The Darkness is Not Winning

hole in the heart

“The darkness is not winning!”

These are words I read yesterday in a newsletter from my brother and sister-in-law. Stan and Tami live in Denver but spend at least half the year traveling throughout the world. And in their travels, they see things. They connect with people through the joys and challenges of a life overseas. They know that of which they speak, because they see God at work. 

They know that the darkness is not winning. So today I offer you the encouragement that they gave me through their newsletter:

*****

“Not long ago a news article about black holes in space caught my attention. Black holes seem to get a lot of news and mostly, it seems, because of what they swallow up. Now I’m not a physicist, mathematician or any kind of scientist and so what I say is simply my imagination. They say that what goes into a black hole doesn’t come out, that even light cannot escape. But did you know that the same observations and mathematical models predict not only black holes but something similar only altogether different? They are called white holes. Now a white hole doesn’t swallow everything up like a black hole. Instead a white hole lets out light into the universe instead of swallowing it up.

 

What a wonderful metaphor for Christmas and what we celebrate! The Christmas account in the Gospel of John begins with the first 14 verses of the book…

 

1 In the beginning was the Word,  and the Word was with God,  and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning.  3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.  4 In him was life,  and that life was the light  of all mankind. 5 The light shines in the darkness,  and the darkness has not overcome it…. 14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us.
The darkness is not winning. 

The truth is that wherever the news on television has been particularly bad this year, the Light is there shining and overcoming the Darkness. Refugees in the Middle East are being taken in by Christians, hatred is overcome by love. The hungry are being fed and the wounded healed in Jesus name. Discouraged and dislocated people are hearing about Jesus and receiving him and finding life and community and safety. Slaves in South East Asia are being set free from sex and labor imprisonment and the Light is even shining into the places where these slaves are working while they are still in slavery.”*

As I scan the news and read of grief, loss, and terror I think of the words from this newsletter, that wherever the news is particularly bad, the light is there shining and overcoming the darkness.

And I’m challenged yet again to live as one who knows that the darkness is not winning.

Where do you see the light shining and overcoming the darkness? 

*[source – Stan & Tami Brown IDEAS]

Cranberry Salad Without the Cranberries…(and Other Cooking Misadventures)

Djiboutilicious-Cookbook-Rachel-Jones

I was introduced one time in Cairo as “This is Marilyn. She DOES things with the food here.” The person I was introduced to looked at me in holy awe. “You can DO things with the food here? How?”

To me, Cairo was a thriving metropolis that had cheese. Doing things with the food in Cairo was easy. It’s all perspective. When you’re straight out of Katy, Texas and you enter the developing world, cooking can be a shock. In my case, I’d grown up with all manner of substitutions and learned early in life that cooking and baking were about experimenting.

In a group of expatriates or missionaries it doesn’t take long before you begin sharing “cooking” stories. From marinating meat for a week in CocaCola so you can chew it, to figuring out how to make chocolate chips (more likely chunks) out of local chocolate, the stories abound. We spend hours figuring out, and passing around, substitutions for ingredients common in our passport countries. Some people have food shipments and commissary privileges, and I have been the recipient of their generosity many times. But the rest of the time, it’s us and the local market.

One time my friend Betsy invited someone who worked for the US Embassy to her home for Thanksgiving. He called up to see if he could bring anything. She replied that if there was a favorite dish that he would want, then he could feel free to make it. Yes, indeed he did and he would. His favorite dish was a cranberry-orange salad. Betsy was over the moon. Cranberries! Real cranberries. She too had a recipe, but while in Egypt it was the joke that you made cranberry orange salad without the cranberries. Oranges were ubiquitous and delicious, while cranberries hadn’t made their way from the cranberry bogs of Massachusetts to the dusty streets of Cairo.

On Thanksgiving Day, the man showed up empty handed. Trying to hide her disappointment, Betsy welcomed him in her characteristically gracious manner. “About that salad….,” he said, apologetically. “I would have made it, but there were no oranges in the commissary.” Betsy took a deep breath. What she wanted to say was “You idiot! Every street corner has people selling oranges! The oranges in Egypt are the best! Why don’t you look around you!” But instead she just said “No problem! Welcome!”

Cookbooks make the problem worse. Too often they are so western specific that you’re left with a useless book adding insult to something that can already be difficult.

Because humor aside, we want to create home and belonging for our families. Cooking is a time-honored way of doing this. When we are stripped of all our abilities, from language to creating a home to cooking for our families, it takes its toll on us.

It’s into this conversation that I bring Rachel Pieh Jones. Two years ago, my daughter handed me a present. It was a cookbook called  Djiboutilicious. In  the expat world of connections, Rachel had gone to New York and stayed with a college student. It turned out that she was one of my daughter’s college friends. The cookbook traveled from Djibouti to Boston via New York and sits with pride in my kitchen. As someone who grew up in Pakistan, this book is a practical taste of ‘home.’ And for you at A Life Overseas – it may just be a game changer.

Because for many, making a cake without a box mix is a first time experience. Creating sauces, desserts, sweet breads, and pickles just doesn’t happen…. because we don’t know how.

But Djiboutilicious does! And now, it’s in electronic format as an E-Book. Here is what others have said about Djiboutilicious:

How do you cook in a country with no jars of Ragu or packaged cake mixes? The first time someone handed me a tomato in Somaliland and asked me to make spaghetti sauce, I was at a total loss. Popcorn without a microwave? Were such wonders even possible?

They certainly are and hundreds of chefs have proven it, using Djiboutilicious.

And now, even if you live in a country without reliable postal service, you can get a copy of Djiboutilicious.

“Djiboutilicious has become my go to cookbook in Dji – and I know that I can find most of the ingredients here,” Paula P.

“Djiboutilicious is my go to book when I want to cook something I know is truly homemade. No, “add a can of this” or a “package of that.” All ingredients can usually be found in my kitchen or just around the corner at the dukaan (store),” Jess D.

The first three people who comment on this blog, will get this cookbook FREE! Yes, you heard that right! I will connect with you and have it delivered to your Kindle or other E-book thingy today.

Part of being called to another place is creating a home within that place. It’s not only important to us, it’s important to God. Yes, souls are more important, but more souls have been saved through offering hospitality through tea and cake then we will ever know.

You can purchase Djiboutilicous  here : http://www.djiboutijones.com/2015/10/launching-the-djiboutilicious-e-book/

Or here: http://www.djiboutijones.com/djiboutilicious-cookbook/

And please, will you share your cooking misadventures and substitutions with us in the comments? We would love to hear!

When Someone You Love Dies, and You are Far, Far Away

Holy Ground w quote

Note: This was written a year and a half ago, but still holds true for today.

My Grandma Jeanne died last week.

Death sucks.

Or, in the gentler words of my wise (and gentler) friend Sue, “I hate death.”

Even if she was in her upper 80’s and, as Lucy says, “That’s what happens to people in their 80’s.”

Even if she did die well, surrounded by loving family and as pain free as possible and before the horrors of bed-ridden Alzheimer’s irrevocably set in.

She died well surrounded by loving family and I wasn’t there.

She will be buried well, surrounded by loving family and I won’t be there.

Death sucks and being far, far away from the people in mourning double sucks. I feel I said goodbye to my grandmother a few years ago when she descended into Alzheimer’s. I visited her in December. So it isn’t a lack of good-byeing. She will be buried beside my grandfather, the man she loved well for their 60 years of marriage and I wasn’t there for his funeral either.

It is a lack of being with. I am not with those who are mourning. I’m not with those who gather around food and photos and memories. I’m the hole, the absence, the space. I’m not with ‘my people’ to close the door on that life and to look into the faces that have her nose and his chin and to say, “I love you. I’m glad you are in my family. I see her living in you. I treasure the legacy I see in your children.”

Being far, far away means saying I’m sad and giving in to those emotions brings with it the burden of being afraid I’m communicating I want to go back for the funeral and the burden of being afraid that I’m communicating I don’t want to go back for the funeral.

Because ‘want’ is the absolute wrong word. Of course I want to be there and of course I want to be here, that is not the point. Or maybe it is. That is the fundamental reality of being an expatriate, of loving two places, of living in two worlds.

My family is entirely gracious in how they respond to whatever choices we make about when to return to the US and when not to but no matter the grace they extend to us, we still feel burdened by the simple fact that we are not there.

grandma

Part of me doesn’t go back because it is hard to take such long, exhausting trips. So expensive. Part of me doesn’t go back because leaving the other spouse here is really challenging. Part of me doesn’t go back when grandparents die because I’m holding on.

I’m holding onto the irrational fear that something surprising and bad will happen to someone younger. A parent, sibling, best friend. And the money will be gone, the time will be spent, I won’t be able to go. So it is almost like I’m saving up for a future grief-stricken moment. Inevitable when you love people, yes. But something to plan around now? No. It is pretty foolish and faithless, in fact.

I believe in eternity and redemption and heaven and healing but death still hurts, though the sting carries hope, and tonight as I sip my apple cinnamon tea, I salt the water with tears. Death hovers like a cold dark shroud and when people gather beneath it, together, they keep each other warm.

When someone you love dies and you are far, far away, you are outside that warmth of corporate grief and shiver and wonder if you are in the right place.

What has helped you to cope when you are far away from the grieving ones?

Thoughts and Advice for a First-time 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!

Ten commandments for Expats

Stones of Remembrance

stones of remembrance 2

When I was four years old, my parents thought they may not be able to continue living in Pakistan.

They were tired. They were discouraged. They felt they had seen so little, for so much work. Mom and Dad were getting ready to go on a furlough and wisely decided not to make a decision until they had reached the United States and had a chance to process and rest.

It was while at a summer linguistics course that my dad had a renewed sense of purpose, a reawakening of his ‘call.’ While reading the book of Acts, he was struck by this work that began so long ago: The work of reaching out with the message of the gospel.

I learn this as I begin to reread my mom’s book. It is a book about the mission work that was started in the Sindh area of Pakistan by my parents mission, soon after Pakistan’s birth and independence. It is a fascinating history full of names and people who I know. Not only does it read as a historical account, it also gives me insight into my parents as a young couple, beginning with a journey by ship to this new country.

I read about my dad building a septic system with one page of simple instructions; about how three couples with five kids between them lived in two rooms; about a Hindu friend bringing them keys one night to a new house, urging them to “Quick, come put the lock on so Muslim neighbors don’t take it!

I read about death and discouragement, about times of miscommunication and trial, about raising a family in a country far different from the one they left.

I read, and I remember.

There were times when my parents were deeply discouraged, and I see that through the book. Sometimes discouragement was soul deep; so deep that they felt they could no longer live overseas. But then they would remember – remember what brought them there, remember what had transpired, remember the day-to-day strength as well as the extraordinary miracles that happened. There was strength in remembering.

In the Old Testament book of Joshua, the Lord tells Joshua to choose 12 men, one from each tribe. They are to go and pick up a stone from the middle of the Jordan River, at the spot where the priests were carrying the Ark of the Covenant. They were to carry the stones to the place where the people would spend the night. There they would put them down to serve as a sign. These were stones of remembrance. They served as a sign to the people present and to future generations.

“In the future, when your children ask you, ‘What do these stones mean?’ tell them that the flow of the Jordan was cut off before the ark of the covenant of the Lord. When it crossed the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. These stones are to be a memorial to the people of Israel forever….Joshua set up the twelve stones that had been in the middle of the Jordan at the spot where the priests who carried the ark of the covenant had stood. And they are there to this day.” Joshua 4:6,7,9

I don’t know where you are today or what is going on in your life. I know that it is the end of the school year and many of you are packing up and saying goodbye. Others are staying, you are the ones left behind. Some of you may be wondering why you’ve wasted your life in the hard places, others may be weeping that you have to leave those same places. Some of you may be facing a difficult decision, a decision that demands head and heart: “Should we stay? Should we go?” Others may have no choice in the matter, a crisis demands that you leave what you love.

No matter where you find yourself today, I urge you to remember.

What are the stones of remembrance in your life? What rocks can you point to, stones of surety that declare “God was here.” What can you list that point to a life of faith, built on a stone foundation? Was it a visa that came at the last-minute? A job that fit your gifts and skill set that you know laid the foundation for you to be able to go? Was it that sense of dread, and then peace, knowing something wasn’t quite right and finally finding out what it was – and you knew God had prepared you? Was it a time of meditation, where you knew beyond doubt that you were in the right place, making the right decision – whether staying or leaving? What are your stones of remembrance?

Gather those stones, put them down in writing, so that you too can tell future generations “This is why we are here.” Because it’s good to remember.

“But first, remember,remember, remember the signs. Say them to yourself when you wake in the morning and when you lie down at night, and when you wake in the middle of the night. And whatever strange things may happen to you, let nothing turn your mind from following the signs. And secondly, I give you a warning. Here on the mountain I have spoken to you clearly: I will not often do so down in Narnia. Here on the mountain. the air is clear and your mind is clear; as you drop down into Narnia, the air will thicken. Take great care that it does not confuse your mind. And the sign which you have learned here will not look at all as you expect them to look, when you meet them there. That is why it is so important to know them by heart and pay not attention to appearances. Remember the signs and believe the signs. Nothing else matters.” CS Lewis in The Silver Chair from the Chronicles of Narnia Series