking and attitudes of younger missionaries.

Don’t think: “How will missions adapt?”

Think: “How will I adapt?”

Here are some thoughts for discussion:

How can we maintain the strength and commitment of a Missions Marm?
What do we need to guard against in being Apple Guys?
How can we draw on the strengths from both generations to accomplish the task?

Let’s Discuss!!

– Chris Lautsbaugh, Missionary teacher and author with Youth With A Mission, living in S. Africa.
Blog: NoSuperHeroes   Twitter: @lautsbaugh   Facebook: NoSuperHeroes

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For more about this topic, I encourage you to pick up The Meeting of the Waters.

The mercury’s climbing…

Let’s talk about the weather… even though frankly, I’d really rather not –

-but that is because it is miserably, uncomfortably hot these days.

When we talk about the weather here, we say we have three seasons:

hot,

miserably, uncomfortably hot, and

even worse.

That miserably, uncomfortably hot has begun… well over 104’F/40’C during the afternoon… every day, most of the day. We still have a long chunk of time  (and I know it will only get worse) before we get to the start of the rains and a return to the simple hot, probably sometime in mid to late June.

I dread this time every year; I also recognize that this, too, shall pass. I can finally accept that productivity declines, naps are imperative, tempers run short, power and water cuts will be frequent (and if you are on one of those lines that gets cut first, then remember that God is developing long-suffering in your life), clothes will be dripping sweat most of the time and some nights sleeping on a wet cotton cloth on the relative coolness of the tile floor is a simple given. I have friends who evaluate the heat by how many showers they take in a day – a 5 shower day is pretty bad. Other friends of mine categorize using an independent heat index – how long it takes to start sweating again once dried off after a shower.

And that has been March, April and May every year I have lived in this desert land.

But yesterday…

…yesterday I caught myself doing one of those things I detest. One of my new-to-Niger-this-year friends mentioned that it was getting very hot in the afternoons. I replied with some supposedly witty comment to the effect of “you ain’t felt nothing’ yet!”

How did my comment encourage, edify or exhort my friend? It didn’t. Not one iota. In fact, it was probably discouraging. Instead of benefiting my friend, I have decided that those words somehow exalted me and my status as one of the vets of many Marches, Aprils and Mays. With those words, I swaggered arrogant, using my status as a long-termer to make myself look good… and tough… and maybe a little unfazed by the heat when someone else was wondering how in the world she was going to survive… I like to think, after all, that I am one of those “real” missionaries.

Maybe because of the nature of one of the particular ministries with which I’m involved – with the constant interplay between the new or limited term folks, newbies, versus the long-term vets, oldies – I easily catch myself adopting this boastful, arrogant attitude. Not helpful by any stretch of the imagination, I flaunt past experiences and challenging times I’ve survived like trophies for which I’ve competed and thus earned. This focuses attention on me. In a sense, I step into the limelight to take credit for what, in reality, God has done. I can make myself look more important or more spiritual that way, right?

There is a corollary:

I miss opportunities to direct eyes towards God, towards both the comfort as well as the miraculous thrill of experiencing His sustaining grace offered to each of His servants, regardless of status, length of service, place of service, type of ministry or difficult situation.

Many years ago, someone much wiser than I recorded these words:

 “Let not a wise man boast of his wisdom, and let not the mighty man boast of his might, let not a rich man boast of his riches; but let him who boasts boast of this, that he understands and knows Me, that I am the LORD who exercises lovingkindness, justice and righteousness on earth; for I delight in these things…” (Jeremiah 9:22-23, NASB)

When I came to the mission field, I expected cultural challenges and occasional times of tension between seasoned workers and those with less experience. I recognized that both groups would have potential great contributions to make to the team effort and that the perspectives, skills and knowledge of each would be different and would carry significant value. I was also not so naive as to believe we would all get along perfectly all of the time. What I did not expect was that one day, I’d find I had adopted the veteran “culture,” myself, forgetting or minimizing in my mind what it was like to be fresh to the field, living it all for the very first time. I forgot just how the know-it-all, done-it-all, survived-much-worse-than-this message intentionally or unintentionally communicated by the oldies could so completely take any and all wind out of my sails.

And let me tell you – in this sort of heat? Any breeze is a necessary and delightful respite.

As a newbie, I had determined to maintain an attitude that valued teamwork, unity and only constructive confrontation in battles worth fighting. Now that many consider me a weathered vet of what it means to live and minister in this place, I easily forget that determination. I make those funny but cutting comments that are no better than boasting about the wrong things and that work against the hope of unity far more often than I care to count.

I guess I could blame it on hot season… If I actually said that out loud here, people would understand, laugh and mostly likely agree.

When I’m honest, though, I know the problem originates from within… all the number on the thermometer does is reveal what stays mostly hidden on the inside.

 ***********************************

 If you are a new-to-the field missionary, how does it make you feel when veteran missionaries minimize your struggles or compare what you are going through to their past experiences or other occasions that seem more traumatic?

If you are a seasoned overseas worker, what checks and balances do you use to prevent boasting about yourself or your past accomplishments? How can you still use those same experiences and stories to encourage rather than discourage less seasoned colleagues?

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photo credits to my colleague, Jessica Neff

 – Richelle Wright, missionary in Niger, W. Africa

blog:   Our Wright-ing Pad    ministry:   Wright’s Broadcasting Truth to Niger     facebook:  Richelle Wright

Searching for home after a global upbringing

It’s book month on A Life Overseas!! I love books and I’m especially excited to be able to share a little about my latest book, Love At The Speed Of Email, with you today. I’ve got three electronic copies to give away (PDF, MOBI, or EPUB versions available). Find out how to enter below.

Love At The Speed Of Email is a memoir – the story of how I met my husband while he was in Papua New Guinea working for a humanitarian organization and I was in Los Angeles working as a stress management trainer. It’s more than a love story, though, it’s a recounting of my struggle to find an answer to the question “where’s home” after being raised five different countries and then embracing a career that kept me perpetually on the move. I suspect that this struggle to define home is one that those of you who were raised as third culture kids (or who are raising global nomads yourselves) will be all too familiar with.

The section that I’ve chosen to share with you comes from a chapter called Airports and Bookstores. I was twenty-six years old, in Hawaii, and having the time of my life at the first creative writing workshop I’d ever attended when I realized for the first time that I might have a real problem when it came to this concept of home …

***

Borrowing inspiration from the tale of the prodigal son in the Bible, our instructors had told us to write a “coming home” story. We should, we were told, write the prodigal who was us as an adult, coming home to ourselves as a child.

“Pick the clearest recollection you have of home and use that,” they said.

Everyone else reached for a pen or a laptop. I just sat there.

I was still sitting there ten minutes later.

Eventually I went up to the front of the room, to the giant leather-bound book of synonyms that was sitting on a podium, looked up home and wrote down these words: Birthplace. Stability. Dwelling. Hearth. Hearthstone. Refuge. Shelter. Haven. Sanctum.

I went back to my seat and stared past the book of synonyms, past the palm trees standing still under a blanket of midday heat, and out into the hazy blue of an ocean that promised a horizon it never quite delivered.

The list didn’t seem to help much.

Birthplace conjured Vancouver, a city I’d visited only twice, briefly, since we’d left when I was one.

Stability then. Unlike my parents’, not a word that could be applied to my childhood. In stark contrast with their agrarian upbringing, I’d spent an awful lot of my time in airports.

Maybe that was it, I thought, wondering whether the sudden spark I felt at the word airport was a glimmer of inspiration or merely desperation.

There was no denying that as a child I’d thought there was a lot of fun to be had in and around airports. More than one home movie shows me and my sister, Michelle, arranging our stuffed animals and secondhand Barbies in symmetrical rows and lecturing them severely about seat belts and tray tables before offering to serve them drinks. When we were actually in airports, we spent many happy hours collecting luggage carts and returning them to the distribution stands in order to pocket the deposit. We were always very disappointed to find ourselves in those boring socialist airports with free trolleys.

In Hawaii, I was tempted to start writing my story about home but didn’t.

“Your clearest memories of home as a child cannot possibly be in an airport,” I scolded myself, still staring past my laptop and out to the white-laced toss and chop of cerulean. “Home is not a topic that deserves flippancy. Work harder. … What about dwellings and hearths?”

That year my parents were living in the Philippines. My brother was in Sydney. My sister was in Washington, D.C. The bed I could legitimately call mine resided in Indiana. I had lived none of these places except D.C. as a child, and they were such awkward, lonely years that the thought of going back, even in a story, made me squirm. We lived in Washington, D.C., for three and a half years before moving to Zimbabwe, and what I remember most clearly about that time is that I spent much of it reading.

I’ve been in love with reading since before I can remember. Our family photo albums are peppered with photos of me curled up with books – in huts in Bangladesh, on trains in Europe, in the backseat of our car in Zimbabwe.

I can’t remember my parents reading to us before bed, although they swear they often did – sweet tales about poky puppies and confused baby birds looking for their mothers.

“You were insatiable,” Mum said when I asked her about this once. “No matter how many times I read you a book, you always wanted more.”

“Awwww,” I said, envisioning long rainy afternoons curled up with my mother while she read to me. “You must have spent hours reading to me.”

“I did,” my mother said in a tone that let me know she fully expects me to return the favor one day. “But it was never enough. So I taped myself.”

“What?” I asked.

“I got a tape recorder,” she said. “I recorded myself reading a story – I even put these cute little chimes in there so you’d know when to turn the page. Then, sometimes, I sat you down with the tapes.”

“Nice,” I said in a way that let her know that I didn’t think this practice would get her nominated for the motherly hall of fame.

“You loved it,” she said, completely uncowed. “Plus, I needed a break every now and then. You were exhausting. You never stopped asking questions. You asked thirty-seven questions once during a half-hour episode of Lassie. I counted.”

I can’t remember any of this. My earliest memories of reading are solitary, sweaty ones. They are of lying on the cool marble floor of our house in Bangladesh, book in hand, an overhead fan gently stirring the dense heat while I chipped away at frozen applesauce in a small plastic container. But it’s when we moved from Bangladesh to the states when I was nine that my memories of books, just like childhood itself, become clearer.

Of all the moves I’ve made in my life, this was one of the most traumatic. Abruptly encountering the world of the very wealthy after two years of living cheek by jowl with the world of the very poor, I discovered that I didn’t fit readily into either world. My fourth grade classmates in Washington D.C. had no framework for understanding where I had been for the last two years – what it was like to ride to church in a rickshaw pulled by a skinny man on a bicycle, to make a game out of pulling three-inch-long cockroaches out of the sink drain while brushing your teeth at night, or to gaze from the windows of your school bus at other children picking through the corner garbage dumps.

I, in turn, lacked the inclination to rapidly absorb and adopt the rules of this new world, a world where your grasp on preteen fashion, pop culture, and boys all mattered terribly. Possibly I could have compensated for my almost total lack of knowledge in these key areas with lashings of gregarious charm, but at nine I lacked that, too. I was not what you would call a sunny child.

So I read instead. I read desperately.

I read pretty much anything I could get my hands on. One of the few good things I could see about living in the states was the ready availability of books. Some weekends Mum and Dad would take us to the local library’s used-book sale. Books were a quarter each. I had a cardboard box and carte blanche. On those Saturday mornings I was in heaven.

Like many kids, I suspect, I was drawn to stories of outsiders or children persevering against all odds in the face of hardship. I devoured all of C.S. Lewis’ stories of Narnia and adored the novels of Frances Hodgson Burnett, especially the ones featuring little girls who were raised in India before being exiled to face great hardship in Britain. But I also strayed into more adult territory. I trolled our bookshelves and the bookshelves of family friends, and those bookshelves were gold mines for stories about everything from religious persecution to murder, rape, civil war, child brides, and honor killing.

In retrospect, even at eleven I wasn’t reading largely for pleasant diversion, for fun, for the literary equivalent of eating ice cream in the middle of the day. I was extreme-reading – pushing boundaries – looking to be shocked, scared, thrilled, and taught. I was reading to try to figure out how to make sense of pain.

It is entirely possible that had we remained in Australia throughout my childhood, I would still have spent the majority of these preteen years feeling isolated and misunderstood. After all, in the midst of our mobility I never doubted my parents’ love for me or for each other, but this did not forestall an essential loneliness that was very deeply felt. I suspect that I would still have grown into someone who feels compelled to explore the juxtaposition of shadow and light, someone who is drawn to discover what lies in the dark of life and of ourselves. But I also suspect that the shocking extremes presented by life in Bangladesh and America propelled me down this path earlier, and farther, than I may naturally have ventured.

It was largely books that were my early companions on this journey. They were stories of poverty and struggle, injustice and abuse, violence and debauchery, yes. But they were also threaded through with honor and courage, sacrifice and discipline, character and hope.

Many people seem to view “real life” as the gold standard by which to interpret stories, but I don’t think that does novels justice. For me, at least, the relationship between the real and fictional worlds was reciprocal. These books named emotions, pointed to virtue and vice, and led me into a deeper understanding of things I had already witnessed and experienced myself. They also let me try on, like a child playing dress-up, experiences and notions new to me. They acted as maps, mirrors, and magnifying glasses.

In those lonely childhood years, books also provided refuge. They were havens and sanctums.

Did that make them home?

When the writing exercise ended after half an hour and we were invited to share, I’d come up with only two ideas.

Set the scene in a bookstore. Or set it in an airport.

I hadn’t written a single word.

***

Thanks for reading! You can enter to win a copy of Love At The Speed Of Email by leaving a comment below and addressing at least one of the following questions.

  • Where’s home for you?
  • What comes to mind when you hear the word home?
  • If you’re raising third culture kids, how are you addressing this issue with them?
  • Any favorite Bible verses, quotes, or stories to share on this topic?

I’ll pick three winners randomly from the comment list on Saturday the 9th of March and send out an email to the winners. If you don’t win an e-copy and you’d like to read more, or you prefer a paperback copyLove At The Speed Of Email is available from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and elsewhere.

Lisa McKayauthor, psychologist, sojourner in Laos

Blog: www.lisamckaywriting.com      Books: Love At The Speed Of Email and My Hands Came Away Red

Welcome Tara Livesay . . . And A Few Announcements

Angie and I wanted to take a quick minute today to introduce you all to our newest monthly contributor, Tara Livesay. Tara lives in Haiti, with her seven children and husband, and is working with pregnant women and new mothers there.  We’ve been watching her for a while, and we think this community will be challenged by her words as much as we have. Here’s her official bio and a photo of her precious family:

Tara Livesay.  Tara is the mom to seven unique personalities and wife to her best-friend, Troy. The Livesays have been living, learning and working with women in Haiti for seven years. During that time they have come to recognize that God is not made manifest in their ability to “fix” anything, but in their own need to be fixed. Tara is a slow and aging distance runner that enjoys writing, potato chips, diet coke, and spending time with her family. She is a self-confessed cynic and a hard core realist. (No one has ever accused her of being an optimist.) She is passionate about maternal health and is pursuing her midwifery certification while she works in a relationship-based maternity center serving women before, during, and after labor and delivery. She writes regularly at: www.livesayhaiti.com.

Take a minute to welcome Tara to the monthly writing team! You can check out the bios of our other monthly contributors HERE.

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Also, you’ll notice a new feature on the sidebar we are offering for subscribers. Because of the wonders of mailchimp, we are now offering readers the option of receiving posts in real-time as they hit the web OR the receiving the posts for the entire week once, on Friday mornings. As we add new writers and new guest posters, we wanted those with overflowing inboxes to have the option of simplifying!

What?! What’s that you say? You haven’t subscribed yet?! Now’s your moment, friends– that top right sidebar is just waiting for you to check it out.

And a community update— It’s been a big last few weeks in this online space. We’ve given away 23 books in three weeks (two written by our own team of writers here) and in the last week alone we had over 5,000 page clicks on our site. We’ve tackled issues like sexual abuse on the mission field, the strain international life can put on a marriage, the trouble with learning a language, and the tendency we all have to communicate poorly to supporters. And the conversations that have come from these posts, and from YOU, have been inspirational and challenging and deeply, deeply good.

So, thank you. Thank you for reading and commenting and sharing. Thanks for engaging. Something powerful is being built here in this corner of the internet, and we are thrilled to watch it unfold.

Laura Parker, for both Angie Washington and I, the Editors

Short Term Missions and a Church in Haiti

Guest writer and missionary to Haiti, Shannon Kelley, shares a short term missions experience.

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It’s a typical Sunday.  My family walks over dirt roads about a mile to a little cinder block church.  We are the only non-Haitian’s there.  We sit amongst our friends – people with hard lives that get down on their knees and pray prayers that make Jesus feel palpable in that room.  The kids sit mostly well-mannered in fear of being shushed by some of the elders in the church.  There is no fanfare. We sit in our usual seats. A couple guys bang on handmade instruments to worship.  It is beauty.

Several weeks later I sit within those same walls. This time a group is visiting on a short-term mission trip. Today there are plants and decorations lining the “stage” and the crackling of a mic with a short in it makes it impossible to understand much.  The pastor spent last week’s offering on gas for a little generator to power a mic and keyboard player just for today, for the group.  The handmade instruments I love sit unused in the corner.  The blan (white) pastor leading the team gets up and introduces his team by name, making them parade to the front.

As the service wears on, a few of the moms of the group motion for some kids to come sit with them. They proceed to chat and play with them while, unbeknownst to them, the congregants are praying.  The elders that typically shush the kids shake their heads and don’t say anything because they don’t want to insult the visitors. The kids know this and take full advantage of playing with cameras and phones and other gadgets, being generally disorderly in comparison to the usual way they’re expected they behave.  I sit there and wonder how we would feel if we were sitting in a church in the States and a group of people from another country came in and acted that way.

Church ends and the visitors go on to do their week of serving the community. I watch as the labor they do takes away jobs from the nationals, like construction and painting. The money from their airplane tickets could provide employment for Haitians which in turn feeds families.

Sometimes service from foreign groups can be fruitful and I can see the need for it. They leave the village better off by training pastors, educating Haitians, and supporting the long term missionaries. I wonder, though, if the risk of having a group who might do more damage than good is too great.

I’m struggling with the good of short term missions.  I see the side of it that is good because it shows people a different part of the world and challenges their faith. But are we searching for substance in our lives at the mercy of those we came to help?

I don’t know the answer. Let’s talk. What has your experience been with short-term teams? What methods effectively help all those involved, nationals and foreigners alike?

More on STMs: A Case for Short Term Missions  |  Is the Price Tag Worth It?  | Rice Christians and Fake Conversions

——————————————

Shannon Kelley lives in a rural fishing village with her  family on the Southern tip of Haiti where they fight for families. Follow their journey here:
www.shannon-kelley.com/blog

When Missions Goes Hollywood

 Anybody can have a good website.

Anybody.

And that includes missionaries and ministries and humanitarian efforts that want and need. . .  money.

And oftentimes, what you see IS what you get– honest efforts at helping others, effective means of sharing God’s love with a community whether it be in education or poverty reduction or leadership training or whathaveyou. 

But, I’m on the ground here in SE Asia, which happens to be somewhat of a Christian mecca for missions organizations in all of Asia, and a story I’ve seen repeated more than once from or by the missionaries here is one of

false advertising.

Because anybody can have a good website.

And, let’s be honest, a good website with moving pictures of the impoverished or the primitive, sells.  Or fundraises,to be more specific.  And since so much of the work here is support-based, it’s a bit of a game that missionaries and organizations have to play.  We live in a virtual age, after all, when the validity of a company is based in large part by the flashiness of its website, and nonprofits are having to compete, naturally, if they want to survive and raise the necessary funds to further their visions.

And I get it.  I understand the language of SEO tags and google analytics, but my greatest struggle is when ministries paint a picture for their online viewer that isn’t actual reality or when they use content that actually exploits the people they are supposed to be helping.

The hard reality is that Hollywood sells.  The dramatic, the photoshopped, the extreme, the well-crafted word, the grungy graphics, the SEO-optimized– this is the stuff that raises funds, faster.  And funds are what the missionary or relief organization needs to stay operational, to stay on the field, to continue the work.

And I’m not pointing fingers, because I look back at my own communication of our past 18 months, and I’m left nervous that I myself have painted too grand a picture of the work here, have cropped reality too often, or have used brush strokes that have highlighted self far too frequently.

But, really, what’s a missionary to do?  Give the ‘audience’ what they want–  inspiration that will translate into the writing of checks, and thus, the ability to do more ministry?

Or deliver the brutal truth of failed efforts and the boring everyday and, more than likely, watch their financial support go the way of their old-school website stats?

I mean, really, {and I’m sincerely asking} where’s the line between honestly recording the good cause and softly manipulating to further it?

*post archived on LauraParkerBlog

**************

Thoughts?  What do you think of the connection between fundraising and Hollywood?  Stories, rants, opinions? How do you handle this tension with your donors back home?

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– Laura Parker, former humanitarian worker in SE Asia

Sexual Abuse on the Mission Field

The instant message to her friend said, “I hate them. They don’t know anything about me.”

Four years earlier we had landed on foreign soil.  The flight that carried us, and our 100 pounds each of luggage, was just short enough to cry the entire way.  We felt strongly we were on the right path, but that did not make it painless. Eager to know, love, and serve we dove in fully committed to the people of our new home.  Each day felt long and overwhelming. There was so much to learn, so much to do.  We wanted to be trusted and loved.  We wanted to trust and love.

“God, protect our children from harm”, we earnestly prayed.

From the very beginning we knew and were told that discouragement would come and it might come in the form of illness or an attack on our family or marriage. We were armed with knowledge about quickly identifying that.

We stayed busy managing multiple programs, building relationships with our neighbors, hosting short-term teams, and raising our family. Our kids thrived. The two oldest excelled in language acquisition and spoke circles around the adults.

I wish I could get away from them,” she typed to her friend.

Just shy of our three-year anniversary abroad, we decided to work with a new organization.  As we learned the language and confronted the cultural issues, we outgrew the stateside leadership and couldn’t convince them our opinions were worth respecting.  With sadness we packed and moved a few hours away to a new area, a new assignment.

After our move our daughter grew more and more angry. She distanced herself from us in ways we didn’t understand. She put walls up and refused to let us into her life.

“She is a teenager, this is normal,” we said.

Even as we said it, it didn’t make sense. We’d always been such a tight-knit and happy family.

Confused, we confronted her.  “Why are you so angry?”

“I’m not.” She lied.

One night we decided enough was enough.  “You’ll stay home from school tomorrow and we WILL talk”, we said. She shrugged; she walked away and slammed her door.

I woke up early that morning.  Angry and hurt, blaming and upset, I went for a run. “God, she hates us for no reason. She is terrible to us. She keeps hurting us. Lord, please tell me how to punish her”, I prayed.

Running fast, fueled by anger, I asked again, “God, this is so terrible – what should we do with her?”  The answer came so clearly I checked my ipod to see if I had heard it there.  I asked again. The response stopped me dead in my tracks. “Give her gifts. I love her. Give her gifts.”

Totally bewildered I sprinted home to tell her Dad, “We’re not supposed to punish her. We’re supposed to give her gifts.”

Over the period of the next several hours we ignored every hurtful word hurled and every angry action. We took our daughter to treat her to gifts.  It confused us and it confused her but we spent the day spoiling her.

Late that night she walked up the stairs into our office and handed us a four-page letter.  She asked us to read it immediately.  As I read it hot tears poured down my face.

“I’m sorry.”

“It’s my fault.”

“You warned us, you told us to be careful.”

“It happened many times.”

“I was afraid.”

“I didn’t know how to tell you.”

“I am ashamed.”

“I should have known how to stop it.”

For three years our little girl had been subjected to the crafty and culturally accepted advances of someone we trusted and saw as her friend, an innocent playmate.  It wasn’t until we moved away from it that she could begin to feel the all consuming and confusing mixture of shame and pain over what took place.  She turned her rage inward, she turned it on the people she trusts most to love her.

When they were together it was always within our walls.  She worked on her language skills and he tried his English.  A few nights a week for years the kids played outside near the gate together. Other kids almost always seemed to be right with them. “They are so cute working on language like that,” we thought. Because he was in the same grade as her we had thought of him as her equal.  Yes, he was nine years older than her but he seemed like a child in some ways.

Sobbing together on the floor of our office, I said “This is not your fault.”

“But you told me that someone could try to hurt me.”

“You told me.”

And so it began, the long and grueling process of hurting and healing together.  The HIV rate in our host country demanded tests for her. The emotional damage and deep shame demanded much more.  It continues to demand MUCH more.

As it turned out my warnings were about bad boogie men and not about a friend, not about someone in the same grade in school as her. My warnings didn’t help prepare for the sly way he would move in on her and manipulate her feelings and guilt her into thinking she had chosen it.  He was an adult, and in his culture having sex is his right.

As parents that boarded an airplane filled with faith and a desire to serve God abroad, praying, “God, protect our children from harm” we were devastated. Our Father had not heard us.  We felt He had looked away.  Having entered the mission field aware and on guard we felt so stupid for missing it, for not knowing, for not seeing.

The road has been long. The anger rises up without permission. The grief hits us all at unpredictable times.

Give her gifts, Lord.  We love her.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Sexual abuse of children is a complicated issue world wide.  In certain cultures it is endemic. Kids being raised in a second or new culture are at an increased risk.  How aware are you of this issue in your culture and what measures do you take to try to protect your children?

(The author of this important true story has chosen to remain anonymous yet may be addressed as ‘Jessica’ in the comments.)

In the Presence of My Enemies {Giveaway}

I am excited to send these out!

You can win one of 3 hardcover books sent to ANYWHERE in the world!

How far does your forgiveness reach? That was the question pulsating in my heart as I read the harrowing true story of Gracia and Martin Burnham, ‘In the Presence of My Enemies’. During my first year in Bolivia, Gracia became a widow after 17 years of serving the Lord alongside her husband in the Philippines. He lost his life as a victim of brutal gunfire after a year in captivity at the hands of kidnappers.

Gracia tells the story of what that year was like, of her husband’s death, and of the redeeming grace of God that allows her to continue to minister to people who need Christ’s forgiveness. The following excerpt addresses the searing question: Why?

Because the Abu Sayyaf — and all of us — still retain the power of personal choice, the option of standing stubbornly against the will of God. And that obstinate stance is, apparently, something an almighty God is not willing to bulldoze. Of course, he could have fired heavenly lasers into the brains of Janjalani and Musab and Sabaya, forcing them to wake up one morning and say, “Okay, Martin and Gracia, this has been long enough. Feel free to hike off whenever you like.” But that would have made them puppets instead of independent human beings with free will of their own, for which they will be eternally responsible.

A bit of author background from the website ‘Martin and Gracia Burnham Foundation

Gracia Burnham is the widow of Martin Burnham and the mother of Jeff, Mindy and Zach.

For 17 years she and Martin served with New Tribes Mission in the Philippines where Martin was a jungle pilot delivering mail, supplies and encouragement to other missionaries and transporting sick and injured patients to medical facilities. Gracia served in various roles supporting the aviation program and also home-schooled their children–all of which were born in the Philippines.

While celebrating their 18th wedding anniversary at Dos Palmas Resort off Palawan Island, the Burnhams were kidnapped on May 27, 2001, by the Abu Sayyaf Group, a militant group of Muslims. They seized several more guests and took them to Basilan Island, an ASG stronghold.

In the ensuing months some of the hostages were killed, but most were set free. From November 2001, only the Burnhams and one other hostage remained in captivity.

During their 376 days of captivity, they faced near starvation, constant exhaustion, frequent gun battles, coldhearted murder-and intense soul-searching about a God who sometimes seemed to have forgotten them.

On June 7, 2002, in a firefight between the Philippine military and the Abu Sayyaf Group, Martin was killed. Gracia was wounded, but was freed.

Since that time Gracia has authored two books, In The Presence Of My Enemies, and To Fly Again. Her oldest son, Jeff, and his wife, Sarah, have accepted an assignment with Flying Mission Services in Botswana, Africa. Mindy is now married to Andy Hedvall, a “missionary kid” from South America. Mindy has completed her course of study at New Tribes Bible Institute in Waukesha, WI and Andy continues in his training there. Zachary is now attending Calvary Bible College in Kansas City. Gracia resides in Rose Hill, Kansas..

You can enter to win by referring someone you know to the A Life Overseas blog, twitter feed, or facebook page. Leave a comment to let us know your chosen method of communication:

  1. Sharing a link of the facebook page
  2. Tweeting something nice using our handle @alifeoverseas or hashtag #alifeoverseas
  3. Promoting A Life Overseas blog on your personal blog
  4. Sending a personal email
  5. Texting a message
  6. Making a phone / skype /Magic Jack /etc. call
  7. Talking about A Life Overseas in real life with a real person

A nice button for your linking leisure:

It will be my privilege to send you one of these books. I really wish everyone reading this could win one. This book is that good! I will pick a winner from the list of comments on this post on Monday evening, February 25th.

EDIT: The drawing is now closed. Congratulations to our winners: Laura Davis, Bonnie Schilling, and Nicky!

– Angie Washington, missionary living in Bolivia, South America

blog: angiewashington.com twitter: @atangie work blog: House of Dreams Orphanage

Concrete churches in a bamboo world

After going to an Ash Wednesday service on Ash Wednesday, my wife and I were talking about the history of some of the practices most associate with Christianity yet possibly, or likely, have their roots in pagan rituals or practices. As it turns out, rabbits and eggs are ancient symbols of fertility, and several people groups use ashes to symbolize the frailty of life.

This discussion reminded me of conversations we had in Thailand. Visiting hill tribe villages in Northern Thailand, most of the buildings were on stilts, often made primarily of wood and bamboo. Each village we visited had one concrete building emerging from the panorama similar to how I imagine cathedrals once looked in medieval Europe. Just like then, it was the church building.

At first, we had the response many western Christians have when they see a church building in a country claiming only 1% Christianity: a touch of pride and hope. But when we spent more time with the communities, we saw people who lived their lives in raised homes and who sat on bamboo floors; life was lived in familiar buildings outside of the church building — and outside of the church.

Then I ran into a team of missionaries working in Phayao, Thailand who also wondered why the Western church building should be the house of worship for Eastern people. The team not only wondered why they needed the typical, Western church building but also whether the practices and rituals at Buddhist temples were inherently Buddhist or were just methods of worship familiar to Eastern people and could be redirected towards the worship of Jesus Christ. After all, before the God of Abraham and Isaac, other religions sacrificed animals as offerings, and our God re-appropriated the practice twice.

After years of studying the language, culture, religion, the missionaries created a raised space (second floor) where attendees light incense and bow to the cross and wai when scripture is read. Instead of a buddha in front, a cross is hung. The people sit on the floor with their heads lower than the cross and feet pointed away from it. The sermon message was brief and the service centered around communion and scripture with a little bit of chanting. It was definitely focused on Christ. But at what point does it become too syncretic? Here’s a little bit of insight from the team in Phayao working on contextualized evangelism.

As Derran Reese emphasizes, “The crux of the matter is how the community uses and negotiates the meaning of the relevant symbols and forms in light of its faith in the triune God.” For example, does shifting “Got milk?” to “Got Christ?” allow the community to worship God instead of consumerism? That’s the question we should ask — or something like that.

Exploring the rituals of our faith can be scary. I mean, what is ch
urch without a building that looks like a church?
As giant church building construction continues, small coffeehouse fellowships and liturgies in old Mason lodges and communities under bridges begin to do something different in the United States. Are we perhaps yearning for something beyond the building?

So, what symbols do we keep and what do we leave? And what do we redirect towards the worship of the divine that is currently being used to worship another divine?

How do we encourage a foreign faith to become familiar?

I’d love to read your thoughts and experiences.

 

The Aim of Language Learning

I posted a note on Facebook about a language lesson and received this comment, “Are you still studying language? I thought you’d be fluent by now.”

Ouch.

It has been more than a decade. What’s my problem?

I can make a list of excuses. I speak two, sometimes three languages. I had two-year old twins when we arrived and added another baby. My family endured an emergency evacuation, searing conflict, work crises…I could say this particular language is just plain too hard: there are few textbooks, the two that exist are error-filled and not my dialect. The written form is young and still working out spelling kinks. Or I could say I’m stupid or I’m not a language person. Or I haven’t worked hard.

In other words, I could blame language difficulty on situations, the language itself, or my failings.

But I have worked hard. I’ve put in forty-hour weeks. I’ve studied faithfully all these years. I have a degree in linguistics and love languages and language learning. I use all the languages every day. I’m highly conversational.

So the question lingers, why do I still have language lessons? What’s my problem?

This, fellow expats, is the wrong question.

Raise your hand or leave a comment or tweet it out if you moved overseas under the impression a good solid two years of immersion study would have you fluent.

Oh how many times I’ve heard this and then seen people leave, far from fluent, after 2-3-4 years.

Language learning is hard, so hard that the best advice I’ve heard is: “Anyone who wants to learn a language well must have a solid theology of suffering.” (pretty good advice for all of life, I’d add)

Will language learning never end?!

The reality is, you might not ever reach fluency. Or it might take you years longer than you thought. Your spouse or coworker might fly past you, you might fly past them. But this is not about you. It is not about your speed or adeptness. What is wrong with me when language comes slow is the absolute wrong question.

The right questions are: How does God want to change me and use me while I learn this language? How does God want to accomplish his purposes through me while I learn this language? How can I love people while I learn this language?

The point, the aim, is not fluency. The aim is to honor God, to be used by him, to become more like Jesus, to love well.

Work hard, study hard, don’t give up. There will always be fables you don’t know, proverbs you’ve never heard, jokes you miss the punch lines of, songs you can’t quite follow. This is why I still have a language tutor.

There will always be people who need jobs, people to love and relate with, people to visit in their homes and invite into yours, people who delight in helping you discover the beauty of their culture at ever-deepening levels. This is why I still have a language tutor

God will always have lessons in humility, patience, endurance, treasures of the exquisite in the unique turn of a phrase and in the relationship. This is why I still have a language tutor.

And as you labor and learn and laugh at yourself, remember. The aim is not your own fluency. The aim is God’s work in and through you, however and at whatever speed he plans to accomplish it.

What motivates you to keep studying language?

Advice for newbies or oldies?

Funny language faux pas?

 -Rachel Pieh Jones, development worker, Djibouti

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

When the Mission Field Hurts Your Marriage

The words flew like arrows, each piercing through the thick air between us, not one missing it’s target, cutting deep into the flesh and tearing what we once held dear.  No amount of armor could protect us in this place, our hearts were open, bare, raw, and being ripped to shreds.

Yes we had taken that oath, we had stood before hundreds of our dearest friends and family and promised.

I will always love you.

I will always cherish you.

I will go through the fire with you.

I will always take your side.

And yet today here we stood, battle ready, armed to the teeth with every harsh word and criticism we could muster.  Fighting not as one, but against each other.

What was once one was very near to becoming tw0.

Although time (and the counsel of good friends) has helped reveal the things in our hearts that needed to change, and brought to light the errors in our thinking that took us to this awful place, I blame the mission field for our struggles.

Yes, we were not giving one another the attention we deserved.

Yes, we even had somewhere along the way stopped praying together.

Yes, we had allowed all sorts of weeds to grow in the field of our marriage.

But the question I have been asking this past season as we focus our attention together on building back what was lost is this– how did we get here?  What was it that distracted us or pulled us apart?  Like I said before, I blame the mission field.

Yes, I know all sorts of people are already looking for the comment button to tell me how any marriage can slip, and that no matter where you are, you have to work at it.

Yeah, I get that.

But the truth is most mission fields are like wild fires, burning out of control and consuming everything in their path.

We come in with a passion in our hearts for the lost, but instead often our entire lives are consumed in the flames.

(Know please that I say all this with out any hint of ‘better than thou sinner who liveth in the country you were born in’, I just need to say it like it is today. This gig is tough.)

In a few months we will celebrate our fourth year here in Ethiopia. We won’t likely throw a party, or even talk about it much. We’ve never been big on sentimental dates in our family. But as I sit here reflecting on what we have endured, as I look back to the struggles that our marriage has borne in these years, I feel that a celebration is in order.

Because we are survivors.

You see the conversation above was not the first like it, nor will it likely be the last. We have seen this desolate place in our marriage more times than I can count, and most of them have been since we moved here.  The constant frustration of clashing cultures, the feeling of not accomplishing much, the patience it takes to get through one day, it all threatens to rip a marriage from its foundation.

When we first moved here, I thought that it was funny that missionaries were so focused on when their “furlough” would take place or when they were going to get a “vacation,” I scoffed at their petty behavior and dove in head first to the work that we had come for. Soon after, things started to take their toll, our passion began to wane, and then I saw what they were talking about.

Today can I just honestly say what I’ve learned the past four years? Living on the mission field is hard on a marriage.

Brutal, in fact.

Jessie and I have realized that we need to do whatever it takes before it is too late. We are being more intentional about communicating, giving one another the time we need to rest, and trying to slow down the pace of life.

We’re learning that we must work hard to protect our marriages while overseas, and that God has to stay center.

*******

I wrote a book that came out several months ago, and one of the criticisms I have gotten was that I was too honest about the struggles that we bore when moving our family to Ethiopia. The book, ‘No Greater Love’ (Tyndale Press) came out in July and was quickly named the number one hot new release on Amazon.  I write about our journey overseas and into our current ministry, placing local widows with local orphans.

This week, I’m donating TEN copies of  No Greater Love to the community here at A Life Overseas. To enter, simply click on the rafflecopter giveaway below.

Entries will close Feb. 18, and you’d help us all out by sharing this post and giveaway with your friends. Good Luck!

* You can read more about Levi’s family and their journey bringing orphans and widows together locally at www.bringlove.in 

 a Rafflecopter giveaway