Led by the Global South

“A typical Christian today is a non-white woman living in the global South, with lower-than-average levels of societal safety and proper health care. This represents a vastly different typical Christian than that of 100 years ago, who was likely a white, affluent European.”

(from the Center for the Study of Global Christianity)

This was the quote that jumped out at me recently when I saw a graphic called “The World as 100 Christians.” The graphic was created by The Center for the Study of Global Christianity , a research center located at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary.  

Like most infographics, the graphic is a way to help people grasp an idea and give them the desire to learn more. In my case it worked, and I began to look at something that I have known has been happening in Christianity and missions for a long time.

I’m asking you to track with me as I go back to 1982, when Oxford University Press published a landmark reference book called the World Christian Encyclopedia. Written with scrupulous detail, it was 1000 pages of detailed surveys and statistics on Christianity throughout the globe. At the time, Time magazine praised it as “a benchmark for our understanding of the true religious state of the planet.” This publication became the first of what are now three major publications released in 1982, 2001, and 2019. The 2019 edition was published after extensive updates of statistics and narratives by research staff from Gordon Conwell Seminary’s Center for the Study of Global Christianity.

Their website says this about the volume:

“From Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, the World Christian Encyclopedia includes quantitative information on every world religion and Christianity down to the denominational level.”

Significant to this discussion is the change of Christianity from being dominated by North America and Western Europe to the rise of Christianity in the Global South. As someone who grew up in a part of the world where the struggles that Christians faced were monumental, where to be a Christian meant that you faced discrimination, inequities, and potential persecution, this change is a beautiful and wonderful thing to behold.

The important thing to recognize is that white, affluent Americans and Europeans are not the main voices that should speak – or be listened to – for Christianity or for Missions today. Instead, we must recognize, listen to, and open our hearts to be led by the Global South. If we do not already realize this, it is time that we pay attention.

What does it mean to be led by the Global South? We have been given the mic for a long time. What does it look like to pass it and to not try to grab it back? Those are big questions, and I can’t do them justice. What I can do is offer some areas where we can learn from Christians in the Global South.

The Global South knows what it is to suffer. When I talk to Christians from Pakistan, Egypt, and Afghanistan, I am always humbled by their understanding of suffering, by their grace in the midst of suffering. I know little about suffering for my faith; I know little about suffering in general. I will never forget a meeting years ago with some Egyptian Christians who had converted from Islam to Christianity. When one of the students in our study abroad group asked them if they had suffered, they looked at the students in astonishment and replied with a simple, “Of course.” The simplicity and strength of the response was profound. No other words would have been as powerful. As Christians we have never been promised fame, riches, good health, healthy kids, or any of a number of things that we tend to put into our “blessed by God” buckets. What we have been promised is God’s presence no matter what happens. 

The Global South knows what it is to live without safety, security, and physical comforts. Our barely conscious quest for safety, security, and physical comforts are hallmarks of Western Christianity, and we try and build up that safety and security in every country we enter. We pack large suitcases full of things that we don’t want our kids to miss. Our chocolate chips melt as our massive shipment stands for hours in the hot sun waiting for a customs official to let them go, and our taco mix sometimes gets eaten by rats – but by God, we will fill our suitcases or die trying. And I am the first to tell you that my suitcases are full of chocolate chips and that my taco mix did indeed get eaten by rats! I love, love, love my physical comforts. There is nothing wrong with comfort per se. There is nothing wrong with loving beauty and wanting to create a home, but we must be ever conscious of our motivation behind these things. If we go overseas only to recreate the homes and lives that we left, then we’d best look in the mirror and figure out our purpose and motivation.

And then there’s the safety piece. I’m struck by how often people from the west say to me as I travel, “Be safe! Be Careful!” It’s said out of kindness and concern, but perhaps there is also a distorted sense of what safety is or should be. Rachel Pieh Jones, long a favorite writer and friend of mine, has penned the truest words I know on safety in her longform essay, “The Proper Weight of Fear.” At one point in the essay, she describes questions that she and her husband were asked before leaving for Somaliland. “The second question after weren’t you afraid was were you safe? Of course, we were safe. Of course, we were not safe. How could we know? Nothing happens until it happens. People get shot at schools in the United States, in movie theaters, office buildings. People are diagnosed with cancer. Drunk drivers hurtle down country roads. Lightning flashes, levees break, dogs bite. Safety is a Western illusion crafted into an idol and we refused to bow.”

The Global South knows what it is to live in collective community. To live in collective community is a Biblical ideal. We are called to live not for self, but out of responsibility and love for each other. This collective community isn’t about finding who you like and deciding to form a team with them. It’s about working toward relationship with the people who are in your lives. Western Christians are great at being in community with people they like, people who agree with them politically, spiritually, and materially – but when disagreement enters, we are quick to absolve ourselves of the same community we spoke so highly of. It reminds me of the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Life Together: “The person who loves their dream of community will destroy community, but the person who loves those around them will create community.” Since I was young, South Asian and Middle Eastern Christians have modeled community for me – community that doesn’t exist out of sameness, but out of love of God and neighbor.

How do we, how do I, respond to being led instead of leading? To giving up my belief in my own expertise, instead opening up to the wisdom of others?

With cultural humility – Cultural humility is a term I use all the time in my workshops. If it is true in healthcare, it is even more important and true in missions. Cultural humility gives up our right to be experts, releasing that right and being willing to be a student. In the school of suffering, safety, security, and community, I know I am not a teacher. I am a kindergartner. I know so little of any of these things. Cultural humility also emphasizes healthy self-reflection and self-critique. Not to be absorbed by self, but instead to willingly analyze and bring that analysis to God. Cultural humility also asks that we be aware of historical considerations and take them into account as we honor new leadership from the Global South. 

With a focus on partnerships – I’ll be honest – I don’t know what this looks like. Partnership brings to mind a picture of relationships, service, and commitment to a long-term goal. All of those are impossible without a commitment to cultural humility. We want to walk beside, not in front of, people. Partnerships may look different depending on if the work is focused on education, medicine, business, or church.

With grateful hearts –  What an incredible encouragement to know that so many places in the world are coming to understand the love story at the heart of the Christian faith! To grow in understanding the love of God and how this love compels and leads to new mission endeavors is a gift we have been given. What a picture of a creative God whose spirit moves in ways we can scarcely fathom! There is no better response than a heart of thanksgiving, a heart that humbly acknowledges God’s ways as higher than ours. It is with a grateful and awe-filled heart that I welcome these changes.

To be participants in God’s good work in the world is a gift. To be front row observers and called onto the stage of God’s glory being made known brings wordless humility. To step back and humbly be led by a new generation of Christians around the world – this is what it’s all about. May we stand back in awe and step forward in obedience. Amen and Amen.

A Global Pandemic and Ambiguous Loss

In 1999, researcher Pauline Boss, introduced the concept of ambiguous loss with these words: “In the world of unresolved grief, there is a unique kind of loss that complicates grief, confuses relationships, and prevents closure. I call it ambiguous loss. It lies at the root of much depression, anxiety, and family conflict.

While religious communities traditionally have comforted those who lose a loved one from death—a clear loss—less attention is paid to ambiguous loss. This is understandable as there is no official notice or ritual for such unclear loss. Yet, the trauma devastates people. Traditional therapies are insufficient because closure, the usual goal in grief therapy, is impossible. With faith communities so often the central support system for people who are suffering, knowing about this more nuanced and complicated loss is important.

She goes on to say: “I do not pathologize. Depression is, of course, a symptom that needs treatment… in the case of ambiguous loss, the cause lies in the external environment. It is important for people suffering from this kind of traumatic loss to know that it is not their fault.”*

Ambiguous loss is believed to be the most stressful kind of loss. Death brings finality and closure and you are allowed and expected to mourn. Ambiguous loss brings none of those things. There are no sign posts. Instead, the grief process is frozen.

Ambiguous loss is unclear, traumatic, externally caused by illness/work/leaving (not by individual pathology), confusing and incomprehensible.

Ambiguous loss can freeze the grief process. People can’t get over it, they can’t move forward, they’re frozen in place. 

Pauline Boss

I can’t think of a better description of the losses people are feeling during this worldwide pandemic. Quick pack-ups and overnight border closures, family separations and job losses, death with no or limited funerals, grieving alone – all of it has contributed to lack of closure and a prolonged and ambiguous grief process.

There are two types of ambiguous loss:

  • Type One: Occurs when there is physical absence with psychological presence. This includes situations when a loved one is physically missing or bodily gone. While there are catastrophic examples of physical ambiguous loss (including kidnapping, terrorism, ethnic cleansing, genocide, and natural disasters such as earthquake, flood, and tsunami) the more common examples of physical ambiguous loss are divorce, adoption, and loss of physical contact with family and friends because of immigration. This would be the most common type with third culture kids and expats. There is a physical absence, but you know the place you left, the friends you left, are still psychologically present. You see pictures of your adopted home, but you are no longer there. Your children see their school friends through social media, but physically, though the place remains, you are gone. You may never get to visit again.
  • Type Two: Occurs when there is psychological absence with physical presence. In this second type of ambiguous loss, a loved one is psychologically absent—that is, emotionally or cognitively gone or missing. Such ambiguous loss occurs from Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias; traumatic brain injury; addiction, depression, or other chronic mental or physical illnesses that take away a loved one’s mind or memory. Psychological ambiguous losses can also result from obsessions or preoccupations with losses that never make sense, e.g., some suicides or infant deaths.*

Identifying ambiguous loss is a huge step. I remember first reading about it several years ago, how just reading about it did something powerful in and for me. Realizing I wasn’t alone, that there was a name for my experiences, was a pivotal point in better understanding what I needed to do.

There were several steps to my process, and I write them here cautiously, knowing that there is not a one-size-fits-all approach to facing ambiguous loss.

Naming it as ambiguous loss was an important first step. Finding a name for what I was experiencing was huge. You can’t cope with something unless you know what it is. At six years old, I waved goodbye to my parents as they stood on the platform of a train station in Southern Pakistan. I strained my head to wave, crying the crocodile tears of a child that knows that they are leaving their primary source of security, but not having words to express it. I strained to watch my parents through the window until the platform was out of sight, finally succumbing to the comfort of kind adult chaperones. I knew that my parents weren’t dead, but their physical absence brought profound loss. It would be the same for all but two years of my childhood until I turned 18 and left home. Finding out about the concept of ambiguous loss was deeply comforting to me. I thought back to many childhood events like this one, realizing I had never grieved the losses because I didn’t think there were any. Naming is an edenic act, and when we name something we open up a door to understanding that is otherwise impossible. In this Pandemic year, it is important to name the ambiguous loss. If you had to pack up with little notice and no goodbyes, if you did not have time to build the RAFT to float yourself and your family, it is probably true that what you are experiencing is ambiguous loss. The place you left still exists; the work and your place within the work may still be there, but you aren’t. Soon, someone else will take your place because though people are not replaceable, positions must be replaced. Naming this is critical to moving forward. If you do nothing else but name it, you are still on a step toward healing.

Use both/and thinking. It’s not one or the other – it’s both. We have both the anxiety of no closure and the opportunity of unexpected change and relationships going forward. Absolute thinking is not helpful with ambiguous loss or the pandemic in general. F. Scott Fitzgerald said this, and it is perfect for thinking about both/and thinking:

The test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

F.Scott Fitzgerald

This both/and thinking is important for us and for our children. We acknowledge the losses even as we begin to write our names in the land where we find ourselves.

Find meaning in the present. Not acknowledging ambiguous loss can cripple us to finding meaning in our present reality. What is the meaning in your present reality? Where have you found meaning that is unexpected? Perhaps you have found meaning in the act of waiting. Perhaps you have had unexpected time with aging parents. Perhaps you used to long for more time with your kids, feeling like their childhoods were on fast forward in the movie of life. Suddenly, all of life has slowed down and it feels impossible to dream, to look forward to anything. Maybe there is meaning in the impossible.

Reconstructing identity is a third step in facing ambiguous loss. Moving, death, job loss, changing friendships – all of this affects our identity and our perception of our identity. Who are we without what we had? Who are we when we are not in our adopted countries using hard-earned language skills? Who are we without the brother, mother, son, or daughter that we have lost to a country or place far away? Who are we apart from our friendships? Who are we when ministry is gone? All of these questions are a part of reconstructing our identities. Ultimately, in my faith journey I’ve recognized that identity is not about where I am, for that is too fickle and can change through pandemics, military takeovers, natural disasters, and job loss – indeed everyone of those things have affected my life at different points. Instead, my core identity has to be about being beloved by God and recognizing I am part of a bigger picture in His world.

Building resilience, not seeking closure. The goal is not closure, and we make a mistake if we think that is possible. That’s the thing with ambiguous loss – the goal changes from closure to building strength and acceptance of ambiguity. We may never get to say proper goodbyes, we may always wonder “What would have happened if we stayed?” We may always long for something that we can’t even voice. I’ve been learning a lot about being grateful for those things, for they are indeed gifts. We live in a world of displaced people and refugees; indeed that is the story of our time. It is a gift that we know what it is to grieve loss of place and people. Understanding ambiguous loss is in itself a gift. It allows us to enter relationships with hope but without the guarantees that we so long for. This is far more what our world needs than a security and belief that what we have will be there forever. This is true for individuals, and it’s true for a family. As a family adapts to change, stress, and ambiguous loss, it builds resilience and this becomes a part of the larger family story. The larger family story will have a pandemic chapter, but it’s not the only chapter. It’s one of many.

Discovering new hope. As we move forward, we discover new hope. Hope in a future that will continue to hold the hard and unknown, yet entering it with a greater reality of the presence of God. Hope in the words from the book of Hebrews that He who called us is faithful. We may never know the whys, but can it be enough to know Him? I speak truth when I say that some days it is enough and some days it isn’t. I cling to the days where it is enough, where He is enough. And I’m getting better at facing the days when He is not enough, where I pray the Jesus prayer all day long and into the night.

Lastly, God is far more concerned about who we are than about what we do and where we live. If we lose everything, He still loves us. Before He called us, He loved us. I’m sitting with that hard truth, praying that I will know it in my soul. I pray that wherever you are today, and whatever your losses, you may know this hard but glorious truth. He looks at you and He loves you – and though all around you may be loss and grief, that truth is a reality.

*https://www.ambiguousloss.com/about/faq/

A Global Pandemic and Lives Interrupted

In our house we have a saying. “Don’t speak while I’m interrupting!” Other people don’t find it quite as funny as we do. We are a family of interrupters, none worse than me and my husband.

Sometimes I wonder if that statement is what God might say to me with a gentle grin as he upends my life with interruptions and changed plans.

A few years ago I wrote about my brother and his wife having an encounter with the Great Interrupter. In their case the encounter put them in a place of selling a home of over 15 years, leaving a church of the same, leaving a community where they have loved hard and were loved back, and leaving the only home their children remember. They embarked on a mid-life journey to begin a life in the Middle East. Like a train heading one direction only to switch mid-journey to another set of tracks, so was their interruption. Who needs a mid-life crisis when the Great Interrupter is in your life?

Seven years after their interruption, my husband and I had our encounter with the Great Interrupter. We ended up in the Kurdish Region of Iraq in a 2-year commitment at a Kurdish university that would end up being cut short after a year with another great interruption. While I loved the first interruption, despite the myriad of details and hard goodbyes, I hated the second. I cried every day for a month in Kurdistan and then more once we arrived back in the United States.

And the thing that made me the angriest was when people said to me “There must be some reason for this.” “Yes,” I would respond somewhat politely. Inside I was more honest – Don’t you think I freaking know that in my head? It’s my heart that hurts. Or the even more honest “Shut up!”

And then came a global pandemic and around the world we have seen lives interrupted. Our plans were all going so well! We had dreams and businesses, ideas that were turning into reality. Then just like that – bam! Borders closed and we left the countries we loved. Or we stayed, only to be housebound for weeks on end, unable to meet with people we had come to love, stymied at every turn. Even worse, some have encountered the death of those they love and that interruption feels unbearable.

The words “God’s in control” that are so easy to say when things are going well are suddenly impossible. Collectively we’ve been shown just how little control we actually have and it’s maddening. Out of one side of our mouths come screams of “NOOOOO!” and out of the other comes the socially acceptable “But God’s in control! God’s got this!” The war in our heads is brain crushing and headache inducing.

As a community at A Life Overseas, even before the pandemic we knew intimately about these encounters with the Great Interrupter. When your life seems to be heading one way, the trajectory clear, and then in a slow but steady encounter with the Great Interrupter you realize that your life is being disturbed. No longer can you settle comfortably in the familiar because the voice of the Great Interrupter is strong and powerful, compelling if not always clear.

These interruptions are not easy. How can we possibly do this? What should our next step be? Is this the end of our life overseas? When will I get to see my aging parents again? What do we do in the future? How do we worship? How do we move forward at all. These questions and more are part of our inner dialogue and our outer conversations. There are also the physical and emotional symptoms and feelings of being out of control. Sleepless nights, anxiety, a nervous stomach, checking our email, phones, and the news constantly, tears, irritability, anger, and depression are all the human parts of coping with these interruptions.

Can we, can I, believe that within this quite obvious lack of control, accompanied by our physical and emotional discomfort, there is a safety net woven by God to catch us? A safety net created with the deepest love and whispers, not shouts, of his presence? Can I believe that interruptions are not mistakes, rather they show us God’s care in ways we might never understand without them?

Throughout history God has interrupted people’s lives, moving them from comfort to the unknown and asking them to trust along the way. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses and more are in the ranks of those whose lives were interrupted and who walked in faith. To be honest, I’m less interested in them then I am in their wives. What could the untold stories tell us of these women and their faith journeys? What would they say to me, to you about trust? About faith? About God’s whispers in the hard parts of the night?

I don’t come to you with answers today. I come with these words, committed to memory many years ago, for these are the words that I hear whispered in the still of the night during these interruptions:

“I know that my redeemer lives,
    and that in the end he will stand on the earth.
And after my skin has been destroyed,
    yet in my flesh I will see God;
I myself will see him
    with my own eyes—I, and not another.
    How my heart yearns within me”
*

What is the story of your interruption during this pandemic? How did your life change? Are there words you remember in the dark parts of the night? Words whispered in your heart? Please share them and know – You Are Not Alone.

The Beatitudes for Cross-Cultural Workers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Psalm 84:5 & 7

Decision Making and Transition

In all my years of coming and going, of moving and transition, I’ve never experienced anything like the transition and confusion that the last months of pandemic chaos have brought into our world. Its impossible to quantify the amount of grief and loss that people around the globe and in this community have experienced. I wrote this piece eight months ago when I was living, breathing and eating transition and the impossible decision making that goes with transition. I hope it helps some of you during this time.

The other night I woke up to fierce wind and rain. On the right side of the house an alley way created a wind tunnel and I could hear the wind howling through it. This house is still new to us and the sounds are unfamiliar. I lay listening for while, thinking of the fierce wind, of storms, and of the comfort of my bed within the storm. There is something deeply comforting about feeling safe during a storm. It is a privileged comfort. 

I don’t always feel that way. There are times when storms make me feel deeply afraid. But not the other night. 

For those who have been following along with me, my journey and the sometimes storm of our transition continues. 

During this time I’ve found it difficult to make decisions. It makes sense. We made a massive decision a year and a half ago that included many smaller decisions along the way. Then in May, a decision was made far above us that changed our lives. This resulted in us making another massive decision and smaller decisions along the way. The result is that I have felt trapped in decision making. 

When I am feeling low, the questions are heavy and unrelenting. How do I know what decisions are right? How do I decide what to do next? Our lives were turned upside down two years in a row. What does that mean? Did we make the wrong choice even though it felt so clear at the time? Or did we make the right choice, and nothing and no one could have predicted what came next? Asking too many of these questions is not healthy. It spins your head and your heart and you end up not trusting yourself with any decision. 

One of the ways I have chosen to walk through this season is by reading Emily Freeman’s latest book The Next Right Thing. The subtitle of the book is “A Simple, Soulful Practice for Making Life Decisions.” 

Before Freeman even addresses decision making, she introduces some foundational concepts that are key to being in a place where you can make good decisions. 

Her first concept is to become what she calls a “soul minimalist.” Clear clutter and create space for silence. It’s this that sets a foundation for making decisions. “The world is run by worn-out people, and our soul is often lost beneath the piles of our everyday life.”

“Good decisions require creativity and creativity requires space. This space is necessary for you to speak out against the injustices you see in the world, the problems you know you can help solve, and the beauty you long to deliver.”

Emily P. Freeman in The Next Right Thing

Her second concept is the powerful practice of naming the narrative. Naming those hidden things that are affecting our decision making. This has been a hard, painful process for me. Naming grief, disappointment, dead dreams, and anger are not easy, but the process of doing this and being honest with my emotions has been significant. 

Freeman’s third foundational concept is examining our beliefs about God, discovering the disconnect between what we say we believe and how that works out in practice. This is an eye-opening exercise. While many of us say we believe and trust in God, our daily lives are more like those of practicing atheists. Inside we are a bit like two-year-olds convincing ourselves we can “do by self,” while on the outside we choose the right words and phrases to make our beliefs about God sound good and safe. What happens when we are honest, and we admit the disconnect between our actions and our beliefs?

Reading this book and taking an in-depth look at these concepts as I move forward in decision making has pushed me to grow in meaningful ways. 

“Just because things change doesn’t mean you chose wrong in the first place.  

The Next Right Thing by Emily Freeman

When we left for Kurdistan, we had no idea that we would be back here a year later, trying to make sense of a dream cut short, of a closed door. It would be easy to look back and accuse ourselves of making the wrong decision in the first place. But I don’t think that’s true. I think we made the right decision. 

I’m think we made the right decision for a lot of reasons – probably the most significant being who we became as a result of going. From learning more about empathy and incarnational living to being humbled by all the areas where we fell short, it was an important process in who we are and in who we are becoming. 

I’m convinced God is less interested in where we end up then He is in who we are becoming. Whether we’re employed or unemployed, encouraged or discouraged, filled with vision or fumbling in the fog. More than anything, our Father just wants to be with us.

The Next Right Thing by Emily Freeman

I have read and reread the words above – “Whether we’re employed or unemployed, encouraged or discouraged, filled with vision or fumbling in the fog. More than anything, our Father just wants to be with us.” 

In closing, I think of an episode of the new season of The Crown that we watched last night. In this particular episode there is a tragedy that takes place in a mining town. Many have died, most of them children. The queen is slow to make the decision to go and there are many reasons and excuses as to why. When she finally does decide to go, it’s clear that people just want her to be with them, to bear witness to the pain they are going through, to sit with them in their sorrow. 

Our Father just wants to be with us…” No matter our decisions, whether they are big or small, whether they will change lives or just our next hour, these are words to live by.

On Scarcity and Abundance

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

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

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

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

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

I fear this is how I have begun to live. 

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

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

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

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

It affected me physically, emotionally, and spiritually.  

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

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

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

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

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

Success or Faithfulness?

It has not been an easy week here in Kurdistan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Success is defined by accomplishment. Faithfulness by devotion.

Success is defined by achievement. Faithfulness by commitment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Just be faithful.”

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

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

______________________________________________________________________________________

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

Clenched Fists and Heart’s Desires

faust-1607060_1280

It’s a New Year here at A Life Overseas and as I type I’m looking out at the barely visible mountains that surround our home here in Northern Iraq. On clear days, you can see the snow-covered mountains in Iran and they are beautiful. Today as I look, the entire area is covered in milky fog and you can barely see their outline. On those clear days I want to live here forever; during this fog, I want to pack my bags and say “Well, we gave that a try….!”

It’s during the fog that I need to remember the story of how we ended up here and speak out loud the works of God, because it is a story about desires, confession, and release. It’s a story about miracles of the heart and it has changed me.

For years I had longed for an opportunity to return to the Middle East. My longing was unspoken, but deeply embedded in my heart. But except for short trips to help with humanitarian aid projects, our lives were centered in Cambridge and Boston and the rhythms of the seasons. The few times that I dared to be honest with God, I begged for “Just one more chance”  – just one more opportunity to live and work in a part of the world that we love so deeply. We had left Cairo, Egypt over 20 years before and though our lives were full and rich, both of us involved with refugees and immigrants at home and work, I longed to go back.

I had been birthed and raised on the “delight and desires” cause and effect teaching of Psalm 37:4. When I was a child it all seemed so easy. Delight myself in God and I’ll get my heart’s desires, which as a child basically meant I would get what I wanted. I didn’t begin to really think about what delighting in God meant until much later in my life. But a child’s theology, if not challenged to move beyond, stays child-like instead of growing into a greater understanding of faith.  Somewhere along the journey the roots of delight, desire, and all that meant got lost and mixed up with hurt and disappointment in what life brought to me.

Somewhere along the journey, too, I began to stop voicing my desires and began to hold them in a tightly clenched fist. I could hardly bear to hear of others who were living and working in the Middle East, and felt almost pathological envy when I saw or heard about their lives.

It was a year ago when my dear friend and sister-in-law, Carol, challenged me on desires in general, challenged me on bringing my desires to God. I remember hot tears filling my eyes. “I don’t trust myself to voice my desires,” I said, the tears leaking into my throat. “I know I will just be disappointed. I know that it does no good. What’s the use of voicing my desires if I’ll only end up disappointed?” I don’t remember how Carol responded, but I remember that soon after that I ended the conversation. I began to cry. For how long, I don’t know. The tears came from such a deep place in my soul that I could barely breathe.

Soul confession tears are difficult to describe, but anyone who has experienced them knows them. They root out far more than your initial thoughts, and clarity comes with the confession and the crying. You begin to feel what perhaps David felt in his profound confession in Psalm 91 when he cries “Have mercy on me O God according to your loving kindness…. against you and you only have I sinned and done what is wrong in your sight…wash me and I will be clean.” The entire Psalm eloquently captures soul confession. I don’t know about King David, but at the end, I was so tired. Confession and purification are humbling and necessary – they can also be exhausting.

I had so long clenched my fists and held in my desires that I didn’t know what it would be like to finally release them. I didn’t know the relief that I would feel in finally giving up. I didn’t know what it would look like to no longer be trapped in my head. But after that day in Cambridge my life changed in invisible ways. I began to see meaning in my friendships and my work that I had previously not noticed. I began to relax in ways that only I could know. I began to understand contentment and gratitude and I longed for the time I had previously wasted to be redeemed. The interminable New England winter was no longer a time of depression and anxiety but of slow growth and peace.

In her book, Teach Us to Want, author Jen Pollock Michel says We prefer the not wanting and not having to the losing.” This had certainly been my just-below-the-surface thought for a long, long time. To have this slowly replaced, not with resignation but with soul-deep surrender, was new for me. I slowly began to honor my struggle instead of simply enduring it. Michel also talks about struggle being the “prerequisite to surrender”  – perhaps the greater the struggle, the greater the surrender? I don’t know. I just know that in the great mystery of delight, desires, struggle, and surrender, I was at a different place.

The emails and phone calls from Kurdistan began last March and went largely ignored. Then came more phone messages, and more emails, and then more. They continued on until May. It seemed there was a university that wanted to hire both my husband and me in Kurdistan. We laughed as we ignored these messages.  We finally paid attention when they told us a visa was waiting for us at the Baghdad Embassy in Washington D.C. We responded in late May. In June we took a whirlwind trip to visit the university by way of Qatar, and three short and crazy months later we landed in Kurdistan.

I don’t know why God finally answered my unvoiced, but long-held, prayer to be back in the Middle East. I don’t think I “delighted in God” any more or any less than I previously had. As I said earlier, I find my delight and desires, my struggle and surrender to be an ongoing mystery. As I continue this walk of long obedience, delight and desire ebb and flow. There are times when my heart is centered and focused, when the alignment of my heart is sure and straight. There are other times when my heart is bent toward whatever joy or crisis is going on in my life. I don’t know why suddenly we had this opportunity to move to Kurdistan, to work at a university, to learn how to live and love well in this country. I will never know why. And I do not know how long we will be here. We are at the mercy of a place where we are guests. But that is not what’s important.

In truth, my life began to change many months before when, on my couch in Cambridge, I opened up a tired fist, full of desires and tension and anger and disappointment, and finally held it out to an invisible God.

In turn, he took that fist in his almighty hand, and as the tender, faithful father that he is, clasped it in his own.

Capable of Complexity

mallard-ducks-934518_1280

I loved growing up overseas. I loved that I knew how to traverse the globe at a young age, that I grew up on curry and hot pakoras, that I could see some of the highest mountains in the world from the grounds of my boarding school. I loved the colorful stamps in my passport – the story of my life in a legal document; the feel of excitement when a plane took off; the visceral sense of home when I was surrounded by palm trees and minarets echoing a mournful call to prayer. I loved it.

And…..

Ah! That word “and”! That freeing, amazing change agent! And it was also hard. I struggled with belonging, with connecting to place. I experienced long nights where tears of homesickness and grief were shed, with only God and a bunk bed as witnesses. I sat uncountable times in rooms full of people enveloped in a bubble of longing, with the words from Ijeoma echoing through my brain: “too foreign for here, too foreign for there – never enough for both”.

It takes many missionary kids years to accept that their experience was a complicated, beautiful package of good and hard. Owning the hard feels like a betrayal. And might I say, there is nothing that makes an MK/TCK bristle like a condescending adult looking at you and automatically saying “Wow – that must have been really hard. You must be glad to be back in [insert country].” I remember standing up as straight as my five foot three frame could make me and saying, with daggers in my voice and eyes, “I loved my childhood. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.” My voice said “Just try me, lady, and I’ll throw that macaroni casserole in your condescending face!”

Okay – that’s harsh. But I was a teenager, and to be told what my life must be was simply unbearable.

For years, all I could do was claim the positive. I was like the Joel Osteen Missionary Kid, except that my teeth weren’t as bright and shiny as his. My childhood was perfect, thank you very much, and don’t even start with the negative.

The problem is that of course, it wasn’t. There was the good and there was the hard. Trying to be fair to both those things felt like an impossibility, so I stuck with the good.

Here’s the thing: When we talk about the MK/TCK experience we have got to be capable of complexity. I’ll say that again: we have to be capable of complexity. As Tanya Crossman points out so well in her book Misunderstood, the third culture kid narrative is a perspective and not a one-size-fits-all single story. Each TCK story contains things that are deeply painful and other things that are incredibly unique and joy-filled.

I recently read a book called All You Can Ever Know: A Memoir by Nicole Chung. Though born of a Korean family, Nicole was adopted as a baby by a white family. The book is her story of coming to terms with her adoption and ultimately finding her birth family. But it’s much more than that. It’s a story about belonging, about the stories we tell ourselves to make sense of our reality, about the stories that families tell to make sense of their family narrative. At one point, the author says this:

Family lore given to us as children has such hold over us, such staying power. It can form the bedrock of another kind of faith, one to rival any religion, informing our beliefs about ourselves, and our families, and our place in the world. When tiny, traitorous doubts arose, when I felt lost or alone or confused about all the things I couldn’t know, I told myself that something as noble as my birth parents’ sacrifice demanded my trust. My loyalty.*

Though my circumstances were not those of an adoptee, this paragraph made a deep impact on me when I read it. How many of us as third culture kids, as missionary kids, had our own family lore that we believed? How many of us believed that we must trust our parents’ sacrifice, and wrongly believed that we must not let them, or anyone else, know when things were hard?

In my own journey I have found that the things that I found difficult were also difficult for my parents. I have come to know more fully some of the stories that I only knew partially. I have come to realize that saying something is hard does not mean that it was not good.

I wrote this in my memoir, Worlds Apart: The Journey of a Third Culture Kid:

Many of us find it hard to reconcile the good with the bad. For years, I thought it would be disloyal to my parents if I talked about the hard. I have come to realize that most of the things that I found hard, they too found difficult. Reducing the third culture kid experience to a single experience or story fails to do it justice. It’s far more complex than a single story.

Being a third culture kid – like the life of any child – was paradoxical. It was marked by tears at train stations, goodbyes that left a pit in my stomach, early morning wake up on the first day of boarding, confused and disoriented, and the evil of gossip.

Boarding was homesickness and misunderstanding, wishing Mom would be there, only to feel unable to communicate once she arrived. Boarding school with its rules and institutional living wasn’t easy. From bunk beds to dressers, all of our living space was shared. We bathed once a week in three inches of water, and washed our hair once a week unless we melted snow. Boarding school separated us from our families, even when we saw our siblings. We learned to relate to family in a completely new way. We had to learn crowd control and learn who could make our lives miserable, or comfortable. It was community living – at its worst, but also at its best.

Being a third culture kid in boarding school brought with it joys and losses that cannot be dissected until later in life. It was the good and the terrible, the happy and the sad, the laughter and the tears. I learned that grace covers memories, and magic can happen in unlikely places; that one bad teacher doesn’t define your life; and that forgiveness is a necessary ingredient of life. In short, my third culture kid childhood crammed most of life’s lessons into twelve short years.”

This is a piece of my story, a coming to terms with its pieces. Being able to finally admit the hard and the good has made it so much richer. It has changed my story from the Pollyanna version to a solid, grace-filled version that continues to grow and change. If I could see the well-meaning woman who looked at me so many years ago, I would look at her with clear eyes and I would be able to honestly say “Yes. there are some really hard parts to my story. And there are some really beautiful parts to my story – probably much like your own.” 

Being capable of complexity is one way to honor third culture kids, missionary kids, and their parents. Crafting our questions and our conversations in a way that honors the complexity is a way to build relationships and open up doors to deep conversations about this life overseas. It’s a way to honor the full story, the person, and the many events that comprise the life of a TCK. It’s a way to honor the work of God and the mystery of faith in the life of what can be a rich and complicated childhood.


*All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung

Failed Missionaries and “But God…”

When my husband and I left what was supposed to be a three-year missions commitment in Pakistan after one year, we were angry, hurt, and deeply wounded. We didn’t leave Pakistan, but we did leave a missions community that I had been a part of since birth. This community had raised me, loved me well, and shown me a lot of grace. Though there had been times of deep pain, loneliness, and misunderstanding in my childhood, I had been nurtured and loved in extraordinary ways, and those were the memories that I held to.

I had failed at the one thing that I thought I would be great at.

We moved to the capital city, Islamabad, and my husband began working for a USAID program. Pregnant with our second child, I stayed home with our little girl and began to meet other expatriates in the community. We ended up making deep friendships at our international church, and on the surface we were doing well.

A Time of Cynicism

But the wounds of failure went deep and soon gave birth to cynicism and anger toward the entire missionary community. “They” had hurt us.
“They” were hypocrites. “They” were spiritually superior. “They” made stuff up. “They” embellished facts to get money.

WE however? WE were real. WE were genuine. WE admitted failure. WE lived off our own hard-earned money, thank you very much. WE loved Pakistanis more than “they” did.

It was exhausting. Because we all know that bitterness and hatred are a bitter poison to drink. And while cynicism, when analyzed, can be a tool for discernment, we didn’t analyze our feelings. Because that would have taken work. Yes, we were hurt, but we were also lazy. We did what we had always challenged others not to do – we made broad, sweeping judgments and used labels. Ultimately, labels are lazy.

The Problem

We desperately wanted to cut ourselves off completely from missionaries, but here was one of the problems: My entire family was involved in missions in some capacity. My parents were career missionaries. I had brothers who were connected with missions in tent-making roles. I had other brothers who were pastors, or on missions committees. And then there were our friends around the world, working in some amazing, quietly world-changing projects. A Christian Ashram in Varanasi; medical work in various parts of the world; work in translation and education – people working in these projects couldn’t just be labeled, because they were our family and friends and we did believe that their work mattered, that they mattered. There were times when we longed to wear the title of missionary again. We had been schooled well, but incorrectly, that missionaries were a level above average. We struggled, feeling like we had fallen out of favor with an exclusive club. Sometimes it left us angry and cut off from connection with like-minded people. Other times it was a relief.

But God in His gracious big picture view knew that it wasn’t the title or the place for us.

We found out that God cared far more about our hearts than He did about us being missionaries. He cared far more about obedience than He did about titles. He cared far more about healing our souls than healing our reputation in the missionary community. So we slowly moved forward. We continued living as expatriates in Egypt, just as we had in Islamabad, connecting with the international church and the broader international community. My husband worked for a university, and I stayed at home, raising a family and occasionally using my nursing background in maternal/child health. We struggled in our spare time to learn Arabic and we learned to love the Middle East with a passion.

An Honest Analysis

When we look back at our time in Pakistan, at our “missionary failure” we can now see it for what it is. There were valid hurts. We hadn’t been placed in the right jobs, instead we worked in areas that didn’t fit our skill sets. We hadn’t been given a proper orientation or mentorship. But, we had also acted out of immaturity. We had rushed into the position, knowing it wasn’t a good fit, because we wanted to get overseas so badly. We weren’t willing to go and ask for help, instead it reached a point of crisis, and we felt there was no choice but to leave the mission.

Missions is Messy, People are Messy. 

Missions is messy, because people are messy. Missions is messy, because the Church is messy. Missions has wounded people and failed people, because institutions and people have the power to walk outside of God’s love and care for the world, imposing their own rules instead. Missions and those in missions leadership should always be in a process of “quality improvement” – asking what is going well and what needs improvement, not defining success by western measures and adherence to western cultural values. Missions should continually look at history and historical inequalities and wrongs perpetrated by the church, asking forgiveness and seeking restoration, no matter how long it takes. Worldwide, missions institutions should see themselves as imperfect servants who seek cultural humility and care about the least of these, not gate keepers to a Christianity based on western cultural values. Yet, God still loves this imperfect, flawed, institution and he still uses it for his glory. That is not to say we should not continually look at the need for change and improvement, because that is necessary, but it is to say – it will never be a perfect institution because imperfect humans, who struggle with pride and insensitivity, ethnocentrism and misplaced ideals are at its core.

BUT God….

If I can go back to my own missions story for a moment – for all the mistakes of the institution, and for all our own immaturity, there were so many “But God” moments, where the plot changed because God is still God, and he is not defined or confined by human or institutional failure. Throughout Scripture, we see God intervene – sometimes in dramatic ways, but normally through quiet faithfulness. It does not give license for us to wound people, either through our own actions or the actions of our institutions, but it does offer immense hope when we are wounded; it does show that God will rescue, restore, and make new. “But God” does not excuse sin, but it also doesn’t call for dismissing an entire world-wide movement. My friend Sophie wrote this a few years ago, and when I think of my response to being a failed missionary, I think of her words.

The most powerful testimonies are the But God moments in our lives and so often we wish them away…..He takes up what humanity have screwed well and truly up and he rescues us, restores us, makes us new again.”

“He takes ashes and gives you a crown of beauty, he takes mourning and gives you oil of joy, unlimited and in abundance, he takes a spirit of despair and he gives you praise to wear instead.  It’s not just that the Great Exchange is your life for his, although that in itself is mind-blowing, but he totally transforms your life afterwards as well.- Sophie Blanc

As for this community, and the organizations we represent – we are here on a journey as sinners in great need of God’s grace and love. We are here as people who desperately want to shine the love of God in our broken world, and be true to that, but we make mistakes. We are a people who constantly need to critique what we are doing, and then walk in faith, trusting the outcome to God. We are here with our own stuff, and God raises us up, like He could the rocks or trees, to praise his name in the hard places.


For more reading and articles from our ALOS Writer’s Team:

To the ones who think they’ve failed
The Idolatry of Missions
When the Straight & Narrow Isn’t
10 Reasons Not To Become a Missionary
In Defense of Second-Class Missionaries
The Cult of Calling

When You Want a Different Life

alo

I live in a tropical paradise.  The glorious Indian Ocean is my backdrop—I can see it between the trees at my house, when I run errands around town, and when I watch my daughter’s soccer games.  For fun we take a little boat to an uninhabited island and snorkel over colorful coral.  The weather is always warm; even in “winter” it rarely goes below 70 degrees at night.  We can drive just a few hours to see all the famous animals of Africa.  I am surrounded by people who are friendly and generous, eager to help and appreciative of any attempt to speak in Swahili.  I can walk down the road to produce stands heaped with fresh pineapples, avocados, mangos, bananas.  I live in a 3 bedroom house with a yard big enough for a soccer field for less than what we paid for our tiny, one-bedroom apartment in California.  I have a house helper who comes four mornings a week and does my cleaning and laundry.

My children attend a top-quality school, an incredible place that is the best of many worlds.  Their teachers are kind and wise Christians, and their classmates come from a wide range of nationalities and religions.  Their curriculum includes art, music, computers, Swahili, and swimming.  My husband and I work in pastoral training and have the privilege of seeing lightbulbs go off for church leaders as they grasp God’s sovereignty or grace for the first time.  We get to do something significant for eternity, and we get to have fun while we do it.

Sound great?  Envious?  Wish you had my life?

It’s all true.  But this is also true:

I live in a developing country.  Infrastructure is poor in this city of five million.  That translates into snarled traffic where many drive dangerously, little law enforcement, garbage piled next to the streets, and no public parks.  Customer service is not a cultural norm.  There are often a lot of bugs.  And rats.  And snakes.  Electricity and water supply are unpredictable.  There are three seasons:  hot, hotter, and rainy (which is still hot).  The humidity is suffocating for most of the year.

Crime is high.  Our car has been broken into twice.  I can easily list off two dozen good friends who have experienced violent home invasions.  One was slashed in the head with a machete.  One was stabbed.  Another was shot at.  We sleep behind alarms, padlocks, and iron bars.

As we’ve struggled to get our ministry off the ground, we have often felt like failures.  We often feel like we are in over our heads.  In twelve years, there have been times when everything we’ve worked for has blown up in our face.  Language learning is incredibly exhausting and often discouraging.  The missionary community is a constantly revolving door, and every year we lose good friends and have to start over again with relationships.  My parents visit once a year, but it will have been three years by the time we are able to see all of our other family members.  As the years go on, we feel the pain of lost memories with our family more acutely.

Maybe my life doesn’t seem so great after all.

Two perspectives.  Two ways of seeing the same life.  My goal in these descriptions is not to invoke envy or pity but simply perspective.  I’ve found that when things are going well in my life, I focus on all the good stuff.  When life stinks, all I see is the bad.  Yet both perspectives are equally true at all times.  It’s just a matter of what I choose to focus on. 

These ebbs and flows are a part of life, and sometimes our perspective will change even throughout the day—especially when adjusting to a new place.  But what we do often forget is that we have a choiceMaybe we can’t always control our mood, but we can control what we think about.  What we focus on.  What we choose to see around us.  I can guarantee that if I choose to focus on the negative things around me, then everything else rotten will be highlighted.  If I look for the positive, more good things will come into focus.  And here’s the Truth:  There’s always something positive.  Always something to be thankful for.  Always.

Instead of allowing my mood to dictate my perspective, my desire is to train my perspective to dictate my mood.  If Corrie and Betsie Ten Boom, languishing in a Nazi concentration camp, could learn to thank God for the fleas because they kept the guards away from their Bible study, then I too can learn to focus on what is positive.  The God who commanded us to give thanks in all circumstances will also give us the perspective carry it out.

Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. (Phil. 4:8)

When we want a different life, maybe we just need a different perspective.

alo-4

*baby sea turtle photos by Gil Medina

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.

26066292093_aea1395e3e

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)