Saturday, December 3, 2016

Don't Ask Me About My Christmas Traditions

My first Christmas on African soil was when I had just turned six years old.  We had arrived in Liberia only three weeks earlier, and my mom was in the throes of major culture shock.  My parents had shipped over a few presents, but nothing else for Christmas.  My mom managed to find a two-foot plastic tree at a store, and decorated it with tiny candy canes wrapped in cellophane.  After just a few days, the candy canes turned into puddles inside their wrappers.  My mom says it was the most depressing Christmas she’s ever had. 
Our first Liberian Christmas: My brother and I with our punching balloons, and my sad Mama.
I remember that Christmas, but the funny thing is, I thought it was great.  I remember being concerned how Santa would get into our house without a chimney, but my parents assured me they would leave the door unlocked.  We had a tree, we were together, and it was Christmas.  I was happy.
Fast forward 25 years to when I started raising my own TCKs in tropical Africa.  I was a young mother around the time when social media was really taking off, and I felt suffocated under the expectations of creating a magical Christmas for my children, complete with handmade crafts and meaningful traditions. Not only that, but I was quite literally suffocating in a southern hemisphere tropical climate.  There weren’t going to be any pine trees or snuggling up in pajamas while going out to see Christmas lights.  In fact, the only festivity to be found in our city was a five-foot high, mechanical, singing Santa in our grocery store that terrified my two-year-old and made her run away screaming.

We can tell ourselves that “Jesus is the reason for the season”—and even believe it—but we all know that we have expectations for Christmas to be more than that.  The traditions, the parties, the “magic,” even the cold weather, all are wrapped up in what we dream Christmas is “supposed” to be.

Ever wonder what Christmas is like for those of us living in a different country?  Click here to read the rest of this post over at A Life Overseas.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

I Am Forty

I was born on December 1st, 1976, while my Dad was stationed in snowy New Jersey at an army base.  So today, I am forty years old.

It does sound strange.  It does sound old.  Because anyone who is not yet forty doesn't actually believe they ever will be.  But I must admit, I really am not dreading being forty.

My favorite piece of furniture in my house is my hard-wood dining table, which we had custom made ten years ago (back when custom-made furniture was the only kind of furniture you could find in Dar es Salaam).  At the time, I thought it was huge because it seated eight.  Now I wish it was bigger.  But I love that table.

When Josiah was a baby, sitting in his high chair, he could reach the table.  Once when I was out of sight, he took his metal spoon and banged as hard as he could on that table, leaving a bunch of dents and scratches.

Oh, how I mourned over those dents and scratches on my beautiful perfect table.

But then, time passed, as it always does.  And now I look across the table at my big nine-year-old Josiah, and think about how quickly time did pass.  And I look at those dents and scratches, which have darkened into the wood, and I am so thankful for that precious memory of my sweet baby.  And I think my table has become even more beautiful because of it.

Why do we fear age so much?  Why do we cover up our wrinkles and sags, as if they were something to be ashamed of...instead of beautiful marks of sweet memories, hard work, and wisdom?

I have absolutely no desire to return to younger days.  I think back to my teens and twenties, to all that self-conscientious and confusion, to my introversion which prevented me from having a normal conversation with most people my own age.  I think about early marriage, early child-rearing, and I have no desire to go back to the multitude of mistakes, the unnecessary anxiety, the selfishness that had to be rooted out.  Of course, my life is (and never will be) perfect, but I certainly have a whole lot more peace and confidence than I ever did when I was young.

Tanzania, like many other non-western countries, celebrates this much better than my own culture.  In Tanzania, age is to be honored and cherished.  There's a special greeting in Swahili that you are expected to use with anyone who is significantly older than you, and calling someone mzee (old person) is a way to show respect, even if the person isn't actually very old.

Why on earth does our culture idolize youth?  If age brings on more wisdom and more understanding, then it should be honored.  And like my hard-wood table, if I bear the marks of growing older, then so be it.  Bring on the years.

Since I'm feeling nostalgic today, I'm posting pictures of milestones in my life.  It's fun to think that many of you reading this today knew me at these various stages.  I wish there was a way to honor all of you who have impacted my life.

On ELWA Beach, Liberia

Baptized at age 12 in Liberia

Ethiopia, on the night before I left for boarding school in 9th grade

Back in California, my favorite part of high school was theater.  This is Ouiser Boudreaux in "Steel Magnolias."  Will I look like this when I am 60?

High school graduation (1994) with my best friend Anne 

Paul and I had this picture taken as a gift(!) for our parents.  This is not a milestone picture, but I had to include it because it's so awesome.
The paint.  The dog.  

Graduation from The Master's College, 1998

My first class

Faith Blast Kids' Club taught me so much about cross-cultural ministry, loving people, and leadership.  Gil and I co-led it for four years.  We barely knew each other when we started, but eventually it led to.....

Our wedding on October 7, 2000

Making our home in Tanzania (and no, we actually don't live anywhere near elephants, but it's just such a cool picture.)

My first class at Haven of Peace Academy

Bringing home Baby #1

Baby #2



The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, 
along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.  
(I Timothy 1:14)

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Waiting on the God Who Acts

I was washing dishes, and Grace was practicing her Bible verses for class.

She rattled off Isaiah 64:4:  Since ancient times no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who acts on behalf of those who wait for him.

And tears sprang to my eyes.

Suddenly I was taken back to ten years ago.  Gil and I had been through a miscarriage and two failed adoption attempts.  We were desperate to be parents.  We had been matched with Grace in May of 2006, and we had flown up to Northern Tanzania in June to meet her.  At that point, we thought it would be just a matter of days before we would be able to bring her home.

But the days stretched into weeks which stretched into months.  I flew up to Moshi three more times to try to get things moving.  We believed the problem was with an evil social worker who was preventing the adoption, but now that I understand more about Tanzanian culture and how adoption works here, I know that the delay had just as much to do with the mistakes of the orphanage.

We were asked if we wanted to just give up on this baby and choose another.  But we were committed to the child who would become Grace Medina.  As long as it took.

All of our adoptions have had snags and disappointments, but the months of waiting for Grace were the hardest.  I wasn't just waiting for another child, I was waiting to become a mother.  I closed the door of her half-decorated nursery and couldn't bring myself to go in.

One day in late October, I was asked to substitute teach for fifth grade at HOPAC at the last minute.  I quickly scanned over lesson plans as the kids came into the room.  The first lesson of the day was in Bible.  And it was on Isaiah 64:4.

I remember very clearly that as the students and I discussed the implications of God's sovereignty in waiting patiently for Him to act, that I felt like I was talking to myself as the words came out of my mouth.  I was waiting for Him, and He would act.  I could have that confidence. I left the classroom that day with a new perspective.

Just two days later, we received the letter that allowed us to go pick up Grace.  And that beautiful promise was ingrained on my heart.

In the ten years since then, the Bible curriculum at HOPAC has not changed.  So when Grace--now in fifth grade and almost 11 years old--stood in my kitchen and recited the verse that quite literally is entwined in her story, it was a holy moment.

That night, I told Grace this story of that verse.  I did wait on Him.  And He did act.  And no one has ever seen or heard of a God like Him.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Gratitude Makes All the Difference

It's been one of those days.

It actually started yesterday, when my healthy young laptop suddenly decided to stop working.  Since I am heavily dependent on my computer, I knew that I would need to take it in immediately today to get fixed.

Unfortunately, there is only one computer store in the entire city of Dar es Salaam that will honor my HP warranty.  And even though it is less than 10 miles away, I dreaded the drive.  I knew it would take at least an hour each way, which wasn't really how I planned to spend my Wednesday.

It was raining this morning.  That usually means torture for anyone who wants to drive to town, but I assured myself that we are only in the "short rains" rainy season and these days it only rains for fifteen minutes at a time.  About a hour after I left the house, I knew I was in trouble.  This wasn't just rain, this was African Rain.  The voice from Google Maps politely told me, You will reach your destination in one minute.  Uh, I don't think so, I said back to her (not so politely).  Your satellite up there doesn't see that the road in front of me is actually now a river.  

So I turned around and went up and down and back again and got to my destination a different way.  I trudged through the rain, up the stairs to the computer shop.....only to see a note on the door telling me they had another location deep downtown.

Two hours after I left my house, I finally reached my destination.  It was in a new mall I hadn't visited before.  Because of the rain, the power was off, and I asked three people for directions before I finally found the shop in a very dark, back corner.

I then sat. Without power, they couldn't register my computer or look up the warranty.  A half hour later, the power finally came on.  Not looking forward to making this journey again, I hopefully asked the receptionist, Can't I just wait for the technician to just...fix it right now?   She stared at me unblinking.  No, we'll have to order the part from the Netherlands. It will take two or three weeks.   

Yeah, that's what I figured.  Sigh.

So I trudged down the stairs and back to my car to begin the arduous trip back home.  I fretted about the few (thankfully not many) documents that were now lost in cyber space and would have to be re-created.  I inwardly whined about the inconvenience of the rain and the traffic and computer shop moving locations.

I was tempted to justify throwing myself a nice big pity party.  But being the day before Thanksgiving, I would have felt guilty.  You know, like being grumpy on Christmas.

So on the long drive home, I looked for ways to be thankful.  It really wasn't hard.  I'm thankful that I'm in this car, instead of in that wheelchair, begging for money in the rain.  Or trying to sell soggy boxes of Kleenex to people driving by.  I'm thankful that I own a computer, for the warranty, and that I can use Gil's until I get it back.  That I can come home to a house that doesn't leak, and I have no fear of it flooding....unlike thousands of others in this city.

Then I came home, opened Gil's computer, and discovered a message from our lawyer saying that the judge has finally released the paperwork necessary to apply for Johnny's passport.

In the end, it really was one of those days.  You know, the kind I'm really thankful for.

Since Thursday is a normal working day here, we celebrated Thanksgiving on Sunday with our Reach Global family.  And the best part?  The Edwards family finally made it to Tanzania just two days before--and 100% financially supported.  Thanks, American Church!  

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

The Cost I Didn't Count

It's been two years and four months since we've been to America, and it will be at least another four months before we do go.  This is new territory for me.  In my entire life, I've never been overseas more than two years without visiting home.

For most of this year, our plan was to go home for November and December.  According to that plan, we should be there right now.  But we still don't have a passport for our sweet boy, and so we wait.

This is not the first time we've had to change plans because of one of our kids.  It's happened more times than I can remember, actually.  But Gil and I took turns traveling during those instances, so each of us had at least been able to visit for a couple of weeks.

I don't usually get homesick anymore.  But this season, I am.  I now have three nephews I have yet to meet. We would have been there for three birthdays and Gil's folks' 40th anniversary. When you imagine yourself spending the holidays with your family, and you think it's going to happen, and then it doesn't, somehow it hurts more.  My parents are coming out again for Christmas, and I am thrilled, but it's not the same as going home.

The weird thing is that this is home.  It's home for us, and home for our kids.  I can simultaneously long to be home and yet be home at the same time.  There's just not any other way to explain it.

Lily came home with this page last year.  It was part of a lesson about staying safe, and the kids were supposed to fill in the blanks with the people in their life that they can trust.

Lily wrote, "Dad, Amy (aka Mom), Uncle Mark, Aunt Alyssa, Uncle Ben, Aunt Lauren."  Mark and Alyssa and Ben and Lauren are some of our dearest friends here, and have crossed over into the family category.  Lily has known all of them for as long as she can remember.  She loves them, and they love her, as family.  I was simultaneously deeply touched and utterly heartbroken by what Lily wrote.  

In Between Worlds, Marilyn Gardner writes, "Our parents felt the ache of distance from blood relatives, but as children we were perfectly content with this version of family."  Yes.  It was true for me as a child as well.  I missed my grandparents, aunts and uncles, and cousins, but I had dozens of surrogates, and I was happy.  It's only now, as an adult, that I truly understand that pain.

For so long, I thought only of my own sacrifice in moving overseas, of what I was giving up, of what I would lose.  Now I have a deeper understanding of the sacrifice of those left behind, of their lost memories of first steps and birthdays and Thanksgivings and Christmases and family vacations.  As Marilyn poignantly describes, "Most of all there has been the daily life that had to readjust to the absence of the ones who left, daily life minus extra spots at dinner tables and extra voices in conversations."  I hurt for them.  I hurt for what we have done to them.  It is a cost I didn't fully understand when we signed up for this life.  

It's ironic how so much about cross-cultural work is all about adaptation.  Because that's always the goal, isn't it?  And we celebrate when we have adapted, when we aren't homesick anymore and we do feel at home and we have put down roots.  But then comes the stark realization that with that adaptation comes more pain.  And it's a pain that you can't just get over or work through, because there is no solution for it.  It feels like a betrayal of those you love.  You're thankful that you and your kids have fallen in love with people and places in your new country, but you realize it comes at the expense of those you left behind.  

We can't live two lives.  Whatever happens here, doesn't happen there.  It's loss, and there's just no other way to describe it.  We gain, but we lose at the same time.  And more importantly, so do the people we love.

Jesus said that everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields for his sake will receive a hundred times as much.  Is that also true for those left behind?

Saturday, November 12, 2016

The Place That Really is a Haven of Peace

Like the Olympics, Haven of Peace Academy does their own "Parade of Nations" for their annual International Day.  This year it was 39 nations represented.

This year, for the first time, we had a representative from the nation of Israel.  Everyone clapped and cheered, because as you can see, she was an especially beautiful little representative.

But what was incredibly ironic and wonderful about our little Israeli parade was that it came directly after our Iranian representatives, and directly before our Pakistani representatives, proudly marched around the circle.  And everyone cheered just as loudly for them.

In that way, it was like the Olympics, where everyone throws off their country-bound grievances against each other and cheers for what we have in common and for the beauty in our differences.  The difference is that the Olympics lasts just a few weeks, but at Haven of Peace Academy, it's life.

The Israeli and the Iranian, the American and the Tanzanian, the Spaniard and the South Korean, the Christian and the Muslim--we all work and play and eat and learn side by side.  Sometimes this life together is tricky and it's not without bumps and hurts.  But the staff--who are almost as diverse as the students--have made Jesus the center and the purpose, and in the end, most days, something incredibly beautiful is being created.

HOPAC is recruiting teachers for next year.  There are a lot of openings, both for elementary teachers and all sorts of middle and high school teachers.  But there's also openings in administration, in the library, in communications...and we need a new chaplain, who is basically like our own youth pastor.  So we need lots of teachers, but also some non-teachers who love the vision of HOPAC.

If you could be one of those people, I wish I could sit down and tell you what a remarkable place HOPAC really is.  Not just because of our diversity, but because it is more than just a place to work--it is a community.  A community that has ridiculous fun together, a place where teacher's toddlers roam the playground after school and are doted on by dozens of children, and where staff members are genuinely friends and genuinely love every student.

"Nerd Day" during Pamoja Week (Spirit Week)

Superhero Day

everybody's favorite superhero

HOPAC is a school with high academic standards but yet looks out for the artistic, musical, physical, social, and spiritual development of children, and where a biblical worldview is infused into everything we do.  Where classrooms are enriched by deep conversations from diverse young people who want to wrestle with poverty and privilege and God.  It's a place where learning how to serve is a priority, where every secondary student has weekly opportunities to go serve in the community, and where almost every day local disadvantaged school children are invited to use our facilities alongside us.  

I can't tell you how many teachers I've talked to, beleaguered by the politics and cynicism in other schools, who have told me, "I would have quit teaching if it wasn't for HOPAC."  

Maybe you're feeling God's call to leave this American mess.  So....want to join us?  I don't know if you'll ever find another school quite as wonderful.  Or as life-changing.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Josiah is Nine

Ah, this boy.  This totally crazy, all-energy, sports-obsessed boy.  He's the one I always tell, No kicking balls in the house!  He's the one who tells me every day, Mommy, isn't Johnny cute?  He loves playing jokes on people.  He loves coming up behind me and scaring me.  His passion is soccer but he has learned to buckle down and get to work when he needs to.  He sure can be a moody little stinker at times, but he is also my most affectionate child.  And the one most likely to ask me to pray with him.  

And now he is nine and since we got his teeth going in the right direction earlier this year ( no small cost!), he is looking more like the man he will become.  Which is always so happy and sad.  

He had a soccer-themed birthday party for the third year in a row, because really, what else is there?  

He also got to pick Sunday lunch, so he picked Spur, because it's the only restaurant in Dar that will sing to you on your birthday.
(Spur is a South African chain with a Native American theme.  Someone should probably tell them that's not really politically correct anymore...but...they put sparklers in your ice cream, so...oh well.)

I sure miss that adorable baby boy....but this big kid is pretty amazing.