5 Ways to Communicate with Supporters About a Ministry Transition

I remember facing our first ministry transition and Googling, “How do I tell donors that we’re changing ministries?”

We hadn’t served in our first overseas assignment for very long. There was a lot of uncertainty surrounding our very unexpected change in plans and country of service. 

I hardly knew how to process the unforeseen change myself, let alone how to concisely communicate it to our donors. I felt like we had failed them. I was anxious and needed guidance with this intimidating task.

The blank screen that met me told me that no one talks about this.

Maybe that’s because people don’t go to the field expecting a change in their ministry. I certainly didn’t learn about the situation in training – or how to communicate about it.

But it’s more common than you might think. If you plan to serve overseas long term, it is likely that you will face adaptation in your ministry or furlough plans at some point. We expect global life to be fraught with transition, and we know how to pack a bag to exactly 49.5 pounds, but we are usually left feeling vulnerable and ill-prepared to communicate the delicate matter of ministry transition.  

If you are in this boat, I’m sorry. I’ve been there. I know the baggy-eyed exhaustion you are facing after a season of debating and seeking God on what to do. I also know the sleepless nights of wondering how your supporters will receive the news.

On the other end, after multiple transitions over the last decade, I also know the staying power of the people on our support team. Their dedication to God’s heart for the nations shouldn’t surprise me anymore, but I guess I never take it for granted.

No matter the ministry transition, you’re probably living in some discomfort and uncertainty. You might have an idea of future ministry plans, but many things are still unclear.

The very public nature of mission work with its fundraising and partnership development exacerbates an already delicate season. You not only have to navigate your own pain and incertitude, you have to promptly, concisely, and clearly communicate your shift to your ministry partners. 

Transition is also a time ripe for misunderstanding, which can damage relationships. Uncertainty can be crippling and may leave you unable to communicate with crucial ministry partners, even if you have stewarded these relationships well for many years. 

The goal here is to preserve your valuable partner relationships even when it feels daunting. These people are FOR you. There are things you can communicate, even if you’re still living with some uncertainty. As you do so, you will move from a place of ambiguity and non-communication to a place of greater clarity and new confidence.

In the midst of an unclear season, I offer five tools that you can apply when you communicate about your ministry transition. 

1. Share what you are praying and learning.
What have you prayed through this transition? What have you learned about God, his heart for people, and the sacrifice he modeled?  

When our family made one significant ministry transition, we prayed for God to open our eyes to where he was at work and how we could join him there. We learned that it was extremely important to us to partner with the national church, and we wanted to do this on a deeper level in our next assignment. We shared this with our partners and used it as a guide for discerning where to plug in. Your partners will cherish knowing how and what you have prayed through. 

2. Communicate threads of continuity.
People respond well to threads of continuity during transition. What will stay consistent? There is an overarching and unchanging aspect to conducting ministry that remains the same no matter where you are and no matter what you are doing. 

What was the original vision, or part of the vision, that launched your family into missions and still propels you today? This is the “why” that transcends your specific job descriptions or geographic assignment. You may need to step back from your specific ministry roles to look at the bigger and more timeless picture of your role in spreading the gospel message, however and wherever you do that.

When we transitioned out of one ministry to another several years ago, we faced a lot of change, including our job descriptions and country assignment. However, we leaned on two significant threads of continuity that we could communicate to our donors. Our long-term passions and skill sets included skills training, education, and discipleship. These ministry aspects are part of who Sam and Anna Danforth are and how we do ministry. They are the “why” beyond our specific job descriptions or location. 

Your threads of continuity carry a sense of timelessness that aligns with God’s call to make disciples of all nations and utilize your skill sets. Even though everything around you is changing, this isn’t a total shift in your identity or your approach to missions. It is an affirmation of the timeless call to make Christ known among the nations and of your role in that call.

3. Avoid getting bogged down in details about the past.
Your story is important, and transparency builds trust. But too many details can be confusing and may actually detract from your message. You are moving forward. Communicate what comes next.  

You may be dealing with difficult immigration officials or toxic team dynamics that are a major contributing factor in your need for a change. Focus on what is changing in the ministry or your situation, not all the details that led up to your transition. 

For example, “We were unable to secure our visas last week as we hoped and will have to return to the United States until further notice.” Share your next step instead of a very long explanation of every detail that went wrong at the immigration office. 

Instead of communicating the need for distance from your team, you can share, “We will be meeting with our teammates for vision casting quarterly instead of monthly.” If you are dealing with a private or sensitive medical issue, try, “One of our family members is experiencing some health issues that need to be addressed with a trip back home. This is a difficult time for us, and we ask that you enable us to protect our family privacy during this vulnerable time.”   

You can always go back and share more when you are out of the thick of the mess. Remember that anything you share may be shared publicly or forwarded to anyone. Starting with less gives you a chance to deal with your own pain and lack of clarity first. 

Do not promise that more details will come. Simply state your current situation or what is coming next. Allow yourself to choose whether you can or should go into more detail later on.

4. You have agency. Own your choice where you can.
If any part of your transition was your choice, own it. Embrace your role as a decision-maker. Avoid blame. This may not always be possible, but where it is, it moves you from a place of helplessness and reactivity to a place of confidence and proactivity in following God’s guidance.

If your sending organization has made a major shift in their vision or policies and you can no longer stay in ministry with them, avoid blame. Instead, talk about how your future sending organization provides the vision or opportunities you need to carry out the mission that God has placed on your heart.

Avoiding blame is especially important when family members are concerned. If one person in your family is dealing with a major issue or health problem that forces a change in ministry, avoid focusing on that family member. 

Instead, communicate your decision to pursue family health. For example, “After _____ years on the field, we have determined with our member care team that we need to return to the U.S. for a season to pursue care and resources that are not available in our host country.” Or, “Our family will be moving from our rural station to the capital city so that we can still serve in this cross-cultural context while accessing the resources that our family needs at this time.”

5. Avoid overly detailed promises about future plans.
What is the main thrust of your next assignment? You may feel a deep sense of responsibility to communicate a clear and detailed plan for future ministry. However, your future ministry may not shape up exactly as you plan. It is ok to share general plans for future ministry and how God is leading you to fulfill those plans without making specific promises of future outcomes. Prepare your heart and the hearts of your partners for open-mindedness on how God may shape your future ministry. It might turn out differently than you expect.

For example, instead of sharing, “We will raise up Thai leaders who will show the Jesus film in rural villages,” try saying, “We will work with local people to share the Jesus film in their own communities.” It is possible that the leaders God brings to you will be of other ethnic groups or that they will share the Jesus film in urban areas too, not just in rural villages. 

Instead of saying, “I will be working in a soup kitchen three days a week, tutoring high school students two days a week, and teaching Sunday School once a week,” try, “My ministry will include working in a soup kitchen, tutoring students, and teaching Sunday School.” Your time allotment may have to adapt and change according to community needs once you get there.

Avoiding overly detailed language may seem unimportant now, but it could save you heartache and miscommunication in the future. Partners typically latch on to the first news they hear during transition, and it can be difficult to communicate a different plan later on.

For example, when we were starting up a new auto repair ministry, we bounced around the name “Titus Garage” as an idea. The name actually became “Titus Auto Centre.” But years later, even after hundreds of social media posts and dozens of newsletters using the correct name, partners still called it “Titus Garage” because that is what they first heard. You can avoid confusion by refraining from details now.   

Unexpected change in ministry is both inevitable and unsettling. These five tools serve as a starting point to help you clearly communicate your timeless call to serve Christ while maintaining your valuable sending relationships, even when you’re not sure what to say. Because nobody needs to stare at a blank screen when there are people on the other side who care about you.

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!

Seasons

Blessed are those whose strength is in you, who have set their hearts on pilgrimage. As they pass through the Valley of Baca, they make it a place of springs; the autumn rains also cover it with pools. They go from strength to strength, till each appears before God in Zion.

Psalm 84:5

Outside of my window there is frost. The green of summer and the gold of fall are long gone, replaced by winter with its early sunsets and frosty mornings.

For years I lived in places where there were no seasons. Winter was when it got below 15° Celsius and we could bundle up in light sweaters and drink cocoa. Palm trees were our Christmas trees, and we could never convince those who lived in colder climates just how cold the inside of a concrete block building could get. When I moved to a place where there were seasons, I had to adjust to changing wardrobes and activities.

Initially it felt impossible. How could I possibly survive winter? When would the shivering stop? Why was everyone else so excited about the first snow and blizzards?

One of the things you learn when you live in seasons is that if you don’t relax and accept them, you will constantly be fighting with them and everything that surrounds them. It will be you against the seasons, and the seasons will always win.

And so it is with life seasons. If you don’t relax and accept them, you are in a lifelong fight, and you have already been declared the loser. Life seasons always win.

From my comfortable chair looking out on the current changing season, I’m thinking a lot about life seasons, because it’s time to make a change. I will no longer be writing for A Life Overseas.

From maternal child health nurse to boarding school parent to stay-at-home mom to working as a nurse in a large multinational oil company to helping my husband run a study abroad program to teaching nursing students at a public university, my overseas careers and seasons have been many and varied. I birthed five babies on three different continents and created homes in 36 different houses along the way. I lived in four countries, studied three languages, and still only know English well. Through the years I’ve not only had to learn how to create a home in other countries, but hardest of all – I’ve had to learn how to create a home and place in the United States. And it was here at A Life Overseas that my stories and experiences found a home.

I began writing for A Life Overseas soon after I began writing publicly. It was Rachel Pieh Jones who connected me to the site and asked me initially to post as a guest. The invitation was welcome. I had recently returned from working in flood relief in Pakistan, and my heart was restless to make sense of living between. Writing publicly, initially for my own blog followed by A Life Overseas, was an incredible gift. It was through writing that I processed my life experiences from Third Culture Kid to Adult Third Culture Kid and three-time expatriate. Through this medium I connected with so many of you and we “got” each other. The loneliness, the disconnect, the joy, the humor, the homesickness, the reverse homesickness, the jetlag, the lost luggage, the cultural humility, the mistakes, the raising kids, the figuring out life, the missed flights, the language learning, the misplaced pride, the sense that we could never make it back in our passport countries, the “too foreign for here and too foreign for home”* – all of it was here to be wrestled with and figured out. Through writing I processed, connected, cried, argued, and laughed.

Along the way I have grown and learned. I have felt God’s pleasure and direction, His love for the world and for those of us who love the world.

But I have always known that at some point it would be time to pass on this privilege to others. And so it is – now is the time. There are others whose voices need to be heard, others who are living this life who can communicate what it is to walk faithfully and confidently between worlds. I have also known that when it is time to move on, it’s best not to fight it but to go with grace, to go with God. Seasons come and seasons go; only God Himself remains the same.

A couple of years ago while sitting at an airport on a lonely Sunday night, I wrote the following. I offer it here to you as a word-gift, a tribute to all of you. Whether you are weary and lonely or energetic and people-filled, whether you have left your overseas life behind or whether you are still in the thick of it, I salute you and your courage and pray that God may keep you in the palm of his strong, everlasting, ever-loving hands.

Here’s to the lonely ones, sitting at airports waiting on delayed and cancelled flights.

Here’s to the tired ones, weary of travel and goodbyes, idly eating granola bars and sipping coffee from Styrofoam cups.

Here’s to the mom, traveling with kids, weary of meeting the needs of little ones who are out of their habitat.

Here’s to the students, in that weird space between childhood and adulthood, carrying Apple computers purchased with graduation money.

Here’s to the immigrant family, a long way from home, juggling as much hand luggage as possible as they wearily look at an airport monitor flickering out their flight delay in blue digital letters.

Here’s to the grandparents heading home after visiting with a future generation of sweet and soft baby smell. A new generation who doesn’t yet know th
ey exist but will miss them long after they are gone.

Here’s to the third culture kid who has said far too many goodbyes. Here’s to the refugee who carries their pain in their body. Here’s to the expat who is moving on to their next post with the fresh memories of their last home like an open grave receiving a coffin.

Here’s to Arabic and Hindi; Swahili and French; German and English; Chinese and Spanish; Portuguese and Farsi – and every other language of the heart that at times must be hidden in new places and spaces, but in the airport is completely at home.

Here’s to the singles and the couples; the black and the white; the discouraged and the lonely; the arguing one and the laughing one —  with more in common in life’s journey than any of us can possibly know.

Here’s to my fellow travelers, sitting under the glare of fluorescent lights in the chaos of modern day travel. May you have safe journeys and traveling mercies. May God keep you in the palm of his hand and may you know his grace.

Thank you for reading my words – In Grace, Marilyn


*From Questions for Ada Diaspora Blues: “So, here you are too foreign for here too foreign for home. Never enough for both.”

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

The Beatitudes for Cross-Cultural Workers

Blessed are the language learners, for theirs is the gift of idioms and verbs, of words and communication.

Blessed are the visa holders, for they shall never forget what it is to live as a guest in a country.

Blessed are the homesick, for they shall know and understand longing and displacement, the themes of our time.

Blessed are those who weep for injustice, for they shall be comforted by a God who cries out for justice to roll down like the waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

Blessed are the culturally humble, for they shall see the world and faith through the eyes of curiosity and questions.

Blessed are the jetlagged, for they shall have time to drink tea and pray.

Blessed are the lonely, for they shall be connected to the pain of humanity and better understand the value of connection.

Blessed are those in transition, for they shall know more fully the joy and privilege of home.

Blessed are those who miss their fathers and mothers, their siblings and their friends, for they shall discover friends that become as close as sisters and brothers, and families that transcend blood and borders.

Blessed are the translators and the doctors, the businesspeople and the nurses, the developers and the diplomats, the farmers and the planters, the harvesters and the homemakers, the educators and the writers, the linguists and the administrators – for together they shall work to build God’s kingdom on earth.

Blessed are the visionaries and the dreamers, the builders and the plodders, the idealists and the realists, the wishful thinkers and the critical thinkers, the intelligent and the blessedly naive – for the Kingdom is made of such as these.

Blessed are you who know and love the God who invited you into his story; you who were created and formed, equipped and placed. May you know and love him a little more each day. May you delight in His story and rest in His love.

Blessed are those whose strength is in you, who have set their hearts on pilgrimage…..they go from strength to strength until each appears before God in Zion.*

Psalm 84:5 & 7

What you can learn from “Green Eggs and Ham”

If you’ve read Green Eggs and Ham by children’s author and illustrator Dr. Seuss, you might have found yourself sucked in by the gravitational pull of the repetitive story.  For those not familiar with the book no worries, I can catch you up to speed. Sam-I-Am (the main character) wants the other character who is never named but looks like a Grumpy Old Man to try green eggs and ham. Sam-I-Am asks the Grumpy Old Man over and over if he would be willing to try green eggs; and when he is refused by the Grumpy old man he offers different options.

For instance:

Would you like them in a house?
Would you like them with a mouse? 

I do not like them in a house.
I do not like them with a mouse.
I do not like them here or there.
I do not like them anywhere. 

You can read the entire book here; but if you can, get the book and enjoy the colorful illustrations. Finally, in the middle of the story the exasperated Grumpy Old Man says: 

Sam! If you let me be,
I will try them. You will see. 

He tries them and . . . 

Say! I like green eggs and ham! 
I do! I like them, Sam-I-Am!

He joyfully repeats all of the suggestions that Sam had made before, agreeing that he would indeed eat green eggs and ham:

And I would eat them in a boat.
And I would eat them with a goat.

You get the picture. No longer grumpy, the Old Man ends the story:

I do so like green eggs and ham!
Thank you! Thank you, Sam-I-Am.

Last week I read a bit of trivia about this book that had me look at it in a new way and wonder what we could learn from this unlikely teacher.

1. The challenge and power of limits

Green Eggs and Ham is the result of a bet between Dr. Seuss and his editor. Green Eggs and Ham uses only 50 different words. Seuss’s editor bet him after The Cat in the Hat, which used 225 words, that he couldn’t write a book using fewer.

Green Eggs and Ham went on to become one of his most popular books and only uses 50 words. Though a fun fact, let’s not downplay the challenge of telling a story that makes sense within the limits. Right now the world over it seems that “restrictions” is the name of the game. Visas aren’t being issued or are glacially slow in being issued. The way that you have typically gone about life and sharing the Good News have been radically altered and you may not even be in the same country as those you came to serve. Or you’re in the same country but without easy access to people.

It’s tempting to look at the limit and see what can’t be, instead of to look at what is possible. Imagine if the final version of Green Eggs and Ham came in at 52 words? No go. Dr. Seuss had to find a way to cut extra two words. Because he was willing to invest the time in crafting and recrafting the story, the world now has this story that can be told for years to come. Though your challenges and limits are real (and annoying and heart breaking), you can still “tell a story.”

2. Life is repetitive

Without too much effort, by the end of the story, the reader could almost retell it without effort. Why? Because the story is so annoyingly repetitive! First the bad news, life on the field isn’t nearly as non-stop-exciting as many “back home” think. Instead, it can be mind numbingly repetitive. Laundry, food prep, emails, time in traffic. 

But now for the good news . . . repetition is a tool of memorization. As we present the Good News, disciple people, and walk with them as they join in sharing, you get to repeat the good news again and again. When Sam-I-Am got his first no from the Grumpy Old Man when he asked him “Would you like green eggs and ham?” he didn’t let every subsequent no get stop him. Instead, he thought of another situation (with a goat or on a boat) that maybe, just maybe the Grumpy Old Man would be willing to try.

Not in an obnoxious YOU MUST LISTEN way, but in a I’m never going to tire of pointing you to the source of life way, embrace the repetitive nature of this story.

3. Change is Possible

While there is no reason to read into a story what isn’t there, it is fun to make connections. I don’t think Green Eggs and Ham is a secretly Christian book. I am sure that Sam got his name because it creates a great beat when reading: 

Sam-I-Am

If this were a song, that’s a beat you can dance too!

But I also love truth woven into a story. Sam never wearied of asking the Grumpy Old Man if he would try green eggs and ham because he knew, he knew, he knew that if Grumpy would try them, he would love them and wouldn’t be so grumpy. The great I AM also never wearies of asking Grumpy, Sad, Betrayed, Lonely, Angry, Depressed people to try a new way of living because he knows that it’s the only way to truly live. In the end, the Old Man is actually a New Man, full of hope, joy, and gratitude.

Maybe today you don’t need another zoom call or a deep study. Maybe what you need is Green Eggs and Ham.

Photo by Louis Hansel @shotsoflouison Unsplash

Gandalf’s Scream, Love, and Why We Need More Anger

Anger is a wonderful, powerful, amazing, informative, life-giving, protective resource. Or at least it can be. Anger can be a redemptive sword, when it’s wielded by love.

 “Anger is a surgical weapon, designed to destroy ugliness and restore beauty. In the hands of one who is trained in love and who can envision beauty, the knife of righteous anger is a weapon for restoration.” – Allender & Longman

We’ve too often seen anger as the enemy, while all along it was begging to be our teacher. We’ve loved to pray and sing emotional ballads like, “Break my heart for what breaks yours,” but have we dared to sing, “Enrage my heart for what enrages yours”?

That sounds crazy, right? And scary.

As Christians, as cross-cultural workers, we’re way more comfortable with holy sadness than holy anger. And that’s not without cause; sadness is safer. More tame. Anger can destroy. Anger can harm deeply. Anger is like electricity — or fire. Both have tremendous potential to destroy, and even kill. But they also reveal, energize (literally), and make magic.

Have you flown on the fire of a jet engine, propelled through the night sky like a populated comet? Have you ever activated a dozen tiny suns with the flip of a switch? These miracles are astounding, and possible due to the power of white-hot fire and lightning fast electrons flowing on demand.

To be sure, arsons exist, but so do steel magnates. They both harness fire for their own purposes; one to destroy, the other to build. I’ve seen the burns and tissue damage wreaked by a lightning strike, but I don’t scream and run away every time I see an outlet.

Again, anger is just energy. It’s an emotion, neither good nor bad, neither healthy nor dysfunctional.

“Feelings are information, not conclusions.” – Greenberg

“Feeling angry or annoyed is as human as feeling sad or afraid.” – Greenberg

We have to be careful, at the start, that we don’t moralize some emotions as good, others as bad, some as holy, others as sinful. That’s not accurate, spiritually or scientifically. [See The Gaping Hole in Modern Missions.]

It’s also important to distinguish between the feeling of anger and the actions of aggression. The two are not the same thing. Greenberg offers this helpful reminder:

“Anger should not be confused with aggression, which comprises attacking or assaultive behavior. Feeling angry does not mean behaving aggressively, and people can be aggressive without feeling any anger at all.” – Greenberg

Chances are you’ve been hurt by someone who acted aggressively. Perhaps their anger/aggression left wounds you’re still recovering from. Chances are you’ve hurt someone in similar ways. So I understand if all this talk about the goodness of anger feels like bile in the brain.

In my ministry as a pastoral counselor in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, I hear all the stories. I hear terrifying stories and sad stories. I hear stories that make me livid and stories that make me hug my kids a little tighter.

Early on, I assumed that my main job was to help angry people feel their sadness. After all, I feel sadness early and often; it’s my default setting, and it’s easy. But now I realize that just as often, my job is to help sad people feel their anger.

Accessing the motivating, informative energy of anger has been pivotal in my own journey of healing. It has propelled me to have HARD conversations, it has steeled me for necessary conflict, and it has helped me surface on the other side, grateful. I am grateful for the gift of anger; without it, I fear I would have gotten stuck in my own depressive hole.

I used to think that anger and love were separate things, but now I realize that anger can be separate from love, but it doesn’t have to be. Anger is sometimes the energizing force that results from violated love.

In his book on extra-marital affairs, pastor and clinical counselor David Carder goes so far as to say that the partner who was cheated on MUST get angry:

The language of anger is never pleasant; however, it is not only OK to say it with intensity and force, but it is absolutely necessary for true recovery to occur. People do not get better until they get mad.” – Carder

 

Anger as a Sword (that we desperately need)
Tolkien understood the strategic use of anger, and when the Fellowship needed salvation, he gave it to them, in the form of a furious wizard. When faced with an ancient evil from the deepest shadows, the men, hobbits, dwarf, and elf fled for their lives. There was no escape until an old man with wisdom and anger stood firm.

The scene unfolds on a bridge under the mountains, with enemy hordes on one side, the Fellowship on the other:

“The Balrog reached the bridge. Gandalf stood in the middle of the span, leaning on the staff in his left hand, but in his other hand Glamdring [his sword] gleamed, cold and white. His enemy halted again, facing him, and the shadow about it reached out like two vast wings. It raised the whip, and the thongs whined and cracked. Fire came from its nostrils. But Gandalf stood firm.

You cannot pass,‘ he said. The orcs stood still, and a dead silence fell. ‘I am a servant of the Secret Fire, wielder of the flame of Anor. You cannot pass. The dark fire will not avail you, flame of Udûn. Go back to the Shadow! You cannot pass.

The Balrog made no answer. The fire in it seemed to die, but the darkness grew. It stepped forward slowly onto the bridge, and suddenly it drew itself up to a great height, and its wings were spread from wall to wall; but still Gandalf could be seen, glimmering in the gloom; he seemed small, and altogether alone: grey and bent, like a wizened tree before the onset of a storm.

From out of the shadow a red sword leaped flaming.

Glamdring glittered white in answer.

There was a ringing clash and a stab of white fire. The Balrog fell back and its sword flew up in molten fragments. The wizard swayed on the bridge, stepped back a pace, and then again stood still.

You cannot pass!‘ he said.

With a bound the Balrog leaped full upon the bridge. Its whip whirled and hissed.”

In the film, the emotion of the scene overwhelms. Gandalf stands between the darkness and his charges. He is fighting with all his might, not for his own honor or power or kingdom; he is fighting for his friends.

He looks back at his friends, slowly and compassionately, fully aware of what he must do. He raises his staff and sword, slams them into stone, and screams at the fiery evil, “YOU SHALL NOT PASS!

At that point,

“A blinding sheet of white flame sprang up. The bridge cracked. Right at the Balrog’s feet it broke, and the stone upon which it stood crashed into the gulf, while the rest remained, poised, quivering like a tongue of rock thrust out into emptiness.”

Oh that more leaders would have the courage to stand firm, full of love and anger, willing to protect the helpless, and to speak to the Shadow!

These are the times when we need the sword of anger. What a dangerous shame to reach that point, to need the power of a bright sword, and to leave it in its scabbard. Anger is the sword that we keep sheathed because we have no idea how to wield it. We’ve only seen people hurt by it. But if we could figure out how to use it, to wield it sparingly, but well, we might realize how much good it could do.

When we lose access to flaming, holy anger, we lose access to so much. We need a revolution in how we as the Church think about, talk about, and experience anger.

“Righteous anger warns, invites change, and wounds. True anger is paradoxical in that it has the strength to inflict pain, but it burns with the desire for reconciliation. It is bold, but it is also broken.” – Allender & Longman

What if we used anger to protect, not to control? With the aim of blessing and restoring relationships, not for revenge? What if anger were an expression of solid love, not malice or contempt?

“[Righteous anger] wounds for the greater work of redemption. It is full of a strength that is neither defensive nor vindictive, and it is permeated by a sadness that is rich in desire and hope.” – Allender & Longman

 

Our Incompetence Damages People (and the Church)
We don’t know how to wield anger, and we can’t fathom that someone else might. So we run away from it, we bury it, we criticize it. But just like outlawed grief, outlawed anger is dangerous.

“Anger that is driven underground eventually bursts out in uncontrollable and destructive ways.” – Greenberg

When you cancel out anger (your own or others’), you rob yourself of vital information. Information that could help you to see a situation or respond to a situation. Instead of denying or blocking anger, we need to get curious about it. What is hurting? When did it start hurting? As Greenberg says, we “should not be too afraid of receiving its message.”

“Each time people control or cut off a significant experience of anger, they not only cut themselves off from important information from within, but they also cut themselves off from others.” – Greenberg

Failing to give space for anger is terribly invalidating, and unloving.

“Invalidation of a person’s most basic feelings is one of the most psychologically damaging things one person can do to another.” – Greenberg

What would have happened if someone in those Catholic dioceses had felt a burning against the injustice of child abuse? Imagine if some leader somewhere would have pulled a sword on those pedophiles and screamed, “YOU SHALL NOT PASS!”

It should not have taken an investigative journalist. It should not have taken decades.

What if someone at USA Gymnastics had heard about Larry Nassar’s perverse, ongoing sexual assaults of its gymnasts and, with fire in their bones, done whatever was necessary to communicate: “NOT ON MY WATCH!”

I’m so grateful for Rachael Denhollander and her tremendous courage as a survivor, to protest and advocate. But it shouldn’t have had to be her. It should have been some adult years earlier who got angry, and in their anger, determined to protect young women instead of an organization.

Gary Thomas, theologian and author, recently penned a powerful article about the church’s complicity in domestic violence in Christian marriages. The title of his article? “Enough is Enough.” He might as well have called it, “You Shall Not Pass!”

Calling on church leaders to stand with wounded women, to stand against abusive men, Thomas writes:

“Christian leaders and friends, we have to see that some evil men are using their wives’ Christian guilt and our teaching about the sanctity of marriage as a weapon to keep harming them. I can’t help feeling that if more women started saying, ‘This is over’ and were backed up by a church that enabled them to escape instead of enabling the abuse to continue, other men in the church, tempted toward the same behavior, might finally wake up and change their ways.”

Anger is present in our churches. Anger exists in our missions. But our anger is usually aimed at the people who are upsetting the status quo, threatening the “way things are,” and calling evil things by their true name.

But what if, instead, we were energized by a blazing love to protect the vulnerable, to defend the weak and the powerless?

What would that look like?

It would look like Gandalf, fire in his eyes, standing alone and sacrificing himself to save his friends.

It would look other worldly, because it is. It would look like the Kingdom of God among us, flipping the world upside down, giving honor to the weak, protecting the throw-aways.

It would look like the Church caring about the children on the outside.

It might look like offended religious men, sitting around a table trying to figure out how to solve this “problem.”

It would look like Bonhoeffer, or Martin Luther King, Jr., or Martin Luther.

It would look like Paul, defending the magisterial beauty of grace.

It would look like a pastor calling the police as soon as he hears about abuse, refusing to keep things “in house.”

It would look bright, shimmering. It would look like hope to those bound in the darkness; a glimpse of the rising sun.

But to those who thrive in the shadows (religious or otherwise), it would terrify, reminding them that their reign will end. Justice shall be King.

It would look like all these things and more, for

It would look like Jesus.

 

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Torn Asunder, David Carder

Enough is Enough, Gary Thomas

The Cry of the Soul: How Our Emotions Reveal Our Deepest Questions About God, Dan Allender and Tremper Longman

Emotion-Focused Therapy: Coaching Clients to Work Through Their Feelings, Leslie Greenberg

The Gaping Hole in Modern Missions

For the Times When You’re Exhausted, Discouraged, and Tempted

Some truth is just worth remembering. These musings about discouragement and temptation spilled out six years ago; perhaps they can encourage people even still…

We moved to Cambodia about two years ago, and it’s been good. But it’s also been very hard. I’ve had my days of doubt, fear, and deep discouragement. I’ve looked around at the poverty, abuse, corruption, and I’ve despaired. I’ve heard that raspy, wicked voice taunt, “What can you do? Why are you even here? What about your kids, think of what you’re doing to them? You are completely ill-equipped for this. Did God really call you here?”

But on this mountain climb called Mission, there is a phrase that has been to me a strong foothold. When I’ve despaired, it’s grounded me, and when I’ve been near to giving up, it has given me rest and peace.

It’s what Jesus said when he came face to face with the Father of Lies, Enemy Number One, Satan:

I will worship the Lord my God. I will serve only him.

In Matthew 4, Satan attacks Jesus, desperate to win. At this point, Jesus has not eaten for forty days. He hasn’t talked with friends for forty days. He’s lonely, tired, exhausted. Hungry. And Satan himself shows up, on the prowl, to attack.

Satan won’t shut up. He keeps talking and stalking, “You want food, right? Nice, fresh-baked bread? How long has it been, Jesus? Eat.” “How about you prove God cares for you? I don’t think he does. Jump.” “OK, everyone wants stuff, power, and control. You want some? I’ll give it all to you. Bow.”

Jesus answers Satan and gives us a key.

When I’ve despaired, this key has given me hope.

When I’ve been tempted, this key has given me a way out.

When I’ve needed more strength for the climb, this key has provided it.

Over the last two years, when I could pray little else, I’ve stuttered, “I will worship the Lord my God. I will serve only him.” I’ve prayed it silently and I’ve prayed it out loud. When I’ve been discouraged, I’ve begged, “God, help me worship you. Help me serve only you.” When I’ve been tempted, I’ve declared it, as a reminder to Evil and myself; I’m with Jesus.

We sometimes imagine the Tempting of Jesus as if it were a nice chat between buddies. Satan tempts Jesus and Jesus coolly brushes it off with a simple, “Oh, Satan, you silly, the Scriptures say…” But these two were mortal enemies, the Prince of Evil vs. the Prince of Peace. These temptations were real and Jesus felt them.

So, when Jesus answers this last temptation, he was saying so much more than “No.” He was emphatically saying, “I will not listen to you, Satan. I will worship only One, and you’re not Him. I will not follow you, or obey you, or bow down to you.”

He was making a dramatic gesture towards the Father and shouting, “I’M WITH HIM!”

Anytime you wrestle with evil or temptation, you have to know Satan’s smarter than you. You do not “have this under control.” He’s stronger, has more charm, more experience. He has more time, more resources.

You can’t outlast him, outsmart him, or outcast him. But you can resist him. And you must.

How?  With this resolution: There is only One God, and I’m serving Him. Let this be your stake in the ground, your line in the sand. In stating and restating this truth, you disarm and deflate Satan, reminding him that he loses because Jesus wins.

What was Satan’s response to this declaration? He left. What was God’s response? He ministered to Jesus through his servants, angels.

Put another way, Satan responds by leaving and God responds by coming. And that’s a pretty good trade, I think.

Yes, there is temptation and despair and discouragement. And evil. But there is still Hope, and his name is Jesus. And I’ve decided that with everything in me, until my last breath, I will worship the Lord my God. I will serve only him.

I hope you’ll join me.

 

Jesus says in Matthew 4:10, “For the Scriptures say, ‘You must worship the Lord your God; serve only him.’” When Jesus said this, he was in effect saying, “That’s what I’m doing right now, I’m honoring the Word and obeying my Father. I will worship the Lord my God. I will serve only him.” When we respond to the ancient command (originally from Deut. 6:13) in this way, we make a serious statement of intent, impacting both Heaven and Hell.

 

On Scarcity and Abundance

I’m sitting on my couch, feet stretched out. The mosque next door has just begun their Friday sermon, broadcast loud in a language that is still unfamiliar to me. The electricity is on and I am trying to be grateful instead of fearful that it will go off. 

In recent weeks, I have thought a great deal about scarcity. I began thinking about it after a conversation with one of my sons in Greece, where he described someone as living and loving out of scarcity instead of abundance. This stayed with me and I find myself deeply challenged. 

I grew up with frequent power outages, food rations, and water shortages. Nevertheless, as an adult I’ve lived for many years in busy, wealthy, western cities. Until moving to Kurdistan last year, I didn’t think much about electricity, heat, or hot water. Now, these are regular thoughts on my mind. Will the electricity be on? Will it be cold in my office? Will it be cold in my apartment? (The answer is Yes – it will be extremely cold.) Will there be enough hot water to have a shower? To wash my hair? To wash dishes? I find that I want to hoard what I have, to try and capture it so it won’t go away. I think about this all the time. I am living out of fear that there will not be enough – I am living from a mindset of scarcity, not abundance. 

In the book Scarcity: The New Science of Having Less and How it Defines Our Lives the authors say this: “Scarcity captures the mind…when we experience scarcity of any kind, we become absorbed by it.  The mind orients automatically, powerfully, toward unfulfilled needs. For the hungry, that need is food…For the cash-strapped it might be this month’s rent…Scarcity is more than just the displeasure of having very little.  It changes how we think. It imposes itself on our minds.” Similarly, Michael Beckwith says:

There is a lie that acts like a virus within the mind of humanity. And that lie is, ‘There’s not enough good to go around. There’s lack and there’s limitation and there’s just not enough.’

I fear this is how I have begun to live. 

 And yet, I am surrounded by people who are extraordinarily generous with their time, their food, their homes, and their help. I am surrounded by people who live with this scarcity but don’t let it affect their daily lives. 

Years ago while living in Pakistan, I had a secret stash of special food. Ironically, the food I stored I no longer care for, but at the time cake mixes, taco mix, and chocolate chips were special and unavailable where we lived. I never let anyone know that I had these special, uniquely American food items. Chocolate chip cookies would appear, as if by magic, baked when no one was around to see what treasures I had hidden deep within my cupboard. I was obsessive about my secret stash. 

One day, I went to the cupboard anticipating baking with some of my special supplies. I gasped in dismay. There were the unmistakable sharp marks of a rat’s teeth. I looked farther, holding my breath in hope that my beautiful, secret, special stash of food would be salvageable. It was not to be. There were rat droppings everywhere, teeth marks on bags that had been chewed through – all of it totally destroyed. I pictured the rats having their midnight feasts, an abundant feast sponsored by an unwilling, silent me in my bed. I was furious. I cried tears of anger and persecution. What had I ever done to deserve this? 

My stash was gone. In those moments, I realized how tightly I held to those food items. They had become a security, a secret way to cope with what I found difficult. The longer I thought about it, the more I realized it was symbolic of the way I lived my life. I lived as one who operated out of scarcity and secret food stashes. I didn’t live out of the abundance of the joy and goodness that surrounded me. Whether it was money, food, time, or emotional capacity my subconscious mindset was one of “not enough”. 

It affected me physically, emotionally, and spiritually.  

There was never enough. I was not enough. I did not have enough. And God was not enough. My mindset was one of scarcity and it affected all of my life. 

It has been a long time since that food stash, and in truth, after the rat incident I never again tried to store up treasures that would be eaten by rats. But I find myself thinking about that time during these long days where electricity is scarce, where heat is scarce, where I live far from the abundance I have been used to. Because even though I am not hoarding food, I am well aware that I am operating out of scarcity. 

If scarcity is a mindset, then so is abundance. I recently wrote about my friend Betsy, a friend who lived her life out of abundance not out of scarcity. “Scarcity was not in her vocabulary. She gave in abundance, serving countless people. Her ears and her heart heard the wounds and tears of many. She lived her life extravagantly and radiated the joy of giving.” I ended the post by saying that I want to live like this. I want to live out of abundance. 

As I Finish writing this I’m sitting in one of two coffee shops in Rania, and the electricity has just come on. Adele plays on repeat, her beautiful voice burrowed into my mind. I want to capture this moment because I am content, I am warm. And the electricity is on. But capturing the moment is yet again acting out of scarcity. So I sigh. I breathe. And Adele says “Hello!”

Author’s Note: This piece was originally published in January 2019

Success or Faithfulness?

It has not been an easy week here in Kurdistan.

From difficulty with websites to difficulty with people, there are times when I would like life to be easier.

I’m sitting now at one of the two coffee shops in Rania, listening to Adele on repeat. Adele is easy on the ears, and I find myself gradually relaxing. Just before I left the university today, I spoke with two colleagues. “I don’t know how you do it” I said. “You face barriers in every single thing you do, and yet you don’t give up. You continue to face life with hope, joy, and laughter.”

This is the honest truth. Most of our Kurdish friends have life circumstances that are far more difficult than ours. Yet I don’t hear them complaining. They face every day with far more joy and hope than I have. This is remarkable.

Much of what my husband and I face here is learning to redefine success. Success at our jobs in the United States was easy to define. We had deliverables and performance reviews. We had deadlines and targets. Our lives were both dictated by grants and all that goes into them: problem statements, proposed plan, graphs, evidence, tables, objectives, outcomes, conclusions, and attachments. All of it wove together to create a fairly concrete system of success. It was easy to know if we were doing our jobs well.

We have entered into a system where none of that exists; where we search and search and search to find grants that our university is eligible to apply for. Once we find those proverbial needles in haystacks, we search and search to see if they fit with our universities capability. The amounts of money are tiny. I was used to dealing in hundreds of thousands to a couple million dollars while my husband was used to dealing in millions. Now, we get excited when we see a grant for five thousand dollars. The smaller the grant, the more the funder seems to want in terms of paper work. So we end up spending as much time on writing a grant for five thousand dollars as we used to for a million.

There are times when we are convinced it is a losing battle. We set up our ‘to do’ lists, only to be outdone by lack of electricity, no internet and hard to describe infrastructure challenges.

Lately I’ve come to not try to redefine it. I’ve come to realize that success is an arbitrary losing battle. But faithfulness – that feels possible.

Success is defined by performance. Faithfulness is defined by constancy.

Success is defined by accomplishment. Faithfulness by devotion.

Success is defined by achievement. Faithfulness by commitment.

Success is defined by attaining a goal. Faithfulness by being true to a promise.

As long as we posed the question “How do we redefine success?” we were still coming out as losing. We felt like failures. But changing it to “Are we being faithful?” This felt and continues to feel helpful.

Maybe, just maybe, it’s not just us. Maybe there are others out there that are defining their lives by success when that leaves way too many people out of the equation.

Maybe changing the paradigm to faithfulness would change society in indescribable ways. The person who is considered “mentally challenged”, the refugee with no job, the elderly who struggles to move in the morning, the one who is chronically ill, the child, the newborn…. how do they fit into our paradigms of success? How can our world be changed to include faithfulness or mere existence as markers of value?

So what does faithfulness mean to me at this moment? It means that I’ll not complain about lack of resources. That I will face the daily 8 hours of no electricity without complaining. That I will learn to love across cultural differences. That I will not rage about no internet.

It means that I will be kind and honor others, that I will communicate in spirit and in truth, that I will love hard and pray harder, that I will love God and love others, that I will read, speak, and write words that honor God, that echo truth.  

“Just be faithful.”

Just be faithful – it’s something I’ve written about before, and so I’ll close with some words I wrote some time ago:

The words continue “Marilyn, I know you’re tired. Just be faithful. With my strength be faithful.” I’m still tired but I walk with One who knows tired, with One who knows pain, with One who knows what it is to live out faithful in this beautiful, broken world.

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Author’s Note: This piece was first published on Communicating Across Boundaries.

Don’t Touch My Bacon: Eating, Drinking, and Dressing Overseas

The American teacher stood in the staff lounge with a cup of yellow broth. Look at this, he laughed. It looks just like beer!

A Tanzanian staff member just stared at him. Do you drink beer? she solemnly asked.

He paused for a moment. Yes, he said. I do sometimes.

That was the end of the relationship. From that moment on, she wouldn’t make eye contact with him. Because for many Christian denominations in Tanzania, drinking alcohol is not compatible with Christianity.

When we move overseas, we give up a lot. Christmas at Grandma’s, Girl Scout Cookies, garbage disposals, 24-hour stores, our own language, feeling competent.

So we should be able to hold onto some of what’s important, comfortable, and familiar to us, right?

Sometimes we sure would like to think so.

I should be able to wear what I want in my new culture, because clothes express my unique identity. So if I look cute in bikinis, then I’m going to wear my bikini. If I am comfortable in shorts, I’m going to wear shorts. I’m not comfortable in long skirts or head coverings. And my tattoo is an expression of who I am, so why would I want to cover it up?

I should be able to eat what I want to eat, because asking me to give up pork or eat only vegetarian–well, that’s asking too much. I should be able to drink alcohol, because it’s not a sin, and it’s something I enjoy.

You might take away Starbucks and Target, but don’t touch my bacon.

For those of us from western cultures, we might be nodding in agreement. Of course. We’re used to a culture where self-expression reigns supreme. Conformity is viewed with disdain. Even our churches are pushing the boundaries of what was considered taboo or morally unacceptable. We aren’t legalists, right?

So when our host culture conflicts with our forms of comfort or self-expression, who wins?

Scripture tells us that for those so-called gray areas–which include issues of food, drink, or dress, there is some wiggle room. And in those cases, the Bible is clear that for the sake of the gospel, we submit to the culture’s moral norms. I Corinthians 9 says, 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. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.

So that might mean that if our host culture believes that drinking alcohol is incompatible with being a Christian, then for the sake of our witness, we refrain. That means that if our host culture doesn’t eat pork or even meat, it might be important for us to keep away from it as well. At the least, it’s a way of showing respect, and more importantly, a way for others to feel comfortable in our home.

It means recognizing that modesty is cultural and covering up the way our hosts do is a way to honor them. If shorts or bikinis or short skirts are offensive in our host culture, then we leave those packed in our parents’ attic. Maybe it means taking out the nose ring (or maybe it means getting one), or maybe it means covering up tattoos some or all of the time.

But does it really matter? Yes, it does. As in my introductory story, I’ve seen relationships between expats and locals completely derailed over these issues. And on the other hand, I have a friend who was told, If you didn’t dress the way you do (which included ankle-length skirts and long sleeves), we would never have invited you into our home.

Isn’t that just capitulating to legalism? Why should we condone cultural expectations that feel demeaning to women or suffocatingly oppressive or just plain wrong? Well, sometimes it might be as simple as humbly asking Why? The answers might surprise you. Maybe what we consider an innocuous accessory is associated with witchcraft in our host country. Or maybe what we would consider oppressive is actually a garment of pride for women.

What if there isn’t a good explanation? Then that’s when we have to remember that life isn’t about us, or our rights, or what makes us comfortable. On the contrary, Jesus said we need to die to ourselves. Die to our rights. And when we move overseas, even more so. Life isn’t about us, it’s about the gospel we are representing.

Sure, when a strong relationship is established and the opportunity arises, we can gently train Christian friends on what the Bible has to say about legalism. (And they’ll certainly be able to point out our own blind spots!)  But to get there, we’ll probably need to start by respecting them enough to do things their way.

We must ask ourselves: What’s more important–my rights or my witness?

Of course, figuring this all out is tricky. What is despised in one culture may be expected in another. If you live in a big city, you may be navigating several subcultures that have different moral expectations. How do we even know what offends our hosts? There aren’t any black and white answers, but starting with a posture of humility and self-denial is a great place to start. Here’s some other advice:

Pay attention. Seriously, pay attention. I can’t tell you how many times in Tanzania when I’ve seen some young white girl walking along the side of the road in short shorts. I want to slow down my car, roll down my window and holler at her, Look around! Do you see any Tanzanian women around here dressed like that?  (I know, I know, I’m proving I’m a grouchy old lady for even thinking this.)

But sometimes this can mean more than just modesty. For many years, I dutifully wore my long skirts and loose pants until I realized that in many situations, I was way under-dressed. Tanzanian women may cover their legs, but they are rarely casual and never frumpy. If I was going to present myself as a respectable pastor’s wife or school principal, I needed to beef up my wardrobe.

When in doubt, ask. Ask more than one person and find the right people to ask. Many cultures are very gracious to ex-pats and won’t confront us even if we are being blatantly offensive. Cultivate relationships with people who will be honest with you about cultural expectations. When you are humble and teachable, people will open up. Yes, there will inevitably still be some contradictions in what they tell you. But should our goal be to push the boundaries of what we can get away with in the culture, or rather how we can show respect to the most people?

Don’t take your cues from other ex-pats. Just because another ex-pat eats it or wears it or does it, doesn’t mean it’s acceptable. I’ve lived in Tanzania 14 years and I am still learning. In fact, just a few weeks ago, I discovered that ankle bracelets are associated with either prostitution or witchcraft in this culture. Yikes. I wasn’t an ankle-bracelet-wearer before, but now I definitely am not. So please, don’t ask me about what’s appropriate. But if you do, I’ll point you to some amazing Tanzanian friends who can fill you in.

The Apostle Paul sums it up really well, so I’ll end with him.

Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak.

“I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but not everything is constructive. No one should seek their own good, but the good of others.

So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God— even as I try to please everyone in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved.

Angels from the Rooftops – A Christmas Story from Pakistan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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