Boundary Lines and Haikus

by Roberta Adair

I spent many years wondering in the back of my head if being called to Japan was divine punishment for a flaw. To improperly use fancy Christian lingo, I wondered if God was sending me to Japan rather than other places I was willing and eager to go in order to sanctify me. I believed something like, “God loves me but needs to sandpaper and scrape a lot of Roberta away…and Japan is the sandpaper.”

In grad school I even wrote in my journal, “Lord, I’m willing to go anywhere — just not Japan,” yet now I view this country I said I’d never move to as one of the Psalmist’s “pleasant places.” I get teary as I consider God bringing me here for my good, not in a gross kale kind of way but in a warm, corner brownie kind of way.

In 2019 I attended a day of training with a more experienced missionary. She discussed some of the metaphors that people use to describe adjusting to Japan: feeling like a child, being in a dark tunnel, climbing a mountain. She talked with us about the importance and power of metaphors and led us in a few exercises to help us discover insights for ourselves. For years I had used phrases like “square peg, round hole” (not fitting well) and “like a little kid in a new school” (incompetent and unknown) to try to articulate what living here feels like.

One image that I hadn’t been able to verbalize but had felt over and over was the idea of feeling trapped and tied down – like having a rope wound around and around my arms and not being able to breathe freely, much less move. For a long time, I looked at “Japan” (written in quotation marks as I’m referring to it more as an idea than as a place or a people) as restricting, trapping, binding, and controlling.

There are so many rules: when to bow, when to use honorifics, how long to admire a business card that you received respectfully with two hands (“Always receive with two hands!”). If someone gives a gift, it is appropriate to give another gift at 30% of the estimated value of the original gift.

I found all of these rules exhausting, along with all of the formality, ceremony, and appropriateness (I generally like informal, spontaneous, and mildly-to-wildly inappropriate). There were rules about eye contact, precise expectations about what to wear to different ceremonies, and even how to laugh (many women cover their teeth when they laugh and maintain control, while I love to belly laugh with both friends and strangers). I found all of this overwhelming and exhausting and grating and tedious and irritating.

I know people who are drawn to Japan specifically for the same reasons I had prayed “anywhere but.” They like that it’s predictable, orderly, safe. They are the “learn the rules, and you’ll do well” type of people. I think perhaps this is one reason why my engineer husband adjusted to Japan years before I did.

At the training, as an exercise to start and end our sessions, we were asked to write haikus. I hadn’t written one since middle school, yet I was able to spit two out really quickly. 5-7-5…boom.

They weren’t amazing, but they were written quickly and lightly. I didn’t get bogged down with a gazillion possibilities from a more open-ended prompt like, “Write an essay. Draw a picture. Describe a situation.” The haiku was so simple. I think this exercise marked the beginning of my understanding that too many possibilities isn’t freedom; it’s exhausting.

Ever since that post-retreat time, I’ve tried to notice more of this limitation-as-freedom thing. Rather than feeling restrained, confined, and trapped in Japan, I’m trying to reframe that limitations can contribute to my freedom.

For example, the train. Although we have a car, I like to ride the train to the library. I prefer the boundaries of time with trains. There are consequences to trying to finish “just one more thing” (needing to wait for the next one), and knowing the train pulls away at a certain time helps me focus and get stuff done. It also gives me 10 minutes to check out on the ride home.

Then there’s our newsletter. I wrote freeform email updates during my three years living in another country. They were usually quite long. I didn’t like my husband’s suggestion a decade ago to pick a newsletter format and stick to it. I still occasionally struggle with the constraints of space. If anyone ever thinks, “Um, this paragraph is missing a sentence,” yes it is, but I simply deleted it to make it fit. Using this formula means we can make them faster than we could if they were more freestyle. Two articles with three to five pictures (2-3-5…boom).

Or consider our small house. I’ve seen these literal boundaries and limitations lead to freedom. I have a lot of new-to-me opinions about the lightness connected to having a small house and next-to-no yard. Perhaps this not-chosen-by-me minimalist lifestyle isn’t forever or for everyone. That said, I’ve experienced a lot of joy connected to exploring and playing that I simply wouldn’t have had time for if I had more space and stuff to manage and maintain.

Boundaries are helpful with anything related to reducing decision fatigue. I know this is a trendy topic, but it’s why I like restaurants with small menus, prefer the neighborhood veggie man over a larger grocery store, and have jumped from team self-expression to being a big fan of uniforms (very common for students and workers in Japan). It’s also why we’ve happily adjusted our wardrobes to our small closets. Our four boys share two chests of drawers with seven drawers between them. It works, and it’s (mostly) really good. I have the smallest wardrobe of my life, and (most of the time) I love it.

I think about limitations when I think about having kids. Oh, the laundry, dishes, cooking, time constraints, and adjusting so much of my life and schedule around them. Yet these little balls of Big Energy and Big Feelings also bring so many possibilities. They’ve opened the door to many deep friendships, and they’ve expanded my understanding of the world, people, and God.

These are just a few examples of the ways I experience the expansiveness of limitation. I’m finding that the boundary lines aren’t confining or trapping but instead have allowed me to more fully experience “pleasant places.” And for that, I’m grateful.

~~~~~~~~

Originally from Pennsylvania (USA), Roberta lived in Kosovo for three years before getting married and moving to northern Japan in 2012. She and her husband partner with a Japanese church and have four young and energetic boys. She enjoys hiking, camping, and having friends over for average and boisterous meals.

Contextualization Meets Burnout

by Carol Ghattas

Reading a verse is one thing; living it out is another. That is certainly the case for many of us who have read Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth and found this gem:

To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law…I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.

These words from chapter 9 encapsulate the work of contextualization for the modern Christian in cross-cultural service. Yes, the incarnation of Christ is the ultimate example, but since we’re not perfect like Christ, we tend to lean more on Paul’s words and model. Even so, we have big shoes to fill, as he seems to have had a head start with his multiple languages, passports, and education.

When moving toward cross-cultural service, we study and prepare, gaining insights from God’s Word and also from a long history of missionaries who have gone before. There is an implicit and sometimes explicit expectation that we will need to adjust how we live, speak, dress, and act in order to make inroads into the hearts and minds of those to whom we’re called. Unfortunately, in most cases, we are not told how incredibly difficult this is.

During my two years of service in Ivory Coast, West Africa, as much as I tried to dress like Ivorians, speak like Ivorians, and act like Ivorians, I could never completely fit in, because I was not Ivorian. I studied their culture but sometimes still had no clue as to why they did the things they did. Contextualization, however, can only take us so far. Not everything in a particular culture will jive with biblical teaching, and so efforts of contextualization will eventually conflict with our faith and convictions, leading us to stop at a certain action, word, or style of dress.

As we adapt and change our ways, looks, and even speech to reach others, the expectation on our side is that our efforts will open doors for the gospel. Unfortunately, the results do not always meet those expectations, and this is where contextualization meets burnout. We’ve made all the effort, with little fruit to show for it.

Burnout can also come at another point in serving others: when we lose ourselves in the contextualization process. This happens when we’ve worked so hard to conform our words and ways to another culture that we forget who we are and the end goal of our efforts in witness. The essence of contextualization is the word context. We adjust our lifestyle and witness in order to make them fit into this new reality in which we are now living.

Losing one’s self in contextualization means that we haven’t recognized the limits of the process. We’ve passed the limits where our faith and convictions should have stopped us, because we’re too eager to please and fit in. Once we’ve crossed that line, we’ve lost sight of the reason we’re living in this culture in the first place. Dangers of losing one’s self abound, because there is an enemy who is always working against us. We must always keep up our guard as we seek to be all things to all people for the sake of Christ.

Think of the child’s toy that helps them put specific shapes into their corresponding holes. Here I am, a square, now living in a society of circles. I can’t fit in until I shave off my rough edges, and that can be very painful. Yet, if it’s done remembering that at my core, I’m still that square, then I haven’t lost much and can now actually fit into two cultures. It’s when we throw away the core that burnout hits. What makes up my core? My faith and values are the rock-solid center of self. Culture and traditions come and go, but faith in Christ and the values he builds in me should never be sacrificed for the sake of fitting in.

To avoid burnout, I must always keep before me the reason I’m trying to fit in—to open doors for witness. I’m not trying to change because I love their culture or because I plan to live here the rest of my life; I’m changing and adjusting my lifestyle, words, or dress in order to build a bridge to the gospel. I want doors to open because of my efforts to be more circle-like in their eyes. The challenge in contextualization and becoming part of a culture is to make sure you understand why you’re doing what you’re doing and what is behind the meanings of words used. Never be afraid to ask questions or to make mistakes. Understanding the nuances of any culture is a long-term endeavor.

There is a point when I have to check myself and ask: “Am I still sharing the truth of the gospel in my words and actions or just trying to please people and not offend them?” When we are no longer able to answer in the affirmative, we’ve lost our way and must return to the basics in our faith and ministry.

While we make changes for the sake of conveying the gospel to others, it is important to remember that the sharing of the gospel can never be fully contextualized, as it would change its very nature. Paul started his proclamation to the Greeks in Athens by talking about their “unknown god,” but the God he revealed to them was completely different from all the gods they knew. Some who heard that day believed and wanted to hear more, while others sneered at his words. He contextualized the message enough to “fit into the hole,” but the core was still fully Jesus, and when Jesus is made known, people must make a choice.

The longer you live among another people group and adapt to their ways and language, the more you feel at home. The foreign becomes familiar, and you may now struggle to connect with your native homeland and family. It seems you can’t be fully at home in two places at once. As strangers in a strange land, we find hope in Christ Jesus our Lord. He reminds us that the only permanent home is the eternal one to come. Embracing this truth, we can handle the unintended consequences of contextualization and find balance in life and ministry.

~~~~~~~~

Carol B. Ghattas has over thirty years of experience in cross-cultural ministry and has lived in five countries in the Middle East and North Africa. Now back in the United States, she maintains an active blog site, lifeinexile.net. She is a writer and speaker on missions, Islam, and other topics. Her newest book, Not in Kansas Anymore: Finding Home in Cross-Cultural Service, is available through online book distributors in eBook and paperback formats. For more information or to contact Carol, visit her website: lifeinexile.net.

Missionary Job Description: Feel Awkward

An Introvert Moves to India

Shortly before we launched as missionaries to India, I was gifted a book. The title was something like Home at Last.

This book disturbed me.

In it, the (obviously extroverted) author writes we will be with people all the time in Heaven/The Earth Made New, and won’t that be wonderful?! After this statement, the author moves on to other beautiful theological musings and descriptions of Home. I skipped these and read again the people-all-the-time thing.

Oh no, I quietly panicked. I don’t want to be with people all the time. What if I’m not cut out for Heaven?! 

Then we moved to India, where your arms seem to touch the arms of others nearly all the time, at least on the bus and sometimes even at your house. My neighbors, worried I would feel lonely or homesick, made sure never to leave me alone. 

The good part of this is that I was also never hungry. And Indian food is some of the best I’ve ever tasted.

The difficult part is that sometimes I wanted everyone to take their curries and chapattis and palak panir and go visit someone else.

I actually like being around people. And I want lots of people to be in Heaven. But I need time to think about the meaning of life, you know? Otherwise, I feel like I stop understanding the world and my place in it. I lose track, becoming internally displaced. Sometimes I need a minute to think about Everything. 

I’ve heard that’s called being an introvert.

Several times that first year, I locked my main door from the outside and sneaked back into my house from a side door, so people would think I was not at home.

Ahhh. Alone at Last.

Then my extroverted husband would bounce home like Tigger and wonder why I was locking out all the unreached people we had come to minister to. And I would wonder why I wasn’t more like him. And I would think to myself, “I can do this. I can be more like Joshua. I just need time to think about how to do that…”

Thinking, by myself, was my safe place. Language learning, making cultural mistakes, and being observed made me want to run and hide.

But when I went home and had my quiet moments, I found something in myself I hadn’t expected. The reason I was hiding was not always to analyze. Sometimes I hid for the sake of hiding.

Sometimes I hid because I was afraid.

That’s Awkward.

A friend of mine once said that the main job description of a missionary is to feel awkward. 

You feel awkward in your host country. Then you go home and feel awkward, too.

I like knowing all the rules, especially social ones, and I like to go to sleep at night knowing that I didn’t offend anyone, and that I said what I meant to say, and was understood and didn’t talk too much or too little, and that nobody around me was ignored or suffered hurt feelings because of things I said or other people said. If I can’t sleep, I make a list of people I might have offended and pray over it and give it to God and sometimes follow up the next day.

Enter India. Instead of my neatly organized, slightly neurotic list-making, that first year I went to bed at night thinking about how to leave someone’s house.

I often visited a friend, and after a couple of hours would try to leave. She would ask me to stay longer. I would sit. A while later, I would try to leave again. She would ask me to stay longer. I would sit. After playing this up-down game for some time, I could tell my friend actually wanted me to leave. I wanted to leave, too. But she kept telling me to sit and stay, and I kept sitting and staying. 

So, instead of analyzing the minute nuances of human interaction, I wondered how in the world people go home in India.

One awkward moment was tolerable. The problem was, I knew the awkwardness was going to be repeated multiple times daily. I was going to feel awkward. Often. And make other people feel awkward. And not be able to say anything to make it better, because all I could say was, “Nice to meet you, I have a brother who is older than me and a sister who is younger than me, do you want to drink chai?”

Honestly, it’s only because of my extroverted and goal-oriented husband that I kept going out the door. He would laugh with me over my faux pas, and they would become funny instead of tragic. Then he would remind me that making mistakes doesn’t kill you and that I have something to give the world. Something beyond just avoiding mistakes.

He would remind me that it’s worth the risk because maybe someone I felt awkward around might love Jesus someday. My shame might bring God glory.

Joshua and I argued a lot that first year, as he learned to be more introverted and I learned to be more extroverted. But I still thank him for his constant encouragement to exit our house. Because some of my favorite memories of my life are of my first year in India. They’re much more interesting than the memories I made just sitting and thinking. Funnier, too.

A Special Gift

But my introversion wasn’t all a stumbling block. It turned out to be a gift, too. I realized it was a gift after the 37th time that my friend Sai told me not to say danyavad

I had lost sleep over this. Why in the world couldn’t I say thank you? What was wrong with being polite? What was I supposed to say instead?

It took multiple discussions (with people) and late-night analysis sessions (by myself) to finally understand why North Indians don’t say thank you to family members and close friends. The answer revealed something hidden deep within the culture, something that would help me understand why it’s so difficult for a Hindu to pick up their cross and follow Jesus. (I tell that entire story in my book, Hidden Song of the Himalayas.)

Using Your Gift

Introverts, don’t let your gift hold you back. I know some days it seems more prudent to wait until you speak the language or understand the culture before you really invest in others. But the only way to get to that place is through the forest of awkward not knowing. It’s like when you’re learning to drive, and you really want to slow down because everything is happening so fast, but sometimes it’s safer just to keep going. 

Introverts, appreciate how God made you. Use your gift to do the uncomfortable work of cultural analysis that will make you a true insider. Let it be difficult. Let it hurt. Let it be awkward. It’s worth the cost.

At the same time, it’s okay to take a break. Just know that when you come away with Jesus on a mountain because you’re overwhelmed by the crowds, if they follow you there, He will provide. He will provide with what little you have, even if it’s just a few loaves of bread and a handful of tiny fish. Because He has compassion for you, and for the crowds, too.

While the awkward moments never completely subsided, I learned to decipher certain subtle linguistic and social cues in India. I learned to understand my friends, their language, and their unique perspectives. After seven years in India, I could finally picture myself in the Earth Made New, surrounded by people, arms touching as we stood together under the tree whose leaves are “for the healing of the nations.”

Ahhh. Home at Last!

Getting my friends home is God’s story to write. My part is to pick up my cross and walk out my door.

Will you join me?

All the Things I Still Don’t Know

by Janine

Tonight my daughter came home with homework of fill-in-the-blank words, where they give you a picture and maybe a “letter” (or in our case, a syllable) or two as a hint. These assignments are new as she’s starting to advance in learning her hiragana [the simplest of the phonetic lettering scripts of Japanese].

Some words I just type into the dictionary, and together we learn a new word. The problem arises when you have no idea what they’re trying to portray in the picture. Two out of six were words I have no reference for… one of them I’m not sure we have a word for in English. So I’m waiting for a message from a friend who will help me help my kid with her homework.

Anyway, it’s gotten me thinking about the ongoing upheaval of our sense of competency that begins the moment you land in a new world you’ll now call home.

Before you left, it was all about competency and calling. Or at least, so you thought.

You go through applications and interviews, you study, you take courses, you prepare, you pack, you have meetings and presentations, you answer questions… people think you’re ready to go! “They are fit for the calling,” you hear them say.

And you need to do these things. You have to be wise and not embark foolishly and haphazardly.

But here’s the paradox: you land, and you can just go ahead and throw all that out the window.

I know. It doesn’t make sense. But it really does make sense.

No longer are you the person who knows “all the things.”

You’re a learner now, and it’s best to honestly suit yourself with that attitude along with your new visa stamp.

Gone are the cultural clues, the comfort of how you do things, social structures and systems that you’re familiar with. Gone are the days of intuitively understanding life and the way everything works. Gone are the days of giving on-point presentations; you’ll be combatting first grade homework!

It’s time to learn a language. That’s not like a one- or two-month course and then you’ve checked that off your list. For many languages it’s thousands of hours of study and practice. And you’ll probably butcher it for a good long time and speak with the worst accent. You’ll make silly, embarrassing mistakes. You’ll talk like a child and have to work hard to refine and grow yourself.

You’ll need help, and lots of it. You’ll need humility, and lots of it.

You’ll need a good sense of humor to laugh at yourself and not take yourself so seriously.

You’ll make blunders culturally. Some you’ll laugh about (later), and some you might cringe over here ever after.

You’ll learn to interpret all the things you didn’t even know were there before, because they aren’t written.

You’ll learn new expressions, new things you didn’t know you could do (by the grace of God!), new vibrancy and variety of the beautiful creation of God.

Hopefully, you’ll slowly learn to strip your Biblical beliefs of their cultural colors and give the substance to another to see God bring it to colorful life in their cultural expression and the work of the Holy Spirit in their life.

You’ll be serving– or even deeper than that– learning how to serve. Learning how to share.

It’s our seventh year together on the field. I see just how far we’ve come in all of these areas, praise God. These are the things you might read about in our newsletters or our blog.

But what we live, in our daily missionary lives, is the distance we have yet to go. It’s all the things I still don’t know, but that there is grace for and that God works in.

A Japanese Christian man who works with many missionaries told us that it takes a good 10 years for a missionary to start getting good at culture and language here. So we still have even more to go to be properly seasoned.

And yet, in the meantime, we know God is working and using us, and moving in the process. We see it in our lives and in the people around us and in God’s leading and timing. It’s a journey, definitely not as we anticipated, and yet, all the things we learned and unlearned and then re-learned– they make a lot more sense these days.

This entire journey is a walk of faith and trust in God that He’s got the map right even if the one we’re holding is upside down.  He’ll enlighten us like a loving parent, if we’ll allow Him to.  He’ll even transform us through this journey and work through us in ways we might never have seen coming.  In the end, it’s Christ who supplies our competency as ministers of the Gospel.

~~~~~~~~~

Janine, her husband Vicente, and their three daughters live and serve in the Tokyo metro area.  They established an evangelistic media ministry to share the Gospel.  Janine served for 3 years in Mexico before moving to Tokyo to work in church-planting, where she eventually met her Honduran husband who happened to visit on a short-term trip. Janine enjoys audiobooks, quilting, cooking and obviously, writing. You can find out whether they survive elementary school by following her personal blog.

To the New Expat…

A few weeks ago, someone who is moving overseas contacted me. This is her first time living overseas, she is going into the unknown, and wants to be as prepared as possible.

Here is what I said to her:

Dear Lucy (name has been changed)

Wow – I’m excited for you and not a little envious! This is an amazing opportunity, and though I know based on your email that you are scared, I think you may find this is one of those gifts that is given to you and your family for this time of your life.

That being said, you asked for practical, not philosophical advice – so here goes:

  1. Learn the numbers as quickly as possible. You will find them everywhere and it will help you to tell time, understand the prices of items, and tell people how many children you have!
  2. Learn the currency and don’t translate it into US dollars. If you do, you will either spend too much money thinking “everything is so cheap,” or too little money and thus, not get the things you need.
  3. Take things that will immediately make your new space feel like home – a few pictures, candles, a couple of books. That way, even as you’re waiting for the rest of your household goods, you can begin to create a home.
  4. Recognize that your children’s grief is real, real, real. Allow them to be sad without putting caveats on the sadness (eg “I know you’re sad, but think how much fun travel will be…”) Travel may be fun, but it will not give them back their friends and schools. Allow them to grieve, and grieve with them.
  5. You are arriving in the summer, a time when expat communities dwindle, so it will probably take some time to connect with others. Still – limit the amount of time that your kids spend on social media, just as you would limit social media in your home country. You cannot, I repeat, you cannot live in two places at once. Believe me, I’ve tried, and it doesn’t work. So limit the time they spend, and try to get out and explore.
  6. By the same token, don’t allow yourself to spend too much time on Skype, Facebook, or any other social media sites. It will be all you can do sometimes, to tear yourself away. But tear yourself away you must. This is not the end of your world, this is the beginning of a new world. Allow it to be just that.
  7. Don’t be afraid to initially be a tourist. If you don’t explore the area, you may come to the end of your time and find you’ve not seen the world-famous sites there are to see. Use those first weeks to create adventure and have your kids journal about it.
  8. Remember that your culture is just that – your culture. Others have different ways of doing things. They aren’t bad – they are just different. Learn cultural humility, a life skill you will never regret.
  9. News flash: Life wasn’t perfect in your home country. It will be easy to think it was when you are faced with the newness of life and culture shock in its monstrous intensity. But it wasn’t. There are relationship problems, infrastructure issues, and just plain life wherever we live.
  10. You take yourself and your family with you. You aren’t all going to change on the plane. Sure, this is a new start, but you are who you are. At the same time, you are also capable of change and being shaped by the country where you will make your home. Allow that shape to happen.
  11. Have a high tolerance of ambiguity and be capable of complexity. The country where you’re going is dismissed in the western world with a few stereotypical statements. Those are not the complete story. If you allow yourself, you will be able to understand a more complete, and thus richer version of the story.
  12. Give yourself grace. This move is huge! You won’t understand the impact until sometime later, so give yourself, your husband, and your kids grace.
  13. Laugh.Laugh.Laugh. Laughter is a holy gift that will take you through culture shock and culture conflict. It will take you through the hard days and you will be able to look back on them with much joy. So allow yourself the holy gift of laughter.
  14. Most of all, know that “He who began a good work in you, will be faithful to complete it!” God lives in other places. He is alive and well across the world, continuing his good work in the redemption story. You are a part of that Story and He is faithful.

I’ve included a picture here that I think you will enjoy! Print it out, and put it on your refrigerator so you remember these ten commandments.

Much love to you,

Marilyn

What would you add for Lucy? Please share in the comments and we will compile the comments for a new post!

Note: This was previously published in July 2015

Strangers in Covidland

by Katie Hoffmann

Blurry-eyed after 36 hours of flying with kids, we handed over our passports. The customs official returned a hearty, “Welcome Home.” 

Those words felt almost digestible as we entered the Seattle International Airport after years overseas working for a Christian non-profit. Although we were grieving all the goodbyes, I felt ready to embrace my country of origin once again. 

Despite my best intentions, reverse culture shock struck in a big way. We had little to no training in re-entry. This left me feeling paralyzed by stuff that should be easy like trying to keep kids quiet in the library or driving on the right side of the road. 

After three years stateside, I’ve gladly regained those skills, but occasionally, I fall flat and feel overwhelmed by culture shock again. 

Recently, we moved again to a new country, except this time our passport wasn’t stamped. It was a sudden departure without glamour and thankfully no cobras. Here’s the funny part: We haven’t even left our house except for one of us who is deemed an “essential worker.” 

Covidland is my new country and once again I must reorient. 

Actions I once thought were normal like talking to a person nearby now have both different implications and results. The way people greet each other is foreign. Elbows? A curtsy? This feels awkward. Can I just use a southeast Asian greeting? 

Classes are now on new platforms of technology. My kids are expected to learn technical culture, as we parents wade through murky waters of Internet security with youngsters. But, unlike with Zoom we can’t mute all the static, conspiracy theories, rude language and stuff that hits us on all ends during this unique time. Divisive warfare is erupting all around me. To relate in this new country is requiring deflecting skills, because the arrows of mindless attack are piercing our community. 

I’m dumbfounded as I find myself jerked between a polarized nation offering two heated sides of opinion and the irony of 40 different cereal choices. Sides have been drawn without healthy nuance, and I’d like to bury my head in my cereal but I can’t. 

I’m exhausted. 

I’m regretting not getting more pre-field training, but some moves happen too fast and necessitate learning on the job. 

As I pull my face out of my Coco Puffs, I remind myself that I must not become complacent no matter which country I reside in. We as the church can never stop being a student of the culture around us. We don’t get a free pass on cultural understanding just because we have a right to act a certain way. 

In a society that for too long has defined churches by buildings and programs, we can easily forget that God’s main directives have not changed and despite a lot of changes around us, we are not banned from loving our neighbor or even sharing the gospel. 

How I interact in my new country and culture will ultimately open or close doors to people’s receptiveness to the Gospel message. 

So I ask the hard questions… 

In a nation that is so often an either/or nation can we choose to be a both/and person? Can we bridge to people in many different groups? 

Can we care about American liberties and still choose to wear a face mask to a store no matter where we stand on the issue? Yes. Can we support small business and physically distance to show care for the more at-risk folks? Yes. Can we request our state government reassess our phases of local reopening and do it in a way that respects others? Yes. Can we both disagree with someone’s opinion and support their family? Yes. Can we do this all in a loving way? Yes! 

As believers we need to be keeping the main thing the main thing. Yes, I know, loving the multitude of neighbors can and will feel stretching and uncomfortable, because culture bridging is real. I’ve experienced that in my home state and overseas. Overseas, dressing in long pants and sleeves in 90-degree tropical weather felt horrid at times, but I knew my neighbors would disrespect me and it would not be loving to disrespect the people around me in conservative Muslim regions by wearing shorts and a tank top. I gladly sweated for the opportunity to connect with those in my community. 

Will we gladly wear a mask into a store and not tear apart the store clerks who are simply enforcing what they’ve been told to do? Just like in my experience overseas, clothes are contextual. In situations where others are uncomfortable it behooves me to be sensitive to that. In other cases where people don’t care, it then becomes my own choice based on research. 

Culture stretching and culture shock happen even when people look the same and own the same passport. It can be more difficult and blindsiding because when we look alike we expect to have the same internal wiring, but we often don’t. Might I be so bold as to say many of us are sliding into culture shock? 

If we aren’t careful culture shock will cause us to attack the neighbor instead of bridging the gap. Because let’s be frank, we’ve all moved to a new land and you are well past phase one of culture shock. The homemade bread- making and binge-watching Netflix is over. You have moved on and if you aren’t careful you won’t pull past it without a lot of destruction. 

Store workers and government officials will not forget your face if you, in a fit of rage, mock or tear them apart. If you reach out later to them to share the message of Christ’s redeeming love, good luck. 

I’ll never forget the day in Southeast Asia when another mother chastised me for letting my daughter play out in the rain. “Illness doesn’t come from dirt or germs! It comes from the rain and wind.” She scolded me. 

I was struggling with culture shock that week and I wanted to do things MY way. I took a deep breath and said, “Thank you for caring about my kids. I’m new here and still learning.” I knew at that moment I had a right to let my daughter play in the rain. I had a right to my own free speech. I hated to be chastised by another woman, but I swallowed my pride. My words needed to reflect our human connection and not a state of winning. 

Let us not forget our humanity. Let us be mindful of how we approach the ever-shifting cultures around us. No matter where you stand on how things are operating in Covidland, let your actions and words build bridges and not walls. 

We are all new here and we are all still learning.

~~~~~~~~~~~

In second grade, a bubble gum container full of international coins sparked Katie’s heart to discover God’s world. That spark would be kindled through years of interaction and work with refugees and international students. In her early twenties, she married a flyboy and they landed with their first baby in Indonesia. Between killing spiders and drinking tea with local women she continued to grow in her faith and desire to serve. Although transition has brought their now larger family stateside, the fire in her heart still burns. Today you can find Katie mingling with neighbors, advocating for and connecting with refugees, teaching her kids, flying with her husband, gardening, and always learning. 

 

What Are You Even Doing Here?

by Corella Roberts

Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, I was a fresh, excited, bi-vocational missionary-teacher in Alaska. I wanted to make a difference. I wanted to partner with God. I wanted to use my gifts and my training and my time to spread the gospel. I wanted to shine His glory to the uttermost parts of the earth.

And then … it was really, really, REALLY hard. I barely made it two months into village life before finding myself gasping for air.

“During this overwhelming, unpredictable season, we were invited to go to a church service in a nearby village; and we welcomed the opportunity to see a new place and worship with other believers. A travelling, Native pastor picked us up in his four-seater airplane, and we hopped down the river to an even smaller village for church.  Before the service began, this well-intentioned pastor asked us if we’d met the only other Christian couple in our village. They were in their forties, had been following Christ for about four years, and had been praying for Christian teachers to fellowship with. 

They didn’t have any kids in the school, where our lives had been consumed with the task of adjusting to teaching; so no, we hadn’t met them yet.

‘Then what are you even doing here?’ this short, fiery man retorted. 

Somehow, I held it together in the moment, but I was absolutely pierced, soul deep.  . . .

I tried to sit through the worship, but the pain inside was too strong. I got up, closed myself in the small bathroom, and tried to stifle my sobs.  Is THIS your plan, God? This mess of a job I’m calling teaching? . . . This crushing expectation to support the other Christian couple? Seriously, God. I don’t like it. I can’t do it. Why am I even here? I knew I needed to pull it together, but I had no answer. No peace. Only pain. Some missionary I was.” (I recounted that story in my new book, Colliding with the Call.)

I didn’t stay in that place of despair or those feelings of failure forever. In fact, I didn’t even give up on our bush teaching assignment. My husband and I hacked out another seven years in rural Alaska before moving to teach in Thailand, but I can tell you, I still hear that question buzzing in my ear now and then. What are you even doing here? It’s like a dengue-carrying mosquito, and I know if I let it land and bite, my faith will be in critical condition for a while. (If you don’t know what Dengue Fever is, feel free to substitute the imagery for the cough of a COVID-19 carrier who forgot to wear a mask.)

I think that question is so particularly hurtful because if there’s one thing a missionary wants to be, it’s useful. So when we start doubting our purpose, our calling, it’s often a direct attack on ourselves and our identity. But that right there–the feeling of a loss of identity when we feel like we’re failing at our tasks–is the real danger.

It’s easy to say, “My identity is in Christ,” but a whole other thing to live it. I won’t expand on that because Amy Young already wrote about it here. And you can find a huge list of scriptures about it here. But what I do want to touch on is that right now, during this global pandemic and the frustration of social distancing, what we can do is most likely being affected. Which means we’re all swatting at that question, What are you even doing here?

So, let’s answer it once and for all.

 

WHAT are you even doing here?
Are you sheltering your family by practicing social distancing? Do it in love. Are you preparing online lessons or teaching your stir-crazy kiddos from home? Do it in love. Did you make the painful decision to go? To stay? To be near those who need you most at this time? Be there in love. Are you distributing food? Sharing words of encouragement? Worshiping and praying? Learning to be still and listen? Do it in love.

There is no small task in the kingdom of God. What you see as menial, He sees as faithful service. I am convinced that nothing poured out in worship is ever wasted. Keep doing what you’re doing in love, as worship, and know that it is enough, because He is enough.

“The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed . . .” Matthew 13:31-32

 

What are YOU even doing here?
You are you on purpose–created and designed to fill that very special niche in God’s plan. He has not put anyone else in your particular position, he has put you there. Wherever you are and whatever you’re doing (or feel like you’re not doing), you’re there, doing it, on divine purpose. No one else can speak to that one hurting heart in your home, next door, or through the screen, the way you can. And no one else can represent that very special facet of His heart to the world the way you can. Just keep being you–He’s never asked you to be anyone else.

“For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works . . .” Ephesians 2:10

 

What are you even doing HERE?
I have a friend right now who has been stuck in Australia, trying to return to her family and her graduating senior in Thailand, since this whole global shut-down began. Others have been able to repatriate but now are unsure how they’ll get visas again when it’s time to return to their host countries. And many of us (myself included) are separated from vulnerable family members and questioning if we made the right choice not to be with them when this all started going down. It’s incredibly frustrating to feel trapped or blocked from being where we want to be, but I’m holding onto this:

“. . . your life is now hidden with Christ in God.” Colossians 3:2-4

God has my feet on this chunk of the planet, in this moment in time, for a reason. But more than that, I belong to Him. He is my true home, and my heart is safely cupped in His hands. 

No matter where you are, what you’re doing, or how you’re feeling productive and useful or not, you are sheltered and dearly loved in Christ for all eternity. 

I think if someone were to furrow their brows at me today and pointedly ask, “What are you even doing here?” I’d be miffed, certainly, but then I hope I’d say, “You know, I’m not always sure. But I am sure that God is pursuing my heart. And I hope I can love some other people into His kingdom along the way.”

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

Corella Roberts makes her home in Northern Thailand where she and her husband partner with an international school to “Serve the Servants.” Their first missionary teaching assignment landed them in the remote bush of Alaska, which you can read about in her newly released book, Colliding with the Call. From tundra to tropics, she seeks to follow Jesus, and she encourages others to connect deeply with God at corellaroberts.com. You can also find her cleaning up legos or meandering their local market in search of mangosteen and lychee fruit.

Serving Well – a Book, a Resource, a Shared Life

I can’t remember when Jonathan and Elizabeth Trotter first entered my online writing life. Perhaps it was when the former ALOS site founder and I were discussing one of their posts, perhaps it was before – no matter, at some point I realized that our online friendship had become one that I looked to for wisdom, laughter, and venting. We who are a part of A Life Overseas know well the value of online friendships.

When I was approached to write the foreword for their now newly-released book I was both honored and humbled. I share it today with our community with a hearty endorsement for the book Serving Well. Within this volume is an invitation to live fully, love well, grieve loss, fight injustice, and embrace friendship.

When it comes to missions, missionaries, and the missions’ conversations, we live in a cynical and skeptical age. Those who are serving or want to serve overseas are assaulted with everything from failed missionary blogs and podcasts to heated debates on colonialism and white saviors.

Despite the cynicism, God is still moving people to places around the world where they are putting down roots in unfamiliar soil and seeking to write their names in the lands where God has directed them.  They seek to live out God’s story in a cross-cultural context.

Where do those who are intent on pressing forward in a life of cross-cultural service turn? How can they live well in places where they don’t belong?

Jonathan and Elizabeth’s book, Serving Well, emerges as a bright light and resource for those who are intent on pressing forward. Transcending place, this book is a wellspring of wisdom, perspective, truth, and encouragement for cross-cultural workers. Beginning with preparation, the book covers everything from preparation to returning, with sections on grieving, marriage, children, communicating and more. It can be read consecutively or, depending on the reader’s needs, by section.

I am a missionary kid, a failed missionary, and someone who continues to serve cross-culturally. I met Jonathan and Elizabeth as all those identities merged, and I read their words and heard their hearts with incredible gratitude. Here was the real deal. My cynical heart found solace and foundational wisdom and understanding through their writing. This couple is living out God’s big story, and they are living it out in a cross-cultural setting. Their writing reflects their lives – the good, the hard, the awful, and the fun. We are not only invited into their words, we are invited into their lives. In Elizabeth, readers will find a friend and wise confidante; in Jonathan, they will find a counselor and brother; and in both they will find a couple who exemplify cultural humility, godly leadership, and deep joy in the journey of serving.

In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul writes to people in Thessaloniki, Greece and says this: Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well.”* In the library of mission’s literature you can find many things, but to be invited into a life through a book is something rare and precious. Serving Well is not just a book – it is a shared life.

This excerpt is from the forward of Serving Well: Help for the Wannabe, Newbie, or Weary Cross-cultural Christian Worker ©  Wipf and Stock February, 2019 by Jonathan and Elizabeth Trotter.


Other Endorsements:

Serving Well is deep and rich, covering all aspects of an international life of service from multiple angles. It is full of comfort, challenge, and good advice for anyone who serves abroad, or has ever thought about it, no matter where they find themselves in their journeys. It is also really helpful reading for anyone who has loved ones, friends or family, serving abroad——or returning, to visit or repatriate. Jonathan and Elizabeth Trotter are both insightful and empathetic writers, full of humility and quick to extend grace——both to themselves and to others. Their writing covers sorrow and joy, hope and crisis, weariness and determination. Best of all, from my perspective as someone who has worked with TCKs for over 13 years, it contains an excellent collection of important advice on the topic of raising missionary kids. Choose particular topics, or slowly meander through the entire volume piece by piece, but whatever you do——read this book!”
——Tanya Crossman, cross cultural consultant and author of Misunderstood: The Impact of Growing Up Overseas in the 21st Century

“Serving Well is more than a book to sit down and read once. It is a tool box to return to over and over, a companion for dark and confusing days, and a guide for effective and long-lasting service. Elizabeth and Jonathan are the real deal and Serving Well, like the Trotters, is wise, compassionate, vulnerable, and honest. This needs to be on the shelves of everyone involved in international, faith-based ministry.”
——Rachel Pieh Jones, author of Finding Home: Third Culture Kids in the World, and Stronger Than Death: How Annalena Tonelli Defied Terror and Tuberculosis in the Horn of Africa

You can purchase Serving Well: Help for the Wannabe, Newbie, or Weary Cross-cultural Christian Worker on Amazon or directly from the publisher Wipf & Stock.

*Thessalonians 2:8

Embracing Life From the Second Row

by Kris Gnuse

I was not just upset;  I was upset with myself for being upset.

After years of “maybe someday,” I had finally auditioned for worship choir. Kick your thoughts of robes and high sopranos to the curb. This group was cool.

I stepped onto the risers that first Sunday, trembly with nerves. My heart was full of prayers to open the heavens. My head was running harmonies, timing changes, and bridge lyrics. My pride, the tricky beast, was bumped by my spot in the second row.

Until that moment, I hadn’t known how much I wanted to be seen. 

The leadership wisely put anchor people in the most visible places. When the spiritual climate of a thousand is at stake, holiness trumps height. My 5’2″ stature had always placed me front, if not also center. This group was different, arranged by experience and anointing.

The veterans in front of me topped my height by inches, even with the riser’s help. I could still open the heavens—through the small window between two heads and their nearly touching shoulders. My expectations had been widescreen. Bump.

How could my compass be so stuck on me when I was there specifically to point heavenward? I muscled my attitude back in line with devotion and invited the Lord’s presence into the morning.

It was glorious.

Moving to our mission country provided a similar bump to second row. We were shocked to hear children must be 18 years old to be left unattended. Our uber-responsible, babysitting-aged daughter could not legally watch her younger brothers here. A family four houses down was reported to child protective services for the latchkey schedule of their son. Our neighbor had to choose between employment and motherhood.

My window to serve went from panoramic to porthole.

Gently, the Lord drew me back from widescreen expectations of work projects alongside teams and cradling each child at the home. My ministry GPS reconfigured, abandoning the scenic route but not the destination. I point heavenward through food and words shared, prayers on my balcony, and databases current with ways to connect. I wrestle our daily routine in line with devotion through the frame of homeschooling and cross-cultural living.

I have learned anew the simple beauty of well-sung backup harmony.

It’s still glorious.

I will probably always want to be seen. More than I like to admit. Yet, this is holy ground here in the second row. The heavens are open.

 

Have you ever spent time in the second row?  What was your experience like?

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

Kris Gnuse is a living testament that the Lord gently leads those who have young. In 2013, she said “I will,” to the Lord’s call for their family of five: to serve at a transitional children’s home in Costa Rica. In the crossroads of hosting short term mission teams and loving little ones who weren’t safe at home, she has a stand offering cups of cold water. You can follow her journey at www.thegoodnewsfamily.com

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

Djiboutilicious-Cookbook-Rachel-Jones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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