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 Kingdom Living

by Tanya Crossman

In my previous post, I discussed the importance of citizenship of heaven as biblical theology which brings hope and encouragement to TCKs. The knowledge that their hearts will one day rest in the comfort of a single home brings great peace. There is also great joy in knowing that this single home crosses the earthly boundaries they feel restricted by – that heaven will be a place of inclusion, where difference does not mean separation.

This was one of two findings from my research. The other was more of a surprise to me – that TCKs’ understanding of earthly citizenship provides an important springboard to helping them understand what it means to be a Christian.

 

Christians are expatriates on earth

Throughout the New Testament there are calls for Christians to live as those whose allegiance is first and foremost to the kingdom of heaven. (Philippians 3:20, 1 Peter 2:11, Hebrews 11:13-16). We are strangers and sojourners in this world. Two Greek words often used in this context (paroikos and parepidēmos) have a meaning similar to the modern use of “expatriate” – those who are living long term in a place they do not completely belong to.

Those of us who live (or have lived) outside our passport countries can easily layer our earthly experiences onto this spiritual reality. We know what it feels like to live in a place we cannot truly call ‘home’. We live according to the laws and customs of the place in which we sojourn, while maintaining a different identity altogether.

The experience of TCKs, however, is an even closer parallel to the Christian’s spiritual reality. TCKs grow up far from the place to which they are legally connected. They know where ‘home’ is, but they grow up building emotional connections somewhere else. Is that not our spiritual situation? We are citizens of heaven, a place in which we have not lived, a place that often feels so far away. We aim to live out Kingdom values, though we are steeped in the values of this world. TCKs’ understandings of citizenship, therefore, have a lot to speak to the spiritual lives of Christians.

 

TCKs and Citizenship

The TCKs I interviewed did not feel a sense of belonging simply through shared characteristics – like ethnicity, nationality, work, or church. Belonging, they said, required integration. They needed a sense of shared purpose, working toward a common goal.

“It’s always a two-way thing, to feel like you belong. You can’t just be there and feel like you’re contributing but no one really accepts you, or feel like everyone accepts you but you’re not actually building anything while you’re there.” – Min

This idea of belonging as a two-way street bled through into their understanding of citizenship. While they recognised the legal aspect of citizenship (holding a passport) they also felt strongly that real citizenship meant personal involvement: shared values, understanding of culture/language, acceptance by locals, and contribution to the community. Yet these TCKs also know that no amount of felt belonging can grant one a passport. Legal standing is, to a very large extent, outside the individual’s control.

“You can quite easily be a citizen of a country without knowing any kind of cultural norms or history or the language even. . .citizenship, legally speaking, comes just like that with paperwork, but in terms of actual action it takes time, it takes years to really feel like you have become a citizen of that place. . .If you don’t have the piece of paper to prove it then you’re not a citizen of the place. Regardless to how much that person knows about that place or how much they are familiar with the place.” – Kaito

 

Citizenship and Soteriology

During interviews every TCK used ideas from their description of earthly citizenship to illustrate what they believed heavenly citizenship was. The conversation invariably turned to what makes someone a citizen of heaven – what does it mean to be included in the people of God? In other words, what does it mean to be saved? Suddenly their two categories of citizenship took on a new light, as they map to theology of justification and sanctification.

  • I am a citizen because the ruling authority declares it so – justification.
  • I respond to my citizenship by learning to act according to the culture – sanctification.

I am a citizen because a government accepts me. Citizenship is granted to me by that authority, a decision which is out of my hands. I can apply to become a citizen, but the country must choose to accept me. That declaration makes me a citizen, but there should be more. I should respond to that reality, connecting personally and engaging in the community, by learning language, understanding culture, and contributing to society.

I am a citizen of heaven because God accepts me, declaring me righteous on the basis of Jesus’ completed work, not on the basis of anything I’ve done. That declaration makes me a citizen of heaven, but there should also be a response from me. I need to learn the culture of this Kingdom, learn to live that way, and engage with the community I am now a part of.

 

Discipling TCKs as citizens of heaven

Earthly citizenship comes with both rights and responsibilities; so does heavenly citizenship. TCKs’ understanding of the former can enlighten their understanding of the latter.

I often hear a works-mentality from Christian TCKs – that they need to be good enough, need to learn more, need to work out what to do to earn their place among God’s people. TCKs’ understanding of earthly citizenship provides an open door to explain justification and assurance of salvation – they can be granted the passport, even if they don’t feel they belong, and don’t always act like they belong.

On the other hand, TCKs’ intuitive sense that there is more to citizenship than a piece of paper translates across to their faith: being justified and accepted by God makes me a citizen of heaven, but now I must choose to identify with this King and His Kingdom.

“We should live like citizens of heaven here on earth… For me it means to have a different mindset, a different set of values… You live here how you live when you are a citizen in heaven. You care for other people, you think that every human is equal, you respect each other.” – Yannick

The call to live as citizens of heaven, to live with that cultural mindset, is a challenge today just as it was when Jesus preached the counter-cultural values of the kingdom of heaven. Citizenship is an image that resonates for immigrants and expatriates and especially TCKs. New Testament writers used this imagery precisely because it connects with so many earthly experiences. We can do the same, and in the process speak both comfort and challenge to TCKs and others who live cross-cultural lives.

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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.

Parenting in Real Life: Ministry Version

by Mandi Hart

As long as I can remember,  I have been captivated by the thought that we reproduce who we are in others. We will reproduce not only what we say, but who we are. It is something that is ‘caught’ and not ‘taught’. Apple trees will reproduce apples and orange trees will produce oranges. I first heard that concept many years ago when I was learning about discipling others and the teacher was telling us that we need to live out of who we are in Christ.

Joseph Chilton Pearce says that what we are teaches the child more than what we say, so we must be what we want our children to become. We really do reproduce who we are in our children even when we don’t want to admit it. Our children know without being taught whether you are sincere or not. They see through our masks in ways that adults often can’t.

One of the challenges I have encountered since becoming a missionary is that we pray for the work on the field, we plan various activities on how to reach those who do not know Jesus, and our conversations centre around the gospel most of the day. And then we come home. Our children need us, and my husband and I discovered that we had poured ourselves out to their detriment during the day.

Our children go to a ‘secular’ school. We prayed as a family and all agreed the Lord was leading them to be around children their own age from all spheres of life. As a matter of fact, this helps us. It is a great reminder that we are the primary source for teaching our children about the Lord. The Old Testament reminds of that as well. It’s so easy to let the churches or schools teach our children about God and His ways.

One evening, my husband and I looked at each other and shook our heads in sadness. We realised that we were too tired from all our conversations during the day to speak to our teens about the Lord. Then, one day, we had a valuable discussion about it and understood how purposeful we really needed to be with them.

We have to parent intentionally. The result was that we changed a few things in our schedules so that we could be more available to our children. We stopped having afternoon meetings at our home and removed many of the work items from our lounge and dining room. Our home had started feeling like a missions base and not a safe place.

Within a short period of time, we started to notice a few changes in our children’s hearts. We had more energy to have those spiritual discussions them too. All of us started to enjoy doing Bible studies again, and we spent more time discipling them.

Whilst we don’t always have it right, we’ve learned some things through this experience:

1. Keep your home a haven — a safe place from the world (for you and your children).

2. Set some boundaries around your work so that your children feel like they can enjoy being at home.

3. Make sure that you have enough energy left to spend time with them. You need to intentionally invest spiritually into your children.

4. Admit your mistakes and be real.

5. Allow the Holy Spirit to lead you as you parent and love them.

Being a missionary doesn’t mean that my mission field is only ‘out there’; it starts at home with my children. They are the ones I want to minister to first. After all, I will reproduce who I am in them rather that what I say or do.

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Mandi Hart lives in Cape Town, South Africa but carries the nations in her heart. She and her husband, Neil, are the leaders of All Nations Cape Town and have been involved in church planting, discipleship, and missionary training for over a decade. Mandi holds a certification in counseling and a degree in communications and has ministered to mothers and families in a number of ways over the years, including leading a moms group of over 75 moms of babies and toddlers. She has run parenting workshops in Africa & the Middle East and thinks that every stage of parenting is the best stage (she currently has two teenagers). Mandi loves spontaneous adventures, traveling, and sharing a delicious meal with friends and has just released her book Parenting With Courage.