The International Traveler in the Domestic Terminal

*a version of this was first published at Babble, in 2014.

When you are the international traveler in the domestic terminal, you look and smell really bad. Everyone else has just come from home or one other connection. You left home twenty-five hours ago and have already endured three or four airports.

Your kids are screaming or quietly sobbing or simply babbling nonsense. They are laying on the floor, sleeping, and drooling. Or they cheer when you pass McDonalds.

You have no shame. You brush your teeth and do your makeup (if you have the energy) and change clothes in the bathroom. You walk like you’re drunk – swerving as the onslaught of lights beckon and disorient you, as utter exhaustion and instant sensory overload makes your knees buckle. 

You start to cry when it is time to board and they change your gate. It is just the next gate over but at this point, even that is asking just a little too much.

You keep saying biyo or de l’eau when you want water and you notice people look at you funny when you say, “No ice.”

You are dizzy from the overstimulation of understanding the news, the airport announcements, and all the conversations going on around you. You can’t understand, can’t focus, when the flight attendants directly address you even though she is speaking your native language because you weren’t expecting that.

Your kids don’t know what they are supposed to do with that plastic sheet on the toilet seat in the bathroom. Your youngest stops at every single drinking fountain and uses both the short one and the tall one.

You try to pay for a Starbucks lemon poppyseed bread to share with the whole family and can’t find any American coins. You use your credit card because in this country, they accept credit cards! When you say that out loud, the cashier stares at you blankly.

When you eat the lemon poppyseed bread, you find that it tastes like chemicals and is way too sweet. You go to throw it away.

But then you find yourself standing in front of the six different trash bins, confused. You read all the signs on all the bins because who knew there were so many ways to throw things away? What if the thing you want to throw away is a combo product? Even throwing things away becomes stressful. You don’t want someone to snap a photo of you throwing a plastic thing into the paper bin. What if they post it on Instagram and you get social media shamed for destroying the planet? Come to think of it you also used a straw. And you’re flying in a plane. Shame. Shame. Shame.

Your eyes are red and puffy and for crying out loud, the flight you are about to board is just flying from Chicago to Minneapolis. You are in the domestic terminal. Come on, international traveler, pull it together.

You have a headache from the onslaught of culture shock and just want a deep breath of fresh air. Soon. Soon. Unless you’re delayed.

Someone talks about flying from California and mentions the time change and how disoriented they feel and you laugh. If only. The laugh sounds like a croak because you are dehydrated. You also have crusty boogers and some serious gas.

It feels good to be around people who wear blue jeans and tennis shoes. Almost as quickly, it feels uncomfortable to be so conforming. No one is paying attention to you except when you start to cry and your kids drool into the carpet.

Now it is time to board, one more leg until you can leave airports behind. You will be the only ones clapping upon landing. Who claps for a pilot landing a flight after 45 minutes?

Have a good flight and welcome home(?).

(if you’d like to avoid airplane travel altogether, try these options instead, straight from the Bible. A whale, anyone?)

Leaving Well: 10 Tips for Repatriating With Dignity

originally posted on The Culture Blend

It’s that time of year again.  Leaving time.

This is the time when thousands of individuals and families who have spent time living in a foreign country, will pack it up and call it a day.  If you’ve never been that person you may be surprised that there is a specific high season for leaving but if you call yourself a foreigner I probably just struck a chord.  Even if you’re staying right where you are the annual Expat Exodus is a tough time.

Click here to see why expats hate June

Here are ten tips for repatriating with dignity.

Tip #1:  Make a Plan

Seriously.  The last days of your expat experience are inevitably going to be chaotic.  Your schedule will get crammed with unexpected details and all of the things you really want to do run the risk of being pushed out.  The day you wanted to spend with your closest friends will get squeezed by your well meaning 15th closest friends who “need” to take you out to dinner.  You get stuck regretting that you missed a lost opportunity with your #1’s or feeling like an absolute jerk to your #15’s.

It all works better with a plan.  Start as early as you can.  Include appropriate time for your 15’s but reserve your best time for your 1’s.

Take an hour.  A day.  A weekend.  Write it out.  Make a spreadsheet.  Draw a picture.  Whatever works for you but make a plan.

Tip #2:  Build a RAFT

One of the simplest and most brilliant plans for transitioning well was developed by the late Dr. David Pollock.  It’s called building a RAFT (genius).  Paying attention to these four areas can mean the difference between success or failure, flopping or thriving,  great memories or horrible regrets.  Way too much for one blog post but you should Google it (Try “Pollock RAFT”).

Here’s the short version of what goes into a RAFT:

Reconciliation:  Strained or broken relationships don’t go away when you do.  Make it right.

Affirmation:  People are dense.  Don’t assume they know how much impact they have had on your life.  Say it well.

Farewell:  Different people need different goodbyes.  Think beyond people (places, pets and possessions too).

Think Destination:  Even if you’re going “home”, much has changed.  Brace yourself.  Think forward.

Tip #3:  Leave Right Now

When are you leaving?  June 6th?  15th?  21st?

Chances are you answer that question with the date on your plane ticket.  Fair enough and technically correct but if you think you are leaving when you get on the plane you’re missing something really important.

Leaving is a PROCESS — not an event.

You started leaving when you made the decision to go and you will be leaving even as you settle in to your next home.  Everything you do as you prepare for the airplane is a part of the process.  Each meal with friends, each walk around the city, each trip to the market, each bumbling foreigner mistake are all pieces of the process which is closing out your full expat experience.

You are leaving now.

Tip #4:  Give Your Best Stuff Away

What to do with the things you can’t take with you is always an issue.  Don’t be surprised when the non-leaving expats come crawling out of the woodworks to lay claim on your toaster oven or your bicycle.  Opening your home for a “rummage” sale may be a good way to sneak in some good goodbyes.  Posting pictures online or sending an email may get you a better price with less work.

Consider this though — Giving your stuff away might just be a great way to add some gusto to your goodbyes.  Giving your BFF something that you could sell for a lot of money can be a powerful expression of how much you value their friendship.  It’s not about price.  It’s about value.  Maybe it’s a cheap trinket with a special memory attached.  Even better but give something more than your leftover ketchup and mop bucket.

Tip #5:  Photo Bomb Everything

Go crazy with the pictures.  Pictures are what you’re going to be looking at twenty years from now when you can barely remember what life was like way back then.  There is no better way to capture great events.  More than that though, pictures can become the event themselves.  Grab your friends, your camera and hit the town like supermodels.  Go to your favorite spots.  Eat your favorite foods.  Take a thousand pictures (that’s a conservative number) and laugh until it hurts.

You’ll love yourself for doing it in 20 years.

Too crazy for your blood?  Tone it down and hire a photographer to do a photo shoot for you and your friends.  Then go to dinner.

Picture events can be a great way to say goodbye to your friends and the memories will last for decades.

Tip #6:  Rank Your Friends

You read me right.  Don’t be afraid to rate your friends from best to worst.  Write down everyone you know and tag a number on them.  Your highest ranking friends need a special level of your attention as you leave.  In contrast you don’t need to do dinner with people if you don’t know their name.

Here’s an example but make it your own

Closest Friends — Quality time alone – Go away for the weekend

Close friends — Go to dinner individually

Good Friends — Go out as a small group

Friends — Invite to a going away party

Acquaintances — Send an email about your departure

Stupid People — Walk the other way when you see them

Important sidenote – Once you have your plan you should destroy all evidence that you ever ranked your friends.  Seriously.  What kind of person are you?  Jerk.

Tip #7:  Don’t Fret the Tears or the Lack Thereof

Know what’s really common as you pack up to shift every piece of your life to a different part of the planet and say goodbye to people and places you have grown to love deeply?

Emotion.

Know what else is common?

Lack of emotion.

Strange I know but people are different.  Crying makes sense.  There is plenty to cry about.  However, wanting to cry and not being able to is every bit as normal.  Maybe it’s because you’ve already cried yourself out.  Maybe it’s because the hard part for you was the process of deciding to leave and you spent all your emotion there.  Maybe you just can’t wait to get out.

Whatever the reason — don’t feel guilty for weeping like a baby . . . or for not.

Tip #8:  Get specific

When you are telling people how much they mean to you don’t settle for the generic version:

“Hey, (punch on the shoulder) you really mean a lot to me.”

Where I come from, that would pass for good, solid, heartfelt, transparent affirmation.  Almost too mushy.  But try setting that statement aside for a moment and lead with the specifics.

  • What have they done that means so much to you?
  • How has that impacted your life?
  • What qualities have they shared that you are taking with you?
  • What are some specific examples?
  • How are you a better person for knowing them?

THEN finish with . . . “and you really mean a lot to me.”

People are dense.  Don’t assume they know how you feel.

Bonus Tip:  You get extra points for being awkward.  Make eye contact.  Go for broke.

Tip #9:  Do Your Homework

What’s the protocol for checking out of your apartment complex?

What’s the penalty for breaking your lease?

What immunizations and paperwork does your cat need to fly home with you?

Does he need to be quarantined?  Before you leave?  After you arrive?

How do you close out your bank account?  Your cell phone?

What’s the weight limit for luggage on your airline?  What’s the penalty for going over?

This list goes on and on and only bits and pieces of it are relevant to you.  But in the masterful words of G.I. Joe, “Knowing is half the battle.”

A little homework early can save you a huge headache and a boatload of cash during an already stressful time.

Tip #10:  GRACE — Give it freely and keep some for yourself

When your good friend finds out you’re leaving and asks if he can have your TV . . . Give him some grace.

When your kids don’t know how to process so they just fight . . . Give them some grace.

When your husband shuts down and doesn’t talk for a day . . . Give him some grace.

When your wife explodes for “no reason” . . . Grace.

When your landlord tries to milk you for some extra money . . . Grace.

When the whole community doesn’t even seem to care that you’re leaving . . . Grace.

When your #15 asks if she can ride to the airport with you and your #1 . . . Grace.

When someone offers you half what your asking for your Christmas tree . . . Grace.

When you fall apart and snap on your friends, your kids, your spouse or the lady trying to steal your Christmas tree . . . it’s for you too . . . Grace.

Leaving is hard.  There’s really no way around it.  People whom you love dearly will inevitably and with the best of intentions, say and do very stupid things.  So will you.

Grace.

If you are packing up, I hope this helps.

If you know someone who is packing up, pass it on.

If you’ve been there and done that don’t be stingy.  Add your tips.  What worked for you?

Click here for Part 2 about what happens after the plane ride:  Landing Well — 10 More Tips on Repatriating With Dignity

And here for Part 3 about saying goodbye and going nowhere:  Staying Well — 10 Tips for Expats Who Are Left Behind

And here for Part 4 for the welcomers: Receiving Well — 11 Tips for Helping Expats Come Home

Oops, I went home for Christmas — How to readjust to life abroad after a quick trip “home”

This post is specifically for the masses who have been transitioning to a new life abroad and are thinking that a quick trip home for the holidays might be exactly what they need to crush their culture shock and get rid of that pesky homesickness.

You’ll see them around just after Christmas.

Fetal position.

More homesick than ever.

Pricing airfare again.

I used to say don’t do it — EVER — don’t go home in the first year.  Give yourself a chance to work through the mess and the bumbling of learning how to be a foreigner before you run back to everything familiar.

I stopped saying that for two reasons:

ONE: No one listened.  A bit of advice (no matter how spot on) always loses miserably to Nana’s pumpkin pie.  Hands down.  I get it.

TWO: Some people do it really well.  They go.  They come back.  They re-engage and it’s good.  I won’t argue with that.

However, it is a harsh reality that a quick trip home in the middle of a cultural transition CAN be more painful than you expected.

 

Maybe you’ve seen something similar to the diagram below.

It’s the standard culture shock continuum that charts how we process things that are “DIFFERENT” (namely everything) when we move abroad.  It happens to most of us although it takes on a million different forms since . . . you know . . . we’re all different.

Point is . . . transition is a process.

screen-shot-2017-01-09-at-9-59-20-am

So it makes sense right?  If you’re at the bottom of the curve and everything is stupid, you need a break.

A fast infusion of familiarity would do the trick.

A hug from mom.

A night out with old friends.

A Ribeye.  Medium Well.  With a loaded baked potato.

What were we talking about?

Oh yeah . . . a quick trip home.

That’ll fix it.

In our heads it looks like this.

screen-shot-2017-01-09-at-8-54-32-am

It will be a nice little taste of the well known in the middle of the dip so I can recharge and come back refreshed . . .  ready to move forward.

But home doesn’t live in the dip.

Going home (especially for the holidays) can be more of a super spike of hyper-charged emotions . . . on crack . . . and steroids . . . and Red Bull . . . and Nana’s pumpkin pie.

It actually looks more like this.

screen-shot-2017-01-09-at-9-30-29-am

Think about it.

Detaching from all of the sources of your greatest frustration and plugging in to all of the sources of your greatest joy ONLY to reverse that moments after you get over jet lag is not a sustainable solution to the frustration.

Au contraire (pardon my French).

 

Here’s the thing — this scenario doesn’t apply to everyone but the principal probably does:

  • For some people going home IS the pain.
  • For other people the holidays are the pain.
  • Some people don’t go home but they go somewhere warmer, or nicer, or more exciting or just less frustrating.
  • Some people do this in May or September.
  • Some people don’t even leave but they still detach.

The point is that you can’t FIX transition by stepping away from it.  It’s a process.  You’ve got to go through it.

That said — don’t despair if you’ve already made that choice.  It doesn’t need to be a bad thing.

 

Here are some quick thoughts on moving forward:

 

ONE:  Don’t blame your host country for not being your home

That’s not fair and all of the facts aren’t in yet.  You knew it would be different when you came.  Now you know “how” it is different.  Keep learning.

 

TWO:  Don’t compare the end of THAT with the beginning of THIS

It took you years to build the great relationships that you are mourning as you adjust.  It makes sense if you don’t have deep roots yet.  Give it time.  Give it a chance.

 

THREE:  Focus on how far you’ve come

Especially if this is your first year abroad . . . think about it . . . the last time you took that flight you had NO IDEA what to expect.  You didn’t know the people, the places, the customs, anything.  You’ve actually come a long way in a short time.  Keep moving forward.

 

FOUR:  Compartmentalize

It’s ok for your trip home to be wonderful.  It’s supposed to be.  It’s also ok for your time abroad to be tough.  It’s supposed to be.  You don’t have to feel guilty for either one of those and they can actually exist perfectly in tandem.  Trust me, in time they can do a complete 180.

 

FIVE:  Engage even if you don’t feel like it

You can’t kick your roller coaster emotions out of the car . . . but you don’t have to let them drive.  Do something, eat something, learn something you don’t necessarily want to right now.

 

SIX:  You are not alone

Really.  You are not.  I’ve had this conversation at least 30 times this year.  You are not the only one who feels like this right now and there have been millions before you.  Myself included.

 

SEVEN:  Accept the truth and move ahead

If you go home for Christmas (or otherwise detach) it COULD do something like this to your transition.

screen-shot-2017-01-09-at-8-46-22-am

So what?

Detaching momentarily doesn’t come without a price.  There is a good chance it’s going to take you a little longer to work through the transition process and feel at home in your new normal.

Ok.

But you had a great Christmas.

You made some great memories.

If you’re in this for the long haul then accept the penalty and move on.

 

There is nothing like the experience of living abroad.  There are great things waiting of the other side of the dip.  In fact, there are probably some pretty great things all along the way.

Don’t miss them just because they’re not as good as Nana’s pumpkin pie.

Nothing is.

 

originally posted on The Culture Blend

How a 40 Year Old Camel Changed My Life

 

In the interest of integrity — the title to this post is slightly misleading.

I’ve been reading up on clickbait and I’m just trying to stay current.

Click here to catch up: 33 Clickbait Headlines for Expats — Number 12 Will Make You Gasp

The full truth is the camel (actual picture above) was only a child when he changed my life AND he was not the sole life-changer. There were others. A black pleather book bag, some cheap wooden shoes, and a one peso coin from the Phillippines, just to name a few.

 

Here’s a question: If you’re a global person, how did you get that way?

 

You’ve had this experience, right? Home for the summer. Meet somebody new (feel free to change the proper nouns) . . .

“Hey, I’m Bob.”

“Hey Bob, I’m Jerry.”

“Nice to meet you Jerry, where ya’ from?”

“Uhhhh . . . well . . . I was born in Illinois but now I live in China.”

“CHINA!!! WAHHH. I could NEVER do that.”

I have “literally” had some variation of this conversation one billion times. So if there are so many people who could NEVER do this, what is it about YOU? What makes you so different than the normal people?

And maybe more importantly, can you put “literally” in quotes like that?

The reality is that we’ve all got a different story that led us here. For some, it was a blinding Damascus zap that dramatically reset your trajectory in one afternoon. For others, it was more of a decades-long yearning that finally came true.

Regardless, if you have never sat and processed the previous chapters in your book (that is still being written) . . . you should.

 

I’ll go first, but as I do — HERE ARE FOUR QUESTIONS TO HELP YOU GET STARTED.

 

WHEN DID IT START?

When did you first start showing an interest in global things?

This is where the camel comes in for me. He was a gift from my grandparents who had traveled to the other side of the planet and stopped off to see the pyramids along the way. They weren’t what I would call “travel savvy” but they knew better than to come home without some souvenirs for the grandkids.

Click here to read: The Day Grandma Got Us Kicked Out of Mexico

I know now from my own experience with airport gift-shop, guilt purchases how the trinkets made their way to my cousins, my siblings and me.

I also know roughly how much they cost.

None of that mattered when I was five. They might as well have been The Crown Jewels or the Holy Grail or a real camel. I was giddy.

I didn’t notice it then but I loved those things more than anyone else did. I thought we were all as excited as I was. They just thought I was weird.

 

WHAT TWEAKED YOU?

What experiences stirred your global interest?

I vividly remember riding home on the bus and digging through my new bag (Mom’s yard sale find). It was cheap, used, fake leather with a tag that rocked my world.

“Made in Taiwan.”

Endorphins must have blasted my 2nd-grade brain because I could paint you a picture of that exact moment to this day. I leaped off the bus, ran inside and screamed, “MOM! MOM! LOOK AT THIS!!”

Her response was underwhelming.

“Uh, honey, everything is made in Taiwan.”

Cynic.

It was still a big day for me.

Other world-rocking experiences include but are not limited to:

  • Scrounging through my Grandfathers WW2 memories.
  • Meeting a real live foreign exchange student from a whole other country.
  • National Geographic Magazine.
  • Eating Taco Bell for the first time (don’t even try to steal my joy).

 

WHO WERE THEY?

What people expanded your horizons?

A missionary to the Phillippines handed me a one peso coin at the Mt. Zion General Baptist Church which was located 30 miles into a cornfield in any direction. I was 6 and it was the first time I had touched non-U.S. currency. Another moment imprinted on my brain.

My Grandpa told me one story about meeting a Chinese boy in the war . . . 14 times.

My wife had spent 6 months in Taiwan before we ever met. She acted like it was no big deal. It so was.

 

WHAT ARE YOU GIVING BACK?

How are you influencing the next generation of global people?

Not everyone gets excited about global things. That makes no sense to me but I’ve finally come to realize that I’m the weird one.

I’m good with that but every once in a while another weird, younger version of me pops up.

The kids that go bug-eyed when they find out where we live.

The ones that ask, “how do you spell my name in Chinese?”

The high-seas adventurers who feel like they’ve struck gold when they get their first set of chopsticks.

 

Consider this a challenge to simply keep an eye out for those golden moments and be willing to hang out there for a bit. That’s a solid investment in the future of global people.

 

Alright — I went first. What’s your story? Why are you the way you are?

 

Takes some time and think about it. Comment below.

Oops, I went home for Christmas — How to readjust to life abroad after a quick trip “home”

Ahh, busyness . . . sneaks up on you doesn’t it? Especially this time of year.

Caught me off guard and I’m a bit overrun by cookies, carols and Christmas cheer to pause and post something fresh.

So . . . please accept my apologies and this repost from The Culture Blend.

Merry Christmas to all and a Happy New Year to boot.

Oops, I went home for Christmas

This post is specifically for the masses who have been transitioning to a new life abroad and thought that a quick trip home for the holidays might be exactly what they needed to crush their culture shock and get rid of that pesky homesickness.

You know who you are.

Fetal position?

More homesick than ever?

Pricing airfare again?

I used to say don’t do it — EVER — don’t go home in the first year.  Give yourself a chance to work through the mess and the bumbling of learning how to be a foreigner before you run back to everything familiar.

I stopped saying that for two reasons:

ONE: No one listened.  A bit of advice (no matter how spot on) always loses miserably to Nana’s pumpkin pie.  Hands down.  I get it.

TWO: Some people do it really well.  They go.  They come back.  They re-engage and it’s good.  I won’t argue with that.

However, it is a harsh reality that a quick trip home in the middle of a cultural transition CAN be more painful than you expected.

 

Maybe you’ve seen something similar to the diagram below.

It’s the standard culture shock continuum that charts how we process things that are “DIFFERENT” (namely everything) when we move abroad.  It happens to most of us although it takes on a million different forms since . . . you know . . . we’re all different.

Point is . . . transition is a process.

screen-shot-2017-01-09-at-9-59-20-am

So it makes sense right?  If you’re at the bottom of the curve and everything is stupid, you need a break.

A fast infusion of familiarity would do the trick.

A hug from mom.

A night out with old friends.

A Ribeye.  Medium Well.  With a loaded baked potato.

What were we talking about?

Oh yeah . . . a quick trip home.

That’ll fix it.

In our heads, it looks like this.

screen-shot-2017-01-09-at-8-54-32-am

It will be a nice little taste of the well known in the middle of the dip so I can recharge and come back refreshed . . .  ready to move forward.

But home doesn’t live in the dip.

Going home (especially for the holidays) can be more of a super spike of hyper-charged emotions . . . on crack . . . and steroids . . . and Red Bull . . . and Nana’s pumpkin pie.

It actually looks more like this.

screen-shot-2017-01-09-at-9-30-29-am

Think about it.

Detaching from all of the sources of your greatest frustration and plugging in to all of the sources of your greatest joy ONLY to reverse that moments after you get over jet lag is not a sustainable solution to the frustration.

Au contraire (pardon my French).

 

Here’s the thing — this scenario doesn’t apply to everyone but the principal probably does:

  • For some people going home IS the pain.
  • For other people the holidays are the pain.
  • Some people don’t go home but they go somewhere warmer, or nicer, or more exciting or just less frustrating.
  • Some people do this in May or September.
  • Some people don’t even leave but they still detach.

The point is that you can’t FIX transition by stepping away from it.  It’s a process.  You’ve got to go through it.

That said — don’t despair if you’ve already made that choice.  It doesn’t need to be a bad thing.

 

Here are some quick thoughts on moving forward:

 

ONE:  Don’t blame your host country for not being your home

That’s not fair and all of the facts aren’t in yet.  You knew it would be different when you came.  Now you know “how” it is different.  Keep learning.

 

TWO:  Don’t compare the end of THAT with the beginning of THIS

It took you years to build the great relationships that you are mourning as you adjust.  It makes sense if you don’t have deep roots yet.  Give it time.  Give it a chance.

 

THREE:  Focus on how far you’ve come

Especially if this is your first year abroad . . . think about it . . . the last time you took that flight you had NO IDEA what to expect.  You didn’t know the people, the places, the customs, anything.  You’ve actually come a long way in a short time.  Keep moving forward.

 

FOUR:  Compartmentalize

It’s ok for your trip home to be wonderful.  It’s supposed to be.  It’s also ok for your time abroad to be tough.  It’s supposed to be.  You don’t have to feel guilty for either one of those and they can actually exist perfectly in tandem.  Trust me, in time they can do a complete 180.

 

FIVE:  Engage even if you don’t feel like it

You can’t kick your roller coaster emotions out of the car . . . but you don’t have to let them drive.  Do something, eat something, learn something you don’t necessarily want to right now.

 

SIX:  You are not alone

Really.  You are not.  I’ve had this conversation at least 30 times this year.  You are not the only one who feels like this right now and there have been millions before you.  Myself included.

 

SEVEN:  Accept the truth and move ahead

If you went home for Christmas (or otherwise detached) it COULD do something like this to your transition.

screen-shot-2017-01-09-at-8-46-22-am

Detaching momentarily doesn’t come without a price.  There is a good chance it’s going to take you a little longer to work through the transition process and feel at home in your new normal.

Ok.

But you had a great Christmas.

You made some great memories.

If you’re in this for the long haul then accept the penalty and move on.

 

There is nothing like the experience of living abroad.  There are great things waiting of the other side of the dip.  In fact, there are probably some pretty great things all along the way.

Don’t miss them just because they’re not as good as Nana’s pumpkin pie.

Nothing is.

 

What’s your experience?  Have you left and come back?  Flying out this week?    Share your story below.  

The Fine Line Between Expat Chaos and Rhythm

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

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

Seriously.  Who does this?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BUT . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

Even in constant ON mode we find moments of OFF.

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

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

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

 

7 Biblical Transportation Options for Airplane-Weary Expatriates

I remember when people dressed up to take airplane flights. Now, we just want sweatpants and ponytails (but be careful not to get bumped off for being inappropriately under dressed). I remember when flying felt exotic and fancy but lately it feels more like headaches and cramped quarters and clogged toilets. I keep asking my engineering husband to build me a Star Trek teleportation device but he says he has other priorities.

So I turn to the Bible.

The Bible presents several travel options, for those of us who want to opt out of airplane travel, especially relevant as we enter the summer season of high travel for many. Take your pick.

Run Fast (1 Kings 18: 45-46)

Tuck your skirt or man-skirt up into your belt and run like mad. You might outrun chariots and you might outrun a thunderstorm. Your swag might be a death threat from a queen. No worries, run on!

Fish Cargo (Jonah)

Get swallowed by a fish, nearly digested, and spit up on the land of your choosing. Er, no. The land you absolutely did not choose. But, there you are, undigested, make the most of it.

Be Somewhere Else (Acts 9:40)

Be there. Now you’re here, now you’re there. Not sure how you did it, but there you go. Just go. This could be in response to attempting the Run Fast option, alongside a chariot this time rather than in front of it (Acts 9:29-30). Maybe that made you tired and so this time, you just go.

Flaming Chariots (2 Kings 2:11-12)

Go for a walk with your friend and enjoy a deep conversation. Wait for it, wait for it. Bam! Get swooped up by a chariot of fire, pulled by horses. Your friend might tear their clothes in response but, oh well. These are especially useful for moving between the earthly and heavenly realm, but who are we to limit God? If he wants to move you from Bolivia to Tanzania via flaming chariot, enjoy the ride.

Walk on Water (Matthew 14:22-33)

Who needs to fly over the ocean when you could walk across it? You might get wet, you might take your entire term to arrive, but you will not suffer the indignity of needing to strip nearly naked and be body scanned and shuffling across filthy airport floors in your bare feet. You might see some fishy wildlife. You might even get swallowed by some of that wildlife and arrive faster, and only slightly digested (see Fish Cargo).

The Ol’ Basket Carry (Zechariah 5:5-8)

Have someone shove you into a basket and cover it quickly with a lead cover. This mode of transportation has gender restrictions (women only) and might cause you to be judged severely as the epitome of wickedness. Darn those wicked baskets.

Walk

But be wary the attacking lion, talking donkeys, large bodies of water that may need parting, the possibilities of either she-bears or mocking youths in the vicinity (especially if you are a man and you are bald), avenging angels who might require the removal of foreskin, burning bushes, sudden and blinding light from heaven, and people following you around shouting, “These are servants of the Most High God!”

Happy Travels.

*image via Flickr

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“Fernweh” and “Heimweh” — words for the one who’s far from home

I found a new word on the Facebook profile of a missionary writer, and it’s the best new word I’ve heard in a long time. It’s called fernweh, and it’s a German word that means “a longing for faraway places.”

The feeler of fernweh carries a desire — whether met or unmet — to travel to distant countries, to visit new places, and to have new experiences. Its nearest English equivalent might be the idea of “wanderlust.” When transliterated, fernweh means “farsickness,” in much the same way that heimweh means “homesickness.”

Fernweh and heimweh: these sister words draw me in. Ever since I found them, I cannot get them out of my head, for I live in a faraway place.

At least, it’s far away from the Europe and North America in which I grew up. It was far away, but now it’s near. I find now that the faraway place has become home, and home has become the faraway place.

The sense of home I get when I see a palm tree is so deep that I think the Maker must have inscribed it on my heart when He made me. For me there is both longing and fulfillment in a palm tree.

I travel through the city in a tuk tuk (open carriage), and I pass by a wat (temple). This Asian architecture seems so familiar now and not far away at all. I crave these sights. I want to see them my whole life.

The place I live is both far and near, and somehow I have fernweh and heimweh all at once.

But how can something be both foreign and familiar at the same time?

It is this way for all of us global nomads, I suppose.

And perhaps, in the kingdom of God, fernweh and heimweh are really the same longing. Whether we ache for something new, or whether we ache for something known, all our aches point us to God.

All our longings — even the unholy ones — are for the true Water that quenches our thirst and the true Bread that satisfies our hunger.

So when I desire this place, it’s really God I’m longing for. And when I desire another place, it’s God I long for there, too.

Jesus, the One who formed us from the dust and breathed the breath of life into us, knows this about us. That’s the reason that, right before He dies, He tells His disciples to “Make yourselves at home in my love” (John 15:9 MSG).

So whether I am at home, or whether I am longing for home, what I really want and what I really need is my true Home in Christ.

And when I feel fernweh, or when I feel heimweh, can I find in these yearnings the God who created them in the first place?

Can I truly find my home in His love?

 

How have you experienced “fernweh” (the longing for faraway places)?

How have you experienced “heimweh” (the longing for home)?

How do you respond to these longings?

*****In this post I’m simply responding to newly encountered words and the emotions they evoke in me. I welcome input on these words from the German speakers among us.*****

*****Many thanks to Amy Peterson, whose Facebook profile inspired this post.*****

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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6 Reasons Furloughs are Awesome (sort of)

6. A furlough is one of the best “weight-gain” plans out there. It’s sort of like pregnancy, but with furlough, the cravings occur every-mester. During furlough, scales become toxic and should be avoided at all cost. No worries, though, ’cause if you’re wondering whether or not you’ve gained weight, just get back on the plane and return to the foreign field. Your neighbors will poke your belly, tell you you’re much fatter than before, and smile. God bless ’em.
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5. A furlough is great practice for dying. No, really. You get the unique chance to look back on your life (or term) and justify your existence to anyone who wants to listen (or send you money). You get all things “in order” for your departure, making sure all will go well during your absence. You make sure pets are taken care of. You make sure all the important documents are up to date and easily findable. You prepare yourself and your loved ones for “a long journey” that will be worth it because, at the end of it all, there will be Chick-Fil-A. And grandma.
 
rfa1
4. A furlough’s like a really long vacation. Who else gets to take months off at a time? Actually, on furlough, you’re sort of like a backpacker, but without the dreadlocks. Or the pot.
 
3. Potable water (which, it should be noted, has nothing to do with the aforementioned pot). Clean drinking water is in the pipes, people! What kind of alternate universe are we in? On our first furlough, my son took a break at the public park, stating he was thirsty. When I pointed him to the water fountain, he looked at me incredulously and said, “Is it safe?” “Yup.” “For real? And it’s free?” “Yup.” “WOW! That is so nice!” I won’t tell you what he said about the toilet.
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2. You get to trade in friend-sets. With a furlough, it’s sort of like you get to have two lives, but without all the complications (and secrets, which make for great TV but bad newsletters). Want to reboot your friend-set to a prior decade of life? Simply hitch a ride on a big metal tube with movies and free toothbrushes and you’ll be on your way. But be warned, as with all time travel, weird things (like Miley Cyrus and self-checkout lines) happen.
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(And now for a serious one to justify the time you just wasted reading this list. Unless you’re reading this while on vacation, I mean, furlough.)
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1. You get to share (and listen to) the Story of Stories in your own heart language. Yes, the Gospel is amazing in any language, but when it’s your language, when those are the actual words you first heard when you first heard Jesus, something magical happens. The Gospel is omni-cultural, for sure, but it’s also inherently personal. And the honor of serving in the churches that birthed you, that sent you, that love you, well that’s something to write home about.
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Since I’m currently on vacation, er, furlough, I took
the liberty of adapting an old post from trotters41.com.

Thoughts and Advice for a First-time Expat

A few weeks ago, someone who is moving overseas contacted me. This is her first time living overseas, she is going into the unknown, and wants to be as prepared as possible.

Here is what I said to her:

Dear Lucy (name has been changed)

Wow – I’m excited for you and not a little envious! This is an amazing opportunity, and though I know based on your email that you are scared, I think you may find this is one of those gifts that is given to you and your family for this time of your life.

That being said, you asked for practical, not philosophical advice – so here goes:

  1. Learn the numbers as quickly as possible. You will find them everywhere and it will help you to tell time, understand the prices of items, and tell people how many children you have!
  2. Learn the currency and don’t translate it into US dollars. If you do, you will either spend too much money thinking “everything is so cheap,” or too little money and thus, not get the things you need.
  3. Take things that will immediately make your new space feel like home – a few pictures, candles, a couple of books. That way, even as you’re waiting for the rest of your household goods, you can begin to create a home.
  4. Recognize that your children’s grief is real, real, real. Allow them to be sad without putting caveats on the sadness (eg “I know you’re sad, but think how much fun travel will be…”) Travel may be fun, but it will not give them back their friends and schools. Allow them to grieve, and grieve with them.
  5. You are arriving in the summer, a time when expat communities dwindle, so it will probably take some time to connect with others. Still – limit the amount of time that your kids spend on social media, just as you would limit social media in your home country. You cannot, I repeat, you cannot live in two places at once. Believe me, I’ve tried, and it doesn’t work. So limit the time they spend, and try to get out and explore.
  6. By the same token, don’t allow yourself to spend too much time on Skype, Facebook, or any other social media sites. It will be all you can do sometimes, to tear yourself away. But tear yourself away you must. This is not the end of your world, this is the beginning of a new world. Allow it to be just that.
  7. Don’t be afraid to initially be a tourist. If you don’t explore the area, you may come to the end of your time and find you’ve not seen the world-famous sites there are to see. Use those first weeks to create adventure and have your kids journal about it.
  8. Remember that your culture is just that – your culture. Others have different ways of doing things. They aren’t bad – they are just different. Learn cultural humility, a life skill you will never regret.
  9. News flash: Life wasn’t perfect in your home country. It will be easy to think it was when you are faced with the newness of life and culture shock in its monstrous intensity. But it wasn’t. There are relationship problems, infrastructure issues, and just plain life wherever we live.
  10. You take yourself and your family with you. You aren’t all going to change on the plane. Sure, this is a new start, but you are who you are. At the same time, you are also capable of change and being shaped by the country where you will make your home. Allow that shape to happen.
  11. Have a high tolerance of ambiguity and be capable of complexity. The country where you’re going is dismissed in the western world with a few stereotypical statements. Those are not the complete story. If you allow yourself, you will be able to understand a more complete, and thus richer version of the story.
  12. Give yourself grace. This move is huge! You won’t understand the impact until sometime later, so give yourself, your husband, and your kids grace.
  13. Laugh.Laugh.Laugh. Laughter is a holy gift that will take you through culture shock and culture conflict. It will take you through the hard days and you will be able to look back on them with much joy. So allow yourself the holy gift of laughter.
  14. Most of all, know that “He who began a good work in you, will be faithful to complete it!” God lives in other places. He is alive and well across the world, continuing his good work in the redemption story. You are a part of that Story and He is faithful.

I’ve included a picture here that I think you will enjoy! Print it out, and put it on your refrigerator so you remember these ten commandments.

Much love to you,

Marilyn

What would you add for Lucy? Please share in the comments and we will compile the comments for a new post!

Ten commandments for Expats

10 Things Flying Taught Me About Missions

I love flying. It just doesn’t get old for me.

I’ve jumped the Pacific a bunch; I’ve skipped over the Atlantic a few times. I have my own license to fly small aircraft, but still, every time I fly I feel like a little kid who’s milk got spiked with espresso. Sometimes I’m afraid the other passengers are thinking, “Oh for crying out loud, this guy doesn’t get out much. He’s probably homeschooled.” They’d be partially correct, I guess.

I fight my kids for the window seat. I revel in the sensation of takeoff, the joy of punching through oppressive clouds to the open sky above. When we hit turbulence, I close my eyes (like I’m praying, ’cause that’s holy) and say a silent “Yeehaaaw!”

This article is my excuse to talk about aviation. Here’s what flying has taught me about missions. I’d love to hear from you too: what has flying taught you about missions?

 

1. Pre-flight inspections are a good idea. You don’t have to do a pre-flight inspection. You don’t have to make sure the navigational instruments work. You don’t have to make sure the tail’s still there. If you’re the pilot, you could just get in, start it up and go. And you might be fine. But, you might not.

In missions, it’s best to get some pre-field training. But you don’t have to. You might be fine without it and you might have a wonderful time. Or, you might miss the bird’s nest in the engine that’ll catch fire in a wee bit, or the water that’s in the gas tank, or the rudder that doesn’t work. Pre-flight inspections save lives. So does pre-field training.

Of course, even perfectly performed pre-flight inspections can’t erase all risk. Things might still go south, and an unforeseen mishap might still occur. But even so, there’s a reason most pilots do a pre-flight inspection and most organizations encourage pre-field training.

I should note here that if you’re in Southeast Asia, the bird’s nest might not be in the engine. It might be in the free canned beverage from the gas station. I was totally not expecting that.

 

f1ALO

2. Communication matters. In most small airports in America, radio communication is not required. That is, you don’t have to talk with anyone on the radio. You don’t even have to have a radio in the plane. But radio communication is strongly recommended.

Most pilots “self-report” their location and their intention, especially when operating close to an airport. They might say something like, “Cessna 63279, six miles east of the airport at 2,500 feet, inbound for landing on runway 18, planning to enter a left downwind.” It’s really cool how this works, ‘cause if everyone self-reports, all the pilots in the vicinity have a general idea of who’s where and what they’re planning to do.

Not talking is scary. One day I was in the pattern with several other aircraft, and we all knew where the other planes were, when a new plane cut right in front of me, preparing to land. He hadn’t communicated anything, and although he wasn’t breaking any rules, he wasn’t making anything safer. Nor was he making any friends.

In missions, it’s great when folks talk to each other. If no one else is there, fine, do your own thing, but still, flying solo without at least a few people aware of what you’re up to is dangerous.

Not to mix analogies or anything, but you might think you’re a lone wolf, taking care of yourself and your ministry, when in reality you might just be a lone wildebeest, separated from the herd, ready to provide a lion his lunch. (Yes, I realize that I’ve used the word wildebeest in a prior post. I like the animal. I want one.)

If there are other workers on the field already, talk with them. Where are they? What are they doing? What’s working? What’s not? You’re probably not the only person in the sky, so don’t act like it. Communicate. Failing to communicate endangers everyone.

 

3. One-uppers happen. If you fly a lot, you’ve got travel stories. Great and funny and crazy stories, like that one time when all your flights were on time, no one threw up, and everyone arrived fully rested and smiling. With perfect hair. Be careful though, ‘cause it’s hard to tell a travel story without someone needing to one-up it with a story of their own.

Do I really have to explain how this is like missions? Yeah, I didn’t think so.

Do yourself a favor and watch this four-minute clip by comedian Brian Regan. His phrases “me monster,” “lunar rover,” and “two wisdom tooth tale” have found their way into our family vernacular. This sketch is part of our family culture now; perhaps it could become part of yours too.

 

4. Landing is one of the most dangerous parts of flying. Taking off requires little skill. Basically, you just point the plane in the right direction and push “GO!” Landing, on the other hand, is a bit trickier. There’s a lot more stuff that can go sideways. Landing safely requires planning, careful implementation, and a soft touch.

It’s sort of like landing on “the field” and then landing back “home.” Both landings carry certain risks and should be approached and planned for with care.

Soft landings are the best, so find kind and good-hearted people. Hang out with them. Cry with them. And when you see the next plane coming in for a landing (whether abroad or in your passport country), do whatever you can to provide a soft landing.

 

5. Landing at a place is VERY different than flying over it. I’ve flown over a lot of countries that I’ve never been to. I was in their airspace, but I wasn’t really there. It’s different, you know. From way up high, the Rocky Mountains aren’t all that majestic, the Grand Canyon’s not that big, Siberia’s not too cold, and the Pacific Ocean is pretty manageable. But stop and stay a while, and things will shift.

Short-term workers need to remember this. Passing through a nation, tasting their foods, and hugging their kids is not the same as staying. I’m not saying it doesn’t have value, but short-termers must remember that being in a place for a week or even a month is sort of like performing a low-altitude flyover. You can take some cool pictures, but you can’t really understand what it’s like to live there.

That being said, long-termers can benefit from the unique vantage point of our short-term brothers and sisters. Long-termers can get bogged down in minutia and forget to come up for air from time to time. Hanging out with short-termers can reinvigorate and re-inspire. And remind.

I guess the main thing I’m saying is this: be aware of your altitude. If you’re just flying over, know what it is that you don’t know. And ask questions.

If you’ve been somewhere a long time, ask the short-termers to describe what things look like from their vantage point. Ask them about where they came from and where they’re going. The relationship can (and should) be very symbiotic.

 

Kansas City, Missouri, USA
Kansas City, Missouri, USA

6. Most (but not all) obstacles are on the map. So look at it. Radio towers, mountains, restricted airspace, etc., they’re all on the map. Pay attention. Learn from others. Learn the lay of the land.

Missionaries, learn from the old people (nationals and expats alike). They have experience that you need, and they’ve already paid for it! Remember, nothing is new under the sun. Most experienced people are happy to share their thoughts and opinions with interested parties and point out obstacles and hazards. No one likes to see a plane (or a missionary) crash and burn.

 

7. Don’t judge another passenger’s anxiety. On the same flight, excited travelers who’ve planned for and dreamed of the trip for years may be sitting right next to people who are absolutely dreading what awaits them on the tarmac. One traveler may be starting a grand adventure, while another deals with tremendous loss and many endings. A traveler’s anxiety isn’t necessarily correlated to the smoothness of the flight. Don’t judge. You don’t know the stories.

In missions, one person might really struggle with something that another person finds perfectly sublime. What stresses one might excite another. Be careful in the judging, because you just don’t know their story.

Stories are funky things, bleeding through pages of a life. When you see a person stressed or anxious, give them the benefit of the doubt; you don’t know what they left behind, and you don’t know what’s in store for them upon arrival. And often, neither do they.

 

8. The toilets are different. And they sometimes require, um, how shall we say, skill. And planning. Especially with small children.

 

9. You don’t always get to choose your travel buddies. Sometimes you get to choose whom you sit next to (and what they smell like), other times, not so much. If you can’t change it, just be glad you packed earplugs and smelling salts. And sedatives.

Sometimes you can choose where you sit, and whom you sit next to. If that’s the case, be bold. Choose. Sometimes things change en route, and you may need to ask to move seats. If you need to, and you can, do it. There’s nothing noble or especially holy about staying in a difficult situation that isn’t necessary.

 

10. Sometimes you lose stuff. While it’s true that you gain things by flying, you also lose stuff. Like luggage, or your temper, or your ability to answer simple questions such as “What day is it?” “What country am I in?” or “Whose kid is that?” Flying messes with your circadian rhythm, and if you’re blessed to have other forms of rhythm, flying will mess with those too. You lose all sorts of stuff when you fly; some of the stuff you get back, but some of it stays lost forever. Just.Like.Missions.

Maybe it’s innocence.

Or optimism.

Or the belief that this will be easy.

You might show up thinking that all foreign workers are pretty much perfect Christians, as if William Carey and Elisabeth Elliot had a bunch of children and named them all “Missionary.” Yeah, that assumption might get destroyed.

Most likely, you’ll lose a bit of ignorance, forever changing how you watch world news.

But loss isn’t the end of the story; God is, and He remains the Great Healer and Restorer. He is the Father who runs, shouting “We must celebrate! For what was once lost has now been found.” He is the God who sees what’s been lost, and cares. He is the God who is here. And there.

May the peace of God rest on His people.

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I can never escape from your Spirit! I can never get away from your presence!

If I go up to heaven, you are there; if I go down to the grave, you are there.

If I ride the wings of the morning, if I dwell by the farthest oceans, even there your hand will guide me, and your strength will support me.

I could ask the darkness to hide me and the light around me to become night—but even in darkness I cannot hide from you. To you the night shines as bright as day.

Darkness and light are the same to you.

Psalm 139:7-12