Broken Blenders

by Katherine

See the blade twist to a stop
See the smoke rise after the pop
And I’ve broken another blender

Blenders keep breaking; I can’t bear to get another one. Is it that I keep buying low-quality blenders? Or is it the power surges and dusty, tropical environment? I can’t remember how many blenders I’ve been through in my years living in SE Asia. I don’t have one at the moment; I can’t bring myself to buy another one. I know it’s going to break.

Friends keep leaving; I can’t bear to get to know new people. Every new friend is an embryo of a goodbye. The expat community has such a high turnover. As an Australian living in Asia, I’m in a community with people from many countries. We all live here together as foreigners. Some stay for a few months, some for a few years, and some for a few decades. At any given time, I know of someone who is gearing up to move back to their passport country.

I was finally getting to know them
Maybe enough to be a regular confidant
Then they announce they are leaving
And they give their stuff away
 

I was finally getting to know them
Maybe enough to tell them where we keep the passports
Then they announce they are leaving
And they give their stuff away

I was finally getting to know them
Maybe our children will grow up together
Then they announce they are leaving
And they give their stuff away

We are a mosaic of everyone we’ve ever met, so they say. A mosaic is composed of pieces of different colours and shapes arranged together to form beauty. Well, I say the content of our house is a hodgepodge of many of the people we have farewelled. Our things are a jumbled, messy mixture of exited expats’ former items.

When an expat leaves, they need to get, say, 6 years of belongings down to a 20-kg bag. They sell, they gift, and they throw away.

I have a shelf from a friend who left 15 years ago,
a saucepan from a friend who left 8 years ago,
toys from friends who left 5 years ago,
many books from a friend who left 3 years ago,
a bed from a friend who left 2 years ago,
and a jar of sprinkles from a friend who left a year ago,
just to name a few.

Each piece of the mosaic is part time machine and part airplane. The jar of sprinkles connects us to those years we spent with the former owner. Memories of decorating Christmas cookies at her place pop up when I see the tall glass jar full of coloured balls.

It also connects us to that same friend in the present day. A reminder she is not here, but on the other side of the world. Her children probably don’t remember the sugary mess we made at their place. And they won’t be hosting cookie decorating here again.

I need to grow the mosaic. Although I can’t bear the thought of getting to know more people, I also cannot live without expat friends. I have local friends and friends in my passport country, but there are some things only fellow expats will get.

Locals know nothing other than crazy traffic, so they don’t see it as crazy. Passport country friends don’t know what it is like to fear every trip around town in your first year of a new country — but then to also fear the traffic in your passport country every visit.

So I will continue to welcome new friends. It’s better to have friends and say goodbye than to never have friends. And next time I am saying goodbye, maybe I will take the plunge and ask if my departing friends are looking to re-home their blender.

~~~~~~~~~~~

Katherine’s childhood church in Australia launched her on a trajectory to Asia. After a decade of preparation she landed in Cambodia and married a local Bible teacher.

An Appeal – A Life Overseas

Yup! We hate to ask but…!

On November 14, 2012 Laura Parker, co-founder of the A Life Overseas blog and community space posted a “Welcome Video” to the site. That was the beginning of what has now become an online community thousands strong.

We are a diverse group linguistically, culturally and theologically, but we all agree that taking the step to live, work, and raise a family overseas takes our lives to places and into circumstances we could never imagine. In this community, life is definitely far stranger than fiction.

We exist to support those in cross cultural work. Whether you’re a business person, a diplomat, a humanitarian aid worker, an educator or all those above, but you are first of all a Christ-follower this community is for you.

Cross-cultural workers cram a life into a suitcase and begin a journey into foreign places, both geographically and spiritually. Assaulted by cultural stress, ministry challenges, learning a new language, and the trauma of culture shock, these workers long for community– a sense of connection, regardless of if they are the boiling water alone in an African hut or battling public transport in a crowded Indian city. No doubt, living overseas can be brutal — on a family, on a faith, and in a soul. But, there’s no doubt, too, that it can be one of the most depth-giving experiences an individual can embrace. Like all of life, though, our stories are understood best when we have a community to share them with.

About A Life Overseas

We are in a place right now where we need funds to continue the site. We are largely funded through the writers and administrators of this blog, but we need help!

So we ask you to consider making a donation to keep the site going. Five dollars, ten dollars, fifty dollars – it doesn’t matter. Our leadership team here at ALOS is committed to keeping this going but we need your help!

Through the past eight years, if you have benefited from reading and interacting with A Life Overseas, would you consider helping?

Click this link to make your donation! And thank you!

Beautifully Broken Belonging

I wrote this poem on January 15 as a way to process my impeding move from China to the U.S. in June. On January 19, I left China for what I thought was going to be 11 days in the US. However, due to the coronavirus, I’m still in the U.S., 50 days later, unsure of my return date. This poem has become even more meaningful to me as I am stuck in this limbo and creating a new normal for myself, all the while waiting to return home so that I can say goodbye to it again. –Kathryn Vasquez

 

 This place.

Always 

A celebrity. 

An “other.”

A goddess.

A ghost.

And double takes.

 

This place.

Culture, Community, and

Collective care.

Beautifully broken belonging.

 

Me in this place.

Is it assimilation or appropriation?

Stress or regrets?

Shock or roadblocks?

Hurting or healing?

 

This place.

Brokenly beautiful belonging.

 

How do I tell of the heartaches and headaches?

That suffocating darkness that

Sat on my chest 

And almost consumed me?

 

How do I tell of that light?

It lifted me out

And washed over me in a waterfall of acceptance.

 

How do I tell of triumph and joy?

Of restoration and worthiness?

Of heartbreak?

Of the cycle of happiness and pain?

Of sleepless nights?

Of peace that passes all understanding?

Of quiet waters?

Of identity?

Of rest?

How do I tell of 

Beautifully belonging to the broken?

 

How do I take: 

What I have learned?

Who I was?

Who I’ve become?

 

And go to a place where 

I can never be who I was

Nor can I be who I am.

What will I become in

That place,

Broken, without beautiful belonging?

 

But I have a consolation,

A hope,

A star to follow through this night.

What I’ve become. 

Who I’ve become.

Whose I’ve become.

The very things to give me strength for the journey ahead.

As I go to that place of beautifully broken belonging.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Kathryn Vasquez has taught English in China since 2011. She enjoys reading, writing, photography, and traveling. She will be moving back to the US in June, but China has forever changed her.

To Know Him in Suffering

by Rachel E. Hicks

Our family recently watched the 2012 film adaptation of one of my favorite stories of all time, Les Miserables. In it, there’s a scene in which the reformed convict Jean Valjean crouches over the sleeping body of Marius, a fresh-faced young man caught between love for Valjean’s daughter and the fervor of revolution. Valjean has just realized that Marius could be Cosette’s future, could care for her and love her after the aging Valjean passes away. 

In the cradle of the Parisian barricade, while around him all the young men are sleeping for the last time before they sleep in their graves, Jean Valjean sings a prayer over Marius for God to “bring him home.” He prays for blessing, for protection over this young man, for him to get out of this alive and live a full life. He even prays that if need be, he might die instead—he whose life is mostly behind him now, who has never been able to rest, who has been on the run most of his life.

Little does he know.

Over the course of the next few hours, God uses Valjean to answer his own prayer. As men are dying all around him and the enemy is breaking through the barricade, Marius is gravely wounded and falls. Valjean becomes his own answer to prayer as he hoists the limp body over his shoulder and escapes through the sewers of Paris to get Marius to safety. 

As he emerges from the sewer pipes, exhausted and covered in human waste, his pursuer is waiting. Inspector Javert—who cannot comprehend mercy and whose world revolves around the law—has Valjean at his most vulnerable moment. Valjean is beaten and beyond weary. All he has the strength to do is to plead with Javert to let him get Marius to a doctor; then he will be Javert’s prisoner again. He seems not to even care anymore if he is taken.

Life is hard. Somehow we must stop being surprised at its hardness. 

Sometimes when we are at our most weary, we intercede for someone else in pain, feeling that breathing out those words from our lips is the most we can manage. And God gently replies, “Carry her. Visit her in her pain. You are bone weary and cannot get through five minutes without tears. But I’m asking you to take her to the doctor yourself. And bring her a home-cooked meal while you’re at it. Hold her hand in silence for as long as she needs you to.”

Why is it this way?

We pray for humility, God sends humiliations. We pray for eyes to see others how God sees them—He sends us to ghastly places and to people from whom we want to look away. We pray to know Christ better—He allows us to know Him in His sufferings.

To know Him in His sufferings. And in each other’s.

Crosses are made of solid wood. We see a brother carrying his cross and we pray that God would give him strength, or that He would make the burden lighter. In response, He tells us to go take it from him and put it across our own shoulders.

At the end of the movie, my son, a little troubled, remarked, “But the bad guys [the Thénardiers] never really got punished. They just went on living their lives.” A discussion ensued in which we mused on the fact that, yes, it’s true, the wicked and debased couple didn’t really get what was coming to them. They were never humbled. 

In contrast, Jean Valjean died having only experienced a little bit of peace at the end, a short but blessed rest right at the end of his days. He went quietly to his God, content and so very tired of living.  

And isn’t that the way life is many times? The wheat and the tares. The prosperous wicked. The good who die young. The unsung hero who quietly pours his very life out for others day after day, year after year. As we wound up the conversation, my daughter commented astutely, “Not a very American ending to the movie, was it?” (My kids are TCKs.)

What on earth is it all for? How do we not grow weary in doing good? How do we put one foot in front of another when we find ourselves burdened with being the answer to our own intercessions? 

It is no small thing to be the hands and feet of Christ in this world. But how desperately the world needs us to be. Some of us know how to intercede in power and persistent prayer. Others of us know how to walk out of our doors and “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly” with our God. A few saints do both well. Perhaps many of us do neither very well at all. Writer Brennan Manning says because we are the Body of Christ, He sweats, bleeds, and sheds tears through us. This is what a body does.

But you are not the Body of Christ by yourself. Neither am I. Maybe this is part of the secret to putting one foot in front of the other. 

If we know the love of Christ, and we keep betting our lives on the goodness of the Father, we understand that grace will be given us to keep doing good, one moment at a time (2 Corinthians 12:9). We will be keenly aware of our weariness, our need, as we love and serve. 

This is a good and necessary thing as we carry each other.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Rachel Hicks is a second-generation TCK raising third-generation TCKs. She spent the bookends of her childhood in India, with moves to Pakistan, Jordan, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Hong Kong in between. She married her college sweetheart and managed to live in one place for seven whole years (Phoenix, Arizona) before moving as a family with two young children to Chengdu, China, where they lived and taught holistic ministry alongside a local partner for another seven years. They repatriated to the US in mid-2013 and now live in Baltimore, Maryland. Rachel is the new editor of Among Worlds, a digital publication of Interaction International. Her poetry and fiction have appeared in The Briar Cliff Review, Little Patuxent Review, Relief, St. Katherine Review, Off the Coast, Gulf Stream, and other journals. She is a Pushcart Prize nominee and the winner of the 2019 Briar Cliff Review Fiction Prize. She works as a freelance copyeditor. A few of her favorite things: electric scooters, spicy Sichuan food, hiking, and unhurried time to read. Find her online at rachelehicks.com.

6 Good Things about a Cancerous Life Overseas

I have cancer.

The first time I said it out loud, I actually had to shout it into my phone. Like shout. As in, “I HAVE CANCER!!!!!” And since I am anti-exclamation points, let the fact that I just used, like, a bajillion, communicate how loudly I shouted it.

I shouted, “I have cancer,” because I was trying to tell my husband the news.

He is not hard of hearing.

He also was not in the vicinity when Dr. D called.

I was in my car. He was not in the car with me. He wasn’t in the city with me. He wasn’t in the state. He wasn’t on the continent.

See, I got cancer while my husband and I are living on opposite sides of the planet for a season. Don’t worry about us, we’re all good. Going on twenty years of a great marriage. But our twins graduated and sixteen years ago, when we moved to Somalia, I told my husband, “When they graduate, I’m going to spend at least their first semester of college in the US.”

So here we are, sixteen years later.

And apparently, God had a plan for my life. That plan included the superb timing of me getting cancer while living in a country that has the medical prowess to detect and treat it. #miracles

But, ahem, God? What about my husband? One big perk of marriage is having a companion for life’s junk. I don’t like that part of this plan, that part that has him in Djibouti and me in Minnesota, and there is a poor telephone and internet connection and so instead of beating around the bush with something like, “The doctor found papillary thyroid carcinoma,” or, “the test results aren’t exactly awesome,” or even, “They found cancer,” which would imply it was not exactly me, or mine, or inside my body, I had to shout, to be very clear and to make sure he got the message before the internet shut off, “I HAVE CANCER!!!!!” (again, those darn exclamation points).

Anyway. My point is that this international life is hard and beautiful and amazing and sometimes, it really really stinks. Sometimes it means periods of unwanted and un-chosen separation. It means money spent changing plane tickets at the last minute. It means feeling divided. It means lonely grief. Work and team and home on one side of the ocean. Sick wife or worried husband on the other side.

But there are good things, too, about a cancerous life overseas. #learninggratitude #perspective

There are incredible aspects of the life overseas that truly manifest, to my surprise to be honest, during times of pain, grief, confusion, and sorrow.

Here Community. I have had to learn to ask for help and to accept help when it is offered. Why is this so hard? It shouldn’t be. My ‘here’ community for now is in the US and it is a community I haven’t relied on in physically present ways in a long time. Now, they are bringing me meals and driving me around and dropping off bags of goodies and giving me cash gifts for massages or books(!). The generosity of intimate family and friends, as well as near-strangers is breath-taking.

There Community. We have the incredible privilege of a ‘there’ community, which right now means an internationally located one. Usually, these two communities are reversed. But for now, over there, people are caring for my husband while we are apart. They are bringing him meals and having him over for game nights, celebrating his birthday, and checking in on him. And they are sending messages to me of encouragement. Kindness, compassion, practical care. People abroad know that we are all abroad without our closest families or friends and they step up. Local people and other expats. They move in and hold our fear and grief and it is precious.

Surrounded. I have people praying for me literally all over the world. Which means at all times of the day and night, too. I have people from all manner of faith traditions praying for me. I find this so comforting. I feel it, I feel like the inside of a Twinkie, the creamy middle. I feel weak and squishy and like, if I weren’t surrounded, I’d spread out all over the place in a goopy mess. But the prayers of my Muslim and Christian and Jewish and no-faith people are holding me together, holding me in place. I got a prayer message from a dear Somali friend the other day and nearly cried. This is such a profound and unique gift.

Thankfulness. A lot of thankfulness has to do with perspective. I have so much to be thankful for. Hospitals with no wild animals wandering through them. A knowledgeable well-trained surgeon. Fully stocked pharmacies with medications that are not expired. The timing of this adventure. Clean drinking water. An abundance of nutritious food. Toilets that flush on the first try. Hot showers. Fifteen years in a developing-world country has radically changed my perspective.

Identification. I don’t know what it is like to be a refugee or to see my country decimated by war. I don’t know what it is like to watch my children go hungry or to bury a loved one who left too young. But every bit of pain, when it is not ignored but faced, thins out the dividing lines of race, religion, wealth, politics. Like the Grinch, our hearts can grow three sizes in one day, if we choose empathy. When we make space for our own pain, space opens up, almost magically, to hold the pain of others, too.

Joy. I’m not going to say look at the poor, they’re so happy. But I will say that people who have suffered, and that always includes poor people, can develop reservoirs of joy that the healthy, strong, and powerful will never know. It is a ferocious and subversive joy that refuses to be smothered by loss or pain and because of where we live and who we choose to love, I have seen this with my own eyes. I can draw strength from that example.

What are ways that living abroad while going through trials has brought unique blessing into your life and home?

We Need Each Other

by Renette

The African saying ‘Ubuntu’ never resonated with me. I knew the definition for years: “I am what I am because of who we all are.” But it wasn’t until recently that I came to realise how much truth the saying holds.

We commonly ask one another to ‘tell me more about yourself’ or even ponder it ourselves: ‘who am I?’ If we are all born with certain traits, quirks, mannerisms, weaknesses and strengths, are we aware of them from the beginning or do we only realise these things when provoked by other people?

The Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) personality test gives an explanation of who you are by defining how you are energized, take in information, make decisions, and organize your world. These short codes (INFJ or ESTP) give an outline of how our brains processes the world around us.

If we can so easily be defined by a 10-minute test, why is it that we keep on learning about ourselves as we grow older? Aren’t we who we are and that’s it?

Going back to ubuntu (I am what I am because of who we all are), this can sound a bit ‘new age,’ but take a minute to think about it. I am angry, because you did something that activates an emotion within me or I am patient because I‘ve learnt that people do things differently or I need time alone to process things because I’ve learnt that spending too much time with people drains me.

Do you see the connection? I learn who I am by spending time with people. I need people to know who I am; I need people around me so that I can grow; I need people so that I can identify my strengths and weaknesses.

To be able to answer, ‘who am I?’ I need to rub shoulders with people from different cultures, backgrounds and with different interests. Here is one guarantee in life: No matter how weird people are, you will always grow in who you are, and who you are supposed to be, when you spend time with new people.

Yes, there are people I do not enjoy the company of, but yet I need to meet them so that I can know I don’t like people who are A, B, or C. We need opposites in life to know what we are opposite of.

One way to learn about our strengths is through words of affirmation from others. I think complimenting one another is healthy, but often a compliment focuses on what someone does and not on who they are. In the Bible, we learn that we should encourage one another as encouragement boosts and reassures who someone is – it lifts them up. 1 Thessalonians 5:11 (NIV) says “Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.”

When I encourage someone, I am highlighting something beautiful, something different and positive about them. Bringing to light a strength that might have been hidden, I am saying “I can see this talent, skill, or characteristic that God has given you, and I want you to know that it shows.” Through encouragement we help each other to grow in our Christian character and to find out who we are.

This is how I build my definition of ‘me.’ But how many times have you just shrugged off a compliment or an encouragement, denying the validity of it? I have witnessed so many people not claiming or owning up to words of affirmation, dismissing the encouragement because they fear they will become proud. Or maybe it’s that they do not believe what was said, so they shrug it off as untrue.

It is easier to take a compliment when you believe it’s true, than to accept a compliment you don’t believe in. Why do we brush off compliments that make us feel uncomfortable? If I receive a compliment that makes me uneasy, it’s a great opportunity to examine why I don’t believe in what was said – why do I think I’m not beautiful or why am I uncomfortable when someone compliments my relationship with God?

God created people so that we can be in relationship with each other; so that we can see Him in others, tell them about what we see, affirm them, edify them, and thus build and strengthen the body of Christ, the church.

I am still finding myself. I find myself in others when they see something that awakens a part of me. I find myself when someone provokes an uncomfortable feeling within me. It is all in me – some parts are just sleeping and will only be awakened when I care deeply or am disappointed or see injustice.

The wrongs and rights of others help us find our full selves. We find out more about ourselves when people challenge us, question our methods and reasoning, or provoke our emotions.

We need to learn that others can help us dig deeper and explore the hidden parts of ourselves.

We need people. God created relationships. He created people for us, to complete us, to make us fully realise who we are. I am who I am because of who we all are: it is through others that we learn who we are.

reprinted with permission

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

After completing her degree in mathematics education, Renette decided to go on an adventure and worked as an au pair in São Paulo, Brazil. After 2 years of learning Portuguese, visiting various places in South America, and accidentally encountering an anaconda, she felt the call to return to Africa and join OM (Operation Mobilization). Renette is an associate financial developer with OM Africa Area, making regular field visits to facilitate the relationship between donors and ministries. During her free time, she enjoys discussing odd scenarios with friends and mastering the art of a good cup of coffee.

Are You OK? and Help! Two Things You Really Need to Learn to Say in Your Target Language

When you visit a country where the people don’t speak your language, there are several important phrases you should know how to say: things such as “Hello” and “Goodbye,” “How much is this?” “Where’s the bathroom?” and “Can I have ice with my water?” But when you move to that country, the stakes become higher. The important words and phrases become deeper and more necessary and more . . . important. They’re usually not covered in the first five chapters of your language book, and you may not end up learning them until you come face to face with the need for them. At least, that’s the way it was for me.

Are You OK?

The streets in Taiwan give new meaning to the phrase flow of traffic. Outnumbering automobiles two to one, scooters zip in and out to fill in the narrow gaps between cars, and when they all come to a red light, they pile up at the intersection, waiting to spill forward again when the light turns green. Watch that whitewater river for long, and you’ll see quite a few accidents.

One morning while I was walking to language school in Taipei, I came up to one of the city’s crowded intersections and waited to cross. As several lanes slowed for the light, a lady on a scooter was unable to stop and broke through the pack, sliding several feet on her side. She wasn’t hit by anyone, but she was slow getting up. My first thought was to run over to her and see how she was. I didn’t make it, though. First of all, by the time I could cross the street, she was back on her way, though pushing, not riding, her scooter now. And second, I didn’t know what to say.

Yes, I knew the greeting “How are you?” but that’s not the right question for someone who might be hurt. I knew how to say several other things, too, but none of them seemed appropriate. I could imagine the woman’s horror having me, a foreigner, rush up to her in her time of need, letting loose with my vocabulary of “Hello. How are you? I’m an American. What part of Taipei are you from? What’s you’re favorite food? I like pizza.”

It’s one thing to be able to say the equivalent of How are you? Howdy, or What’s up? It’s another to go beyond trite formality, to ask caring questions and expect heartfelt responses.

G. K. Chesterton writes, “The traveller sees what he sees. The tourist sees what he has come to see.” If I could add to Chesterton’s observation, I’d say, “The resident sees what can’t be seen.” Or that’s what should happen. There are many things hidden from the outsider, tucked deep in the souls of the people. And the best way to see behind the curtain is to ask. One of the simplest yet most profound questions we can voice is “Are you OK?” It shows caring. It shows that we know all may not be well, and yet we ask anyway. It shows that we are truly willing to step in and be a part of the community around us.

Help!

The second phrase isn’t a phrase at all. It’s just one word, but what a word it is. It’s a word that became the focus of my thoughts one day because of a leaky air conditioner.

At one point, we lived on the third floor of an apartment building, with a barber shop below that had a fiberglass awning over its entrance. Under normal circumstances, the condensation from our AC unit would travel down a plastic tube to the street. But of course, circumstances rarely seemed normal, and the water from our AC did not drain into the tube. Instead it drip . . . drip . . . dripped . . . and dripped . . . and dripped onto the awning. We knew this because the barber told us. I set out quickly to fix the problem—which involved climbing out on a window ledge and stretching as far as I could to reach the air conditioner. I did this when my wife wasn’t at home, mostly because I didn’t want her to talk me out of it. But as I had to step closer to the edge, clinging to the bricks with one hand and trying to grab the AC with the other, I thought, “What if I slip and end up hanging over the alley by three fingers? How do you yell ‘Help!’ in Chinese?” It simply hadn’t come up in my language class during the unit on common food items at the grocery store.

It’s not that I hadn’t asked for help before: “Excuse me, could you tell me if I’m on the right train?” “Can you help us take our photo?” “Do you have these shoes in a larger size?” But I’d never thought about shouting “Help!” because I’d never before thought about needing to be saved.

It’s an odd thing for a missionary to think about his own need for salvation. Isn’t that what we came to offer? But spiritual salvation wasn’t what I had in mind. I was thinking about the kind of saving you need when you’re deeply afraid, when your child is struck by a car in the crosswalk, when you face a mugger in a dark alley, when flood waters are rising, or when loneliness grabs ahold of you and won’t let go.

Knowing how to call for help, though, is not the same as admitting that we need real, meaningful help from those around us. And it’s not just the security guard or the policeman or the nurse who can answer our pleas. It might be the student next door or the businessman hurrying to work or the homeless lady sorting through the trash, whoever is close by as you dangle from the ledge.

Those of us who go to other countries to help must be able to receive help, too. We need to be willing to rely on those around us, to learn, to take advice, and to share our needs—even our emotional and (gasp) spiritual needs. This, too, shows that we want to be part of the community.

People of the Cloth

We talk about the “social fabric,” and it’s an apt metaphor when it comes to needing and being needed. They’re the warp and woof of community. For many, it’s easier to ask “Are you OK?” than to cry out “Help!” but we must be vulnerable enough to say both, to be able to allow someone to voice what’s wrong before we offer a solution and to be able to acknowledge our reliance on those around us.

Take a look at the tapestry that surrounds you. Do you see yourself as a seamstress or tailor, mending the neighborhood according to a pattern of your own making? Or are you, yourself, a part of the fabric, a thread woven in by the skilled hand of the one who knits hearts together and makes all things new?

It may just be that we need to expand our vocabulary.

[photos: “helping-hand,” by Faith @101, used under a Creative Commons license; “Connections,” by scrappy annie, used under a Creative Commons license]

To My Expat Friends

Dear expat friends who have my back and hold my heart,

When I say my husband and I are arguing about packing suitcases and that my back hurts, you know what I mean. You’ve also slammed doors and said things you regret because peanut butter weighs a lot and tennis rackets don’t quite fit. Thanks for letting me vent.

You aren’t afraid of dengue fever, typhoid, or malaria. You’ve been vaccinated and have that little yellow card and your kids have the BCG scar on their upper arms. You aren’t grossed out when I mention that we deworm our entire family twice a year. Thanks for helping me feel normal, healthy even.

When I’m broken about the poverty I see and conflicted about how to respond to beggars and barely able to hold all my spiritual questions, you’ve carried it with me, and helped me process. Thank you for sharing your own messy insides.

When I haven’t had the courage or the energy to go a wedding or a funeral alone, thank you for coming with me, for dancing with me, for holding my sweaty hand, for passing me Kleenex.

When friends or family from far away experience tragedy and I can’t be with them, you don’t spout platitudes. You know the pain of a lonely grief. Thank you for letting me weep, for weeping with me. Thank you for bringing us food. When friends or family from far away experience delight and celebrations and I can’t be with them, thank you for joining me in the joy, though you don’t know them. Through your loving response to their delight, I feel your love for me.

Help me not to be the ugly expat. Help me not complain, help me not set myself apart from local friends and coworkers. Challenge me to engage and adapt. Give me a safe place to process my questions and discoveries. Come with me as I explore. Thank you for helping me discover who I am in this new place and for allowing me the space to grow and change.

Thank you for being our family on holidays and birthdays, for creatively forming our own expat traditions like Easter egg hunts through rocks and thorns and goats at the beach. Like Thanksgiving baseball games. Like day-after-Christmas camping and whale shark diving.

We probably won’t have long years together but since we are all lonely and vulnerable and feeling exposed, our conversations go to the deep waters of our hearts faster than I’ve experienced elsewhere. Thank you for being willing to jump into life with me, quickly.

Thank you for calling me when you found brown sugar at the grocery store.

Thank you for loving my children and for letting me love yours.

When we say goodbye, we don’t promise to keep in touch. We probably won’t and that’s okay. I care about you. Our friendship has been deeply true. I might follow you on Facebook or Instagram but we both need to move to the next new thing, the friends who live close by. You are always and forever welcome at my house and I know I will always and forever feel welcome and comfortable in yours, no matter what country we might live in. I will always rejoice with your good news and mourn with your losses and pain. You made these months or years rich and that is no small treasure.

We are expatriate friends. We help each other pack. We pay each other’s bail or electricity bills. We check on each other’s pets. We sit through long watches of the night beside hospital beds. We share peanut butter. We know the inside jokes and laugh at the morbid humor. We care about the same obscure regions and quote the same strange proverbs. We’ve walked through births, marriages, deaths, divorces, job losses, wayward children, jet lag, national disasters, loneliness, misunderstandings, birthdays, private joys and public celebrations, entrenched sins and personal successes. We dream together and root for each other. I am so, so thankful for you.

If I never see you again in this life, come find me in the next. We have so many stories to share with each other.

Love, your forever-wherever expat friend,

Rachel

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Come to the Margins

This is a repost, originally published at She Loves Magazine.

It is a poem, of sorts and during these days in which so many, many people seem to be and feel marginalized, I wanted to revisit it.

Come to the margins, to the railroad track where houses were burned down and women are rebuilding with planks of wood, flattened powdered milk cans, and used clothing.

Come to the clinic and listen to the stories of grandmothers, of when they were nomads, of before the city was a city. Hear the heritage of folk tales and history.

Come to the elementary school and tutor the kids who strain to keep up in a language they don’t quite know yet.

Come to the stadium and watch the athletes train, see how their bare feet skim the track, hear how their teammates cheer and congratulate one another. Raise your voice with theirs.

Come to the market and learn how the local woman plants a garden, find out what she knows about seasons and soil and watering and protecting from hungry goats.

Come to the prison and offer a cold cup of water, a smile, an acknowledgement of the dignity of each person, even those behind bars, made in the image of God.

Come to the bank and discover the entrepreneurial spirit of women’s savings groups and small business plans.

Come to the margins and ask those here to pray for you. You can pray for them too but don’t come with the assumption that you are the only one able to bless.

Come, but don’t come to save. Come to be alongside on a journey. Offer your hand and your own stories of your grandmother, the first college graduate in your family. Your experiences of sports training and team camaraderie, your illnesses and academic struggles. Bring your brokenness, your loneliness, your confusion and doubts.

Come to the margins with your songs and stories, painting and photographs, teaching plans, and financial portfolios. Come with all your creativity and labor and insights and experiences.

Come to the margins bringing your addiction to accumulating stuff, the idolizing of money and appearance. Bring your fear of not measuring up, your envy and greed.

Come to the margins and find joy there, creativity, hard work, companionship, forgiveness, and a great sense of humor. Come and join and see the unique strengths and gifts and, if necessary, with humble wisdom, offer a hand. Receive a hand.

Come to the margins, aware of your own poverty and of how it doesn’t define you and of how it drives you to your knees and makes you desperate for God. Come but don’t use the margins as a place to soothe your conscience.

Come without condescension or preconceived ideas. Come without expecting to see nobility in suffering, expect to see pain and healing and sin and victory. Come with a willingness to look beyond what is lacking. Come, not to find a representative story but a precious individual. Come, not to see a saint or a sinner but a complex, three-dimensional person with gifts and dreams and skills.

Come and hear, and then leave without bearing simple answers or soothing platitudes or generalizations. Come and see, and then go and tell, tell the world there is more to Haiti than rape and earthquakes and orphans, more to Somalia than hostage-taking and al-Shabaab and famine, more to Syria than refugees. Come and taste, and then go and speak in a way that doesn’t leave a flavor of pity but of common humanity.

Come with nothing, if nothing is what you have and when nothing is the best thing you have. Nothing in your hands so they are wide open to receive, and to hold. Or, sometimes, come with a piece of bread and a fish and see what Jesus does with it, for all of us, even for you, even for me, here in the margins.

Come, outside the city gates, where Jesus went. Jesus is here, in the margins. He is there, outside the margins too but sometimes it is easier to see him here. Meet him fresh here, take off your shoes here, find yourself swept up in the glorious and global adventure of hope. Here, in the margins.

What do you find in the margins?

 

Why Is It Always About Money?

Nik Ripken wrote an excellent article a few weeks ago about how foreigners need to be better at being needy, how we need to grow in dependence on the people around us. The specific example he used of a man doing this well was about money.

I appreciated the article but one thought lingered: Why is it always about money? I feel like our conversations about how to engage well abroad are often myopically based on money. We talk a lot about it. I’ve written a lot about it. Poverty. Beggars. Giving. Wealth. Vast differences. How to live wisely and give wisely…But living abroad well and growing in dependence on local friends has to be based on more than economics.

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I came home last week from a terrible day at work. A local friend lives with us on weekends and she was at the house. She watched me cry, listened while I debriefed, and then gave me a big hug. She said, “I don’t know what else to do but I feel like I should hug you.”

In that moment, I was needy. I was revealing my brokenness, my exhaustion, my frustration and disappointment. I didn’t need money. I was the one providing her with a place to stay on weekends. I didn’t need help with school fees or to beg for food to put on the table for my family. But I needed her to listen and to share my emotion.

Being needy can’t only mean needing money or being financially interdependent and I have to wonder if the man Ripken references in his article was married, a father, or a single man. Because honestly? If I had to scrape together school fees from coins proffered by neighbors and implore local people to help me feed my kids, I might not choose to live here. Call me faithless, but you can also call me honest. And feel free to pray for me to have more faith!

Ripken’s point is excellent: we need to be needy. But there are more ways to rely on each other than financially. What are those ways and how do we foster an attitude of interdependence?

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Emotionally. We need to be vulnerable and honest about our joys and our struggles. It is easy for language or cultural barriers to hinder this kind of sharing. And, it is easy to imagine that showing our true selves, especially on a bad day, reveals weakness. Guess what? That’s true. It does show our weakness. Guess what else? We’re all weak and in our weaknesses, God is revealed as strong. So we need to get over our pride and be willing to be broken in front of and with our local friends. As if we were in authentic two-way relationships with them. Go figure!

Culturally. Anyone who is outside their home culture is clueless. Clue.Less. This lasts much longer than we would like, for some of us it lasts the entire time we live abroad. We will never learn everything there is to know about our host culture and we need to constantly be ready to reveal our ignorance and ask for help, wisdom, direction. I’ve been here thirteen years and still have to call a friend for advice on what to wear to certain events.

Spiritually. I love when my friends pray for me. Christian or Muslim, when they take the time and the empathy to bring me before the throne of God, it is a gift. I have so much to learn about faith, submission, service, hospitality, conviction, and more from my Muslim friends. I depend on them to challenge me in fasting and giving, in commitment to spiritual disciplines.

Community. We need community. We can find it in the expatriate world and there is nothing wrong with that. But if we really want to learn about and engage in our host culture, we need to build authentic community with local friends. This happens by simply doing things together. Volleyball, picnics, going to cafés, birthday parties, painting, boating…obviously the possibilities are endless. Find someone you love, find someone who loves the same thing, and do it together.

Emergency help. We’ve been robbed, we’ve had car accidents, medical emergencies, extreme loneliness, marital stress, death threats, harassment…Local friends have stepped in on our behalf more times than I can count. We don’t know how to handle the thief or who to ask about getting the internet turned back on, or which doctor is reliable, or how to respond to the threats. I am forever grateful to the people who have shepherded us through incredibly stressful situations, who have stood in the gap, able to act and make wise decisions while we can only cry or scream or sit.

There are so many more ways that we can be dependent on our local communities. They don’t have to involve money. But they do have to involve humility, authenticity, knowing our needs, and asking for help.

How do you build interdependent relationships in your community?

*image via Flickr

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When your husband calls you “a shell of a woman”

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For months this spring I felt like a shell of a woman. I was empty and didn’t have anything to give. Oh, I was still doing all the “right” things. I was still getting up most mornings attempting to connect with God, and I was still relatively consistent with my commitment to exercise.  But I felt dead inside and couldn’t figure out why.

My husband noticed. Where before him once stood life and life abundant, he now saw a shell of a woman. He even suggested another round of counseling. I knew something was wrong, but I didn’t know what to do about it or even what it was. I was unhappy in life and unmotivated in work. Was it depression? Burnout? What???

I felt especially dead at church. That was a strange feeling, because corporate worship has always quenched my thirst and nourished my soul and made my spirit come alive. But I just buried that newly incongruous feeling and ignored it. I tuned it out and refused to listen to it. I ran to the nearest screen and numbed out on TV and Facebook and solitaire games instead.

There were so many times I wanted to go forward at church during prayer time and tell people I wasn’t OK. But how could I ask for help, when I didn’t even know what wasn’t OK? And besides, I told myself, people were watching. As part of the leadership team, I imagined all eyes trained on me, as though I couldn’t make a mistake, couldn’t make an admission of need.

Those thoughts are ridiculous, I know. Yet how many times have I done this to myself? Struggled in silence, forgetting to ask for spiritual help, forgetting to confess my spiritual neediness? Too many times. I hate the Christian practice of confession. I hate confessing my needs, my sins, my shortcomings. It’s embarrassing. It’s uncomfortable. And I avoid it if at all possible.

confessionBut I am here today to tell you that confession leads to spiritual breakthrough. That’s the very reason James and John instruct us to do it. And this photo from a recent women’s event is how I know it’s true.

I love that picture. Not because it’s a beautiful photo or because I look particularly beautiful in it (I don’t), but because of the beautiful moment it represents.  It’s a moment I got really brave and stood up and acknowledged my gaping need. It’s a moment I publicly confessed I wasn’t OK on the inside, no matter what I may have wanted others to see on the outside.

When the speaker asked people to stand in response to God’s call on their hearts, I knew I needed to. It was almost like God had backed me into a corner. He knew I’d been hiding, and this was my moment to step into the light and admit I didn’t have my spiritual act together.

Oh sure, I admit all the time online the ways I don’t measure up, the ways I’m lacking, the ways I’m seeking. But I can carefully control both the wording of my shared needs and the timing in which I share them (preferably with those needs and struggles in the past, so I can share victory, not process). The photo above shows a break from tradition for me.

When I opened my eyes, I found that every single woman at my table had stood up with me. They were admitting their own need along with me. We stood in a united request for supernatural aid. We stood with unified intention to reorient and rededicate ourselves to God. We held hands and prayed. It was a holy moment, and I almost missed it.

I could have let the call to public confession slide. I could have disobeyed God and pretended, in real time, that I had it all together. But I would have missed out on the bonding among women drawing near to God. I would have missed out on some much-needed humility. And I would have missed out on some desperately needed prayers for spiritual restoration. I’m glad I didn’t miss it, though, because right there in that moment, right there in that terrifying admission of need, is when the shell started cracking for me. 

We weren’t designed to walk around as dead, empty shells. We were made to live, to dwell, to thrive even. So if you are walking around like a shell today, remember that God has provided a cure for our communal deadness: it’s called confession. Confession is what makes space for God’s love, joy, and peace to entwine itself in our hearts. It’s what allows real life, true life, life abundant, to grow inside us. So let us confess our neediness, our brokenness, our spiritual barrenness. It might just save our lives.

When the lights go out

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I want to do all the things. All the very good things there are to do in this world. So I overcommit myself. I don’t say “no.” I say “yes” instead, and spread myself too thin. Then my soul suffers. My work suffers. My sanity suffers. My family life suffers. My spiritual life suffers.

I suffer in silence, thinking I’m all alone. I’m the only one failing at everything. I’m the only one who can’t pull it together. I’m the only one who can’t catch my breath, who can’t catch up on work, who can’t catch up on school, who can’t catch up with friends, who can’t catch up with the God I say I love so very much.

And I, insecure missionary blogger that I am, am afraid to tell people.

To top all that off, the heat in Southeast Asia has been crushing me. The past two months have held record highs here, and we get a lot of power cuts. I echo Ramona Quimby in Ramona the Brave who shouted out “Guts! Guts guts guts!” when she wanted to say bad words. Instead, I yell “Cuts! Cuts cuts cuts!” and very nearly lose my mind.

After one particularly grueling 12-hour all-night power outage, something inside me broke — flat out broke. I lost my hope. I began to question everything. Why are we here? Why can’t we live in America? Why exactly do I serve this God of mine? And where the heck is He when I can barely sleep or even breathe in this heat?

I was struggling under the weight of all the expectations I had for myself: be a good mom, be a good wife, be a good home educator, be a good missionary, be a good team leader’s wife, be a good friend, be a good writer, be a good editor, be a good Christ-follower. And I couldn’t do any of it.

(If there’s one thing that overnight power outage taught me, it’s this: I am not nearly as good a person as I thought I was. Cuts cuts cuts: bad words all around.)

Finally, finally, I asked for prayers. I asked my closest friends and family in the States. I asked my teammates. I asked a few women in my organization. Then I confided my struggles to some other home school moms in my city.

I was met on so many levels by “me too.” I went from being alone to being supported. I went from drowning in my despair of cross-cultural servitude to feeling supernaturally upheld.

The next time the power went out in the middle of the night, I didn’t curse this land or this life or this electrical grid. I didn’t panic. I stayed calm and waited. I sang a worship song (which shocked even myself). I retained my sanity and my faith — something that could only have happened because people were praying for me.

The next day I remember waking up and thinking, seriously? Seriously? Is that really all I had to do? Ask for prayer? Why did I keep my struggles to myself for so long? Why did I think I had to hide? What kind of appearance did I think I needed to keep up anyway? Why did I think I couldn’t ask? Help came fast when I asked.

I spun my hopelessness wheels for too long. But I’ve learned again that I can ask. I can ask for prayer sooner rather than later — and so can you.

So today, if you’re spinning your hopelessness wheels, if you’re afraid to confide in someone or ask for prayer or even for practical help, can I encourage you to ask? Just ask. The God of the universe is here to help. The Body of Christ is here to help. Help is right here waiting, even when the lights go out and we find ourselves in the dark.

All we have to do is ask.