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.

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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

 

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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

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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.

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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

Don’t Ask Me About My Christmas Traditions

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My first Christmas on African soil was when I had just turned six years old.  We had arrived in Liberia only three weeks earlier, and my mom was in the throes of major culture shock.  My parents had shipped over a few presents, but nothing else for Christmas.  My mom managed to find a two-foot plastic tree at a store, and decorated it with tiny candy canes wrapped in cellophane.  After just a few days, the candy canes turned into puddles inside their wrappers.  My mom says it was the most depressing Christmas she’s ever had. 

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Our first Liberian Christmas: My brother and I with our punching balloons, and my sad Mama.

I remember that Christmas, but the funny thing is, I thought it was great.  I remember being concerned how Santa would get into our house without a chimney, but my parents assured me they would leave the door unlocked.  We had a tree, we were together, and it was Christmas.  I was happy.

Fast forward 25 years to when I started raising my own TCKs in tropical Africa.  I was a young mother around the time when social media was really taking off, and I felt suffocated under the expectations of creating a magical Christmas for my children, complete with handmade crafts and meaningful traditions. Not only that, but I was quite literally suffocating in a southern hemisphere tropical climate.  There weren’t going to be any pine trees or snuggling up in pajamas while going out to see Christmas lights.  In fact, the only festivity to be found in our city was a five-foot high, mechanical, singing Santa in our grocery store that terrified my two-year-old and made her run away screaming.

We can tell ourselves that “Jesus is the reason for the season”—and even believe it—but we all know that we have expectations for Christmas to be more than that.  The traditions, the parties, the “magic,” even the cold weather, all are wrapped up in what we dream Christmas is “supposed” to be.

Which is why my first few Christmases as an adult in Tanzania were hard.  I missed my family.  And I missed the smell of wood fires in the air, wearing hats and scarves, and Christmas carols by candlelight.  I mourned over what my children were lacking.   But then I remembered that first Christmas in Liberia, and how I really didn’t care about the absence of icicle lights or pumpkin pie.  I remembered other childhood Christmases in Africa, like when our neighbors from Arizona taught us the Mexican tradition of luminarias—paper bag lanterns that lined the road on Christmas eve.  Or how our British friends introduced us to Christmas crackers, or the time a German guest stuck sparklers in the turkey.  I remembered being thrilled with the goofy, cheaply made presents found at the open-air market.  Or that year in Ethiopia when the Christmas tree was just a green-painted broomstick with branches stuck in it.

Just as TCKs dread the question, “Where are you from?” as a child I also dreaded the question, “What are your family’s Christmas traditions?”  Because growing up, we didn’t have traditions.  Every year was different because we absorbed the traditions of the people around us.  We had a tree, we had each other, and we had joy.  That was enough.

I’ve learned to relax about trying to create traditions or give my children a magical Christmas.  I’ve learned to be happy with our green, warm Christmases in Tanzania, even if it means I need to delete the “winter” songs out of my holiday playlist in order to be content.  My kids don’t need Hershey’s kisses, black-and-gold velvet dresses, or Toys R Us catalogs to be happy.  It’s often refreshing to be away from the commercialism and the psychotic busyness of the States at this time of year.  In fact, sometimes the untraditional, lonely, sparse aspects of an overseas Christmas help us to identify with the Incarnation just a little bit better.

And as for our traditions in Tanzania, they have sprung up naturally, with little effort on my part.  We close the windows and splurge on air conditioning in the living room for two weeks in December.  We have a water balloon fight.  I love to bake, so we make gingerbread houses from scratch.  But even these traditions I hold loosely, knowing that every year will vary by country or climate or what’s available at the grocery store. 

If you are one of those amazing moms who manages to build traditions that transcend country and climate, go for it.  Share your ideas with us.  But if you can’t, or won’t, or the mere thought of it stresses you out, then take a lesson from my childhood and don’t worry about it so much.  If you have a tree—even if it’s two feet tall or made from a broomstick–if you are together, and if you have joy, that’s all you really need.

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When Singing “Joy to the World” Feels Too Hard

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Sadness has found me this Christmas season. I bear sadness over the brokenness in the world, and I bear sadness over the brokenness in my own life. So I mourn. And I grieve. Then, as I am currently in the United States for a short visit, I look around at America’s intensely commercialized version of Christmas, and I wish I could ignore it altogether.

That’s why this week, in an effort to fight my Scrooginess, I set aside time to bake Christmas cookies with my mom and my daughters. It’s why I pulled out the scissors and construction paper to make Christmas crafts. And it’s why I sat down at the piano to play Christmas carols. I knew I needed to ground myself in some ancient theology and lose myself in some minor keys.

Because I couldn’t play “Joy to the World.” Not now, not yet. It’s always been one of my favorites, but it’s too happy right now. It’s too early for glory and joy, too soon for triumph and victory. I’d love to get to these words from Isaac Watts:

No more let sins and sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow far as the curse is found,
Far as the curse is found, far as, far as, the curse is found.

He rules the world with truth and grace, and makes the nations prove
The glories of His righteousness, and wonders of His love,
And wonders of His love, and wonders, wonders, of His love.

But I’m not ready for them yet. I know the promise; I feel the promise. But right now, the promise feels more true than the fruition. The longing feels more true than the fulfillment. I am absolutely in love with Jesus, but I’m not ready for triumphant words and joyful melodies. I’ve been sticking to the sad-sounding songs instead.

I did manage “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” because I love the fullness of the Gospel story in Charles Wesley’s second and third verses. But more often, I was drawn to the minor-sounding songs, to the lamentations of the Christmas canon. I sat awhile with “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and “O Come O Come Emmanuel.” But over and over again, the songs I returned to were “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” for the ache of its fourth verse, and “What Child is This?” and “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” for their collective sadness.

In some mysterious way I draw hope from their minor keys. Somehow I feel comfort in their mourning. So in between cookie dough and paper stars, I headed to the piano to sing little encapsulations of the Gospel, to pour out my sadness upon the ivory. My husband picked up on my feelings and asked me if the songs were making me sad. But I told him no, these songs aren’t making me sad; they’re speaking my sadness.

Much like my liturgical friends suppress their alleluias during Lent, I’m suppressing my joy this Advent. I’m waiting for happy-happy Christmas, waiting for “Joy to the World.” I’m waiting for the termination of thorns and the death of the curse. I’m waiting for the wonders of His love and the absolute reign of His truth and grace.

So if you, like me, feel like suppressing your joy this Christmas season, it’s ok. Truly, it is. Because we’re actually still waiting — for the return of our King and the fullness of His joy. And it’s ok if, when you join your voice with others this next week, the song “Joy to the World” makes you sad rather than glad. It’s ok if it makes you cry. It’s even ok if you refuse to sing it.

We can make space at the table for sadness this Christmas. We can settle our souls on the minor keys. We can open our hearts to the Promise and wait for the complete reign of our Savior. We can employ a song not of total sadness, but of delayed joy. And right next to the seat of grief and lament in our hearts, we can prepare Him room.

Best Christmas Advice: Act One and Act Two

Act One: several years ago

In a meeting with a Chinese pastor my colleague and I asked her how foreign Christians in the vicinity of her church could support her and the church. The church is in sort-of a rural area (a relative term in that part of China) and most of the foreigners don’t speak Chinese. The foreigners hadn’t been attending church often.

It would be tempting to judge them. But, as you know, it’s exhausting not to understand what’s going on around you day in and day out.

So, to weekly sit, stand, bow, wonder the topic of the sermon, try to quiet children, try not to look at your watch too often, try not to appear antsy and remind yourself this is supposed to have some elements of worship. Knowing that this isn’t a onetime event, but you’ll be back here next Sunday. It’s easy to ask yourself is it worth it?

So, back to the question asked the pastor: how can we serve you?

Her answer was painfully simple. Just show up. Don’t underestimate the power of your presence.

Just show up.

Power of your presence

Yes, yes! I say. But then I realize I prefer Nike’s just do it! Doing something seems active and easier to measure the difference I’ve made {um, yes, it’s back to being all about me, all about you, not all about them}.

Don’t underestimate the power of your presence.

Bam, and just that like the incarnation is summed up in a modern proverb. Emmanuel, God with us. Don’t underestimate the power of your presence.

I hadn’t thought of Jesus as being bored. But I bet he was. Or that he’d fidget when something didn’t capture his interest or try not to wonder how much longer he’d have to stay at an event until he could sneak out.  I’m not trying to be irreverent and I know that Jesus was able to be bored without sinning, something I am wholly incapable of doing consistently.

But when Jesus washed the feet of his friends before he died and told them to “go and do likewise,” I think he was throwing in some boredom too. Go, and serve one another, yes. At times I need to remember that serving can include just showing up.

Act Two: several weeks ago

In November my friend and I visited the pastor and her church.

After the service there is a small group who meet to practice their English by going over the sermon. One of the pastors will be present, but it’s mostly lead by the college students. The students take turns summarizing key points of the sermon and then the group discusses it and asks questions. I was able to sit in on one and can imagine pastors the world over would love for these kind of groups to be going on. For believers and explorers to review what was shared, what it means for their lives, and questions they might have.

At dinner that night we asked the head pastor how the group had come about.

“One of the students came to me with the idea. The foreigners had been showing up for several years, even when they didn’t understand. Each year it might be different foreigners, but they still come. I learned last year that the foreigners find out the scripture and read it in English during the service. On Sunday night when the team gets together, they study the scripture from that morning. When I heard this, I knew the kind of people they are. So, when the student asked, I was ready to say yes.”

Is her advice to “not underestimate the power of your presence” more powerful because of this obvious demonstration of where it could lead? I don’t think so. Instead, I see it as a mercy from God as he has lifted up the curtain and allowed a peek behind the mystery of much of what we do.

Sometimes we are the servants who sit in the pews, week after week and never got to reap this harvest. Sometimes we are the servants who get to see the obvious outworking of the Spirit.

Too often listen to the whispers that as what I’m doing and question the value of my contribution. Instead, this is also the voice of the Good Shepherd:

Just show up. Don’t underestimate the power of your presence.

///

Where have you benefited from others’ presence these days? Where do you need to just show up?

Advent Longing in the Horn of Africa

One Christmas Eve in Djibouti my family drove past a cart. It was a rickety wooden contraption attached by frayed ropes to the back of a donkey and clattered down the main road. A man sat on a makeshift seat and held a stick, hovering it above the donkey’s flanks. He wore a red and white shawl and a brown macwiis, a Somali-style sarong. His face was wrinkled, beardless, and wind-worn.

I said to my husband, “If there was a pregnant woman in that cart, I would swear it was Joseph and Mary on their way to Bethlehem.”

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The image stuck with me. It made the story of Christmas and the birth of Jesus tangible, weighty with the muffled clack of donkey’s hooves on dirt, the sting of a dusty wind, the smell of the desert, the look on a man’s face.

My family has lived in the Horn of Africa for almost twelve years. Ten Christmases have been spent in the desert. All these years have turned Christmas from a fairytale coupled with heaps of gifts into a realistic story coupled with the yearning ache of advent.

Advent, the four weeks preceding Christmas, is a time epitomized by waiting, longing. 400 years people waited to hear from God and then his Word came in the form a baby. But whether a family is religious or not, most engage in some kind of countdown to the big day. Lighting a candle each Sunday and reading meaningful texts. Hiding candy around the house and giving kids clues each morning.

What we are counting down to might be a day to spend with family, to give and receive gifts, to feast. It might be to joyfully honor the birth of a promised and miraculous child, Jesus. We count down and with each passing day, our hope increases. Hope that the day of feasts and gifts will arrive. Hope that this child born two thousand years ago did not come in vain and will, one day, bring peace to earth.

Christmases in the Horn of Africa have increased my longing, deepened my advent ache because we see the brokenness, need, and lack of peace so vividly all around us. We go to church to sing Christmas carols and pass dozens and dozens of homeless men sleeping on sidewalks. We hear news of another slaughter in southern Somalia. Djibouti faces an unemployment rate of nearly 60%. On other continents there are hostage crises and floods and drought. There is Ebola across the continent from us. Refugees are longing for home and civilians in war torn regions are longing for peace. Black Americans are longing to be free from fear and injustice.

All over the world, the need and the ache are powerfully tangible. But so is hope. All is not broken, all is not lost.

Djibouti is 94% Muslim and though Muslims revere Jesus, they don’t traditionally celebrate his birth. But my Muslim friends know we are celebrating a holiday that is important to us and they respect that. Yesterday a friend brought gifts for my girls. On Eid we celebrate with our neighbors. Not because of religious conformity but because of genuine relationship.

I think this year in America there is also a deepened advent ache because the brokenness of our nation has been laid bare. Though not everyone will call it an advent ache, there is a burning desire to see justice and healing rain down. #refugeeswelcome and #blacklivesmatter are a heart-wrenching cry for fundamental change.

The more time my family spends living outside the homogenous neighborhoods of my own childhood means more time for my family to encounter the brokenness of the world and the hopefulness of the people working to heal it. We live right in the middle of the advent season of longing.

In the US, in the wake of devastating grand jury announcements, black and white are standing together, or laying on pavement together, or marching together. Together, the way my Djiboutian friends include us in their celebration and respect ours.

Advent reminds us that together we live and die, rejoice and suffer and long for healing in community.

The way forward, the way of the longing and advent-aching heart is together. As we countdown this year with candles and candy, may each day be a reminder of the justice and healing we long for. May each day be an inspiration to actively pursue that justice and healing side by side, American and Djiboutian, Muslim and Christian, black and white.

Merry Christmas and Eid Wanaagsan and Joyeux Noel.

So This Is Christmas

Christmas lightsBefore moving overseas we debated about whether or not to take our Christmas tree, a 5 foot pre-lit beauty. The perfect tree, a virtually undetectable fake. I loved it. Each year that perfect tree went up early and stayed up late.

Alas, in the move as our shipment and suitcases filled with other possessions, my beloved tree ended up in the give-away pile.

Last Christmas, our first in country, didn’t feel like Christmas at all. We’d just moved to our new and permanent town after language school. We spent pre-Christmas days unpacking, painting, and doing repair work on our house. Christmas Day seemed to appear out of nowhere.

This year, my eager anticipation for Christmas has been mounting since early October. Perhaps it’s the fact we’ve been settled here for a year. We are no longer wide-eyed and overwhelmed. Perhaps it’s my parents coming from America to spend the holiday with us. Perhaps it’s a bit of home sickness. It’s probably all three.

This year I miss my perfect Christmas tree. I long for shops filled with gifty things, church nativities, and Santa at the mall. I want fancy wrapping paper, bows, and carols. I want neighbourhoods with coordinated Christmas lights. I want snow.

On our island, Christmas is a big deal. I’ll have some of the things I’m longing for, but it’ll be, well . . . to put it mildly, it’ll be different.

I’ll get the carols, even Feliz Navidad on repeat. These songs will be blared at twenty million decibels from the town’s many “Pondok Natal” – wooden structures housing Santa, or Baby Jesus, or both, as well as the customary stadium speakers. These things are LOUD and play all day and all night.

Our church here has been planning the Christmas program for months. To raise money for the huge celebration, fried noodles and cakes are made available for purchase after every service. For Christmas fundraising at the church in our language school town, we sold RW. That’s code for spicy dog meat.

This year, after pining for my perfect Christmas tree, I bought an overpriced plastic tree from our local grocery store. It’s really big, more than 6 feet. From far away it’s pretty good, but from anywhere less than 20 feet the shiny green fishing line branches look a lot like toilet brushes.

Decorating the toilet brush tree.

We’ll probably get to meet Santa this year too. Believing in Santa isn’t something that we necessarily encourage, we’ve always told our son the truth, but he’s still pretty smitten by the idea of a big man in a red coat doling out gifts. Last year at a party Santa gave all the kids bags of treats. That Santa smelled like cigarette smoke, had red teeth from chewing betel nut, a dingy suit, a saggy beard, and wore reflective aviator sunglasses. My star-struck 4 year old took one look and wanted the Indonesian words for how to ask Santa where he parked his reindeer.

Our team Christmas party won’t be mulled wine and mince pies. It’ll be a Bakar Batu feast. While the men dig a big pit and heat stones, us women will clean a mountain of leafy green vegetables and prepare the pig meat. After about 3 hours of work the veggies and meat will be layered into the pit on top of alternating layers of banana leaves and hot stones. The whole thing is sealed with long grass and left to steam for an hour or so. We’ll play games and retell the Christmas story to pass the time; then bring out all the food onto a large tarp and sit around in circles eating with our hands.

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I won’t have neighbourhoods filled with lights, but on Christmas day neighbours will open their doors. Here you don’t celebrate Christmas at home alone with your family, you go out and visit all of your friends. Each house will have food and drinks to share with whoever happens to stop by.

There are many, many things I miss. And there will be many, many things that are done differently here. But if Christmas is really about the greatest gift, then different can be good too.

This Christmas we’ll remember that God was born flesh and dwelt among us. We’ll remember that because of Christmas the world received long-promised grace and redemption.

The Christmas I long for, isn’t really Christmas. I miss the familiarity of traditions. I miss what I know. I miss my own comfort zone. Perhaps that’s the real gift of celebrating Christmas overseas in such different ways. I remember that traditions are nice, but they don’t define Christmas.

This year, as we remember the gift of the Saviour, we’ll do so in the middle of plastic toilet brush trees, the most delicious fried noodles, smelly Santas, deafening music, community pig roast feasts, and the joyful hospitality of our friends and neighbours.

So this is Christmas. Different, but celebrating our Saviour all the same.

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Merry Christmas, friends. Wherever in the world you may be.

Missions Field or Land of Opportunity?

One man’s mission field is another’s land of opportunity.

I realized this in a fresh way as I was interacting with some immigrants to South Africa from Malawi.

They were telling me about their home nation, Malawi. The common descriptions were of a lush, green, and beautiful nation which was peaceful.

They left their homeland for South Africa, also a beautiful land. But on the day I was having this conversation, we were bracing ourselves though near gale force winds blowing sand through every opening on buildings. You could hear their longing for home in their voices.

And, they remarked often how they had left safety for crime. These immigrants left home to live in shacks in an impoverished, crime ridden community.

A community which I consider to be a part of my mission field.

Why you ask?

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“There are no jobs in Malawi”

These middle class Malawians left peace and safety to become impoverished foreigners in a land which often projects xenophobia (fear of the foreigners) onto those with different passports.

All this to have a chance to work.

  • They gave up peace and relinquished better houses.
  • They chose to move far from family, often leaving behind spouses and children.

South Africa is my mission field. But to these beautiful people from Malawi, it is a land of opportunity.

One man’s nation in need of “missions” is another’s land of opportunity.

As I got to know these natives of Malawi, I found myself wondering why they chose this life. What drives educated folk to choose a downgrade in lifestyle in hopes of climbing higher in the future?

In my years in South Africa, I’ve met Zimbabwean doctors and Rwandan lawyers cleaning houses and washing cars. Often they fled political turmoil or tyrannical dictators for a crime-ridden, but governmentally stable nation.

I get this. Sad as it is, I can make sense of it.

But leaving a family in a peaceful land is harder for me to grasp.

I came away struck by the power of hope. These people left home in search of a better life.

In my nation, we call that the “American dream.”

I found myself so drawn to the hope these saints carried in their hearts.

In this time of year, Christmas, we speak often of the power of hope. Here was a tangible example of that hope.

I have hope to see transformation in South Africa which motivates me to serve here.

My friends share a similar hope that South Africa will be a land which provides their families a brighter future.

This is a lesson I do not want to forget.

One man’s mission field is another’s land of opportunity.

May God bless South Africa as well as the immigrants and refugees seeking a better life within her borders.

Photo credit: liquidnight via photopin cc

The Tree That Tells Our Story

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My parents came to Cambodia to celebrate the American version of Thanksgiving with us, and they stayed for the traditional setting up of the Christmas tree. After we finished stringing the lights and hanging the ornaments, and the youngest child had placed the heirloom angel from my husband’s childhood on top, we all sat down to admire the tree.

Then all of us, from the sixty-year old Grandpa, right on down to the four-year old baby of the family, shared what we love about Christmas. When we got to my mom, she said, “I love putting the ornaments on the tree because they tell the story of our family.”

It’s true. As a military wife, she can remember both the year she added each ornament, and the place we lived at that time. The ornaments on her tree tell the story of my family of origin, from a newly wedded couple in El Paso, Texas, to brand new parents in Fort Knox, Kentucky, to a growing family in West Germany, and later a university campus in South Dakota and the Kansas Army post at Fort Riley.

The Christmas tree tells the story of my own growing family as well. I remember which Christmas we bought this Santa, or that snowman, or this lighthouse. My kids love to hear the story of each ornament my husband and I bought together, and also the stories behind the ornaments from both my husband’s and my childhoods. Then they beg us to let them put the ornaments on the tree.

And we let them. Their participation sometimes leads to ornaments being bunched on one side, leaving the other side barren. Other ornaments are nearly falling off the branches. But I believe letting our children place those precious ornaments on our tree allows them to claim ownership of their own family history. Our tree is a Memory-Keeper: it holds our memories and reflects our family culture. Like my mom’s before me, our tree is full of life and love. And personality.

So you won’t find a perfectly trimmed tree around our house. The ornaments are mismatched, and sometimes even broken. Their placement is uneven. But to us, it’s beyond beautiful — our Christmas tree is a mosaic of our lives. And that mosaic, orchestrated by God and experienced by us, is beautiful.

Why do I sing the praises of our Christmas tree? Well, we here at A Life Overseas are the global nomads. We are the ones who support global nomads, the ones who dream of being global nomads in the future, the ones whose bodies used to roam the globe and whose hearts still do. And really, it doesn’t matter if you’re not any of those things. In an increasingly mobile world, we all need to ground our stories in something. For me and my family, one of those somethings is our Christmas tree.

Our story is embedded in our Christmas tree. The ornaments tell the story of my family. My question for you, then, is how do you tell the story of your family? Single people, married couples without children, parents, retirees — all of us — need ways to tell our stories.

How do you tell yours?