Magic Charms and Contingency Plans

“A few nights ago, Mama F came to me terrorized, begging and screaming for the basil plant in our yard.” 

I lived in Tanzania for 16 years, and this was one of the most extraordinary stories I heard.

I have a friend, an American I’ll call Allison, who has lived in a remote village in Tanzania for decades. Often when they visited the main city, they would stay with us. 

It was on one of these visits that she told me a story that sounded like it came straight out of the New Testament: mind-blowing to those of us from western, secular cultures, but not uncommon in the rest of the world. What struck me about this story was not just the supernatural aspect, but how at our heart-level, no matter our worldview, we cling to things that feel more certain than God. We idolize our contingency plans. 

But first, the story. 

One of Allison’s neighbors, Mama F, declared faith in Christ and started attending a Bible study. Allison praised God for this, not knowing that the story was just beginning.

This is how Allison told it:

“A few nights ago, Mama F came to me terrorized, begging and screaming for the basil plant in my yard. I saw that something had taken hold of her four-year-old daughter. She was clenched in her mother’s arms, writhing and gurgling, and foaming at the mouth.  

Hearing Mama F’s cries, other neighbor women gathered, and we all followed as she ran back to her house, smearing my basil plant on little F’s head. Baba F, the father, had run for the witchdoctor to buy emergency witchcraft to ward off the attack. Mama F would not accept my westernized offer to take them to the hospital.  

We women entered her home, everyone wanting to help. One woman shook and rubbed a live chicken over little F. Another brought a pouch with herbs to burn and handfuls of dirt to make a mud mixture to smear over her body. Mama F frantically gulped a liquid from a cup and spewed it onto her daughter. Then she placed knives under her armpits, wrapped F in banana leaves, and tied a black cloth charm around F’s wrist. The ladies burned weeds so that smoke filled the room. Meanwhile, F was writhing and foaming, enveloped in darkness.

As I walked that night with these women I love who were so fear stricken, so desperate to save this child in the only ways they knew of, I prayed out loud for His Light to shine in this living nightmare. He enabled me to speak simple, childlike words in this dark chaos of despair. ‘God is able to help and heal F. This witchcraft will not work. May I pray for her in Jesus’ name? I can ask for help from the Almighty God because I believe Jesus shed his blood to pay for my sin so I am forgiven. Please let me pray for her.’  

But I knew I needed to say more. ‘Mama F, because God is holy and only He deserves glory, you have to stop this witchcraft. He wants you to see it is by His power and grace alone that F is healed. Please remove the knives and the leaves.’

Miraculously, they agreed, and placed her in my arms.

I squatted down on the dirt floor, holding that precious, terrorized little girl in my arms and I prayed. I felt the conviction of the Holy Spirit that this was not just a physical need for healing, but spiritual. So, in Jesus name, I prayed against the powers of darkness over this little one; I rebuked Satan and told him to leave; I entrusted F into God’s arms of healing and protection.

God heard and answered! As I prayed, the convulsions and foaming and gurgling ceased, and F lay peacefully in my arms. I heard the women’s voices declare, ‘Wow! The prayer is working! Jesus Heals! God hears the prayers of Christians! Let’s go find more Christians to pray for her!’ 

We returned to my house where my teammates were waiting. With F still in my arms, exhausted but at peace, my teammates and I lingered with our neighbors in our front yard, praising God for His healing in word, prayer, and song.”

But the story was not yet over.

Allison continued, “Mama F attended the ladies prayer group again and gave praise to Jesus for his healing of her child. Then a few days later, F came to our home to play, wearing her charm necklace again.  

I spoke to her mama that God does not share His glory with another. F does not need the charms for her protection when we cry out to the one true God. She agreed, but the necklace charm remained. I told her there is no need to fear, nor appease the forces of darkness. But the necklace remained.”

Allison sat in my kitchen on a Wednesday and told me what happened just the night before:

“Tuesday evening, the terrors came again to F. Since we were here in the city when the attack came on, little F’s family sought the help of our teammates, who together prayed for her, but this time she was not responding. They agreed to take her to the clinic in the neighboring village.  

When I received word of this, I asked if she was still wearing any charms. She was. My husband called Baba F and exhorted him to remove the charms, as God will not share His glory with another. Meanwhile, the doctor was not able to help F. So they brought F to our local evangelist where they cut off her charm necklace and began to pray for her again. She was immediately restored to normal.”

When Allison finished her story, my reaction was to cry, “Glory be to God!” It is, indeed, truly a remarkable story–especially for those of us who assume that this kind of thing ended in the book of Acts. But it would be a shame for those of us from westernized cultures, who scoff at magic charms and witchdoctors, to think that God isn’t trying to teach us the same lessons that he was teaching little F’s family.

He wants the glory alone.  

And his glory is never evident in contingency plans.

I’ve thought about this often since I heard Allison’s story. How often do I have a contingency plan? How often do I say the words that God is faithful, but in the back of my mind, I agonize over solutions to worst case scenarios?

Sure, I say I believe in heaven and that life is only a shadow of what’s to come. But really, I want to enjoy that shadow with as much comfort as I can muster and as much pleasure as I can wring out–just in case this is all there is.

Sure, I know that God is the rightful king and sovereign over the universe. But I’d also really like to be under a government that is safe, powerful, and holds to all of my values–and I’m anxious if I don’t get that.

Sure, I believe that Scripture tells me that God will provide for all my needs.  But I cling to that steady savings account and regular income, just in case.

I know there’s a balance here, because God expects us to be wise and prudent with the tools for protection He gives us. God often chooses to care for us through the grace of life insurance, modern medicine, or social security. But when I go to sleep at night, where is the source of my peace? Where is the line between taking wise precautions versus tying my safety nets to my wrist like a magic charm? I must ask myself: Am I trusting in God, or am I trusting in my contingency plans?

I wonder if sometimes, God is just waiting for us to cut off the magic charm. Because He will not share His glory with another.

*A version of this post was originally published at Not Home Yet.

Clenched Fists and Heart’s Desires

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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.

Learning from Injustice While Living Overseas

This piece is being posted anonymously so as not to disrespect the writer’s host country or its authorities.

I was waiting in my car at the intersection, watching the policeman directing traffic. He looked in my direction and started walking towards me.

Uh oh, I inwardly groaned. What is it this time?

I put down my window and dutifully greeted him in the traditional respectful manner.

You’re in the crosswalk, he barked at me. You stopped in the crosswalk. He took my license and then shooed me to the other side of the road.

I pulled over and inwardly fumed. The crosswalk was barely visible, the paint rubbed off and the rest of it covered in dust. More importantly, erosion had broken away the sides of the tarmac to such an extent that if I didn’t pull forward at the intersection, I could be swiped by other cars.

Knowing that in this culture, my anger would just make things worse, I put on my sweetest, humblest voice. I politely explained to the officer my reasons. Please, give me grace, I said.

He gave me no response. Just typed my information into his little machine and handed me a ticket back with my license.

The injustice of it all infuriated me. I’m a careful, cautious driver, yet I’ve lost count of how many tickets I’ve received in my host country for insignificant or made-up offenses. Meanwhile, other drivers regularly ignore stoplights, pass dangerously into oncoming traffic, cut in line, and drive on the shoulder, and the police don’t seem to care.

I grew up as a white, middle-class American, so I am naturally accustomed to justice. You follow the laws, and the government authorities are on your side. You break the laws, and you get punished. It’s cut and dry. It’s simple and sweet.

But I’ve learned that living in a developing country, all bets are off. The only way I could have avoided this ticket was to surreptitiously hand the officer a bribe. Since that was out of the question for me, I got a ticket. Granted, the fine was only equivalent to around fifteen dollars, but that wasn’t the point. I was furious at the injustice.

Ironically, I have also realized that learning what injustice feels like is one of the greatest gifts of living in this culture. When the officer walked away, I sat for a few moments and intentionally let the feeling wash over me.

I am angry because this isn’t fair. I feel picked on because of my skin color and because I am a woman. I don’t trust the police, and that makes me mad.

But I consciously reminded myself to think: This is what much of the world’s population feels every day.

It was only fifteen dollars. What if it had been five hundred dollars? Or five thousand?  What if it was my entire daily salary? What if that fifteen dollars meant I would have nothing to feed my children that day…or that week?

What if that officer had been armed and my life was at stake?

What would it feel like to be at the mercy of a merciless government?

What if my skin color deemed me worthy of oppression in the eyes of the powerful?

What if being female meant I was automatically worthless?

And most importantly, What would those daily injustices do to my soul?

Truly, I have no idea. As a white American living in a developing nation, my eyes have been opened to my privileged, charmed life. Even on a missionary’s salary, I am one of the richest people in the world. My education was practically handed to me on a silver platter. Sure, my parents worked hard. I worked hard. But my hard work rewarded me. What if no matter how hard I worked, my life never got better?

I’ve never had a teacher expect a bribe or a sexual favor to pass a class. I’ve never had a government official threaten to unjustly steal the land I labored over. I’ve never had the fear that the military would kidnap my young son and hand him a gun. My husband has never treated me like his property.

So the small injustice of receiving an undeserved traffic fine is an excellent reminder to this privileged white woman. I am not entitled to justice. Instead, I need to look for ways to identify with those around me who live with injustice every day. And more importantly, identify with the Savior who willingly chose injustice on my behalf.

 

When We Hurt Those We Love Most

 

I lay prostrate on the hardwood floor of our Budapest flat. I was pounding my fist and screaming unintelligible things as I lost my struggle with hyper-mania (a symptom of bipolar disorder). My children had been taken to a friend’s house. But not before they heard me shouting at their father. My husband found himself slipping deeper and deeper into a vortex of uncertainty.

I was hurting those I love most and was unable to gain enough control to stop the hurting.

A couple of days after this I entered the hospital. My husband and kids experienced more days of instability and separation. There were a few moments,`when my husband came to see me, not knowing I had been moved to the ICU. As the doctor brought him into his office, he was petrified something had happened to me.

Then, one week after I left the hospital, we returned to the States.

Every one of the people I care most for in this world was profoundly impacted by me. They experienced hurts, wounds, things that broke my heart, and I was helpless to protect them. I couldn’t even protect myself.

I know I am not alone. We all hurt those we love, so often through circumstances and trials beyond our control. It all makes us feel afraid of how the damage will ultimately affect them. It makes us grieve the innocence the hurt has taken. It makes us unsure in these relationships. It makes us feel lost.

As we reflect on these tragic times in our lives, how can we learn from them? How do we live well on the other side? I want to share with you a few things God taught me through the hardest season in my life and how it hurt those I love:

  1. Release the guilt and shame: To move forward, beyond the hurt, we must let go. When those we love are wounded by us, whether inside or outside of our control, we feel helpless to move forward. The Enemy loves the guilt and shame which go along with this. He would love for us to steep in this until we sink down, far away from those we love. However, this is not the Great Healer’s desire. He wants to make us new from the deepest place. He asks us to give to Him those ruminating thoughts of all we could have, should have done to prevent what happened. He wants us whole so He can restore what was lost and give something even greater.
  2. God is the Author: As we begin to release we learn this great truth. It is God who authors every story, not us. His script is poignant and sure. He doesn’t waste a line with bad prose. The dark pages have corresponding light ones. It is all sealed with the unmistakable stuff of redemption. And it is only he who bears this hope deep within who will have the eyes to see such a story. So He calls us to find hope in the pain and press hard into our trust in Him. Indeed, we can surrender to Him those most dearest. He has already wrapped His arms solidly about every part of them, shaping their story with His loving hands.
  3. Lean into Community: As I walked those days leading to the hospital, in the hospital and the months of recovery after, I desperately needed others. In these times we all do. It is our pride and fear which makes us unable to receive help. But we all need friends and family who will love on our kids, make meals for our families, distract them from the obvious and so much more. We have to say ‘yes’ to them. And the truth is, even though we fear judgment, people just want our families and us to know we are loved. So we have to trust here too. When we remain unable to be what our loved ones need, others can help fill in the gap until we are strong enough. Yes, it is incredibly humbling, but it is also right and true. This is something we must carry with us on this long road home.
  4. There is always a New Day: No matter how hard the circumstance, or how deep the hurt, there is always the sun rising the next morning. It shines upon us and on those we love. There is the promise renewed, faithfulness which hovers and great compassion to sustain. Psalm 103 says the Lord remembers our frame, He knows we are dust. In His tenderness, He pledges to be all we cannot be. His grace leads us Home to His heart where all is being renewed. He carries intimately, tenderly all who He loves, and even more so as the need is greater. He is hope and hope does not disappoint. Moving forward this must be the melody which greets us.

I don’t know where this post finds you, but I do know you have hurt those you love. It happens every day in big and small ways. And in this, we need to find our way back. We need to press into truth and grace, all that Jesus is. And we need to face the hurt, others and ours. Sometimes it is all so obvious and other times it is subtle. Regardless, there is no task, no service, no ministry important enough to deny the pain. And if we deal with it, we will find the healing and redemption of God greater than we could have imagined.

“So – Is that out of state?” And Other Questions We Navigate

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I felt my face grow hot. I was in a small town shopping at a smaller store when a well-meaning woman stopped and asked me about the purse I had with me.

“That’s a beautiful purse” she said brightly. “May I ask you where you got it?

Oh” I said, a smile lighting up my face “I got it in Pakistan.”

Long pause.

“So – is that out of state?”

Red-faced and flustered I managed to breathe out the words, sort of the way a mythical dragon breathes out fire “Yes”.

I thought of all the things I wanted to say:

“Yes – it borders Connecticut”

“You’ve not heard of it? It’s just a town away.” 

“Yes – it’s in Canada.” 

Instead I took a deep breath, smiled and said again “Yes, indeed it is.”

Growing up as a third culture kid in the seventies was an interesting time. The world was not as global as it is now, and communities in the United States were as isolated as the oceans and cultures that divide the country from the rest of the world. I never thought I was that different then my counterparts growing up in the West, but then I met them. The differences were profound. Cultural and linguistic to be sure, but for a teenager the huge chasm was fashion. Inevitably we would arrive in the United States after being away for four years with no television, no magazines, no beacons of Western fashion like, oh you know, Sears and J.C. Penneys. And there was something else – we also always seemed to arrive in the United States on Saturday night.

Do you know what that meant? That meant that the next day was Sunday. Guess what missionary parents like to do on Sunday? You got it! Go to church!

So off we would go in our outdated clothes, and I would flush a deep scarlet and try to pretend that my mini dress was a maxi or vice versa. Fashion was a nightmare. One time the nightmare took on greater terror as a photographer was shooting pictures at a large church outside of Chicago. I vaguely remember him capturing me on film on the front steps of that church. Ayaiyaiyaiyai!

Pop culture was another chasm. Grease was lighting up the screen with “Look at me! I’m Sandra D”. The only movies I had ever seen were The Sound of Music and To Sir with Love.

And then there were more questions….!

“Do they wear clothes there?”

“Tell me about the huts!”

“Pakistan…. does that border Brazil?”

“Oh – I think I’ve heard of that country before! It’s in Europe, right?

The funny thing is, that was the seventies, Has it changed? Despite the fact that many of our passport countries have excellent education systems and a plethora of media outlets as well as ways to communicate electronically, it doesn’t mean knowledge of the world has improved.

Consider this video where Jay Leno interviewed American teenagers.

It’s easy to slip into arrogance when it comes to some of these conversations, to shake our heads in exasperation. The reality is that there is a lot of privilege in this life, and there is also a lot of insecurity when we are faced with a culture that we are not as familiar with (our passport culture), The result is that we might wear our geographical and linguistic knowledge with a bit of pride. Sometimes it’s all we feel we have.

But that is for a more serious conversation. Today I want to go Jay Leno on you and invite you to tell your stories – what are some of the questions you’ve been asked, and how have you responded?

Expats, global nomads, TCKs, Adult TCKs – I know you know these conversations. From “So where are you from?” to “Do they wear clothes there?” to “Tell me about the natives!” we have all experienced ‘those’ questions and statements; the ones that simultaneously make us shake our heads in despair even as we grin thinking of how we’ll frame the story later on to those of our tribe.

So have at it! What are the best and worst questions you’ve been asked or things people have said to you about your life overseas? Invite your kids into this conversation – it’s something you can share together.

Share either on the Facebook page of A Life Overseas or in the comments below.

And, as always, thank you for being a part of this community!

Thoughts on Sharing our Stories

“Perhaps the greatest danger of our global community is that the person in LA thinks he knows Cambodia because he’s seen The Killing Fields on-screen, and the newcomer from Cambodia thinks he knows LA because he’s seen City of Angels on video.”
― Pico Iyer

Years ago at a dinner party in Egypt, our English host was waxing wise about China. His wife, a no-nonsense French woman, looked at him at one point, shook her head and said “Nigel, who made you the expert on China?” Nigel did not miss a second to respond “I read Tai-Pan.” He was referring to the book by noted author James Clavell.

We all laughed, but the reality is more serious. The person who has read a book cannot claim experiential knowledge. A person who has spent ten days on a cruise ship and has visited nine ports in those ten days is hardly an expert on every country where they have stopped. Yet they sometimes claim to be. The person who has gone on a short-term mission or volunteer trip needs to be careful to tell their story with integrity and honesty, not as an expert, but as a learner.

It is easy to make broad assessments of places and people based on a limited view and a single story. At the same time, when we travel and when we live in places, we do experience the world through a different lens, and we do want to communicate those experiences. Much of my life is a learning process of how to communicate what I have experienced and be fair and wise within that communication.

Over the next few months, we will once again see many from western countries begin to plan trips to other parts of the world. These trips have different names. Some people call them “Short term missions”, other people call them “Vision Trips”, and still others call them “Voluntourism”.

I’m not here to say these are wrong. I think we have to be careful about telling people they shouldn’t go to other parts of the world. My husband started a semester abroad program in Egypt that is going strong over 20 years later. It has moved from Egypt to Bethlehem to Jordan, but it still exists. Everyone of the students who went on that program would say it was life-changing. I believe them. I watched these students grow and change during their three months in the Middle East, and what they learned changed their worldview.

Sharing our stories is a God-given desire. It’s not fair to tell people they aren’t allowed to tell stories because they only went someplace for a ten-day trip. That ten-day trip had a deep impact on how they view the world, and the decisions that they will make in the future. Neither is it fair to demand that someone spend a lifetime in a place before they are allowed to make an assessment, or write a view-point. But it is fair to ask people to have humility when they tell their stories. It is fair to ask people not to speak from an authoritative place. 

So if you are traveling this summer to volunteer or visit, if you are going on a home leave and will be speaking in churches, or if you are responsible for a group that is coming to your adopted country, here are a couple of guidelines to follow when sharing your stories.

  1. At the beginning, verbalize your limitations. What if we began our stories by recognizing our limitations? We might say: “This is what I saw and experienced. This could be quite different from what others have experienced.” Other ways to begin are “Thank you for inviting me to share my story. I want to say at the beginning, that this is my story. Others could have completely different experiences. In no way do I mean to stereotype, and if I fall into that, please forgive me. I may share general information, but I will let you know that it is general.” Or “I’m honored to be asked to share what I did this summer. As I share, please know that I saw only a small window of what goes on every day. I want to be faithful in sharing what I saw, but honest in what I don’t know.”
  2. In all things, cultural humility. We don’t know everything about our own culture, let alone someone else’s. It is critically important to have an attitude of cultural humility as we go, and as we come back. Cultural humility always puts us in a posture of learning and never as the expert.
  3. Be careful of hyperbole. Anyone who knows me and my husband knows that we love a good story, and some stories are made to be embellished. But we don’t embellish at the expense of others. Using rich, descriptive language is important; telling stories that stretch the truth beyond recognition is dangerous.
  4. Watch your use of the word “all.” When we begin to use the words “All refugees do such and such…” or “All South Africans believe this …” or “All Iraqis….” then we are on dangerous ground. We can say many (if it’s true). I can say “Many Americans have an individualistic world view.” That statement is true. But changing the “many” to “all” doesn’t give any room for deviation.
  5. Remember, no one is a single story. I have said this many times,  but I won’t stop. No one is a single story. Chimamanda Adichie’s famous TED talk “The Danger of a Single Story” should be required viewing. With 10 million views and counting, many people have already seen it. “The problem with stereotypes,” she says “is not that they are incorrect, but that they are incomplete. No one is a single story.”  Stereotyping puts people into boxes that are difficult to crawl out of, and we do a disservice to people when we box them in.
  6. Share what you learned about yourself.  The more willing you are to be honest and real, the more your story will resonate. Be willing to share mistakes you made and how you learned from them. Be honest about your pride, your self-consciousness, recognizing your privilege, and your tendency to be egocentric. Tell a story about how those things were challenged.  Tell a story of how you learned more about God through being out of your comfortable places and away from your comfortable people. The more vulnerable you are willing to be, the more others will see themselves in your story. As the quote above says: “Don’t forget – no one else sees the world the way you do, so no one else can tell the stories you have to tell.”*

Stories are important. When we stop listening and telling stories, we will stop being human. We walk in our stories every day and sharing them with others is important. That is why the way we tell our stories is so important. Because if we share them well, everyone benefits.

What would you add that would help us tell our stories with integrity and honesty? 

*Charles de Lint

Savvy Expat Traveler or Overconfident Traveling Idiot?

We’re expats and we fly a lot. Right? We can fill out a lot of immigration forms with our eyes closed, have passports stuffed full of visas. We can use several different currencies, even in a single transaction. We know how to pack liquids, how to sail through airport security lines, what kinds of snacks work best on long haul flights. We know just how much medicine our babies need in order to sleep (or was that just me?) We can navigate airports no matter the language and can use whatever type of toilet is available, with or without TP, water, or walls.

zen traveler

We’re expats, international travel is what we do and we’re totally calm about it. Or at least competent.

That’s what I thought.

I recently spent a month in Europe. Two weeks in Italy, a few days in the Netherlands, and two weeks in the UK. In Italy and the Netherlands I was on my own. By the end of those two weeks I was feeling pretty confident. Like, hey-hey, I’ve got this European travel thing down. On top of thirteen years of doing the African travel thing, I considered myself savvy.

Then, I flew to London. Here, I thought, is where I will really shine as an expert traveler. Everything will be in English! It will be so easy!

Wrong.

I got flagged in the immigration line. I was ushered into that roped off area where ‘suspicious’ travelers go. I was grilled by immigration officers. I gave terrible answers. They were all true, they just didn’t make a lot of sense because my arrival plans were complicated, my previous travel had been convoluted, explaining it all meant including places like Somalia and Djibouti.

Plus, unlike the savvy traveler I thought I was, I had forgotten to write down the name and address of the place where I was staying. I had the information on my phone but needed to access Wi-Fi, which wasn’t working in the immigration terminal.

The officer stared at me, hard, and said, “You university students think everything in the world revolves around technology.” Well, thank you sir, for thinking this 38-year old woman is a student, but no I don’t think that, I just forgot to write it down.

“What would happen to me,” he said, “if I went to the US and didn’t have an address?”

I wanted to say, “I would expect the Wi-Fi to work,” but didn’t want to make him even angrier, so I shrugged. He told me to sit back down behind the ropes.

It took a minor miracle to get me out of the airport.

I was mortified. I know better. I know how to pack and plan and how to not waste the time of people coming to pick me up. I’m not the person who gets flagged in security.

But.

Apparently I am that person. And I am that forgetful. My overconfidence led to an incredibly stressful afternoon and had me nearly dry-heaving in the lock down section of Gatwick Airport.

How about you?

Tara Livesay has provided us with hysterical examples of expat health unpleasantness and gave us the opportunity to share our one-uppers. How about sharing our travel oopses?

I don’t mean when our flights were delayed and it took us five days to get from Minnesota to Djibouti (no lie). Or when our luggage was lost and found after multiple trips around the world. What about those times when we felt oh-so-prepared and rather smug and looked condescendingly at newbies only to find ourselves locked up, in tears, or so confused we can’t remember what country we are in or where we are supposed to be headed? (Or is it just me?)

Any other travel fiascos out there?

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America, Meet the World

Hello America. Meet the Rest of the World.

Note: This is not a political post but one of identification.

The closer we get to the election in the United States, the more comments, eye rolling, and jokes I am hearing as an American living overseas.

My journey as an American in missions has spanned over 25 years. When I began, everyone loved and warmly welcomed Americans. I can remember being in the Philippines and everyone shouted, “Hey Joe” at me, referring to G.I. Joe. It was with warmth and not derision.

The looks of disbelief started with the war in the Balkans and increased with the invasion of Iraq.

Upon moving to South Africa under Bush II, I often wished I could change my accent. Things improved remarkably over the last eight years under Obama. His African roots may have had something to do with this.

I will never forget Barack Obama’s first inauguration, which aired live on local television in South Africa. I stood next to multiple nationalities of people who were stunned to witness the peaceful transition of power. Many of their nations changes leaders with bullets and violence, not handshakes and civil exchanges.

As this election approaches, I feel like the 8 years of goodwill is up and I can once again expect ridicule as the circus of the coming election unfolds.

Africans are constantly commenting in my Facebook feed about what they are witnessing. Here is one recent comment:

_”Just love watching the American politics at the moment. Making South African politics look good. Is Donald Trump the Julius (Malema) of America?_”  (Just so you know, most South Africans would consider Julius to be a disruptor and not a positive influence. But it shows the world is watching! )

One constant thought has been running through my mind. This helps me identify with the pain of other nations. I do realize my understanding is still very limited.

The pinprick of pain I feel from the current madness is nothing compared to the agony many nations have been under for years.

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While dysfunction is now the rule in America, I’ve never been faced with a dictator or tyrant leading my nation. While there are many inspiring leaders in Africa, her people have also witnessed genocides or imposed famines.

Voting in America is still a choice which is not forced through threat or intimidation.

The pain of a nation does not disappear quickly. I still see German youth cringe when Hitler or Nazism is mentioned. Even after multiple generations, the decisions a nation makes can have a lasting effect.

I have very good friends from Zimbabwe. For years, whenever a bad leader was mentioned, theirs was on the list. The shame of this is hard, even though it is no fault of their own.

It is the strength I see in these people which well help me to endure the jokes and mocking which is sure to follow the current circus in the United States.

In a small, very small, way I feel I am identifying more with my international friends from nations with really bad leaders.

 

Note: Since this is a post about identification and not politics, I ask that you refrain from leaving political comments and only discuss the issue of identification. Thank you.

Photo credit: indifference via photopin (license)

People are not our Project

As a zealous, young missionary I seemed to make  the same mistake over and over. Now as a veteran, I find the same never-ending truth must remain continually before me.

People are not our projects.

 

We never set out to do this intentionally. Our mistakes are made in ignorance. Our desire is to do good, to help others, and to bring change.

Even with these godly desires, we must remain ever careful to not walk in superiority and arrogance.

The message “I have something to give you” may be true, but must be balanced out with a healthy dose of humility and a learning spirit.

Because the truth is, we all have something to give each other.

Examine these two statements. Although similar, they can create two completely different perspectives.

“I have walked with so and so for this many years.”

and

“We have walked together for this many years.”

The difference is subtle.

If you are working in an area where colonialism has been present, these subtle differences can be interpreted in ways you would never desire.

As we walk with different people in various cultures, humility requires us to be willing to receive and learn from others.

One particular young man and I have now journeyed together for nearly ten years. The other day we went for a meal and he insisted on paying. Even though I consider him a friend and not a project or my ministry, I could feel some push back in my heart.

Must I be in the place of power, being the one who pays? Do I allow myself to receive…or only give?

I received his offer to pay, and we had a wonderful meal together. But in this event I saw  I must still constantly be aware of this subtle form of pride which creeps up; even after all these years.

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Let’s ask ourselves a few questions:

  • Can we receive from those we work with?
  • Do we learn from the culture we are working in, or is our way always better?
  • When is the last time we were taught at a local church service rather than a podcast or blog post from home?
  • Do we feel uncomfortable when we find ourselves on the receiving end of generosity?

I recently heard the story of a friend who was given a rather lavish gift from someone. It is one thing to accept a cup of tea or a meal, but can we receive an extravagant blessing given by someone who hails from culture we serve in?

If people are our friends, and we view them as equal, then we must be willing to receive.

Bishop Desmond Tutu famously says, “We are stronger when we are together.”

This same image is reflected in Scripture speaking of one body with many parts. Different members, yet all essential.

Recently I organized a conference of Bible School leaders from all over the African continent. I was intentional in trying to create an opportunity to learn from each other, not just present one view from the front. We had a beautiful time discussing difficult issues such as finances, tribalism, and injustice we have faced.

We truly were “better together.”

When we do not view people as our projects, but rather see them as equal image bearers of God, remarkable things can happen.

Let’s preach this “gospel” to ourselves each day.

Photo by Eutah Mizushima

Memories Of A Million Footsteps: How Our Secondary Homes Stick With Us

I am five months into our time in Port Vila now, and it’s been almost six months since Cyclone Pam devastated large parts of Vanuatu. All things considered, we’re settling in well. One thing that’s caught me by surprise during this move, however, is how much I think back to Laos. We spent five years there—three in Luang Prabang and two in Vientiane—and I didn’t realize just how deeply those five years had engraved Laos upon me until we were gone. Has that ever happened to you?

This month, in honor of the deeply important role that our secondary homes can have in shaping our lives, I want to share with you a piece I wrote almost a year ago now called Memories Of A Million Footsteps.

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Last week we returned to Luang Prabang for the first time since we left here, more than a year ago. Those of you who have visited Luang Prabang will know what I mean when I say it’s a special place. Those of you who haven’t, imagine a small town nestled in between two rivers and cradled by jungle-covered mountains. Imagine grand and gilded temples alongside old-world French architecture. Imagine purple orchids and saffron-robed monks and sticky rice steaming in small bamboo baskets.

Boats on Mekong

We didn’t own a car during the three years we lived in Luang Prabang, so most evenings after Mike got home from work we would strike out on foot. Walking those streets for three years etched Luang Prabang into my internal map like no other place I have ever lived. It is maybe the only place in the world where you could drop me anywhere in town and I would know exactly where I was.

(Here, Mike would doubtless say that you would certainly hope so, given that the Old Town is entirely contained within three parallel roads, but that is beside the point.)

The point is that I know Luang Prabang. A million footsteps mapped it into me, and coming back was a sort of coming home.

Mike and I weathered some very difficult times during the years we lived in Luang Prabang – broken bones and medical emergencies, two spinal surgeries, depression, isolation, and post-natal anxiety. It was here that we both floundered in stormy internal seas during our first year as parents. It was here that we sometimes wondered whether those seas would swamp us completely.

But when I go back to Luang Prabang now I have to purposefully reach to pull those difficult times into view. As Mike and I walked around those familiar streets, it was all the good things about living there that flooded back – all the happy evenings and favorite restaurants and the lush, pervasive, and perfectly proportioned beauty of the place.

We timed this return visit to coincide with the annual Fire Lantern Festival that marks the end of Buddhist lent, so our first two nights here were lit by thousands of flickering candles that adorned the temples and the singular brilliance of hundreds of paper lanterns ascending from all over town into a still, dark sky.

We went back to our favorite waterfalls and we drank fresh lime juice by swimming pools. Waiters and market vendors remembered our names and did a double take to see red-headed baby number two in tow. We reconnected with old friends and we spent (too much?) money on beautiful silk scarves and wall hangings.

We remembered all over again that there have been many, many things that we have loved about our time here in Laos.  And that we were lucky to have lived in Luang Prabang for three of those years. And that even when times feel awfully thick and dark, future days can bring the hushed serenity of candlelight and the fierce brilliance of fire rising, rising, rising into the night.

LPB Lisa and Tash lighting lantern

What secondary homes have you lived in and then left?
How have they shaped you? What memories have stuck with you?

They Are Not Ready…

“They are not ready…”

These may be some of the most frequently uttered words when missionaries consider passing the baton of leadership.

They can also be the most painful.

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One of the leaders I work with shares the story of being a young, oppressed worker in South Africa during the time of apartheid:

A white Afrikaner man (the people group previously in power) wanted to bring him and a few others hailing from different ethnic backgrounds into a leadership meeting. At the time, this was unheard of; even in a missions organization which championed people from all nations, tribes, and tongues.

When met with resistance from the other meeting participants, the white Afrikaner suggested they at least be able to observe, even if they did not participate.

He wanted to see these young men learn and gain experience so they could step into leadership roles in the future.

In the corporate world this type of a request is common. Interns and associates receive invitations to attend prior to receiving permission to speak. This corporate model does have its shortcomings (assuming a fresh set of eyes is unnecessary), but it gears towards providing needed experience.

But in the days leading up to the fall of apartheid, even this simple request met with a refusal. The other men present were not bad men, but they were raised in a system where this freedom was not present.

The gentlemen of other ethnic backgrounds found themselves waiting in the hallway rather than gaining needed experience, the words of “they are not yet ready,” echoing in their ears.

How often are we guilty of similar tactics?

Do we engage in this subtle form of racism disguised as care and concern?

As we evaluate our leadership, are we giving opportunity to fresh faces and voices?

We must remember our own journey. Many of us were invited to give leadership a try well before we were “ready”.

Training, experience, and internship are all valuable tools.

But we may need to consider if readiness has been redefined as having equal maturity to that of a twenty-year veteran?

Our people are rising, but may not yet be at our skill level.

Most new potential leaders don’t come “pre-cooked.”

Part of our role is to walk along them for a season, allowing mistakes which will promote and stimulate growth.

Seasoning as a leader does not come in a microwave oven, drive-thru approach; but rather through the slow cooker of time and mentorship.

We must be aware of a harsh reality. It is always easier to recognize potential in our own culture and style of doing things than in one which is foreign.

When a younger leader approaches an issue differently, we should be slower to declare them unprepared.

In listening to their idea, we may in fact, hear a better, more culturally appropriate solution.

We are making disciples not clones. We call out potential and uniqueness in those we hope will carry our work into the future.

Or even exceed what we have accomplished…

One of the men who was denied entry in the above story, is currently leading the ministry.

It is one of the largest training and ministry locations Youth With A Mission has in the world.

 

 

Photo credit: sa_apartheid_crop via photopin (license)

The Language of Sport

Language study is one of the hardest and most time-consuming efforts missionaries make.

There is, however, a language which is common to the world and far easier to learn.

This is the language of sport.

When my family arrived in South Africa as lovers of sport, we missed a trip to the Super Bowl by my wife’s hometown team. At the time, we just did not know how to watch the game. Now I could tell you many ways.

Instead of watching the Super Bowl, in the early days our TV was tuned to cricket. I attempted to understand this game and its rules. Especially difficult was the idea of playing to a tie over five days!

I’ve seen how learning, watching, attending, and playing the local sports of a nation can build bridges and bond you to a culture.

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Here are 7 things I have learned sports can do:

1. Provide conversation. Wearing a soccer jersey or making a comment about the latest sports match can open up a conversation in an easy manner.

2. Earn you respect. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been met with a quizzical exclamation about my knowledge of a local sport or team. This inquiry is also met with a sly smile of admiration and respect.

3. Tell people you are embracing culture. Multiple times I’ve had people compliment me on my embrace of the culture when they learned my kids played rugby at school or as an American I was attending a cricket match.

4. Give you an insight into the nations vices. Attending sports matches also gives insight into issues a nation deals with. One cannot attend a cricket match in South Africa without observing alcohol abuse to epic proportions. While sad, it brings awareness to the needs of a nation.

5. Provide Exercise. Our staff often engages in weekly soccer/football matches, which opens doors of relationship while gaining valuable exercise. I’ve been able to participate multiple times in bicycle races as well.

6. Help you to have down time away from ministry. All work and no play….happens in ministry often. A balanced, long term missions career must include relaxation. Playing or attending sports makes for wonderful relaxation.

7. Make memories for you and the family. I will never forget sitting in a Cape Town monsoon watching the local rugby team with my youngest son. We make an annual trip to a rugby match as a family. And of course, the early Saturday mornings of watching my kids play these sports will etch South Africa into our family story.

What would you add to this list?

How does the language of sport help you embrace the culture you live and serve in?

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Photo credit: Nivali via photopin (license)