Sunday, September 25, 2016

What I Wish I Could Hear From a Politician

I keep waiting for a political candidate who talks about sacrifice.  You know, like, In order to get our country out of debt, or fight terrorism, or get rid of racism, or care for refugees, we are all going to need self-sacrifice.  It's going to be hard, but we can do it together.  

But I never hear it.

Instead, all I hear about is what we're going to get.  How our lives will be better--even great--if I vote for that person.  Apparently no one wants to vote for someone who says that our lives might get harder before they can get better.

Why am I surprised?  The notion of self-sacrifice seems to have disappeared from the list of American virtues.  The average credit card debt in America is $15,000.  Divorce is easy and abortion is easier.  My body; my choice.  Personal satisfaction reigns king.  Follow your heart.  You deserve it.  You are worth it.  Have it your way.  Finding yourself seems to be the chief goal of growing up.

Of course, each person is different and redemption can be found even in the worst choices.  I am painting our culture with broad strokes and I am not casting condemnation on your individual story.  But the truth is that we as a country have lost the notion of self-sacrifice.

We have taken what should be seen as privileges and turned them into rights.  I have the right for my children to succeed.  I have the right to be safe.  I have the right to be heard.  I have the right for you to treat me the way I want to be treated.  I have the right to be happy.  

We've had those privileges for so long that we consider them owed to us.  So when we realize we might lose them, we are horrified.  Suddenly all of our choices become about self-protection.  How we spend.  How we save.  How we plan for the future.  How we vote.

But what Christians have forgotten is that we were never supposed to be about self-protection.  We are always supposed to be about self-sacrifice.

Fear is never supposed to define us.  But unfortunately our culture has told us for such a long time that this life is about us, that we panic at the notion of losing it.  Have we forgotten that this is the antithesis of who Christians should be?

Deny yourself.

To live is Christ; to die is gain.

Do not look only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.  

Love your neighbor as yourself.  

There's nothing in Scripture that tells us that we need to do everything we can to protect our assets.  Or even our freedom.

America was founded on Christian principles, which was great for liberty but is now confusing for Christians.   If our government is "we the people," then we are the government.  Which means that we are directly responsible for looking after our collective safety and freedom.  The problem comes when my focus comes off of society as a whole--others focused--and instead becomes about me.  

Of course, as a people--even as Christians--we are going to disagree about what is best for our society.  But that is not the point.  The point is that we are failing our country--and our God--when we are dominated by self-interest.  Our country will never thrive that way.  And our faith will disintegrate.

Which is why I am disheartened when I see Americans shunning refugees in the name of self-protection.  Celebrating abortion in the name of self-fulfillment.  Tolerating racism because of self-absorption, or fighting it with self-destruction.  Glorifying politicians who promise self-indulgence.

I have despaired over the state of my country.  And I must admit I don't have a lot of hope for its future.  You can call me a pessimist, and I would love to be proven wrong.  Maybe if enough Americans start once again valuing self-sacrifice will we have a chance to change.

But I can guarantee one thing.  We as Christians will fail--as citizens of America and of heaven--if we do not step away from our fear long enough to deny ourselves, pick up our cross, and follow Jesus.  Yes, what we have had in America is great, but we need to hold to it loosely.  Yes, politics is important and we should seek the good of all people.  But at the end of the day, our loyalty is to Jesus--who specialized in self-sacrifice.  So if that costs us all things, then so be it.   

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Read These Books

If You Can Keep It:  The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty by Eric Metaxas

Read this book.  Wow.  Read this book.  At this crazy point in American history, every American needs to read this.  I thought I was pretty familiar with the history of my country, but Metaxas asks important questions that I hadn't fully considered before.  What makes America unique in the history of world governments?  Why has democracy worked in the States but failed in so many other countries?  Why is the morality of our leaders so vital to the success of our government?  Why is our increasing cynicism destroying us?

Non-Americans will also find this book interesting since it helps to explain so much about why America is the way it is, and why it's failure would have worldwide implications.  I found Metaxas' observations to be fascinating but I didn't necessarily agree with his conclusions.  However, the topics he brings up are exactly what Americans need to be discussing right now.  It would be great to read together with teenagers.  This is a short and compelling book.  Read it.

Between Worlds:  Essays on Culture and Belonging by Marilyn Gardner

If my recent posts have been particularly nostalgic, it's all Marilyn's fault.  I thought I didn't really have third-culture kid (TCK) "issues," but I found myself constantly getting a bit weepy as I read through Marilyn's book.  She speaks deeply into the heart of those of us who have spent a significant portion of our lives away from our passport country, especially to those of us who are now raising kids the same way.

Every good story has a conflict.  Never being fully part of any world is ours.  That is what makes our stories and memories rich and worth hearing.  We live between worlds, sometimes comfortable in one, sometimes in the other, but only truly comfortable in the space between.  This is our conflict and the heart of our story.

Blessed:  A History of the American Prosperity Gospel by Kate Bowler

I bought this book because I wanted to have a better understanding of the theology that so greatly influences the churches here in Tanzania.  What I discovered was a better understanding of American theology as well, and of the subtle ways that the Prosperity Gospel has influenced me even though I've been avidly against it.  This book started as a dissertation, so it is scholarly, thorough, and very well referenced, but totally fascinating.  Bowler simply states the facts and allows the readers to draw their own conclusions.

The Discipline of Grace by Jerry Bridges

I was first introduced to Jerry Bridges when he came to speak at The Master's College my junior year.  Though I went to chapel three times a week during my time at TMC, his sermon is one of very few that I remember.  His teaching on grace was utterly life-changing for this "good" girl.  I then devoured a number of his books, and his straight-forward, biblical teaching on grace, holiness, and trusting God completely revitalized my life. Transforming Grace and Trusting God remain on my top-10 most influential books of my life.  So when Bridges recently passed away, I decided that I needed to read one of his books that I hadn't picked up before.

If you've never read anything by Bridges, this is a great place to start, as he draws together a number of the themes from his earlier books.  I can guarantee that you will walk away with a greater fervency for Christ and a greater joy in your salvation.

If God's blessings were dependent on our performance, they would be meager indeed.  Even our best works are shot through with sin--with varying degrees of impure motives and lots of imperfect performance.....Your worst days are never so bad that you are beyond the reach of God's grace.  And your best days are never so good that you are beyond the need of God's grace.

The Fishermen by Chigozie Obiama

I was looking for an entertaining, thought-provoking summer read, and I knew that this one was set in Nigeria, written by a Nigerian, and had won lots of awards.  And it was indeed gorgeous writing, haunting, compelling, and filled with insight into Nigerian culture and thinking.  But it was also deeply disturbing and fairly traumatizing.  A great book that I definitely recommend, but not when you want to be entertained.

Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler

This novel, however, totally delivered.  This is a re-telling of Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew, and it was not only totally engaging and entertaining, but also full of great story-telling, wonderful character development, and beautiful redemption.  I thoroughly enjoyed it and now I'm looking for more Anne Tyler recommendations!

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

The Place That Was Home

I was wrenched from my home at age 13.  Of course, I say that figuratively, as we were in the States on home assignment when the war started in Liberia.  However, many of my friends were literally wrenched away, on emergency evacuation planes.  

We kept hoping that the whole thing would blow over, but as the war progressed, our mission made the decision to relocate us to Ethiopia.  I cried that day like I never had before.  The plan had been for us to spend the next four years in Liberia--which would have been all of high school for me.  Instead, the course of my life changed dramatically.

I never had closure with Liberia.  My roots were pulled up without my permission, suddenly and unexpectedly, and in the course of just a couple of months, deposited in another country.  When you yank off a band-aid really quickly, it hurts pretty bad.  

"For many of us [TCK's], the only thing we feel we have left are our memories.  We cannot go back to the place that was home."  (Marilyn Gardner)

It was the days before digital photography, when photos were sparse and treasured.  And on top of that, we lost many of the photos we did have to the war.  So for a long time, most of what I knew of Liberia was left only to my memories.  

That is, until the recent years of social media.  Those of us who grew up in the idyllic paradise that was the ELWA compound started networking.  Maybe we only had a few photos each, but we started sharing them.  A few people went back to Liberia, and took new pictures.  And I saw before my eyes my childhood being recreated in pictures.  Places that had only existed in my memories began to reappear in actual images.  It's been incredibly meaningful.

So today, you get to see my childhood too.

I should note that I don't know who took many of these pictures, as they were shared on ELWA sites without names.  But I am exceedingly grateful to whoever did.

This was my home.  ELWA compound was established in the 50's mainly as a radio station but grew into a hospital and school as well.  The compound was a square mile in size and housed up to 70 missionary families at it's height, as well as many Liberian families.  For a few months during the war in 1990, it sheltered something like 30,000 people--until the bombs started falling there too.  

The above picture was taken from one of the radio station towers--which used to broadcast all over West Africa.

As kids, we had free reign of this compound.  We rode our bikes everywhere and our moms didn't worry. All the families had motorcycles, and my dad would often take me in the evenings to collect the mail, riding backwards and barefoot as the sun set over the ocean.  The center of the compound was still untamed jungle, and many a young boy (and sometimes the girls) would tromp through it on daring adventures.  

The beach was our backdrop on weekdays and our playground on Saturdays.  Many of the houses were built only fifty feet from the water.  In this first picture, the house in the distance was directly across the road from our house.  

The picture below was our house.  This is fairly recent picture, taken by a school friend who visited a couple of years ago.  The picture makes me sad, because the house looks so tired and worn out now, when it was such a place of joy for me.  It used to be surrounded by palm trees and all kinds of vegetation, all of which were cut down during the war.  When I was a child, the thick jungle in the back of our house was much wilder, bringing in the occasional green mamba.

photo credit:  Ghada Abouchacra Tajeddine

This is one of the few pictures I have of me in that house.  I've got my red-checked sewing bag next to me, which I made in second grade and used until seventh grade.  Lost in the war.

Did you see that big porch?  We had a hammock on that porch, and I would sit in it for hours.  

And this?  This was the view from that hammock on that porch.  Whoever took this picture must have been standing in our yard.  Sometimes, when it was raining, I would sit here and watch the lightning hit the water.  We regularly got 200 inches of rain every year.  

One time in that lagoon, millions of minuscule baby crabs hatched, covering every available surface.  

This swamp was directly next to our house and across from the lagoon.  Back when I lived there, it was covered with lily pads.  Sometimes we would take a canoe out onto this swamp and walk around on the mangroves.  

photo credit:  Robin Shea McGee

This was the road heading away from our house, towards dozens of other missionary houses and my school.  This is a recent picture, so the coconut trees are smaller than they were in my day.  They are the replacements from all those cut down during the war.

photo credit:  Robin Shea McGee

About twice every year during the rainy season, the lagoon would fill up so much that the sand barrier between it and the ocean would break open, creating a crazy crazy water slide which would only last for a day or so.  Everyone always greatly anticipated this event.  After just a few hours, it would slow down to the trickle you see in the picture below, but until then, we rode the rapids.

photo credit:  Bethany Fankhauser

My brother and I in front of the lagoon.  

A despised event was the time every year when all the Portuguese-men-of-war would wash up on the shore, thousands of them.  You couldn't swim that day; their stings were legendary.

Every morning, we walked along the beach road until we got to this path.  There was a shortcut through those trees which led to school.  

photo credit (and the next two):  Robin Shea McGee 

And this was that path.

This is a recent picture of the wall surrounding ELWA Academy, which was white when I was a kid.

To the right of this picture are school buildings, and on the left is the gym, which also functioned as our church and meeting hall.

Photo credit:  Robin Shea McGee

photo credit:  Matthew Molenhouse

There are still missionaries in Liberia, and the ELWA Hospital was the central point of the Ebola fight two years ago.  The radio station was rebuilt after it was leveled during the war.  However, most of the houses are now filled with Liberians, which is really how it should be.  Big compounds filled with missionaries was the old way of doing missions, and thankfully organizations have figured out that there's better ways to reach people than putting all the missionaries together.  But it sure was an extraordinary place to grow up.  And since I never did get to say good-bye, I'm so thankful for pictures that let me see it one last time.  

Friday, September 9, 2016

Raising Kids With Forbidden Roots

If my roots are forbidden, then what happens to my kids?

My kids are indeed TCKs (third-culture kids), but not in the usual sense.  They are Tanzanian by birth, being raised in Tanzania by Americans.  They have two passports, are spending their childhood in their birth country but will most likely one day live in their parents' country.  If that sounds confusing, trying explaining it to your kids.

My children have never been allowed to live one life.  There is always a whole other universe lurking behind everything we do.  When they were little and were able to just go along with everywhere we yanked them, it wasn't really a big deal.  But they are older now, growing into lives of their own, and I'm finding myself trying to help them figure out their two worlds.  I don't usually feel very successful.

Have you ever thought about when would be a "good" time to just leave everything behind from your life and go visit another country for four months?  Your job, your house, your church, your car, your everything.  That's what it's like for missionaries to go on home assignment.  And now that our kids are getting older?  Even more complicated.

We need to go on a home assignment this year.  We would have loved to do it this past summer, but Johnny's adoption was not yet finalized.   So that means it will happen sometime this school year, depending on when we can get Johnny's passport.  I had to sit down with Grace recently and talk to her about this.  Of course, she loves visiting the States.  But I had to tell her that this year, that will mean she will miss out on some important events in fifth grade.  She might miss the week-long rainforest trip, or she might miss her elementary school graduation.  She might miss the end of soccer season or the entirety of track season.  I could see her face fall as we talked about this.  As much as she wants to see her grandparents, it's hard for her to accept the loss of something significant in exchange.  But this is the reality of the life we have given our children.  That other universe will be constantly interrupting her life.

"Most TCKs go through more grief experiences by the time they are twenty than monocultural individuals do in a lifetime."  (David Pollock)

I grew up that way.  I flip-flopped between a typical suburban childhood on a cul-de-sac in California with a manicured lawn and a BMX bike, to a life on a tropical beach in Liberia, West Africa, where I walked through the forest to school and rode a canoe in the lagoon.  I knew two lives, two universes with different sets of routines and rules and cultures that I learned to navigate.  Two places where I put down roots that kept being yanked up.

Maybe that's why it scares me to find myself unconsciously putting down roots again.  Maybe that's why it's even harder to know that I am deliberately doing the same thing to my own children.  Will they figure out how to live in these two worlds?  Will they know who they are?  Will the joy out-weigh the grief?

It worked for me.  Which is why I was happy to choose this two-world life for my children.  I just never realized how difficult it would be to walk with them through it.

"We know goodbyes in a way we wish we didn’t, and we struggle to articulate grief and loss.  Yet in the next breath we speak of how we wouldn’t give up the lives we’ve had for anything." (Marilyn Gardner)

Monday, September 5, 2016

Forbidden Roots

Somewhere along the road, I adapted.

I can't even tell you when it happened.  But I do know that it took a long time--years and years.

When you move to a new country, the remnants of your old life stay with you for a long time.  At first, keeping in touch with your friends is a big priority.  You get lots of packages in the mail.  You grieve the loss of all that you left behind.  But you are excited to be in this new place you dreamed about for so long, and that excitement keeps you going for a while.  After the honeymoon wears off--which could happen in a week or a year--then it just takes grit.  A lot of grit.  As in, I'm going to grit my teeth and stay here even though I hate it.  

That stage also can vary in length.  But it usually morphs into the next stage, which is a settled acceptance.  You re-learn how to do everything you used to be good at--how to shop, how to clean, how to drive, how to relax, how to get the stupid electricity to stay on, where the best place is to buy mangoes.  You find a new normal and you forget that it's weird that there's a gecko on your wall that's watching you brush your teeth.

But quite often, you still need that grit to get you through another water shortage or your third flat tire in one week.  The lure of your old life is still there, and your heart will regularly long for what you left behind.

And then, somewhere along the road, so slowly that you don't even realize it, you adapt.  You fully transition.  I don't know when it happened for me.  But I've lived in Tanzania for twelve years now, and I don't think it starting happening until somewhere around year eight or nine.  It's different for everyone, I'm sure.  It happens a lot faster to children.

It's a strange, strange feeling.  It's not that I've forgotten those I love who I have left behind, or that I have stopped missing them.  It's that I have stopped missing that life.  I used to long to return to that life, and now I can't fathom leaving this life.

It's not that I've grown to love the insane traffic in Dar es Salaam, or that I suddenly adore this ridiculous heat.  Because I don't.  It's that this normal has become so normal that I can't imagine leaving it.

Except, I know that I will someday.  And even though we don't have plans to leave Tanzania, I know that someday we will.  I am not a citizen.  This is not my country.  Our residence here is dependent on a fragile balance of health, financial support, and government favor.  Yet the thought of leaving fills me with an intense grief, knowing that it will tear away part of my being.  Not just a loss of place, but a loss of who I am.

That's how I know I have adapted.

Which is a good thing, of course.  But also a tragic thing.  It's like coming to the realization that you've fallen in love with something that you can't keep.  Or knowing that your roots have gone down deep but will one day be unceremoniously yanked up again.  It will hurt, and pieces will surely be ripped off.

And I'm not sure what to to think about that.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

When It All Blows Up In Your Face

Sixteen years ago, my husband and I were all of 24 years old when we arrived in Tanzania for our first term.  We had only been married nine months, and we were passionate and dedicated, but incredibly naïve.  We had absolutely no idea what we were in for.

We were working in youth ministry in a local church plant, and my husband was coaching sports as a way to get to know young people.  One young man came into our lives with a real interest in the gospel.  He was earnest and really seemed sincere, and it wasn’t long before he made a profession of faith.  Since he was from a religion that is usually opposed to Christianity, we were thrilled.

Over the next year and a half, this young man dominated our time and our prayer updates.  He was in our home almost every day.

Then, six weeks before we left the country, we found out he had been regularly stealing money from us.

We returned to the States utterly shattered.  For many other reasons, it had been an extremely difficult two years.  This young man had been a bright spot, and when that blew up, we were completely demoralized and totally disillusioned. 

By the grace of God, a couple years later we were back in Tanzania, older, wiser, and a lot more wary.  Yet even the loss of our naiveté didn’t really prepare us for everything we would see and experience over the next ten years.  Like the ugly split of the indigenous church we attended.  Or the married missionary of multiple children who ran off with a woman from the village where he was church planting.  Or that time when the national leader who was raised up and supported by missionaries ended up being a narcissist who abused his team.  And the worst?  A local pastor—discipled, installed, and supported by missionaries for over ten years—was discovered to have an incestuous relationship with his adult daughter. 

Boom.  And just like that, everything worked for, everything believed in, goes up in flames.

Though we weren’t intimately involved in any of those situations, we were close enough to feel the shockwaves.  And they shook us to our core.

Disbelief.  Despair.  Disillusionment.  We can handle the loneliness, the inconveniences, and the bugs that come with missionary life, but not this.  Not this.  Many missionaries would say that they would rather be persecuted or deported than have their ministry blow up.  How could this have happened?  Where we did go wrong?  Why are we even here?  What are we possibly going to tell our supporters?  

Read the rest of this post over at A Life Overseas.  Don't worry--there's hope at the end!  

Monday, August 29, 2016

My Deepest Fear

When I was about 15 years old and living in California, one warm evening I was baby-sitting a couple of little boys.  I was watching them play outside, and they climbed into the bed of the pick-up truck that was sitting in the driveway.  I remember that this made me nervous, as the boys were only about two and four years old, but they assured me that they were allowed to play there.  So I went against my better judgment and let them jump around.

I was watching them carefully, but before I could stop it, the toddler slipped off the ledge and fell.  Onto his head.  Onto the concrete driveway.

He instantly started screaming.  I brought them into the house in a panic.  I did everything I could think of to calm the screaming boy, but nothing worked.  He screamed for a long time.  I can't remember how long, but it was until his parents came home at least an hour or two later.

I told them he had fallen, but I did not tell them that he had fallen out of the truck.  I was overwhelmed by a terrible sense of horror that this had been my fault, that I shouldn't have let him play there and I should have been watching him more carefully.  I never told my parents, and I never told his parents what really happened.  I was terrified of being deemed irresponsible.

As far as I know, the child was perfectly fine.  But the scenario has haunted me since then, especially once I learned more about concussions and brain injuries and what could have happened that day.  I realize now that my irresponsibility was less about letting him play in the truck, and more in my lack of calling for help.

A few years ago, while living in Tanzania, a young boy stayed with us for a couple of weeks while his parents were traveling.  One night, the power went off, and since he was afraid of the dark, I lit two candles.  I put one on the desk in the guest room, and one one the washing machine in the bathroom, in case he needed to use it.  The candles were in plastic bowls.

The power came back on an hour or so later, and the boy blew out the candle in his room.  But the candle in the bathroom continued to burn, and in the middle of the night, we were awakened by the boy's cries.  When I opened our bedroom door, the hallway was full of smoke.  The candle had burned through the plastic bowl, caught the plastic lid of our washing machine on fire, and had continued to melt through all the plastic parts of the machine.

We were able to put the fire out easily, but the smoke was incredibly thick.  To this day, I am haunted by the what ifs.  What if the boy hadn't blown out the candle in his room?  What if the smoke had made him unconscious....or worse?  And what on earth was I thinking in putting a candle in a plastic bowl?

Marianne Williamson famously wrote, "Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.  Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.  It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us."

I know this quote has been the climax of many inspiring movies, but I just can't agree.  I do agree that I am afraid of my power.  But not in a good way.  My deepest fear is the devastation I am capable of.

It's not just my darkness--that creature within me that must be tamed--that I fear.  It's my frailty, my weakness, my humanness that terrifies me the most.  The lapse in judgment that kept me from telling the truth to the toddler's parents.  The pure foolishness of putting a candle in a plastic bowl.

Like everyone, I suppose, I am afraid of what could happen to those I love.  I have occasional anxiety about natural disasters or terrorist attacks.  I am mildly OCD and triple-check the door locks at night.   I am afraid because I know I cannot control my world.  But what do I fear the most?  That something terrible will happen, and it will be my fault.  I cannot control myself.  

I grew up as part of the self-esteem generation, which is why it is supposed to be our "light" that most frightens us.  We were told that our top priority should be finding our identity, following our hearts, and reaching our dreams.  The problem is that along with discovering our power for success comes the discovery of our capacity for failure.  Serious failure.  Because no matter how many times you tell me otherwise, there are times I will always be inadequate.  Sure, I might do some pretty good stuff in my lifetime.  But I will make the wrong decision sometimes, and other times I will make terrible decisions.

I can't fix that.  And so I am afraid.

So what's the antidote?  Looking in the mirror and trying to convince myself that I am smart, capable, and powerful is just not going to work.  Or even the Christian version of self-esteem talk--I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me--falls flat.

The only way I can defeat my fear is to take the "I" out of the sentence all together.  Why does it matter what Amy Medina is capable of--either good or bad?  What matters is what God is capable of.  He is all-knowing and all-powerful.  He is good and can do anything He wants to do.  He is the one who is in control of this universe.  And even when I do something evil or just plain stupid, He is sovereign over that too.

"Does failure on our part to act prudently frustrate the sovereign plan of God?  The Scriptures never indicate that God is frustrated to any degree by our failure to act as we should.  In His infinite wisdom, God's sovereign plan includes our failures and even our sin."  (Jerry Bridges, Trusting God)

It is there--and only there--that I am no longer afraid.  The longer I look at myself, the harder I try to convince myself that I've really got my life under control, the more afraid I am.  The more that I just stop thinking about myself all together, and focus on the One who created me, that's where everything clicks into place.  

Which is why I must continually lift up my eyes.  Fear makes me focus inward, and ultimately that will only breed more fear.  There's not much in myself that can alleviate my anxiety.  What I need is to look up.  To look out.  God gave us this mind-blowingly massive universe so that we can comprehend our smallness.  The vastness of the ocean, the intricacy of a flower, the realization that something far, far bigger than us is going on.  Who am I to think that I have the power to thwart God's plan?  I can rest in the knowledge that God is a trillion times stronger than me.

There is a profound comfort in understanding my insignificance in the universe, and yet my significance in God's sight.  It is there that my fear dissolves.