Saturday, March 25, 2017

That's a Whole Lot of Thoughts

Johnny's recent airplane picture.  I am the pilot (so he tells me).

These are the days my mind is in many places and many times.

Thinking about here:  How do I prepare my house to be empty for four months?  Buying lots of dog food, going through piles of papers I had put off.  How do I make sure our workers get paid?  What does the landlord need to know?  What clothes can we give away before we leave?  Making sure the kids are caught up on vaccinations and doctor's appointments.  How can I use up everything in my pantry?

Kids:  Mom, the ketchup is finished!

Me:  Too bad.  We're leaving in a week and I am not buying any more ketchup.  Eat your eggs plain.

Thinking about life when we return:  I will hit the ground running when I come back on August 4th.  What can I learn from the current principal before I go?  I've been shadowing her, asking hundreds of questions, talking to all the current teachers.  I am stuffing my brain with schedules and facts and feelings that others are giving me.  

Everything will change when we come back.  Johnny will be in kindergarten.  I will be a working mom.  What can I teach my houseworker before I go?  What new responsibilities will I ask of her?  We cleaned out the kids' toy room and easily boxed up half of their things to give away.  They don't play with many toys any more, and Johnny will no longer be home.  For the first time in 10 years, I won't have a pre-schooler with me all day.  I gave away Candyland and the alphabet practice books.  I once yearned for the end of those days, and now that they are here, I am sad.  

Thinking about preparations to leave:  Getting school materials from all the kids' teachers so that I can homeschool them for their third term.  Writing to churches and scheduling visits for when we are in the States.  Working through our home assignment budget with our business manager.  Communicating with a friend back at home who will make us a video of our ministry to show to everyone.  Buying gifts to take back to friends.  Renewing the car insurance.  Making an appointment to get the girls' hair done.

Josiah:  I'm really excited about going to America, but I'm also really sad.  I'm going to miss my friends.

Welcome to the world of bittersweet emotions, kid.  You're learning it young.

Grace is sad she will miss Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat and her 5th Grade Graduation at HOPAC.  Josiah is sad he'll miss Sports Day and the 5K run.  But simultaneously, they both are counting down the days and announce it every evening.  They are educating Johnny about Chuck E. Cheese and garage door openers.  Last week, we received a package with the Christmas cards from our home church.  We reminded the kids, See?  You know this person!  Do you remember playing with her?

Last week I told the kids to put their shoes on at dinner time because a lightbulb had shattered in the dining room.  They all commented on how weird it was to wear shoes at dinner.

Me:  In America, a lot of people keep their shoes on in the house.  If you visit someone else's house, you keep on your shoes.

Josiah:  REALLY?  Like, what if your shoes are all muddy?

Grace:  They have these things called sidewalks in America.  Your shoes don't get muddy.

Dad:  There is no dirt in America.

Me:  There are no cats in America.

*cue family singing while Johnny looks on blankly*  I guess we need to show him "An American Tale."  

Thinking about the journey:  Of course, this part should have been routine, and then last week America decided that it didn't want people who are flying through the Middle East to carry their electronics on the plane.  So where are we flying through?  The Middle East.  Thanks, America.  My brain didn't have enough to think about already.  Yeah, going back to the Dark Ages of Children-Before-Ipads is one thing, but honestly, making sure our valuable electronics get to the States unbroken and unstolen is a much bigger worry.

Thinking about there:  Dreaming about salami and sourdough bread and good yogurt and nectarines.  Planning vacations with our families.  Emailing with friends who want to see us (one who will travel all the way from Wisconsin!).  Anticipating hugs and conversations and nostalgia.  Daily adding to my list of things I will need to buy in America.

We are so excited to see all those we love deeply, yet I know acutely that the joy will also be a poignant reminder of the loss.  My six-month old niece is now three years old.  My own 5-year-old is now eight.  There will be the three nephews we have not yet met.  Joy, but sorrow, because we can't get those years back.

It's funny though, that in spite of all the looming change and mixed emotions and scattered thoughts, there is now something new in my brain:  Familiarity.  I have done this so many times now that even the craziness seems routine.  I can fit my emotions into predictable categories:  Yes, I feel this now, but I know it won't last.  I know I will even out.  I know it will be okay.  I know there will be stress and culture shock and joy and sorrow and frustration, but I know it.  None of it surprises me anymore.   And there is something deeply comforting about that.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

My Children Are Not Missionaries

We recently bought plane tickets for six for our upcoming home assignment. (We leave in two weeks!)  If we had wanted our kids' tickets to be tax deductible, we had to prove to the IRS that they would be participating in our "work" while in the States.  Namely, that they would be a important part of our presentations.  Which means that we would pretty much parade them around and have them sing or recite facts any time we talked about Tanzania.

We decided to just pay the tax on their tickets.

Because Gil and I are the missionaries.  Our kids are not.

Our kids are already growing up with a pretty convoluted picture of America.  They are Tanzanian by blood and by birth, but are growing up with American parents...while still in Tanzania.  It's already pretty confusing, so if we bring them to America and parade them around like shiny ponies, that doesn't help anything.

Home assignment can be really hard on kids.  It usually consists of lots of travel, lots of new people, lots of different beds, and lots of attention.  It's definitely not "normal" life.  And it will continue to get harder on my kids as they get older.  It's not so difficult for a four-year-old to visit a new church and make friends instantly.  It's a lot harder on a nine or eleven-year-old.  And we'll be visiting at least five different churches and innumerable small groups.

Gil and I are called to be missionaries.  We want our kids to just be kids.  So when we're in the States, we're going to try hard not to put pressure on them to perform.  They most likely won't participate in our presentations (maybe Grace will, since she loves that sort of thing).  Sometimes they might choose to stay home with Grandma instead of attending a meeting with us, and that will be okay.  We know everyone loves our kids and might be disappointed if they are not always with us, but that's just how it might have to be.

And honestly, we all will need your grace.  Our kids are not perfect.  One of them has significant struggles in controlling emotions.  Another clams up and gets stubborn when in new or overwhelming situations.  And considering that they all will be adapting to so many new places, with very little schedule and often inconsistent bedtimes, they are not always going to be at their best.

But if you know our family, you can help.

When you see our kids, yes, please greet them and welcome them and make them feel comfortable.  But keep in mind that even though thousands of people in California know them, they only remember a handful.  They probably don't remember you.  And some of our kids might start getting really uneasy around the constant stream of strangers who want to hug them.  It's hard for me to predict.  They are different people than they were three years ago, so I'm not sure how they will respond this time.

So tell them your name.  Tell them how you know us.  And ask them some questions.  But please, ask the same kinds of questions you would ask any other kid.  You know, like, What's your favorite color? or Do you have a pet?  or What's your favorite book or sport?  

Try not to ask them questions that will force them make judgments about where they live.  For example, avoid asking them if they like America or Tanzania better.  Or what they like best about living in Tanzania.  Or any questions that make them compare the two countries.  First of all, they simply don't have the maturity or experience yet to even know how to answer those questions.  And second, I try not to have them think about which place is best.  They both are best; they are just different.  And they are still figuring out what those differences are.

You can ask me those questions all day; I won't mind.  But my kids just aren't ready to do that kind of processing.  I mean, if I asked your children, What do you like about living in America?  They would probably just look at me blankly and reply, Uhhh....I like my puppy.  

Of course, if you are talking to my kids, or introducing them to a Sunday School Class, it's great to acknowledge that they are from Tanzania, because it's obviously a part of who they are.  But don't expect them to tell you about our ministry.  They are not the missionaries.  What they need most is to be treated like any other visitor, instead of put on display as some sort of special attraction.

Gil and I understand that being put on display while we are in the States is part of our job.  It comes with the territory.  But my kids....I just want them to figure out what it's like to be a normal American kid.  After all, one day, that's an identity they will need to understand.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Far More Than I Imagined

2015 was a tough year.

Our ministry was struggling as we tried to recruit students.  Gil hurt his knee and had to stay away from sports for nine months (at the time, we thought it would be forever), which was a huge loss in his life.  Gil spent most of his days in front of a computer, writing curriculum for our training program.  It was a very, very quiet life, completely different from our previously vibrant ministry at Haven of Peace Academy (HOPAC).

And I could not find my place.

For 10 years, Gil and I had served at HOPAC.  I had started out as an elementary school teacher, but when we began our family, I looked for part-time ways to serve.  Yet HOPAC was still my entire life:  My community, my ministry, the place where my children felt most at home.  I assisted Gil in his ministry as chaplain, but my love of education got me involved in a wide variety of other programs, from coordinating after-school activities to strategic planning committees.  For the most part, those were golden years.

My sixth grade class, 2003
We left that ministry in 2013 and I had determined in my heart to move on.  I had deeply loved HOPAC, but I was also passionate about Gil's new calling into pastoral training.  Our kids would still be attending the school, so I planned to be involved only as a parent.  Since we returned to Tanzania in 2014, I have been a board member and a parent classroom volunteer.  That's all.  Only stuff that parents would do.

I was surprised by how deeply I grieved the loss of HOPAC in my life.  A big part of that was because I simply couldn't find a place in our new ministry.  I willingly worked on the administrative and recruiting tasks at hand, and I absolutely adore our partners in this ministry.  Mark and Alyssa are some of our very best friends.

But I was incredibly restless.  The struggles of our ministry multiplied in my heart. (Of course, the difficulties didn't last forever and the ministry is now thriving.)  But at the time, I wondered if we should even be in Tanzania.  I wondered if I wanted to be here.  Ironically, though he was discouraged at times, Gil never struggled like I did.  He knew his place and his calling, so working through the challenges were not a problem for him.  Knowing that I am a teacher, Alyssa kept trying to convince me to teach in the training program.  But I have never had a desire to theologically train adults.  My heart just wouldn't be in it.

We brought home Johnny in there, so that was an enormous joy, and took up a lot of my time.  But I knew that I only had another year or so before Johnny would start school.  A new season of life was looming before me, and I had no direction.

I diligently studied Swahili during that time, hoping that would open up more ministry options for me.  But as much as I prayed that God would show me what the next steps would be in my life, there was nothing.

In early 2016--almost exactly a year ago, the thought made its way up into my heart:  Why not go back to HOPAC?  It was a thought I had pushed away for two years, because I had closed the door on that chapter of my life and I figured it was slammed shut.  I thought I was supposed to move on from HOPAC, and I was deliberately doing that.

But I eventually asked myself:  Why am I fighting this so much?  I am a trained elementary school teacher.  Education is what I love.  It's what I'm good at.  HOPAC is my favorite school in the world, and I am passionate about its mission and vision.  And they need me.

So it was a year ago that I made the decision that in August of 2017, I would go back on staff at HOPAC.  It was amazing how freeing that decision was, how my outlook on life completely changed.   It was still a year and a half away, but the thought of going back to HOPAC made my heart sing.

I figured I would teach elementary school, or maybe middle school English.  There were always needs, so it wouldn't be hard to find a place for me to teach.  But in September, all my expectations were tipped upside down when the (very loved) elementary school principal announced that her family would be leaving at the end of this school year.

And suddenly, I had all these friends whisper in my ear:  Amy, you need to apply to be principal!  

Of course, I was immediately intimidated by the thought, but I couldn't stop thinking about it.  I had played with the idea of administration before, but I figured that was still a long ways away.  Yet I remembered all the various times when I was able to have a part in decision-making at HOPAC.  How much I loved interacting with staff and parents.  How thrilled I had been to work on teams that were making the school better.  How much I loved not just teaching, but the broader picture of education.  And how all of those things would be wrapped up in being a principal at HOPAC.

So I applied.  I went through two interviews with five people.  And about a week ago, I was offered the job.

In three weeks, we leave for the States. In August, I will return to Tanzania and become the elementary school principal at HOPAC.  In the meantime, I am cramming every bit of information I can stuff into my brain about this position.

It will be a huge change for me and for my family.  (Though I'll probably be able to spend more time with my kids than I do now, since we'll all be at the same place!)  But I am incredibly excited (and occasionally pretty nervous!) at this opportunity.  Honestly, I can't think of anything I would rather do than this job at this place with these people.  

So when I think back to 2015, when my tears of discouragement would drip over my dinner cooking on the stove, when I wondered if we should even be here, I stand in awe at what God had in store for me.  It is far more than I ever could have imagined.

this year's HOPAC staff

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Read These Books

Recommendations from the last six months of reading:

Passages Through Pakistan: An American Girl's Journey of Faith by Marilyn Gardner

In her introduction, Marilyn Gardner writes of visiting, as an adult, her childhood home in Pakistan:

"[My traveling companion] looked at me, measuring her words.  'A compound like this must have made life as a child in Pakistan at least somewhat bearable,' she said.

I stood still and stared at her in shock.  Bearable?  Bearable?  I repeated the word to myself.  I said it aloud.  'Bearable?  It was more than bearable.  My childhood was extraordinary.'"

In this beautiful memoir, Gardner exquisitely captures the life of a third-culture kid.  She spent her entire childhood in Pakistan, went off to boarding school 800 miles away at age 6, struggled through furloughs in America, battled to find her identity, yet looks back with wonder and awe.  She brings her readers into the sorrow and joy of boarding school; she is deeply honest in her assessment of her younger self; she poignantly expresses the tension of growing up between worlds.  I highly recommend this memoir to anyone who wants to better understand the TCK experience.

*half of the proceeds from this book go to help refugees

Seven Women:  And the Secret of Their Greatness by Eric Metaxas

I had mixed feelings about this one.  I really enjoy biographies (especially by Eric Metaxas), and I appreciated that he chose some well-known, and some lesser-known women for this book.  Like his other books, it was filled with well-researched, fascinating detail.  All the subjects he chose were women of faith; however, while venerating each woman, he failed to grapple with the somewhat convoluted and even disturbing aspects of some of these women's theology.  Of course, I am interested in reading the biographies of women of all beliefs, but I'm not necessarily going to endorse their theology--yet that's what it felt like Metaxas was doing.

Most Dangerous:  Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War by Steve Sheinkin

I picked up this book because my education on the Vietnam War pretty much consisted of what I had seen in Forrest Gump.  I'm a college graduate, yet this very important part of America's history had never been covered in any class.

Wow.  This book had a slow start, but once I got into it, it was riveting.  By telling the story of the man who leaked the truth about the Vietnam war to the American people, Daniel Ellsberg, I learned so much about the Cold War, the four U.S. presidents involved in Vietnam, and the massive lies each of them told the American public.  Of course, the climax was Watergate and Nixon's resignation.  It was eerie to read a story that parallels so much of what is happening in today's political world.

Hotel at the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford

This was my Christmas break novel, and though it wasn't the best I've read, I really enjoyed what it taught me about the Japanese internment during World War II.  A delightful historical fiction novel with some substance.

Saving My Assassin by Virginia Prodan

Though this is not the best-written book, the story itself is astonishing.  This memoir takes place in Romania during the Cold War, and the author describes how she first became a lawyer, then a Christian, and fought for the rights of Christians in the Communist courts.  After unsuccessfully trying to shut her up, the government sent an assassin to her office.  The events which lead up to this event and what happened after it are nothing less than Providential.  Truly an inspiring story.

The Price of Privilege:  How Parental Pressure and Material Advantage Are Creating a Generation of Disconnected and Unhappy Kids by Madeline Levine

This book is a few years old now, but still just as relevant.  The take away?  Your kids need your relationship more than they need your stuff.  They need to develop character more than they need to be the best athlete, student, or musician.  Protecting them from all of life's hard things doesn't produce happy kids--it actually does the exact opposite.  An important book for today's parents.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Please Ask Me the Non-Spiritual Questions

I'm over at A Life Overseas today with a plea for our friends at home....

When we’re on furlough and giving presentations about our ministry as missionaries, we always end with, “Does anyone have any questions?”

A hand goes up.  And the question is inevitable. 

“How can we pray for you?”  Every. Single. Time.

Sometimes someone will ask to know more about our ministry.  Or a person we are investing in.  Or maybe, “What has God been teaching you?”

The questions, almost always, are spiritual. 

This is not a bad thing.  Of course, we’re thrilled people want to pray for us.  We are excited if they are excited about our ministry.  But do you know what we long to be asked?

The non-spiritual questions.

Sure, our ministry is extremely important to us.  But that’s only part of the picture of our lives overseas.  We moved to the other side of the world.  We landed in a country that most people only see on the news.  We had to learn new ways of shopping, cooking, eating, sleeping, educating, traveling, parenting, and talking.  It was not easy.  In fact, it was the hardest thing we’ve ever done. 

We are different people now. And it is bursting out of us.  We might look the same on the outside, but we are totally different on the inside.  And you know what?  We long to talk about it with you.  We desperately want you to be interested in all of our other life, not just the spiritual parts. 

My husband and I have been missionaries for 13 years now.  And I must admit:  The people back home who ask us the non-spiritual questions are few and far between.  In fact, they are so rare that they stand out in my memory by name. 

I’m not sure why there are so few people who ask the non-spiritual questions.  I think that sometimes, folks just don’t know where to start.  Or maybe they think that they already should know all those things and they don’t want to look stupid.  Or maybe they just assume that we don’t really want to talk about such mundane things.  (After all, we’re super spiritual…right?)

So let me just re-iterate:  Please, ask us the non-spiritual questions.  We missionaries would love to answer them. 

Not sure where to start? 

That’s easy.  Start with what you are interested in.