Why Cross-Cultural Workers Need Tent Pegs

Home is a complicated word. A complicated idea. What is it? Where is it? As global nomads, we’re not entirely sure how we feel about home. We’re not sure we have it, and we’re not sure how to get it. We know the correct spiritual answer – that Christ is our home. That He is busy preparing an eternal home for us. And that even now, He makes His home in our hearts, wherever we go. Still, we search for a more earthly home. A physical place to set up camp for a while.

As an adult Third Culture Kid, I’ve spent a lot of time seeking out roots. But lately I’ve been wondering if I should stop my search. I’m far too easily disappointed; permanence of people or place is not something we’re promised in this life. Even so, we need a support system for lives as portable as ours. This summer I started describing those supports as tent pegs.

A tent is a temporary shelter, and the tent pegs that fasten it to the ground also provide only temporary security. Tents and tent pegs are mobile, going with us wherever we go. They allow us to make a home right here, right now. And when the time comes, they allow us to make a home somewhere else too. Every time we pull our tent pegs up out of the ground, pack them in our bags, and move on, we can take the time to hold each tent peg in our hand and remember.

We can remember the things we did in special places with special people, and in ordinary places with ordinary people. We take those memories with us. We can take physical reminders too, small objects that represent the people and places that are dear to us; a typical expat’s house is full of knick-knacks from previous places. We can hang photos of our tent pegs on the walls of our new homes and keep them saved on our smart phones for anytime the saudade hits.

This summer on home assignment, my husband and I tried to be purposeful in giving our family tent pegs and in recognizing them as such. In addition to all the normal ministry commitments, we visited our family’s places. The settlement of Czech immigrants among the rolling hills of Iowa and the cemetery where most of them were buried. The university campus where my husband and I spent four good years and discovered a heart for ministry.

The Christian college most of my husband’s family attended — and where his great-grandfather was university president for 29 years. Our agency’s home office and its sprawling rural Kentucky campus. Dear friends and family spread across the Midwest, and the little country churches that welcome us with open arms. In between travels, we live at my parents’ house, which is a tent of its own. At each place and with each set of people, we laugh, and we talk about hard stuff. We take photos and we sear the times in our memories. We’re collecting tent pegs.

We look at the old pictures and we tell the old stories. Over and over again. Each place we visit, we tell the story of what happened there. Each person we speak with, we tell the story of what we did together. We listen to the music we heard when we were in each place and with each person. We tell our children the same stories over and over again, until they know them by heart like we do. We tell stories from two, three, and even four generations back. We’re sharing our tent pegs.

Of course, at each of these places, things are not exactly the same. My grandparents have both died, and someone else owns their house, the tent peg house I returned to over and over again as a child. The aunt who lived across the street moved to a different house. All my cousins have moved away. Our agency’s home office building is still the same, but most of the people who served there ten years ago (when we joined) have moved on by now, many to overseas location. We stopped visiting some churches and started visiting others. Sometimes the same people are there. But others have moved on or died, while new families have arrived.

Things change in our host countries too. Favorite restaurants shut down. Coffee shops close. Schools change locations. Open space gets developed. Beachfront vacations become too expensive to continue. Visa laws change. People come and go. We can’t always go back to the same places, and we can’t always see the same people. But we can take out our tent pegs and look at them. We can look at the old photos and listen to the old music and tell the old stories, and we can feel just a little more loved. We can feel just a little more settled and secure.

Our trip to our passport country is coming to an end soon. We’ve been packing up our tent pegs this week (along with enough clothes, medicine, and school books to last the next two years). In a few hours I will get on a plane to return to another one of my earthly homes — for as a friend once noted, we are always heading home, on our way from home. But wherever we go and wherever we stay, we can keep collecting tent pegs. We can take our memories of love and friendship with us to each new place. And we can anchor ourselves anew anywhere we venture off to.

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Here are two songs that my family and I discovered this summer during our travels. They speak to our third culture kid hearts, and we like to listen to them on cross-country (and cross-city) drives. Perhaps they will speak to you too.

No Roots by Alice Merton

Fly Away Home by Pinkzebra

Citizens of Heaven: Third Culture Kids and the Longing for Home

by Tanya Crossman

When I wrote Misunderstood, there were a lot of smaller topics that came up in interviews which didn’t really fit into the narrative of the book. I was recently able to spend some time on one of these side topics for a research thesis titled: “A place to call home: citizenship in heaven for TCKs.” I interviewed nine Christian TCKs aged 19-26 (from a range of backgrounds and nationalities) and surveyed another 92 Christian TCKs.

In this post and its sequel, I’m going to explain a little of the two main findings of my research. In short: knowing their citizenship in heaven brings TCKs comfort, and also provides a powerful tool for discipleship.

 

Home and Belonging

The TCKs I interviewed talked about ‘home’ in the context of emotional connections. Home means loved ones, especially immediate family members (34%) and communities they belong to (11.5%). Only 16.5% of those surveyed connected home with a single place.

“For TCKs the word home is more of a concept, as opposed to a place.” – Nadia

“Physical location can be important, but the familiarity of a place is more often than not defined by the people and the interactions you have. For me, that is home.” – Lee

Since home is something that is connected to people, home can move – whether you like it or not. Home is something that can be lost. A community disperses, and so does the sense of home. A family moves on, and suddenly a place that was home is no longer accessible.

“I lost my home, where I used to be. I have many places I could have called home, but now there’s no core community there, it simply wouldn’t feel like home anymore.” – Kaito

Many TCKs go through life aching for a single place to call home, and knowing that what they long for is impossible. There is no earthly way to bring their experiences of home together in a single place.

“To [my passport country peers] home is a familiar place, but to me my family is home. My home is not here, because they’re not here. When I go visit them it’s not really familiar either. I miss places that I’ve never been to, or not been in long. . .My home is literally in three or four countries now, maybe five sometimes.” – Min

Citizenship in heaven answers a deep felt need in TCKs for something that does not exist for them on earth: a singular, comprehensive source of home.

 

The hope of heaven as home

77% of the TCKs I surveyed identified with feeling foreign on earth. The idea that there is a home for them located outside the complications of earthly allegiances is powerful. 80% said citizenship in heaven is comforting. This comfort was strikingly demonstrated in interviews, where some of these TCKs considered for the first time what the idea of heaven as home means for their transition-weary hearts.

“As a TCK or someone who is searching for their home or where they belong, having concepts like citizenship in heaven help us, or give us hope that one day we will belong somewhere.” – Nadia

“Heaven is my home so it’s okay that I’m so confused about where my home is, because maybe there isn’t one here, there’s one there. It’s a huge relief. If you don’t feel like you’re at home, that’s okay, because God is your home.” Alexis

Although heaven is a place not seen, even this connects with the TCK experience. TCKs grow up in a place that isn’t ‘home’ – knowing that somewhere else, on the other end of a long journey, is a place that is really ‘home’. A place they know through the stories of others, rather than in their own experience. TCKs’ complicated relationship with ‘home’ on earth makes heaven as home a powerful truth.

“Currently I’m a citizen of Singapore, that may change, but the constant of being a citizen of heaven is always reassuring to have. . .It’s an overwhelming thought, especially as someone who doesn’t really have a home to go back to every time. It’s nice to know that in the future, in the long term, in the prospect of eternity, I actually do have somewhere I do belong.” Min

 

An inclusive kingdom

There are no distinctions between Christians; all are fellow citizens, with the same rights and responsibilities (Ephesians 2:19). This beautiful truth is powerfully illustrated in Revelation, where people from every earthly place and allegiance gather together to worship the One God (Revelation 5:9-10, 7:9-10). Heaven embraces and includes peoples currently divided by geography, ethnicity, and language.

Several TCKs I interviewed picked up on the idea that heaven is inclusive: a place where people of all nations and languages are bound together as a single people in a single place, where there is distinction but no division. What comfort this brings to the 62% of TCKS who said they feel at home in international or multicultural communities. The place they long for, the place they know doesn’t exist on earth, is real – and it is their eternal home.

“I have this dream of a country that’s completely multicultural. . .I do think that it should be stressed how much relief it brings me, knowing that I’m going to get that… because it’s something that you’re always aching for, and never think you’re going to get, and then realising… I’ll actually get it when I go to heaven. And when you’re 13 and you’re 14 and you don’t belong anywhere, and you feel that there’s no place that’s home, it would have been nice to know, to have this as a curriculum, and to know that it’s completely fine if you don’t have a home…I don’t belong anywhere. But there is somewhere, and that’s great!” – Alexis

The hope we have in Christ comprehensively answers the longings of human hearts, and a key longing for TCKs (one they often feel is hopeless) is for home, a place to belong. The kingdom of heaven is what their hearts long for – and this is a powerful message.

This comfort alone makes citizenship in heaven an important piece of theology to teach to TCKs. This was where I thought my thesis might end, but I discovered another important way that TCKs interact with the concept of citizenship in heaven. Stay tuned for my concluding post to learn more.

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Tanya Crossman spent most of her childhood as a local in Australia and most of her adulthood as an expat in China (with stops in the U.S. and Cambodia). Along the way she unexpectedly turned into an expert on millennial TCKs, wrote a book, and starting travelling the world to speak on her favourite topic: why TCKs are awesome and how to serve them well. After completing an MDiv in Australia, she recently got married (to a TCK) and moved back to Beijing. Now she’s enjoying rediscovering everything she loves about China! She can be found online far too often, usually on FacebookInstagramTwitter, and occasionally at her website.

Creating Place

In recent years, authors have released a plethora of Christian books about home and place. From Jen Pollock Michel’s Keeping Place to Tish Oxenreider’s At Home in the World, many have a lot to say about roots, feeling at home, and stability.

I read these books with both appreciation and cynicism. I’ve lived in 28 houses on three continents and can’t count the hours I’ve spent moving or in airports.  So I appreciate that writers take time to explore home and place, but I also read with skepticism. Do they really know what it’s like to be uprooted? Do they really understand what it is to be separated from family and friends by oceans and continents for long periods of time? Do they honestly know what it is to try to create home when everything ‘home like’ is gone? I’m well aware that this is arrogant, that to long for home is human, but there are times when I still feel it.

The ALOS community knows all about pulling up roots, transplanting, and working to feel at home where we don’t belong.

In truth, I believe that one of the most important things we can do overseas is create place and home. Living as if this world is not our home may sound good in a hymn, but it neglects the important truth about who we are as humans. In the words of Paul Tournier, we are incarnate beings and to be human is to need a place, to be rooted and attached to that place.  Spending years in borrowed housing, eating from borrowed dishes, and living on borrowed furniture is not healthy when our goal is to enter a community overseas. If everything around us shouts “temporary”, it’s hard for us to feel rooted.

But how do we do that? There are two areas that I want to discuss: The first is a theology of place while the second is a purely practical look at how we might physically create space.

Theology of Place: 

First off, I think we need to recognize the importance of place and home. We can’t create a home if we don’t think doing so is important.

A year after I graduated from college, I decided to go overseas to work as a nurse. It was summer and I was living in the city of Chicago. Since I was leaving for Pakistan in September my roommate and I decided to get rid of most of the things in our apartment in June. We blithely rid ourselves of all the things that we owned. Down came curtains; out the door went furniture; into the hands of friends went dishes and precious items. It was a horrible summer and I ended up in tears in a counselor’s office. As we talked, the counselor began quizzing me on my living situation. When she discovered that I barely had a bed and a few dishes, she gently informed me that this was one of the problems.  I had assumed that getting rid of all my earthly belongings three months before I left was the best way for me to prepare. I was wrong. I lived as a temporary, friendless person that summer. My disconnection from place was profound and I suffered because of it.

In coming to us through the Incarnation, Jesus attached himself to time and place. He was a human who lived during a specific historic time period. He was son of Mary and Joseph, a carpenter. He was John’s cousin and he lived in Nazareth where he inhabited a physical home. I like to imagine that Mary delighted in creating earthly space for this son of hers; the one who was present at the creation of the world when God the Father created our physical home; the one who would dramatically bridge the gap between heaven and earth for the rest of us so that one day, we would have a permanent home.

In an interview with A Life Overseas, Jen Pollock Michel writes: “At the beginning, Genesis 1 drives toward this idea that God is making a habitable world for his people. ‘It is good’ is a way for God to say, ‘It is homelike. People can live here.’ And then of course in Revelation, we see God bringing heaven to earth and welcoming his children to dwell with him.” 

I think it’s easy for us as Christians to disavow the importance of home and place; to perhaps see ourselves as more spiritual because we live in rented homes, or serve in far off places and aren’t as tethered to place as the friend with a five bedroom house and full basement. But perhaps that tethered friend has something to teach us about creating space. In leaving homes and families to work in communities that are different from us, it is important to write our names in the land and learn how to live well in those places. One of the ways that we live well is by creating home and place.

While this earth may be temporary, in creating us God called us into a particular space and time – we honor that when we create place. Place will change, but the character of God will not. He will always be a God who values home, who invites us to his eternal home. This understanding is foundational to using the practical tools that follow.

Practical tools:

It’s important that we combine a theological discussion with a sense of how to practically do this. An important caveat is that we are not talking about creating designer homes. We are talking about creating space and home as a vehicle by which to share our lives with our spouses, our children, our friends, and our neighbors. Mismatched furniture, books, and candles can do this beautifully. I know because that’s what I have.

Here are a few suggestions. As with anything I write – take what is useful and blow away the rest!

Go green with plants and flowers! It’s amazing how much plants can create a sense of home and place. A beautiful way to create place is by investing in a couple of plants and an occasional bouquet of flowers. This may be easy if you live in a tropical location, but a bit more difficult if you’re in a desert or in a frozen tundra. Even then, a couple of small fake plants take very little space in a suitcase.

When I first arrived in Egypt, I felt like my world couldn’t be more brown. The desert and dust felt overwhelming at times. A few weeks after I arrived, I discovered that you could buy roses at the local market for a dollar a dozen with an extra one thrown in just because. What a gift! I would go weekly to buy roses and feast my eyes on their beauty. They transformed our living space. In the middle of a dusty city, I found this small, weekly act a redemptive task. God is an artist creator, and in discovering beauty around us and inviting it into our homes we reflect our creator God.

Buy your own stuff. There are various cities around the world that rent fully furnished apartments, complete with the most ugly furniture and dishes you’ve ever seen. You’re a missionary right, so sacrifice a little! What are ugly dishes and furniture when it comes to sacrificial living? Here’s the thing – those things might be a tangible obstacle in you feeling like you can share your home. Is it a huge deal? No, but investing in some pieces of furniture that symbolize home, and buying a set of dishes that you like could go a long way in creating place.

Framed artwork and pictures. Framed pictures of family and friends, landscapes of places you have lived and love, pictures your children have drawn that look oh so much better when they are framed…all of these when arranged can create a sense of place. My mom had a framed picture of a New England winter that she hung wherever we lived. I loved it long before I ever saw snow. Her past and her own sense of place were connected to that picture, and hanging it on the wall was symbolic of place.

Local handicrafts for the win. The best way to create place may not be bringing the latest deals from stores in your passport country. Don’t try to model a designer home in a suburb. Instead embrace the beautiful pieces from your adopted country. My friend Bettie could turn a mud hut into a mansion. She had a gift for finding treasures in the bazaars in Pakistan. Brass, pottery, and textiles that were inexpensive and beautiful found their way from a crowded, dusty shop onto the shelves of her living room.  Buying them was a tangible way to focus on the artistry and artisans in Pakistan. Every piece was unique and had a story.

Buy cheap, but get lots of it. If you’re making curtains, don’t go for expensive material that you skimp on because of the price. Your curtains will look better if you buy lots of material that’s cheaper. That way you can make them look full and rich; not skimpy and expensive.  Several framed prints with inexpensive frames will look better on your walls then one expensive frame. Several cheaper pillows will give you a much more homey look than one expensive pillow.

Get help! In every community you will find an artist and a decorator.  Here’s how you find the decorator in your community: You walk into their home and take a breath – how do they manage to create such a lovely space? But instead of asking them, instead of allowing them to use their God-given gifts of artistry, you secretly harbor feelings of resentment. They might sound like this “Well, if I had money, I too could….” “Well, their landlord takes better care of their place….” I’m sorry to tell you – even if you had more money, your place wouldn’t look like hers. Because he or she has a gift. So ask them for help, get them to walk through your space and give suggestions. Even though the differences may be small, they’ll make a big difference in your space. Helping you will delight them – trust me on this one.

Our physical space may change more than we might like, but God invites us into this journey of creating place and home and it is a gift.

 


How have you created place and a sense of home in the countries where you live and serve?  

Blogger’s Note – I am grateful for our sister site, Velvet Ashes, for the inspiration to write this piece.

 

Leaving (and Arriving) Well — what to do when your time comes

You’re probably going to leave the field.

Someday, somehow, the vast majority of us will say goodbye, pack up, cry tears of joy or sorrow or both, and depart.

How will that work out for you?

Well, frankly, I have no idea. But I do know that there are some things you can do to prepare to leave and some things you can do to prepare to arrive. And while a cross-cultural move is stressful no matter which direction you’re going, knowing some of what to expect and how to prepare really can help.

The first part of this article deals with Leaving Well, while the second part deals with the oft-overlooked importance of Arriving Well.

In Arriving Well, we’ll look at

– Embracing your inner tourist,

– Making movie magic,

– Identifying your needs, and of course,

– Grieving

We’ll wrap up with an Arrival Benediction, which is a prayer for you, the transitioner, from the bottom of my heart.

 

Preparing to Leave Well – How do I debrief all of this?
Maybe it was nine months or maybe it was 19 years. In any case, debriefing is your friend.

For starters, find someone to talk with. A safe person who will value your thoughts and feelings about the whole range of your experience. They don’t have to understand missions or life on the field; they just have to be willing to listen, empathize, and listen. (And yes, I said that on purpose.)

Try making two lists: one of what you’ve gained and one of what you’ve lost. And remember, this isn’t algebra; you’re not trying to balance an equation, and the sides don’t have to balance each other out. In fact, they won’t.

Some folks more easily list what they’ve gained. If that’s you, it’s important for you to wrestle with identifying and grappling with losses.

For some, the losses are the prime (or only) thing. If that’s you, it’s important to wrestle with the truth that there is some good in all of it, even if the only good is God.

There is tremendous power in making room for the paradoxical truths that there was good and there was bad and there IS God.

 

Preparing to Leave Well – Am I a Failure?
Maybe some things failed. Maybe things really did hit the fan. But there is a world of difference between stepping back and saying, “Wow, that thing failed,” or even, “I failed to accomplish that goal,” and “I AM A FAILURE!”  If you find yourself lurching towards the “I am a failure” side of things, heads up, ‘cause that’ll destroy you.

You’ll need to deal with that sense of being a failure; if you don’t put that to rest right here and now, it will rise from the dead like Taylor, all the time.

It will blind you to whatever God is calling you to next. Please don’t let it.

Further reading: To the ones who think they’ve failed

 

Preparing to Leave Well – What should I read?
Well, for starters, here are two articles from A Life Overseas writers…

Leaving Happy or Leaving Well? (by Jerry Jones)

“Everyone wants to leave happy but not everyone wants to leave well.  In fact, some people are so committed to leaving happy that they absolutely refuse to leave well.”

Transition – Building a RAFT (by Marilyn Gardner)

This one is my go-to when I’m meeting with a client who’s preparing to transition. Do yourself a favor and read Marilyn’s thoughts about building a RAFT.

 

If you’re willing to invest in a book or two, these are highly recommended…

Returning Well: your guide to thriving back “home” after serving cross-culturally

Perry Bradford, President of Barnabas International, says this about Returning Well: “Thousands transition back to their home cultures each year without any formal debrief to assist them. Returning Well will guide the reader into an in‐depth look at their transition and lead them to discover how to manage the re‐entry process with spiritual and emotional health.”

Looming Transitions: starting and finishing well in cross-cultural service

This one’s from A Life Overseas writer Amy Young, and it’s excellent. Also check out the companion book, Twenty-Two Activities for Families in Transition

 

Preparing to Arrive Well – Embrace your inner tourist
Many of us want to hit the ground running. We’ve got a bazillion things to do and people to see and contracts and license renewals and logistics and ieoafioefoaeifnaeoifneoiafjeio…

But you know, much less has to be done immediately than you think. Really.

Instead, what I’d like for you to do, for a time, is just pretend to be a tourist. Let jet lag have its day, and then be a tourist. Maybe forgo the tourist pants and camera straps, but if you want to go all in, go for it.

A tourist is one who “is travelling or visiting a place for pleasure.”

Let yourself enjoy your new place, even if it’s your old place; it is your new place now. Go to the parks and museums and restaurants. Go where tourists go, and go with tourist eyes. The place has changed, and so has your vision.

Enjoy the place. Enjoy the people. Give your soul time to breathe.

I always ask clients to list out the stuff that absolutely HAS to be done in the first two weeks. Ask yourself, “Will I die if this doesn’t happen RIGHT AWAY?”

Remember, God’s where you’re at. You didn’t leave him on the field. The Creator’s not stranded in customs. Ask him to show himself in this new-to-you part of his creation, and then give yourself time and space to hear his reply.

 

Preparing to Arrive Well – Make movie magic
Some people will care about your stories. Some won’t. Some will act like they care and then their eyes will glaze over like a warm Krispy Kreme donut.

Which is where the movie magic comes in.

I want you to create a movie poster. Come up with a few sentence snapshot of your experience (whether it was 6 months or 6 years). I want you to have something that’s quick and that you can say without having to use a lot of computing power.

This “movie poster” is for the well-meaning folks who pass you in the church lobby and say, “How was your trip?” I want you to have something to say to them besides, “YOU MEAN MY LIFE?!! YOU MEAN HOW WAS THE LAST DECADE OF MY LIFE?!!!”

For those folks, give them the movie poster. Maybe it’ll intrigue them and maybe at some point they’ll want to hear more of the story. But if they don’t, whatever.

Then, I want you to create a movie trailer. Create a two or three minute synopsis of some of the important points. Tell some of the story, but don’t reveal it all. Keep in mind that a movie trailer isn’t designed to tell the whole story, but to help people decide whether or not they want to invest in the full-length feature film.

Some will watch the trailer, they’ll hear your three-minute story, and be satisfied. They’ll say, “Wow, that looks cool. I’m never going to see that.” And of course, some will say, “Hmm, that actually looks really interesting. When is it showing?”

And then create the feature film. The movie.

This is your story, shared with the folks who really want to hear it. These are your people.

Not everyone will want to see your movie. And that’s ok.

Not everyone will like your movie. That’s ok too.

You weren’t making it for them anyways.

 

Preparing to Arrive Well – Grieve again (and again and again)
Grieving big losses is measured more in years than months. So when you’ve been back for 5 weeks and hit a speed bump, please don’t be mad at yourself and don’t you dare think, “I should be over this by now!” Um, just no. Even if you move back to the same town where you grew up, you’ve changed and the town’s changed and this isn’t Kansas anymore.

Big losses take more like two years to grieve, not two months.

Further reading: How do we process loss and grief?

 

Preparing to Arrive Well – Identify your needs
This was originally written about cross-cultural living, but it applies here too:

We’ve got to start asking our cross-culturally-working-selves, “In an ideal world, what is it that I really need to make it? To thrive? To be ok? To survive where God’s called me? What is it that I really need?”

Can I mitigate it, or do I need to sacrifice it? These concepts continue to ring off the walls of my counseling room, and I think transitioners need them too.

Read more here: The One Question We Must Ask

 

An Arrival Benediction
Here’s my prayer for you, a prayer for the middle spaces:

May you arrive more whole than when you departed, though the intervening time may have been splintering and hard.

May you arrive with more hope than when you left, though you’ve been in hopeless situations more often than you thought possible.

Perhaps you’ll arrive empty, but may those you’ve left behind (there and here), fill you with the love of the Father, aged and distilled through time and perhaps darkness.

May you arrive with peace, knowing in your gut that he is Good, that he is Faithful, and that he isn’t finished with you (or with them).

May you find rest, safe in the arms of love, behind the Captain of the Lord of Hosts, your Healer.

And may you hear him ask you the same question he asked a confused and lonely and traveling Hagar, “Where have you come from?” and “Where are you going?” At the end of the day, may you proclaim along with Hagar, “You are the God who sees me.”

And after your arrival,
May you keep your eyes fixed on the horizon,
Awaiting the day of all days,
When the sky will split,
The darkness flee, and
He will, finally and irrevocably,
Arrive.

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Home in the Spaces

(revised from an essay published originally by She Loves Magazine)

My kids have lived abroad since 2003 and now we’ve started college tours in the US. I knew every tour guide would ask: Where are you from?

So I preemptively asked one of my daughters, “Where is home?” Ah, the dreaded, complicated, richly beautiful question Third Culture Kids wrestle with answering.

Is home where she was born or where she was potty trained or the place from which her family fled with a single suitcase? Is home where we found peace and safety for a few months, where she cared for a baby hamster, or where she had best friends and a bedroom and memories of skinned knees and Friday waffle-and-Star Wars traditions? Or was it where she licked snow for the first time and ate grandma’s cookies and spoke the same language at school as she spoke at home? Or is it where she lives now, at boarding school? Or where her parents and sister live?

I told her I felt torn sometimes, lost sometimes, whole and rooted sometimes. Half home in America, half home in Djibouti. Fully home in neither, walking around with a sort of tear down my center. And now that she her brother are at school in Kenya, that tear down my center bleeds.

She didn’t blink. “Home? Djibouti.”

Djibouti. This country that has taken so much from her and yet given so much to her. Sometimes I look at the life we stumble through, led by grace and purpose, and I see holes in the shape of grandparents, the shape of cousins and friends who share the same faith traditions, the shape of an intrinsic understanding of subtle cultural nuances.

But my daughter doesn’t look at the holes. She lives in the holes and looks out from them. She sees learning to pump on her own at the playground with rickety swings and rusty nails in the sand. She sees cliff jumping into the ocean and camping under the stars. She sees starting a paper airplane business at school with her best Djiboutian friends. She sees reciting Mary’s Magnificat in French at church on Christmas Eve. she sees a childhood filled with richness and memories and relationships.

Exodus 32 and 33 tell about a particularly rough week Moses suffered. The Israelites built a golden calf, God wanted to destroy them all, Moses shattered the tablets he spent forty days receiving, and then watched three thousand men die at the hands of his relatives. Moses pleaded mercy and begged God to not abandon his people or his promises. Desperate, grieving, disappointed, and longing for God, Moses asked to see his glory. God said no one could see his face and live. Instead, he put Moses in the clefts of a mountain and passed by, declaring his goodness and his name. Exodus says Moses saw only God’s back.

I like the image of Moses, nestled by a loving, powerful God into the spaces, the gaps, the cracks in the mountain. Moses turns from the mountain, looks out of the space, and the glory of God passes by.

When I release my perspective of home and Djibouti and put on my daughter’s, when I find myself living in the holes and looking out from them, I see the back of God. I hear the voice of God declaring his goodness and glory.

I’ve read that many TCKs don’t consider a place home, but rather people. I love that. A home can burn, be flooded, be evacuated, sold. But TCKs find home in the space around people they love and in the space that people they love give to them.

For my TCK then, she finds home in the space to be her Kenyan self that drinks Chai and counts in shillings. Space to be her French self with the perfect accent and all the information you never wanted to know on King Louis the 14th. Space to be her American self that wears skinny jeans and craves adventure and laughs loud. Space to be her Djiboutian self that leaps into the Gulf of Tadjourah and savors the suffocating heat.

Home, for TCKs and their parents, is not a building or a place and probably not even a country. We won’t live here, or there, forever and they know that. We live in the holes, the spaces, the in-between places, and we watch for the passing glory of God.

If you’re a TCK or if you are raising a TCK, how do talk about home? How do you think about home? Do you have any tips for a non-TCK mom trying to figure this all out?

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The Fine Line Between Expat Chaos and Rhythm

People living a life overseas are a special breed.  We don’t so much make sense to the normal people do we?

My family is on the tail end of a whirlwind, six week “home” (finger quotes) visit and we’ve been reminded every moment of it what a ridiculous life we have chosen.

Seriously.  Who does this?

By the time this trip is over we will have changed our entire existence eleven times, each one strung to the next by a 4 to 12 hour road trip on the hottest days of the summer in a car with two children and lukewarm air conditioning.  We will have done countless heartfelt, emotionally charged, “we missed you so much” hellos only to turn right around for equally heartfelt, emotionally charged, “we’ll miss you so much” goodbyes.

We live out of suitcases which seem to be gaining weight as fast as we are.

Every few days we switch to another guest bed, couch,  futon, air mattress or (on very special occasions) hotel.

We’ve learned how to use other people’s washing machines and we leave at least one sock or one pair of underwear at every stop (you’re welcome).

We’ve sat perched like a dog at a dinner table waiting for someone to ask for a China story and we’ve fine-tuned our skills of pretending we’re not disappointed when they don’t.

We’ve successfully dodged knock-down, drag-out political battles over issues we probably don’t care about, full on relational melodramas with people we barely know and annoyingly offensive jokes about Chinese food and cats.

Hygiene still matters but I’m not even sure what day yesterday was . . . let alone whether I showered or not.

For weeks we have been “ON”.  Big smiles.  Happy faces.  Intentional eye contact from the moment we landed — and we had jet lag that day.

It’s exhausting being “home” — and to be honest the whole life overseas thing can feel equally chaotic at its most settled points.

BUT . . .

I’m learning that there is such a fine line between chaos and rhythm.

Trips “home” would feel like total mayhem to any normal person . . . but we covered that right?  We are so not normal.

I love that the longer we do this the more pages there are in our story are filled with 3 am, jetlag induced Daddy-Daughter milkshakes at any place open.

It has been rich beyond words to pick up right where we left off with dozens of “hello again” friends and we’ve got this whole switching from cousins in one place to old friends in another thing to an art form.

We are expert packers, flexible sleepers, versatile launderers and accomplished lip biters.

We know how to deflect awkwardness and my kids intuitively sense when family at one stop would be horribly offended by things that were fun at the last.

Even in constant ON mode we find moments of OFF.

We are good at this.  We have found our rhythm and in some confusing way a part of our stability IS the movement.

If that makes no sense at all . . . congratulations . . . you might be normal.

If it does . . . you’re probably living a life overseas.

 

On Home and Keeping Place

Longing for home

“Home is a human place. Instinctively, each of us, male and female, knows the sound of its welcome – and the joy of our possible return.

This community knows the challenge of creating home in odd spaces and places around the globe. We also know what it is to be homesick, to long for familiar sights and sounds, to occasionally cry during the dark of night, reaching out to a God who created place.

In her newly released book, Keeping Place – Reflections on the Meaning of Home, Jen Pollock Michel writes about this human longing. The back cover eloquently conveys what the book extends to the reader:

“Keeping Place offers hope to the wanderer, help to the stranded,and a new vision of what it means to live today with our longings for eternal home.”

I had the privilege of reading an advance copy of Keeping Place. Throughout my reading, I thought about my upbringing, as well as the many moves I have made in my adult life. I also thought about this community and the ways we leave one home and create a new one, always aware that in home and place, the temporal and the eternal meet.

I asked Jen if she would meet with our community here at A Life Overseas and talk about the book – which really means have a conversation about home and place.

I hope you enjoy the conversation as much as I did!

Interview with Jen Pollock Michel

Can you give us a sense of how you came to write a book about place and home? 

I feel like I’ve spent my entire life searching for home. This is partially because we were a very typically mobile American family during my childhood: my dad chased the tail of opportunity, and we moved for those opportunities. And although I wanted to give a more rooted life to my own children, we’ve also moved a lot for my husband’s career, including a move to Canada six years ago.

But it’s not just mobility that has left me longing for home. I’ve also experienced a lot of loss in my life: the premature death of my father, the suicide of my brother, a sometimes emotionally distant relationship with my mother. It’s these life experiences that springboard a Scriptural exploration throughout the book.

You currently live in Toronto, Canada – a place where you didn’t grow up and a country where you don’t legally hold citizenship. How has living where you are a guest shaped your view of home?

It’s now been six years that we’ve had no permanent immigration status in Canada, so I’m writing about home from the “stranger” perspective, for sure. In an ex-pat life, the longings for permanence and belonging are particularly acute, and it’s easy, of course, to nostalgically think of the place we’ve left behind as the home that would settle those longings.

But truthfully, I’ve realized in writing the book that these longings aren’t just characteristic of the ex-pat life. It’s not as if we’re the only ones to feel dislocation in this world. No, I think it’s most true to say that exile is the human experience and has been since Genesis 3 when we left the Garden behind. This exile can be dislocation geographically, but it can also be estrangement in our relationships with others and most importantly, with God.

What truths (characteristics) of God did you learn through writing this book? 

Probably most importantly, I’ve begun to see God is as “homemaker.” That word tends, for many Westerners, to connote a woman who abandons career to stay at home with her children, and this conception has given us a very narrow view of homemaking. But to look carefully at the arc of Scripture (which begins and ends at home) is to see a homemaking God. At the very beginning, Genesis 1 drives toward this idea that God is making a habitable world for his people. “It is good” is a way for God to say, “It is homelike. People can live here.” And then of course in Revelation, we see God bringing heaven to earth and welcoming his children to dwell with him.

For me, a view of God’s homemaking inspires a whole new affective quality to his work of redemption. It’s not just that God has sent Jesus so that he can “acquit” sinners in a kind of impersonal legal transaction. It’s that God has made His own Son a stranger for our sake.

Salvation isn’t just pardon: it’s welcome. It’s homecoming.

In Keeping Place, you speak of God as a “housekeeping” God. How did you come to this description? 

I didn’t expect that “housekeeping” would become as big a theme in the book as it did, but I started to see that it was a word that could make sense of the tension between the “now” and the “not yet.” In one sense, we are experiencing “home” with God now through the work of Christ and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. In other sense, we’re waiting on “home”—groaning, along with the rest of creation, to see this broken world put to rights. Housekeeping is a word that seemed to speak to the activity of the in-between. In other words, we may not have “home” in the fullest sense of that word, but we do have the “housekeeping”—the call to embodied, emplaced acts of love in the world.

I think we can fairly say that housekeeping is work that God himself took up through Jesus Christ when he took on flesh and entered the world, eventually to suffer death. He didn’t love at a distance. He implicated himself in the world’s grief. As the prophet Isaiah says, Jesus was a suffering servant.

This is what I’m thinking of when I say that God is not just a homemaking God but a housekeeping God.

How has Keeping Place shaped your practical view of home?  

As I’ve just said, “housekeeping” is a concept that became central to the book and has been very meaningfully to me personally. In my own experience, displacement has sometimes left me feeling stuck. To feel impermanent in a place, it’s easy to choose disinvestment and to idealize the “far” over the near. Housekeeping is the word that draws me back to the near. Who is God calling me to love and serve in the place that I’m in? What is the particular suffering of the people closest to me—in my family, my neighborhood, my city? And to borrow from Henri Nouwen, what are ways that God is moving me into the role of the prodigal father in order that I might express his love and welcome? I can get stuck in my own feeling of homesickness—or I could work to help others discover the gospel promise of home.

Housekeeping is also a word to remind me about the nature of love. It’s not usually going to be glamorous. It’s often going to go unnoticed and unappreciated. It is never a once-and-done work. But when the church of Jesus Christ takes up the “housekeeping” for their cities, when we do it for the love of God and love of neighbor, I believe we witness to the reality of a homemaking God and a permanent, eternal home.

In the article “Refugees don’t need your pity” the author says this: “Rootlessness — the implied weakness of it — is treated as a failure. That is plainly schizophrenic: In a world where one in seven people is displaced, the failure must be of planetary scale. It belongs to all of us. This is a century of dislocation not merely of body and home, but also of empathy, dignity, compassion.” How does Keeping Place address this statement? 

In Keeping Place, I’ve tried to say that all of humanity is suffering from homesickness. If we acknowledge the three biblical dimensions of home that I draw out in the book (home as geographical connection, home as social bond, home as friendship with God), then at some level, we’re all feeling rootless. We’re feeling displaced. We’re all suffering the nostalgia of what was lost in Genesis 3. This could be because we’ve moved. But it might also be that our parents are divorced or we’re spiritually unmoored.

One temptation that Christians often face is to downplay home as geographical connection, which is why I do want to say that physical rootlessness is a very real grief in our age. We don’t have the connection to land that previous generations did. Wendell Berry is a contemporary novelist, who draws out the kind of suffering this produces. It’s easy sometimes as Christians to approach home in a very “gnostic” way: we make it mean our connection with God or human community. But from Scripture, I don’t think we can avoid that place is a very important dimension of home. When the kingdom of God comes to earth, we’re not going to live ghostly lives in the clouds. We’re going to live embodied lives in a city.

The gospel gives credence to the importance of physical place and roots.

The ALOS community is a community that knows what it is to pack up their luggage, homes, and hearts. How might your book on home encourage them? 

I’d go straight to chapter 4 and the story of Jacob. When I was studying the life of Jacob, I was so fascinated that the Hebrew scholar, Robert Alter, called him a man of the “liminal places.” Alter was the one who helped me see that every time we find Jacob in the book of Genesis, he’s at a border of some kind.

Who’s meeting Jacob in all of these in-between places? God. God himself. God is the stability that Jacob doesn’t have. I can’t think of a more consoling thought for those of us whose lives have included a lot of packing up, crossing borders, and leaving things behind.

Someone is there to meet us on that journey. And one day, he’s bringing us home.

___________________________

jen michel

Jen Pollock Michel is the award-winning author of Teach Us to Want and Keeping Place. She writes widely for print and digital publications and travels to speak at churches, conferences, and retreats. Jen holds a B.A. in French from Wheaton College and an M.A. in Literature from Northwestern University. She is married to Ryan, and they have five school-age children. Their family attends Grace Toronto Church (Canada). You can follow Jen on Twitter @jenpmichel.

When It’s Hard to Want to Want to Be Back

Our pictures are on the walls!

It’s been a year since I wrote about the long process I and my family were going through fitting back into life in the States and not yet feeling at home—still not having our pictures hung up. Since then, quite a few things have changed, and I would be remiss if I didn’t pass that on as well. I have a new job and my wife is able to stay at home, and we’ve unpacked our pictures and they’re all hanging in the house we’ve been able to buy.

We are so grateful for the ways God has helped us move forward.

But though it’s been over five years since we came back, we can’t say that the transition is completely behind us. It’s still there, just now in less obvious ways.

This post is about reverse culture stress, but it’s not about the difficulties of fitting back into a home culture or family culture or church culture. It’s about the undercurrent of feelings that flow in the opposite direction of our physical move. It’s about the difficulty of wanting to fit in. It’s about the difficulty of wanting to want to.

What are some of the things that hold returned missionaries back from pouring our whole hearts into settling in? What are the feelings—good or bad, right or wrong—that can keep us from jumping into this new chapter? Here are a few I’ve noticed:

When our inner GPS is “recalibrating”
When we decide to go overseas, our convictions tell us that we’re making progress. No matter what careers or plans we’re giving up, mission work is a promotion. And as we acclimate ourselves to our new home and the depths of our new work, we say things like “I could never go back to my old life.” But what happens when we do go back? We’re faced with the jobs, lifestyles, and habits that we told ourselves were in our past, and we can feel guilty for pointing ourselves in that direction. Forward seems backward and backward seems forward. The way of life we are seeking can be the way of life that we fear.

In The God of the Mundane: Reflections on Ordinary Life for Ordinary People, Matt B. Redmond writes about the difficulties of living a run-of-the-mill life when we believe that radical service is what God wants from us. As a pastor, Redmond had often preached this message:

Your days should be blood-earnestly marked by an urgent, nerve-twisting love for people you have never known. And if you truly loved them you would join the mission team’s trip at the expense of your vacation to know them. If you loved God, you would do it. And if you really believed—BELIEVED, you would go and stay. You should want to go. It should be hard to stay where you are in the comfort of where you are.

While understanding the value of the call to “change the world,” Redmond looked over his congregation and realized that he also needed to preach another sermon—that there’s “a God, for instance, for those who are not changing anything but diapers.” There’s a God for construction workers and teachers and the unemployed and cooks and cashiers and bankers. That last one Redmond learned about through experience. After writing his book, he left his church position and took a job—for him an often frustrating job—at a bank. As he writes at Echoes and Stars, living out the mundane can, at times, frustrate the soul, even as it teaches valuable lessons, and practicing it can be harder than preaching it.

When embracing means letting go
The goal for those of us who’ve returned is to find our place and to live out God’s kingdom here, but that means releasing the hopes and dreams and prayers that we’ve held close for so long. Will we go back?  Probably not . . . but maybe? We can’t stay in a holding pattern forever. That’s not realistic nor is it healthy.

As time goes by, we give up our support, we quit mailing out prayer letters, we change our Facebook details, we forget words in our second languages, we take new jobs, we buy houses and couches and lawn mowers, and we hang pictures. With each step we see ourselves moving further away from resuming our cross-cultural lives, and we hear the distant sound of closing doors. Some slam quickly, while others we watch slide closed slowly, over time.

When we lose even more of our Me Toos
We’re no longer missionaries, no longer expats, no longer neighbors to the nationals oceans away. So with whom do we identify? Well, there’s still the group of fellow travelers living through the challenges of repatriation. But even then . . . as our roots grow deeper and we become more a part of the landscape, we find ourselves leaving that group, that identity, too. As our prayers are answered, as our goals are realized, are we walking away from even these brothers and sisters, those who aren’t as far along? What about next year, when we hear of other cross-cultural workers just returned? Will we have forgotten what they’re going through?

With each move, we leave others behind. May we continue forward and yet still remember, and empathize with, all those who continue in the places where we’ve been.

When disappointment becomes a way of life
During a flight across the Pacific, following a time overseas involving several setbacks, my wife and I watched Last Chance Harvey, a movie about a down-on-his-luck American pursuing the affections of a tired-of-being-let-down Brit. In one scene, Harvey (Dustin Hoffman) implores Kate (Emma Thompson) to give their relationship a chance. She replies,

I’m not going to do it. I’m not going to do it, because it’ll hurt. . . . and I won’t do it. . . .

You see, what I think it is, is . . . is that I think I’m more comfortable with being disappointed. I think I’m angry with you for trying to take that away.

When we’ve faced disappointments, especially disappointments on top of disappointments, we can get to the point where we find comfort in the predictability of our discomfort. So we stop hoping for something better, because we’re afraid “it’ll hurt” more.

Ruth Van Reken, Adult Third Culture Kid and former missionary, discusses something similar in Letters Never Sent. As a TCK, she’s many times had to let go of things she holds dear, and as an adult, she writes the following concerning her engagement to her fiancé, David:

I can’t believe God will let me keep David. It’s like He’s dangling Dave on a rope, letting him come closer and closer. I’m afraid that at the last moment, when I put out my hand to take him, the string will be jerked back and God will laugh.

“Ha ha. Thought you finally had someone you could keep. Don’t count on it. Whatever you depend on, I will surely take that, so that you’ll depend solely on Me.”

A few months later, after her wedding, she writes, “God didn’t yank David away after all!”—though she still needs more time to deal with her continuing fears.

When everything’s “OK”
Last month I wrote that as we chronicle our lives, we need to share epilogues to our stories even when things haven’t gone the way we’d hoped. But it can also be difficult to share the positive updates, too. I know my own tendency, when I hear someone’s slice of good news, to say too quickly, “Glad to hear all is well.” And then I stop asking questions and cross that person off my prayer list. We so much want to get rid of all the loose ends in our lives and in the lives of others. But I distrust tying everything up in a neat bow, because, well . . . life.

When Letters Never Sent came out in 1988, the publishers gave it the subtitle “One Woman’s Journey from Hurt to Wholeness.” In the 2012 edition, Van Reken writes in a new epilogue that when she originally saw the full title, her reaction was a feeling of horror and she immediately called the publishers. “That subtitle isn’t right,” she told them. “I’m not whole yet. My life is still in process.” But they responded, “We need to sell the book,” and the subtitle remained unchanged. (I guess most readers don’t like unresolved issues.)

But the new version has a different publisher and a different title: Letters Never Sent: A Global Nomad’s Journey from Hurt to Healing. For Van Reken, there is hope in the process. Yes, transition brings wounds, but God’s grace brings healing, bit by bit, even if complete wholeness is still out of reach. It may take longer than we’d like, or longer than we’d planned on, but healing does come, because of the one we follow— Jehovah Rapha, the Lord who heals.

So . . . our pictures are on the walls!

Some of our pictures made the trip from the States and back again. Some we added to our collection while we were abroad. We’ve got photos, prints, and a puzzle mounted in a frame. And another one is the painting at the top of this post, by my now 96-year-old mother. It has a prominent place in our entryway, which is appropriate, since we’re working on a new beginning . . . and Mom didn’t take up painting until her 70s.

We’re enjoying this time of being closer to family. We’re enjoying meeting our new neighbors. And we’re also looking for some more pictures to hang, ones that represent this next chapter we’re starting, while we make our new home. It may be hard, but that doesn’t mean it it can’t be good.

As I work on my own epilogue, I’d like to return to Van Reken’s—and close with her description of the healing that is still taking place for her. It is so good to learn from the wisdom of those who have traveled the same paths before.

[T]his is my story—a life hopefully in process and growing, but not completed nor perfected until the Shepherd I love calls me for my last journey home.

(Matt B. Redmond, The God of the Mundane: Reflections on Ordinary Life for Ordinary People, Kalos, 2012; Ruth Van Reken, Letters Never Sent: A Global Nomad’s Journey from Hurt to Healing, Summertime, 2012)

Living Well Abroad: 4 Areas to Consider

My day job here in Cambodia is serving as a pastoral counselor. In a typical week, I meet with clients from Asia, the Americas, Australia, Europe, and occasionally Africa. And whether these clients are missionaries, NGO workers, or international business people, they’re all trying to figure out how to live well here. In Cambodia.

I was recently asked to share at an international church on the topic of Living Well abroad. I gave it all I had and presented my compiled thoughts and hopes. This article is an extension of that presentation.

It’s not short and it’s not fancy. But it is pretty much all I’ve got. 

My hope is that this article might serve as a resource, a touch point, for you and your team/org/ministry/family/whatever. If you’d rather listen to the podcast of this material, you’ll find some links at the very end. All right, here goes!

 ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

How long were you in your host country before you cried really hard? You know, one of those famous UGLY cries that no one sees but certainly exists? Was it sometime in your first year? Month? Week?

For me, it took about 27 hours.

Our theme verse for those early days was 2 Corinthians 1:8, “We think you ought to know, dear brothers and sisters, about the trouble we went through in the province of Asia. We were crushed and overwhelmed beyond our ability to endure, and we thought we would never live through it.”

But we did.

For as Paul Hiebert writes in his seminal work, Anthropological Insights for Missionaries, “Culture shock is rarely terminal.”

Theory can only get you so far. At some point, you have to get your feet wet and Nike the thing. That’s what this article’s about. It’s an attempt to give some practical, hands-on, nitty-gritty, [insert random epic language here], rubber-meets-the-road, advice.

Much of this comes from my own experience of transitioning a family of six from the suburbs of mid-west America to the concrete vistas of Phnom Penh. The rest comes from observing lives and stories in that enigmatic place we call “the counseling room.”

The four specific areas we’ll consider include Living Well Abroad…

  1. Theologically
  2. Spiritually
  3. Relationally
  4. Psychologically

 

1. Living Well Abroad: Theologically
How we think about God matters. Of course it does. You already know that. But we sometimes forget that our theology also plays a vital role in how well we fare on the field.

First, we must remember that productivity does NOT equal fruitfulness. Indeed, our aim is not even to be fruitful, but to stay attached to the Vine from which all fruit comes. Our aim is to know him and his heart, to “remain in him.” Staying attached to the Source, hearing his heartbeat, is the only way we will be able to do “the will of him who sent us.”

There is sooooo much to do and God does not want you to do it all. Let me repeat: There is sooooo much to do and God does not want you to do it all.

He does not expect you to kill yourself in his service. Now, you might die in his service, of course, but it should not be because you’re a workaholic.

If you want to thrive abroad, you can’t try to meet your deep insecurities through making someone (a missions boss, a sending church, God) happy. No amount of productivity will heal the wounds in your soul.

In fact, trying to meet your own deep emotional or psychological needs through missions will tear you up. And it won’t be good for those close to you either.

Resources:
Margin: the wasted space we desperately need
Please stop running
The Idolatry of Missions

 

1.a. Simple prayers are your friend. 
For me, after we’d gone through a really rough patch (misdiagnosed typhoid fever, culture stripping, bad news from home, etc.), I clung to one simple cry-prayer: “I will worship the Lord my God; I will serve only him.” It’s a declaration from Jesus at the peak of his temptation. It’s what Jesus fell back on at the very end. So I did too. And honestly, for a while, it was the only prayer I prayed.

That being said, in Matthew 4, when Jesus made that declaration, Satan left him and angels came and ministered to him. I’m not a businessman, but that seems like a pretty good trade.

Speaking of Satan…

 

1.b. Your theology of Satan matters. A lot. 
Don’t give Satan more credit than he’s due. Don’t blame him for everything.

Why not? Well, it’ll keep you from taking responsibility for your own stuff, and it’ll keep you from doing the hard interpersonal and INNER personal work that you need to do.

Here’s my general rule: don’t blame Satan for things that are reasonably foreseeable.

If it was reasonably foreseeable that eating that street food would give you giardia, don’t blame the devil when you get sick and can’t leave the bathroom! I’ll be really sorry you’re sick, but you don’t need to bring the devil into it to garner my compassion and prayers.

If you ignore Sabbath and run yourself ragged, don’t blame Satan when you feel depressed and burned out. Don’t blame the natural result of your workaholism on “the darkness.” [Note: I am NOT saying that depression and burnout always result from a missionary’s failure to Rest. But if a person has been burning the candle at both ends and then starts to feel the flame, it’s not fair to blame the devil.]

Proverbs 7:6-9 provides a noteworthy example of reasonable foreseeability:

“While I was at the window of my house, looking through the curtain, I saw some naive young men, and one in particular who lacked common sense. He was crossing the street near the house of an immoral woman, strolling down the path by her house. It was at twilight, in the evening, as deep darkness fell.”

The wisdom literature doesn’t blame some massive evil scheme for this guy’s sin. Its lesson for us? Do the hard work of not being naive. Do the hard work of getting some common sense. And don’t open your computer at night or visit the red light district when you’re lonely and it’s dark.

Resources:
Before You Cry “Demon!”

 

1.c. You need a robust theology of Heaven. 
You want to live and thrive abroad long-term? You’re going to have to have a pretty good grasp of Heaven. I’m not talking about end-times theology, I’m talking about the reality of eternity, for the saved and the lost.

Resources:
Heaven, by Randy Alcorn
When you just want to go home
The Gift of Grief

 

 

2. Living Well Abroad: Spiritually
There are two powerful words we need to understand deeply. Those words are “Yes” and “No,” and they are sacred words indeed.

Initially, when you move abroad, you don’t know anyone and you’re probably in language school, so you can say yes to everyone and pretty much everything. But watch out, because your ratio of yeses to nos will have to change. If you want to stay healthy, you will have to start saying no to more and more things. And if you don’t make that transition well, if you don’t learn to say no, you will end up saying yes to all the wrong things.

Recently, I heard a preacher boldly state: “Satan is always trying to get your yes.” Indeed, from the beginning, the Liar has been getting people to say yes to stuff that will make them say No to the Father. And it continues.

Balancing our yeses and nos can get tricky, triggering our Fear of Missing Out or our fear of being completely overwhelmed, which is why I love that Justin Rizzo, a musician at the International House of Prayer, sings about “the beautiful line to walk between faith and wisdom.”

Learning when to say yes and when to say no requires both faith and wisdom. After all, it is possible to say yes to too much because of our “faith,” and it is possible to say no to too much because of our “wisdom.”

Again, this is precisely why we need to spend time connected to the Vine. We must remind ourselves often of this truth: The most fruitful thing I can do today is connect with the heart of Jesus.

May God give us the grace to serve with both faith and wisdom. Not as opposite ideas, fighting for domination, but as buffers and guardrails, keeping us from veering too far to one side. Or the other.

 

3. Living Well Abroad: Relationally
Life abroad can be bone-jarringly lonely, so connecting with friends is vitally important. Those friendships might surprise you; they might be with expats and nationals and folks you first found strange. But whatever the case, deep connection with other human beings IRL (in real life) is crucial to whether or not you “live well” abroad.

Resources:
Velvet Ashes (this links to their articles tagged “friendship”)
10 Ways to Nurture Healthy Friendships

 

3.a Marriage
I’ve been living with my best friend for nearly 17 years. And frankly, we’d like to stay friends. If you’re married, I’d like for you to stay friends with your spouse too. Here are some ideas that have helped us…

– Google “First date questions” and screen capture the results. Next time you’re out on a date or alone together, whip out your phone and get to know each other again.

– Be a tourist for a night. Pretend you don’t speak the language and go where the tourists go. (I realize this might not apply to everyone, but I know it’ll apply to some.)

– If you have kids, try to get away for 24 hours. Because even 24 hours away can feel like forever. And when you’re away, don’t talk about work or the kids. (And if you don’t have anything to talk about besides work and the kids, take that as a sign that you need to get away more often!)

– Read a book about marriage. I’m continually amazed at how little effort we put into the one relationship that we want to be the deepest and longest and best.

– If a book is too much, check out The Gottman Institute on Facebook. Follow them and read an occasional article. 

Dudes, remember this: your wife lives here too. If you’re doing great but she’s really struggling, you gotta push pause and figure it out. Are you both thriving?

And when it comes to arguing, remember the age-old adage our marriage therapist said over and over and over: “If one person wins, the couple loses.”  : ) 

Resources:
3 Ways to Care for the Heart of Your Wife
Marriage is the Beautiful Hard
The Purpose of Marriage is Not to Make You Holy

 

3.b. Parenthood
We moved to Asia when our boys were six and seven and our girls were one and three. And the loss of how I used to parent nearly killed me. Really. Most Saturdays, I’d get depressed and overwhelmed by all the good we had left behind. Here’s a snapshot of what helped me…

Be Creative. Early on in transition, creativity is very hard to come by. You’re exhausted and on the edge already, so ask around. Ask other parents, “What do you do for family time here? Where?” Just remember, what works for one family might not work for your family. That’s OK. Find the things that work for your family, and then do those things. Boldly.

Remember, use other parents and their ideas, but don’t judge yourself by other parents and their ideas. Some ideas will work for others that will not work for you. Figure out what’ll work for your family. Then do those things.

Be Crazy.The Cambodians think we’re crazy, and maybe they’re right. We have a badminton court on our roof and a ping pong table in our garage. And we use our moto as a jet ski during rainy season. Maybe I am crazy, but I’m also not depressed.

Spend Cash. If you need to spend some money to share a fun experience with your family, spend it. And don’t feel guilty about it. Now, if you feel like God doesn’t want you to spend it, then don’t. But if you’re afraid of spending money because of what your donors might think, that’s a pretty good reason to go ahead and spend it.

Don’t let your kids grow up thinking that the most important question when discussing a family activity is, “What will our supporters think?” That question destroys kids.

 

Resources:
Failing at Fatherhood (how moving abroad ruined my parenting)
3 Ways to Care for the Heart of Your Third Culture Kid
3 Ways to Care for the Heart of Your Missionary Kid

 

4. Living Well Abroad: Psychologically
At various points in our overseas journey, Elizabeth and I have needed debriefing, coaching, and counseling. In fact, so many of the good things in our life and ministry have been directly influenced by specific psychological help.

One area that’s so simple (and important) to talk about is meta-emotions. Simply put, meta-emotions are what you feel about feelings.

Don’t freak out on me just yet. I know this sounds like a Pixar movie.

But honestly, a healthy question that we need to ask much more often is this: How do I feel about what I’m feeling?

For example, if you feel angry at your host country and then feel GUILTY for feeling angry, your feelings of guilt will actually block you from dealing with the root of your anger. Does your anger make you feel like a bad person? A bad Christian? Like you’re a failure because you don’t even like the people you came to serve?

You see, how you feel about your feelings will make a huge difference with how you handle them. Do you keep talking to God about your feelings? If you’re ashamed of your feelings or believe that you shouldn’t have them, chances are your praying will cease forthwith. And that’s not cool.

An illuminating question in all of this is, “How were emotions handled in my family of origin? Did I grow up in an emotion coaching home, where emotions were safe and expression was easy? Was I taught how to feel and name and share my feelings?”

If so, that’s awesome. It’s also pretty rare.

Did you grow up in an emotion dismissing home? Were emotions anything but safe? Did you hear, “Don’t be sad/angry/whatever”?

In your family, did emotions hurt people? If so, I’m sorry. The first step is to acknowledge that this is the case, and maybe see a counselor.

Why does this matter? Because meta-emotions will massively impact what you do with your feelings, and what you do with your feelings will massively impact how you do with life abroad. 

 

Resources:
Meta-Emotion: How you feel about feelings
A Life Overseas Resource Page
Here’s an 11 minute video outlining a tool I use with about 90% of my pastoral counseling clients:

 

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This material was originally presented at an international church here in Phnom Penh. If you’d like to see the handouts and/or listen to the audio of that presentation, click here. The message is also available as a podcast. Just search iTunes for “trotters41” or click here.

The Gift of Saudade

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We returned to our apartment in Cambridge yesterday after a long weekend away, and I felt a familiar longing. I turned to my husband and asked him if he felt like our home in Cambridge, was indeed ‘home’.

Because I don’t. Not always. Despite my work and church and friends and general life being here, the sense of ‘home’, of ‘belonging’ still seems to be just out of reach. I don’t feel this daily – I feel this when I return from being away. Because usually when I’ve been away, I realize no one knew I was gone.

Home is a place that when you return, people knew you were gone. They welcome you back. But in Cambridge, no one ever knows we’re gone. 

Almost two years ago I was introduced to the word ‘Saudade‘. I learned of the word from my husband, who in turn learned it from a Brazilian friend. I immediately came to love and rely on this word to express that peculiar longing that I never had words to express. I used it in writing. I used it in speaking. I particularly used it when connecting with immigrants and refugees through my job.

Saudade is described as “a vague and constant desire for something that does not and probably cannot exist, for something other than the present, a turning towards the past or towards the future; not an active discontent or poignant sadness but an indolent dreaming wistfulness.” – In Portugal of 1912, A. F. G. Bell

This is what I felt yesterday as we returned. Once again I had saudade. 

Ute Limacher, in a beautiful piece written for the series Painting Pictures, says that we can have ‘saudade’ for people, for places, and for moments. I’ve felt all three of these, sometimes all at the same time. 

I have come to realize that this saudade, this ‘indolent wistfulness’ will never be completely gone, and I’ve also come to be okay with this. It is a longing that nothing on this earth will ever fully meet. I have my moments of feeling completely at home, feeling like I belong, even as I ache for what I can no longer have, places I can no longer live, people I will no longer see. In a beautiful piece called “Saudade – a Song for the Modern Soul” Rachel Pieh Jones writes: “There is a peace and joy in belonging and an ache for what is not, for what can no longer be.”

As a Christian, perhaps the biggest mistake I could ever make is being too at home in this world, all my longings met, wrapped up in the temporal.

For beyond the reminders of worlds and lives past, saudade is the reminder of another world, another longing not yet realized. A reminder of a world where there will be no more sadness,where tears will be wiped from our eyes, where a lion and a lamb, earthly enemies, will lie down in peace.

So I’m coming to delight in this saudade, to recognize it for the gift that it is. I don’t want to fill it with something false, a shadow comfort of what is real. I want to live each day, accepting the inevitable saudade that comes — sometimes forcefully, sometimes quietly. C.S. Lewis says that if we “find in [ourselves] desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that [we] were made for another world.”

In saudade I recognize that I was made for another world.

Today is a new day. I am back to a routine and grateful for this routine. I feel at home in my skin and surroundings, and it is all the more precious because of saudade.

What about you? Do you find yourself with longings that will never be met in this world? 

Going Home

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I sometimes catch myself using finger quotes when I say the word “home.”  You too?

I’m writing this on an airplane and am currently 3 hours and 8 minutes away from “home”.  Simultaneously and ironically I am also 9 hours and 4 minutes away from “home.”  I’m in that weird spot that expats love and hate . . .  between “homes.”

My family and I have spent the last five weeks hugging old friends and fighting over road trip radio stations.  We’ve slept in a total of 26 beds and driven through 11 states (not even counting Canada).  We have re-stomped our old stomping grounds and picked up six new airport refrigerator magnets.  It has been both wonderful and exhausting.

You know the feeling.

Going “home” is one of those pieces of expat life that stretches the limits of every available emotion.  So many happy reunions followed immediately by an equal number of painful goodbyes.  Unexpected culture shock (especially in election years), non-stop bopping from the last place to the next place, feeling like a tourist where you once felt most comfortable.

It’s weird.  But good.  But hard.  But incredible.

Regardless, it’s a great opportunity to process.  Every time I go “home,” I pick up something new.  Some little cultural tidbit that I hadn’t recognized before or maybe a deeper reflection on an old reality.

Here’s what I’m thinking on my way home from home this time around.

First, “Home” is a culture too.

Sounds ridiculous to say it out loud and fair enough if you’re thinking, “well duh.”  However I’m realizing more and more that it’s not necessarily a natural thing to recognize your own culture as a culture.  Cultures are out there . . . away . . . somewhere else.  Cultures are what we study.  Cultures are fascinating.  They are exotic.  Exciting.  Confusing.  Different.

Every time I step out and back in again I am reminded that my most familiar home base is all of that, even though I never saw it that way growing up.  From the hairstyles to the body language to the propensity to bread and deep fry virtually anything,  it’s a ethnographic wonderland just waiting to be explored.

Who knew?

Two . . . International “home” going is layered.

Where I come from people move away.  We go to college.  We get married.  We find a job.  All of these carry the potential for long-term relocation.  So my childhood friends are spread out around the area.  Around the state.  Around the country.

Very few however, wander outside of the country (at least not for living).  It’s just not normal.

It’s always nice to come “home,” but I’m discovering that “home” is a contrast word.  The farther you roam, the bigger “home” gets.  “Home” has expanded for us beyond a town or a community and I start to feel like I’m home when I hit the first airport of my “home” country.  L.A., New York, Dallas, Atlanta all feel like home, at least compared to Beijing.

Ironically I feel more “at home” in the Beijing airport than I do in any other airport in the world.

It’s strange right?

Thirdly . . .  It’s OK for “home” to be a confusing concept

“Home” is a value that has been deeply embedded into my core.  So redefining it feels wrong.

It throws off my equilibrium to start wrapping my head around the layers and the nuances of “home” in a cross cultural life.  It was especially confusing the first time I went “home,” but the confusion marches on ten years later.

How do my kids understand “home” when they spend the bulk of their lives as foreigners? Am I going “home” or leaving “home” right now? Is “home” a place or people or an allegiance or a feeling?  Should I feel guilty for wanting to get back “home” even when I am “home”?  How is it that I can be at “home” and missing “home” no matter where I am?

Deep breath.

It’s alright.  “Home” is complex, for people don’t have the luxury of simple answers.  People have been wrestling with this concept long before we showed up.  That’s why we say things like “home is where you hang your hat” or “home is where your heart is.”

However, that rationale assumes that your heart can only be in one place at a time . . . and that you only have one hat.

It might not be that simple.  I’m ok with complex.

Fourth . . . Going “home” is a gap-filling time

I mourn “home” for my kids.

The experience, not the concept.  My experience, not theirs.

I know I know, they are having their own adventure and it is rich.  They are doing things that I only dreamed of when I was their age.  They are seasoned world travelers with a front row seat to the broader world and it is all preparing them to grasp the complexities of “home” in a way that I never will.

I love their definition of “home” BUT they don’t know how to play baseball.  They don’t know the joys of a small town ice cream shop or catching lightning bugs.  Fireworks to them mean Chinese New Year not Independence Day.

Going “home” for a few weeks doesn’t give them my childhood, but they don’t need that.  It does help fill in a few gaps though.  It’s a connection between their childhood and mine.  It’s a glimpse into things that I remember fondly and the missing link to the place that their passport says is their “home.”

I want that for them.

Fifth . . . Just passing through doesn’t mean I can’t love the trip

It’s inevitable in Christian circles.  Conversations about “home” end with a comment about “passing through.”

“This world is not my home.”

“My citizenship is in heaven.”

No argument from me but I do kind of cringe a little at the unspoken insinuation that love for our earthly home is grounds for a “shame on you.”   My only frame of reference for something that I can’t even begin to grasp is the closest possible thing that I can.  Even if this is just a reflection of the real thing, it’s a pretty awesome one.

Finally . . . Living abroad means I am double blessed.

It has been a great summer.  Thankful to have gone home — Thankful to be going home.

 

Jerry lives in China and blogs at The Culture Blend.

When the Mission Field Comes to You

While rounding a corner on a run in the United States the other day, I came across a Muslim women clad in a headdress and robes. I could see her cower off the sidewalk a bit as this white, American man came plodding her way in middle America. You could sense her apprehension and read her thoughts of “here we go again.”

I greeted her warmly, commenting on the beautiful day. You could visibly see her relax and the tension leave her body.

I’ve been in her position before. I too have been the foreigner in a land and culture which is not my own. I can relate to wishing I could change my nationality or accent in order to blend in. I wouldn’t wear my USA soccer jersey because of the perception of my nation in South Africa.

There are many foreigners in South Africa who have a much rougher go than an American not wearing a soccer jersey.

South Africa is a land of opportunity for the rest of Africa. I have met doctors and lawyers who clean houses and wash cars to escape a corrupt government or hope for a better life.

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With immigration and refugee issues we actually have the mission field coming to us in both South Africa and the United States.

In the past, persecution of Christians caused the gospel to spread in the book of Acts. Now the persecuted and displaced are often not believers. Today, we have nations with bad presidents and horrible conditions. People are fleeing for a better life. The mission field is coming to us.

I recently learned of an Egyptian friend moving to the United States. For the first time in my life I was quite nervous to hear of someone moving to my country. I fear for the welcome she will face as a person of Middle Eastern descent even if she is a Christian.

The Bible speaks often about hospitality,  devoting 2 books to this (2/3 John) as well as making it a requirement for leadership (1 Timothy 1:2, Titus 1:8).

We often define hospitality as having guests our house or making meals for our friends. The true definition is doing this to people you do not know. What does this love of strangers look like today?

Jesus told us to love God and our neighbors. In the classic parable of the good Samaritan (Luke 10), the entire story is told based on the question, “Who is my neighbor?”

Who is our neighbor that we are to love? Those who look and sound just like us? The kingdom will not advance unless we go to those who hail from different places. Without bridging these divides we will merely build up our local Christian bubbles.

Hospitality is love of the stranger and those who are different than us. Perhaps instead of us going to the mission field, today the mission field is coming to us!

In the current climate, this has become a very political discussion.

Let’s lay our politics aside and have a gospel discussion about loving our neighbor, showing care for the stranger, and sharing the gospel with whoever God brings our way.

This week, let’s take a step in the direction of inclusion rather than exclusion.

  • Let’s do something kind for a stranger
  • Greet someone who looks or sounds different than us in a warm manner.
  • Be aware of our stereotypes, our words, and our thoughts to the “foreigner” in our midst
  • And most of all – let’s extend the kingdom of God.

Photo credit: Qiqi via photopin (license)