Join in the ALOS Christmas Party

Hello A Life Overseas Friends,

A friend and I were talking a few hours ago about a part of the world we hold dear and ended up by saying, “It’s complicated.” The same could be said about Christmas.

Why did Jesus come? On one level it is so simple, and yet it is also complicated.

From now until heaven, having loved both sides of the world, I am with my people and never with my people.

Sometimes celebrating is easy and fun, other years, it is an act of discipline.

Often the season is filled with normal life (whatever that is!) and an added layer of ministry. Which is, a blessing and exhausting.

One of the best parts of Christmas overseas is learning how the teammates and local culture celebrate (or strip away some of the trappings of) Christmas. As I thought about this post and what I want/need from this space, I realized that in addition to the words we share, I wanted to know a little bit about you and what Christmas is like around the world.

So today, let’s have a party!

I would bring “Nuts and Bolts” — a snack mix my mom only makes at Christmas time. It has dry cereal, pretzel sticks, and nuts . . . covered in some magical yummy sauce and baked with love. Sometimes she would freeze me some and I could enjoy it when I visited.

Normally, I do not go above and beyond when it comes to food. I tend to aim for beneath and in front of me, but because it is Christmas and this is a virtual party, I’m also going to bring fig pudding. My father “always had fig pudding” because his mom made it; so when my mom married into the family and the traditions of cooking passed to her, she learned to make it. We have it every year.

For me, Nuts and Bolts and fig pudding are the flavors of Christmas. Cookies are a given, am I right?!

I would have us listen to Silent Night in Chinese.

What are you bringing to the party? We need more food, beverages, music, decorations, and activities. How is Christmas celebrated where you live? Or in one of the countries you have lived? Since most of the party will happen in the comments, I’ll see you there.

Merry Happy Blessed Christmas everyone!

Amy

P.S. Thanks last month for taking the survey about your first year on the field! Your input has already elevated the book that is being born and I am grateful for the ways you are helping to pay your experience forward.

Photo by Izabella Bedő from Pexels

‘Tis the Season of Incongruity

Deck the halls with calls for charity! Fa-la-la-la-laaa, la-la-la-la!

‘Tis the season of incongruity! Fa-la-la-la-laaa, la-la-la-la!

#CottageChristmas or starving children? Fa-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la!

My heart is caught and I cannot win this thing! Fa-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-laa.

I don’t know about you, but I can’t do this. The sense of incongruity is overwhelming me this Christmas. I go from essays and photos of unbelievable beauty to my current reality, which includes messy, messy relationships, rain and mud up to my knees, no sign of Christmas lights and beauty,and long, long hours of no electricity.

I scroll through Instagram and the abundance of beauty is eye-popping. Pristine cottages bedecked with lights and color and living rooms with soft lights and all white furnishings with that splash of red and green color that just makes them pop. And then in the next picture, I catch my breath as I see a starving child in Yemen and an organization begging the world to take notice.  I breathe fire as I see another picture reminding me of the never-ending war in Syria and the continued devastation on people. And it hits home as I take my own pictures here in Kurdistan and I am reminded that there aren’t enough resources to meet the needs of the population, honor killings are still part of the landscape, and we can barely get funds for a single project.

‘Tis the season of incongruity – the season where the contrast feels too stark and I don’t feel like I have the ability to cope with these conflicting images.

And yet…

And yet, God’s story has always been a story of conflicting images. There is the image of the manger and the image of the cross, the image of judgement and the image of mercy, the image of truth and the image of grace. What I am seeing and feeling is nothing new to God.

God came into a world of contrasts. A world of the beauty and the broken. He came in a way that was so gentle, so unassuming – how could a baby threaten anyone? He came into a setting that was the height of incongruity – a king in a manger. For 33 years he lived as one who is unknown, going through daily life as we do – an image that is so mind boggling I stop thinking about it. We are told that he set aside greatness and “humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death” – a violent, horrific death. And then, the glorious resurrection and the words that we live by every single day: “He is not here! He is risen!”

My heart longs for peace and harmony in a world of broken incongruity. God is a God of mystery and paradox and he gently draws my longing and fickle heart into his own, asking only that I trust. So in this season of incongruity, this season where I just can’t with the images, I offer a fickle and contrary heart to a Savior who is my only hope. I can’t make sense of this world, but he can.

I hear the call to prayer in the mosque next door. It is followed by the many other mosques in the city, creating a cacophony of sound. I pause and pray to the One who makes sense of all this. The words of a Christmas carol come to mind and for now, I rest in those words.

Come, Thou long expected Jesus
Born to set Thy people free;
From our fears and sins release us,
Let us find our rest in Thee.
Israel’s strength and consolation,
Hope of all the earth Thou art;
Dear desire of every nation,
Joy of every longing heart.


Oops, I went home for Christmas — How to readjust to life abroad after a quick trip “home”

This post is specifically for the masses who have been transitioning to a new life abroad and are thinking that a quick trip home for the holidays might be exactly what they need to crush their culture shock and get rid of that pesky homesickness.

You’ll see them around just after Christmas.

Fetal position.

More homesick than ever.

Pricing airfare again.

I used to say don’t do it — EVER — don’t go home in the first year.  Give yourself a chance to work through the mess and the bumbling of learning how to be a foreigner before you run back to everything familiar.

I stopped saying that for two reasons:

ONE: No one listened.  A bit of advice (no matter how spot on) always loses miserably to Nana’s pumpkin pie.  Hands down.  I get it.

TWO: Some people do it really well.  They go.  They come back.  They re-engage and it’s good.  I won’t argue with that.

However, it is a harsh reality that a quick trip home in the middle of a cultural transition CAN be more painful than you expected.

 

Maybe you’ve seen something similar to the diagram below.

It’s the standard culture shock continuum that charts how we process things that are “DIFFERENT” (namely everything) when we move abroad.  It happens to most of us although it takes on a million different forms since . . . you know . . . we’re all different.

Point is . . . transition is a process.

screen-shot-2017-01-09-at-9-59-20-am

So it makes sense right?  If you’re at the bottom of the curve and everything is stupid, you need a break.

A fast infusion of familiarity would do the trick.

A hug from mom.

A night out with old friends.

A Ribeye.  Medium Well.  With a loaded baked potato.

What were we talking about?

Oh yeah . . . a quick trip home.

That’ll fix it.

In our heads it looks like this.

screen-shot-2017-01-09-at-8-54-32-am

It will be a nice little taste of the well known in the middle of the dip so I can recharge and come back refreshed . . .  ready to move forward.

But home doesn’t live in the dip.

Going home (especially for the holidays) can be more of a super spike of hyper-charged emotions . . . on crack . . . and steroids . . . and Red Bull . . . and Nana’s pumpkin pie.

It actually looks more like this.

screen-shot-2017-01-09-at-9-30-29-am

Think about it.

Detaching from all of the sources of your greatest frustration and plugging in to all of the sources of your greatest joy ONLY to reverse that moments after you get over jet lag is not a sustainable solution to the frustration.

Au contraire (pardon my French).

 

Here’s the thing — this scenario doesn’t apply to everyone but the principal probably does:

  • For some people going home IS the pain.
  • For other people the holidays are the pain.
  • Some people don’t go home but they go somewhere warmer, or nicer, or more exciting or just less frustrating.
  • Some people do this in May or September.
  • Some people don’t even leave but they still detach.

The point is that you can’t FIX transition by stepping away from it.  It’s a process.  You’ve got to go through it.

That said — don’t despair if you’ve already made that choice.  It doesn’t need to be a bad thing.

 

Here are some quick thoughts on moving forward:

 

ONE:  Don’t blame your host country for not being your home

That’s not fair and all of the facts aren’t in yet.  You knew it would be different when you came.  Now you know “how” it is different.  Keep learning.

 

TWO:  Don’t compare the end of THAT with the beginning of THIS

It took you years to build the great relationships that you are mourning as you adjust.  It makes sense if you don’t have deep roots yet.  Give it time.  Give it a chance.

 

THREE:  Focus on how far you’ve come

Especially if this is your first year abroad . . . think about it . . . the last time you took that flight you had NO IDEA what to expect.  You didn’t know the people, the places, the customs, anything.  You’ve actually come a long way in a short time.  Keep moving forward.

 

FOUR:  Compartmentalize

It’s ok for your trip home to be wonderful.  It’s supposed to be.  It’s also ok for your time abroad to be tough.  It’s supposed to be.  You don’t have to feel guilty for either one of those and they can actually exist perfectly in tandem.  Trust me, in time they can do a complete 180.

 

FIVE:  Engage even if you don’t feel like it

You can’t kick your roller coaster emotions out of the car . . . but you don’t have to let them drive.  Do something, eat something, learn something you don’t necessarily want to right now.

 

SIX:  You are not alone

Really.  You are not.  I’ve had this conversation at least 30 times this year.  You are not the only one who feels like this right now and there have been millions before you.  Myself included.

 

SEVEN:  Accept the truth and move ahead

If you go home for Christmas (or otherwise detach) it COULD do something like this to your transition.

screen-shot-2017-01-09-at-8-46-22-am

So what?

Detaching momentarily doesn’t come without a price.  There is a good chance it’s going to take you a little longer to work through the transition process and feel at home in your new normal.

Ok.

But you had a great Christmas.

You made some great memories.

If you’re in this for the long haul then accept the penalty and move on.

 

There is nothing like the experience of living abroad.  There are great things waiting of the other side of the dip.  In fact, there are probably some pretty great things all along the way.

Don’t miss them just because they’re not as good as Nana’s pumpkin pie.

Nothing is.

 

originally posted on The Culture Blend

Oops, I went home for Christmas — How to readjust to life abroad after a quick trip “home”

Ahh, busyness . . . sneaks up on you doesn’t it? Especially this time of year.

Caught me off guard and I’m a bit overrun by cookies, carols and Christmas cheer to pause and post something fresh.

So . . . please accept my apologies and this repost from The Culture Blend.

Merry Christmas to all and a Happy New Year to boot.

Oops, I went home for Christmas

This post is specifically for the masses who have been transitioning to a new life abroad and thought that a quick trip home for the holidays might be exactly what they needed to crush their culture shock and get rid of that pesky homesickness.

You know who you are.

Fetal position?

More homesick than ever?

Pricing airfare again?

I used to say don’t do it — EVER — don’t go home in the first year.  Give yourself a chance to work through the mess and the bumbling of learning how to be a foreigner before you run back to everything familiar.

I stopped saying that for two reasons:

ONE: No one listened.  A bit of advice (no matter how spot on) always loses miserably to Nana’s pumpkin pie.  Hands down.  I get it.

TWO: Some people do it really well.  They go.  They come back.  They re-engage and it’s good.  I won’t argue with that.

However, it is a harsh reality that a quick trip home in the middle of a cultural transition CAN be more painful than you expected.

 

Maybe you’ve seen something similar to the diagram below.

It’s the standard culture shock continuum that charts how we process things that are “DIFFERENT” (namely everything) when we move abroad.  It happens to most of us although it takes on a million different forms since . . . you know . . . we’re all different.

Point is . . . transition is a process.

screen-shot-2017-01-09-at-9-59-20-am

So it makes sense right?  If you’re at the bottom of the curve and everything is stupid, you need a break.

A fast infusion of familiarity would do the trick.

A hug from mom.

A night out with old friends.

A Ribeye.  Medium Well.  With a loaded baked potato.

What were we talking about?

Oh yeah . . . a quick trip home.

That’ll fix it.

In our heads, it looks like this.

screen-shot-2017-01-09-at-8-54-32-am

It will be a nice little taste of the well known in the middle of the dip so I can recharge and come back refreshed . . .  ready to move forward.

But home doesn’t live in the dip.

Going home (especially for the holidays) can be more of a super spike of hyper-charged emotions . . . on crack . . . and steroids . . . and Red Bull . . . and Nana’s pumpkin pie.

It actually looks more like this.

screen-shot-2017-01-09-at-9-30-29-am

Think about it.

Detaching from all of the sources of your greatest frustration and plugging in to all of the sources of your greatest joy ONLY to reverse that moments after you get over jet lag is not a sustainable solution to the frustration.

Au contraire (pardon my French).

 

Here’s the thing — this scenario doesn’t apply to everyone but the principal probably does:

  • For some people going home IS the pain.
  • For other people the holidays are the pain.
  • Some people don’t go home but they go somewhere warmer, or nicer, or more exciting or just less frustrating.
  • Some people do this in May or September.
  • Some people don’t even leave but they still detach.

The point is that you can’t FIX transition by stepping away from it.  It’s a process.  You’ve got to go through it.

That said — don’t despair if you’ve already made that choice.  It doesn’t need to be a bad thing.

 

Here are some quick thoughts on moving forward:

 

ONE:  Don’t blame your host country for not being your home

That’s not fair and all of the facts aren’t in yet.  You knew it would be different when you came.  Now you know “how” it is different.  Keep learning.

 

TWO:  Don’t compare the end of THAT with the beginning of THIS

It took you years to build the great relationships that you are mourning as you adjust.  It makes sense if you don’t have deep roots yet.  Give it time.  Give it a chance.

 

THREE:  Focus on how far you’ve come

Especially if this is your first year abroad . . . think about it . . . the last time you took that flight you had NO IDEA what to expect.  You didn’t know the people, the places, the customs, anything.  You’ve actually come a long way in a short time.  Keep moving forward.

 

FOUR:  Compartmentalize

It’s ok for your trip home to be wonderful.  It’s supposed to be.  It’s also ok for your time abroad to be tough.  It’s supposed to be.  You don’t have to feel guilty for either one of those and they can actually exist perfectly in tandem.  Trust me, in time they can do a complete 180.

 

FIVE:  Engage even if you don’t feel like it

You can’t kick your roller coaster emotions out of the car . . . but you don’t have to let them drive.  Do something, eat something, learn something you don’t necessarily want to right now.

 

SIX:  You are not alone

Really.  You are not.  I’ve had this conversation at least 30 times this year.  You are not the only one who feels like this right now and there have been millions before you.  Myself included.

 

SEVEN:  Accept the truth and move ahead

If you went home for Christmas (or otherwise detached) it COULD do something like this to your transition.

screen-shot-2017-01-09-at-8-46-22-am

Detaching momentarily doesn’t come without a price.  There is a good chance it’s going to take you a little longer to work through the transition process and feel at home in your new normal.

Ok.

But you had a great Christmas.

You made some great memories.

If you’re in this for the long haul then accept the penalty and move on.

 

There is nothing like the experience of living abroad.  There are great things waiting of the other side of the dip.  In fact, there are probably some pretty great things all along the way.

Don’t miss them just because they’re not as good as Nana’s pumpkin pie.

Nothing is.

 

What’s your experience?  Have you left and come back?  Flying out this week?    Share your story below.  

9 Ways to Make the Most of Christmas Abroad

Christmas abroad can be lonely. It can also be delightful. Here are some things my family has learned over the years that help to make our holiday season special.

Stuff shmuff. The cheaply made but expensive toys break. The box sent from the US arrives late, like next October late (which, in truth, can be super fun. Christmas in October? Why not!). Stuff is easily forgotten over the years. But the gift of a camping trip to the coast? A safari? SCUBA lessons? They are the ‘stuff’ of memories. (I will say, I am super thankful for the actual stuff I have received over the years, too. As anyone knows who asks about my running watch, I still rave about last year’s Christmas present.)

The privilege of making our own traditions. The first few Christmases abroad are blank slates. Do you love the breakfast tradition your family had in your home country and can you replicate it? Then do it. But do you want to have something else for breakfast? Awesome, your choice. We Joneses wrestle, bake cookies, go camping, and laugh at our ridiculous homemade ornaments. Those are yearly traditions. Others come and go depending on people, supplies, schedules. It can feel intimidating, or maybe even sad, to look at advent and Christmas and to feel pressure to make something meaningful. Think of it as an opportunity to creatively design your personalized traditions. (also, know that anything you do one and a half times will be considered a ‘tradition’ by your children.)

Family far away? Make a family. Local friends who don’t celebrate Christmas and local friends who do. New coworkers. Friends from school or sports. Singles and young families, empty nesters and college students. It can be easy to assume others aren’t lonely, like you. Or others have already been invited to dinner or a game night. But maybe they are also sitting at home feeling lonely and uninvited. Love the people far away, yes. Skype and send gifts or messages, visit. But love the people nearby, too. Love them well.

It doesn’t take much to make it special. A two-foot Christmas tree. Paper cutout snowflakes dangling from twine and taped to the ceiling. A scented candle. A special tablecloth. Music.

Portable traditions are really valuable. You can bake in Minnesota and you can bake in Djibouti. You can wrestle in Minnesota, in Djibouti, even in the airport or at Disney World. Develop at least a few traditions you can bring anywhere.

Food blesses everyone. People without kids want to frost sugar cookies, too. Muslims enjoy a good spritz cookie, too. Moms with babies might not have time to bake but they sure appreciate a box of Christmas chocolates. Asking someone new which food they miss most and then surprising them with it on Christmas can make people cry and form lifelong friendships. Recipes are portable, mostly, so you can take that lovely, homey, Christmas kitchen smell with you when you move. You can even box it up and send it to kids in college. Food itself is also portable and communicates someone is remembered.

Enjoy your local friends’ attempts to celebrate with you (and return the favor on their holidays). Even, perhaps especially, when the attempts are funny. Like the mannequin at the grocery store that is more barefoot-martial-arts-stripper than Santa or the ground beef snowman with a carrot nose and olive buttons. Or their delight at seeing their first ‘real’ Christmas tree, ever. Or their building of awesome meat-based snowmen.

Stories matter. Build them, create them, and retell them. They ground mobile kids in their heritage, they give them the building blocks of lifelong laughter, belonging, and shared memory. Santa and the goats. The screaming baby in Santa’s lap (who happens to be her own father). The awkward nativity play. You have your own, tell them.

Read out loud together. Here’s another portable tradition, even one that you can do over Skype. Read the Nativity story in the Bible. Read The Best Christmas Pageant Ever (we do, every year, and laugh more every year). Read ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas and then make up your own, local-style version.

I’m sure y’all have buckets (or should I say action packers) of Christmas lessons, earned through tears and loneliness, learned through laughter and creativity. What are some of your suggestions for making the most of a Christmas abroad?

Angels from the Rooftops – A Christmas Story from Pakistan

There are some stories that remain in a family and become a part of our DNA. These stories are told year after year, but they never get old. Here is one of our stories that reminds me each year of the wonder of Christmas.

My mom grew up in a small town in Massachusetts called Winchendon known at the time for its toy factory. The toy factory made a variety of wooden toys and the town earned the well-deserved nickname of Toy Town. A large wooden rocking horse named Clyde created in 1912 stood under a pavilion in the center of town, a symbol of the town’s history.

My mom was named Pauline and she was the first-born, the oldest of four children born to my maternal grandparents, Ruth and Stanley Kolodinski. Hers was a world of seasons; hot, humid summers, fall with red and golden foliage, white Christmases, and rainy April’s that brought out the glorious mountain laurel in late June. She knew baked beans, brown bread and New England boiled dinners.

The long sea journey that took her, my father, and my oldest brother to Pakistan in 1954 transferred her from a town of sidewalks and bay windows to a desert with dusty palm trees and Bougainvillea. The contrast between her life in New England and that in Pakistan could not have been more pronounced. Her story was one of a commitment and calling rooted deeply in her soul; a story with many chapters that began with a move across the world to create a home and life in Pakistan.

Christmases in Pakistan differ dramatically from those in the west. As an Islamic Republic, the majority of the population is Muslim and green, red, and gold twinkling fairylands and holiday music don’t exist. Christmas traditions among the minority Christian population include long drama presentations depicting the Christmas story, all night Christmas caroling parties, and new clothes for everyone in the family. Christmas was a time where my parents opened up our home to people coming from near and far, serving hundreds of cups of sweet Pakistani chai throughout the day along with special sweets and savory snacks.

When my mom and dad first arrived, adjusting to Christmases in Pakistan was a challenge. Loneliness and homesickness tended to come on like thick clouds, made more difficult by their desire to create magic for their children. They were acutely aware of the absence of grandparents and other extended family members back in the U.S. I don’t remember this happening, but I’ve no doubt that sometimes the effort to make things special for us kids overwhelmed and tears crept in, throats catching on Christmas carols as they celebrated Christmas far away from where they had been raised.

The town they lived in at the time of this story possibly resembled ancient Bethlehem more than any place on earth. Dusty streets, flat-roofed houses with courtyards, and donkeys and ox carts that brayed and roamed outside were all a part of the landscape of Ratodero. We were the only foreigners in town and our house was located right in the middle of a neighborhood. Mosques surrounded the house, their tall minarets ever present; the call to prayer echoing into our home five times a day.

When I was almost three years old, my mom experienced deep sadness during the Christmas season and, despite the excitement of  my brothers and me, felt more than ever like we were “deprived” of a “real” Christmas. It was a few days before Christmas that the feelings became more than she could bear and after we were put to bed, she went up on the roof top and looked out over the city of Ratodero. She gives words to her feelings in this narrative:

“Leaning against the wall, I pulled my sweater closer against the evening chill of December. The tears I had been holding back spilled over as I looked up at the stars, then out over the flat roofed houses where our neighbors were cooking their dinner. The smoke from wood and charcoal fires rose in wisps, and with it the now familiar odors of garlic, onions and spices. Familiar, yes, but at that moment the smells only reinforced the strangeness of this place. Then I wondered ‘Did Bethlehem look and smell something like this?’ – Bethlehem where God came down to become a human being, a little baby in a manger, in a setting not so different from some of our neighbor’s homes”.(Jars of Clay, page 128)

It was at this point, tears falling, experiencing the loneliness and sadness of a world apart, that she looked up at the dark, clear sky. As she watched the bright stars, millions of light years away, she heard singing just as on that night so long ago the shepherds heard singing. Could it be angels? It was a moment of wonder and awe that the God who she loved so deeply, who knew her frame, knew her sadness, would provide angels to bring comfort and a reminder that she was not alone.

There were no heavenly angels, but “earth angels” had arrived in the form of our dear friends, the Addletons and the Johnsons – two missionary families with 7 kids between them. Out of love for our family they had traveled along a bumpy dusty road, remembering that we were alone in this city. There they stood in the street outside our front door singing “Joy to the World, the Lord is Come. Let Earth receive Her King!” I am too young to remember the celebration that followed, but my mom writes this:

“We woke our children, and together we sang Christmas Carols, ate Christmas cookies and drank cups of steaming tea. And I knew God had sent them to us on that very night to show me once again that no place where he sent us could ever be “God-forsaken” Jars of Clay, page 128

My mom, far removed from the snowy childhood Christmases of her past, where eggnog and Grandma K’s raisin-filled cookies were plentiful, taught us that Christmas is not magic that can quickly disappear. Instead it’s wonder. It’s the wonder of the incarnation; it’s the wonder of God’s love; it’s the wonder of angels heard from rooftops.

Thank You, Dear Shepherds

8620484592_b8eb57ed79_k

I have a soft spot in my heart for nativity sets. I think it’s because the cast is familiar and recognizable, so much so that it can be altered to fit any culture and we still know what it is. It’s kind of like hearing “Silent Night” sung in many languages. We may not understand it, but we understand it. Variations on a theme.

But, of course, not all cultures know the significance of the nativity figures. While we were living in Asia, a few blocks away from our house there was a knick-knack store that during Christmastime was filled with Western decorations. Here’s what I wrote about that in a newsletter, 13 years ago:

Amongst the jumble of holiday odds and ends are the scattered pieces of a few nativity sets. On one shelf is a shepherd standing next to a Christmas tree. On another is a stable with only a wise man and Joseph. Without the infant Jesus, there’s no nativity, and the figures become just people staring at the ground, elbowing for space in between the rows upon rows of Santa Clauses.

In a Christian home, even the children understand that the characters in the nativity need to be close to the baby, usually fanned into a semicircle—arranged with balance and order—so that we can see them all. But the smaller kids know that an even better way is to put everybody shoulder to shoulder in a tight huddle with Jesus at the center—with maybe a Ninja Turtle and a Barbie getting in on the act. Don’t they all want to get a good view?

Having the unity of the nativity exploded throughout a store, that’s just not the way it’s supposed to be. Seeing the sacred mixed up with the commercial, that’s not a bad metaphor for our messed up world.

Actually, it’s not a bad metaphor at all. In fact, one could say it’s the way it ought to be.

What if we were to rethink the way we arrange our nativity sets? Of course, the baby Jesus would be on the table top, front and center, with Mary close by. Joseph, he could be not quite so close (he’s greeting visitors and keeping all those pesky animals from trying to eat out of the manger). The wise men could be under the Christmas tree (gifts are kind of their thing), better yet if they’re around a corner somewhere (since it’s going to take them a while to make it to Bethlehem).

As for the shepherds, some are with Jesus, but let’s scatter the others on the bookshelves around the room. They’re the ones who’ve come and gone and are now mixed in with the painted teapots, mystery novels, and framed family photos. They’re the ones who’ve been introduced to the Christ child and have already returned to the fields. They’re the ones who are spreading the word far and wide about what they’ve seen and heard.

Know anybody else like that?

Thank you, dear shepherds for continuing to spread that word today.

Thank you for leaving the in-here for the out-there. I know it can be especially hard at this time of year.

Thank you for living outside the semicircle.

Thank you for carrying the Good News to the faraway shelves where they don’t even know that the baby is missing.


[photo: “Nativity,” by thrufireandthruwater, used under a Creative Commons license]

The Twelve Days of Expat Christmas

To be sung to the tune of “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” (be sure to really drag out and dramatize day five). We did a Djibouti version of this for a family talent show a few years ago. To read those lyrics, click here: Twelve Days of Djibouti Christmas.

12-days-of-expat-christmas

On the first day of Christmas the expat life gave to me,

A friend in nearly every country.

On the second day of Christmas the expat life gave to me,

Two weeks of jet lag and a friend in nearly every country.

On the third day of Christmas the expat life gave to me,

Three foreign languages, two weeks of jet lag, and a friend in nearly every country.

On the fourth day of Christmas the expat life gave to me,

Four tropical diseases, three foreign languages, two weeks of jet lag, and a friend in nearly every country.

On the fifth day of Christmas the expat life gave to me,

Five weeks of diarrhea, four tropical diseases, three foreign languages, two weeks of jet lag, and a friend in nearly every country.

On the sixth day of Christmas the expat life gave to me,

Six skillz with squatty potties, five weeks of diarrhea, four tropical diseases, three foreign languages, two weeks of jet lag, and a friend in nearly every country.

On the seventh day of Christmas the expat life gave to me,

Seven different currencies, six skillz with squatty potties, five weeks of diarrhea, four tropical diseases, three foreign languages, two weeks of jet lag, and a friend in nearly every country.

On the eighth day of Christmas the expat life gave to me,

Eight pics for Instagram, seven different currencies, six skillz with squatty potties, five weeks of diarrhea, four tropical diseases, three foreign languages, two weeks of jet lag, and a friend in nearly every country.

On the ninth day of Christmas, the expat life gave to me,

Nine identity crises, eight pics for Instagram, seven different currencies, six skillz with squatty potties, five weeks of diarrhea, four tropical diseases, three foreign languages, two weeks of jet lag, and a friend in nearly every country.

On the tenth day of Christmas the expat life gave to me,

Ten reasons to honk my car horn, nine identity crises, eight pics for Instagram, seven different currencies, six skillz with squatty potties, five weeks of diarrhea, four tropical diseases, three foreign languages, two weeks of jet lag, and a friend in nearly every country.

On the eleventh day of Christmas the expat life gave to me,

Eleven strange hand gestures, ten reasons to honk my car horn, nine identity crises, eight pics for Instagram, seven different currencies, six skillz with squatty potties, five weeks of diarrhea, four tropical diseases, three foreign languages, two weeks of jet lag, and a friend in nearly every country.

On the twelfth day of Christmas the expat life gave to me,

Twelve cultural faux pas, eleven strange hand gestures, ten reasons to honk my car horn, nine identity crises, eight pics for Instagram, seven different currencies, six skillz with squatty potties, five weeks of diarrhea, four tropical diseases, three foreign languages, two weeks of jet lag, and a friend in nearly every country.

Merry Christmas from my expatriate family to yours!

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Ten Things I Love About Christmas Far Away

christmas-in-china-2Cue the music.  Sing it with me.

“Christmas Eve will find me
Where the love light beams
I’ll be home for Christmas
If only in my dreams”

Stop.

What a sad, sad song.  “If only in my dreams?”  This guy spends the whole song building up the joy and jubilation, which is the magical connection between two foundationally emotional concepts — Christmas and Home — only to finish with, “yeah, probably not gonna’ make it . . . but I’ll be thinkin’ of ya'”

He is obviously one of two things:  An absolute jerk . . . or an expat.

It makes sense for those of us living a life overseas doesn’t it?  Christmas can be hard when you are oceans away dreaming of everything that you connected with in your formative years.

I’d be lying though . . . if I said there weren’t some things that I love about Christmas abroad.  Don’t get me wrong . . .

I miss my family.

I’d love to be home.

But . . .

Here are Ten things I love about Christmas far away:

ONE:  It’s a one stop Christmas

I’m sticking my neck out here so I’m gonna’ need an “amen” from an expat who gets me.

Bouncing between my side of the family and her side, trying to hit everyone who matters and several who don’t, scheduling around the mayhem of other people’s busyness and stressing for weeks in the hopes to connect with every inlaw, outlaw, cousin, nephew, niece and new boyfriend MAY be worth it in the end.

BUT — I for one enjoy noticeably less chaos on this side of the world.

TWO:  Stores are open

This is significant for a chronic procrastinator like myself.  There is nothing as sobering as the realization that your gift options have been reduced to the VERY BEST from the beef jerky section of the 24-7-365 truck stop because it is the ONLY place open at 11pm on December 24th.

That will never be an issue where I live.

THREE:  Reduced Christmas politics

I can’t even keep it straight anymore.  If I say “Merry Christmas” it means I hate Muslims but if I say “Happy Holidays” it means I quit loving Jesus?

Something like that.

I love being in a place that doesn’t get quite so offended by my attempts to spread good cheer.

FOUR:  Extended Holiday

This one is region specific to be sure but I think I’ve landed the perfect gig.  We get two days off for American Thanksgiving which kicks off the Christmas season.  Then we get two weeks off for Christmas, go back to work for a couple of weeks and get TWO MORE WEEKS off for Chinese New Year.

Anyone looking for a job in education and want to move to China?  Call me.

FIVE:  More cookies for me

I happened to marry the best cookie maker on the planet (no offense to all other earth residing cookie makers).  Living abroad has significantly reduced the number of Christmas parties, open houses, bake sales and “cookie exchanges” that she needs to engage in.  There is still no small demand for her baked works of art but in an average December my hand gets slapped 86% less overseas.

I’ll take it.

SIX:  New traditions

New traditions?  Is that an oxymoron?

I love the new customs that have become a part of our family simply because we have been forced to figure it out.  No life-long routine.  No pre-set expectations.  No safety net.  That’s where creative parenting comes alive.

Don’t tell my kids we’re figuring it out as we go.

SEVEN: New traditions part 2

It’s not just MY traditions.  I love that because of this beautiful life overseas I now have friends from every corner of the globe.  One of the great conversations among nations is “what do you do on special days?”  It brings a rich understanding of the birth of Christ to learn how the rest of the world celebrates it.

EIGHT:  Satisfaction

Anyone can pull off a flashing lights, tinsel strewn, jingle bell Super Holiday when you’ve got access to to the mega-Christmas wholesale mart and the 10,000 acre tree farm . . . BUT . . . try decorating for the birth of Christ inside of a Communist superpower.  Then you’ll know you’ve nailed it.

Again.  My wife.  Amazing.

NINE:  A fresh perspective on the old, old storychinese-nativity

I thoroughly enjoy seeing the narrative of the birth of Christ outside of the narrative of my passport country.  There is something rich about God becoming man accompanied by the realization that not all men think and act like I do.

I love seeing God through the lenses of people who are not like me.

TEN:  Jesus is Jesus, wherever you live

That’s all.

Merry Christmas.

 

To the single on the field at Christmas

 

alos-christmas-post

Dear friend,

I want this to be a letter instead of a normal blog post because, to me, a letter feels more personal. I also started off “Dear Friend” not “Dear Single Friend” because I do not think “single” is the most interesting or defining part of you.

That being said, Christmas was the time I felt my singleness most acutely on the field (that and taxi rides where my marital status was a hot topic!). I love my life and the richness it contains, but like every life, I have God given limitations. Part of being single on the field means being away from family and family traditions you grew up with during holidays.

When I first moved to the field, I was in my late 20s. My teammate was also in her 20s and single, and experiencing her first holiday away from family. We were intentional about decorating our apartments and even biked down to the local flower market and bought the closest thing to a Christmas tree we could find. Still being new to the culture, we made a few faux pas. For instance it turns out that what looked like a festive snow flake hanging from the ceiling elicited a look of horror and the question, “Why do you have death hanging in your home?!”

Oops. Turns out funeral decorations in Asia and American winter decorations are similar. Other than that small blunder, we managed to celebrate in a way that was meaningful to us and helped with the deep longing to be with family.

We were only teammates for two years and then I got a new teammate. Shelley and I were teammates for three years and the Christmas that stands out was the one where our entire building was under renovation. All people were moved out except for the two of us. Because we lived in a construction zone and the pounding only ceased for a 30-minute break in the middle of the day, no one wanted to visit or “do fun Christmas activities.” That year we didn’t have Christmas cookie parties, or students over to sing Christmas carols, or really much of a sense of Christmas.

Instead we climbed over piles of construction trash just to get to our front doors and no running hot water for three months. All on top of a medical situation that would have been draining in normal circumstances. Some Christmases are like that.

Then I moved to Beijing and joined a more stable community. Like other singles, the constant in my story was . . . me. (Of course “and God.” Want to provoke a single person to thoughts of violence? Remind them they always have God. Which they already know, so instead of entering into their loneliness and bearing witness to it, you have just trivialized it.)

By this point I had five Christmases on the field under my belt, but no one in my life that I had actually spent a holiday with. One of the joys of living on the field, whether single or in a family, is sharing your family and cultural traditions with teammates and local friends. We shared traditions, especially during the month of December, but come actual Christmas Day? I never felt we hit our rhythm like we, as a community, did with other holidays.

Christmas Eve in our city had turned into more of a date night, so traffic was awful and if we went to church it meant one less seat was available to a seeker. Generally the singles gathered at an apartment across down on Christmas Eve and play games and watch movies. While I appreciated the gesture, I found the arrangement wasn’t what I wanted to do for Christmas. I know others in my community loved it and I do not want to take anything from their enjoyment.

This is the tricky part of being single, eh? The month of December itself was rich and busy with ministry, but come Christmas Day, it felt like each year there was a negotiating of activities and traditions.

Which, um, seems to be the opposite of what traditions are supposed to do. Instead of rooting me in a bigger story, it was a one day reminder that my own story was more counter-cultural than I usually think.

All of this to say my single friend, I don’t know if this is your first or your seventeenth Christmas on the field. I don’t know if you came from a family that you miss dearly or are relieved to be away from. I don’t know if you feel lonely on Christmas or a part of a family. I do know that any of the above may be part of your story.

We here at A Life Overseas don’t want to rush in with a bunch of suggestions (You probably know them anyways).

Instead:

If you are lonely, we want to sit with you.

If you are able to share the Christmas story for the first time with those who have never heard, we rejoice with you!

If you feel far from your family, we bear witness to the distance.

If you are enjoying festivities be they baking, decorating, holiday music, or any of the other ways, we are grateful for the life that springs forth from you.

As the angel said to the shepherds, “I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.” Good news, for all people. You, too, have a Savior who sees you, right where you are and loves you with a never-ending love.

Not because you are serving Him. Not because you are single. Not because you are willing to suffer for Him. No, He loves you simply because you are.

I know my story is but one of many and I’d love to hear it. What has your experience with Christmas on the field been like? Anything you want to stay the same this year? Or change?

Merry Christmas,

Amy

A Weary World Rejoices

wondeful-counselor-v2

Note: The following piece was reworked from a piece that I wrote a few years ago.

There is no Christmas tree and no turkey. We have not heard “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” one time since arriving  and our gifts fit inside small stockings. Our world is stripped of some of the traps that catch me at Christmas time in the West, where slick advertising tempts all my senses with color, slogan and promise, where androgynous mannequins sparkle with scarves and sweaters, silently persuading me that I need what they have.

With this stripping comes a delightful freedom and joy. Joy in cooking over a tiny three burner gas stove with my children and substituting ingredients to mimic familiar tastes; freedom to not put pressure on each other or on the day to be something it can’t be. Tahrir Square is but a block away from where we are preparing our Christmas feast and we are acutely aware of the struggles of many just minutes from our festivities. This is Christmas in Cairo.

At a late night service on Christmas eve we sang Christmas carols in Arabic and English side by side with refugees from the Horn of Africa, Egyptian Christians, and expatriates from around the world. My senses feel alive with the joy of being here and fully present. I am in a land that has been used by God for centuries to protect, provide, and test. Here I have to wrestle with the words of Christmas carols instead of blithely singing them. Here as I read the words “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of peace” I ache with longing that people may know how much God loves them, that they will respond to the lover of their souls, the One who is Truth.

As I look out over this city,  I think of the hope that is personified in the birth of a small baby, helpless and fragile, yet history cannot keep silent of the joy that came that night. As night falls and I view the scenes around me from high balconies I am reminded of the beautiful words that speak to that holy night, where a “weary world rejoiced” and woke to the miracle of a “new and glorious morn.”

Our world is weary; weary of tragedy and loss; weary of natural disasters and wars. Our world is weary of the stress of living and the sadness of dying.

I don’t know where you are this season. You may be in a place far removed from the snow and Christmas memories of your childhood. You may be struggling to create Christmas treats from ingredients that you don’t understand on appliances that you don’t know how to use. You may have collapsed in tears because of loneliness and discouragement, or you may be fully connected and adjusted to the world where you find yourself.

If you are weary this Christmas season, if you are face to face with tragedy and death, with the broken bones of a weary world; if there have been too many diapers to change and too many disappointments to count, if you are life-tired and soul-weary, know that you are welcomed into the arms of God.* And wherever you are, may you know the thrill of hope, may your weary world rejoice, and may you wake to a new and glorious morn. 

O Holy night, the stars are brightly shining
It is the night of our dear Savior’s birth
Long lay the world in sin and error pining
Til He appeared and the soul felt it’s worth
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn
Fall on your knees
O hear the angel voices
O night divine!
O night when Christ was born
***

A Christmas letter to parents, from a kid who doesn’t have any

Your kids aren’t going to remember what you get them for Christmas. They’re just not.

At least I don’t.

My mother died when I was a teen, my dad when I was in my early twenties. And when I think of the holiday seasons with them, I remember them. I don’t remember their gifts.

I remember my mom stomping down snow and scattering bird seeds to feed the menagerie of winged color that knew where to find a good meal.

I remember slow evenings around rock and wood and fire.

I remember egg nog, sipped slowly, and luminaries of sand and wax.

I remember Christmas Eve walks with family, sometimes comfortable and sometimes minus twenty.

I remember their love, not their presents.

Remember, the one with the most toys does not win.

christmas-letter-1

Your kids don’t need more stuff. They need you.

To put it bluntly, there will come a Christmas without you. Hopefully, it’ll come much later, but it might come sooner. That’s not a morbid thought, it’s a centering thought. Your kids will always have stuff. They will not always have you.

So hug them. Read to them.
For Christ’s sake, be silly with them and show them that joy exists outside of presents.

Dance with your children and make memories. Watch Elf together and belly laugh. Schedule some down time. Block it out on your calendar because it’s important. Say no to something so you can say yes to something better.

Pause long enough this holiday season to cuddle with your little one. Or listen to your big kid. Don’t spend so much time watching football with your kids that you never play football with them.

Remember: it’s not about stuff. It never was, and it never will be.

Please, don’t give your children something so cheap as things. Stuff never connects people in meaningful ways. In fact, it seems to have the opposite effect, isolating the user: “I play with my stuff and you play with yours.”

Stuff fills our hands, making it harder to touch another person’s soul.

Stuff fills our ears, blocking out the heart-cries of the near ones.

Stuff fills our eyes all the way to the periphery, keeping us from seeing the tremendous value in the people right here.

Remember, the best memories are not made of money. The best memories are made of people and places. If you have money, spend it on memories. If you don’t have money, that’s ok too, because money’s certainly not a prerequisite for memories.

Remember, for this Christmas and the ones to come, the gifts won’t be remembered. Your presence will. Or your absence. Both of my parents are absent now; I can’t change that and neither can they. But while they still could, they gave me memories. And I do remember.

I remember my mother’s last Christmas. She was sick and we all knew it. That last Christmas morning, she sat on the couch and held a large stuffed bear and watched her children. And she smiled.

And that smile remains one of the best Christmas presents I’ve ever received.

 

*from trotters.41.com