Saturday, June 15, 2019

The Happiest Kind of Sadness: Portrait of a Friendship

"I heard you are going to the clinic today," I texted my friend Alyssa. "Would you mind taking in my kid's urine sample?"

"Sure," she texted back. And then we tried to figure out how to get it to her. 

"Oh! Mark's at the bakery with his prayer group," she remembered. "Just take it to him there."

This is when you know you've hit the level of BFF: You can hand a man bag of pee at the bakery with his prayer group and feel no shame.


By the time our lives crossed with Mark and Alyssa Dunker and Ben and Lauren Snyder, it was about six years into our Tanzanian life, and Gil and I were friend-weary. Both couples, in fact, had contributed to that--they had come into our lives for about a year, and then left. Like so many before them; like so many would after. 

But the Dunkers and the Snyders were different, because even though we assumed we would never see them again, they came back to Tanzania. We still had our guard up, though. Friendships between missionaries can go deep and strong in a short amount of time, but they tend to not last very long. Best not to get too attached. 

But life just kept throwing the six of us together. 

Being part of Reach Global, that made us automatic "family." The unwritten rules of missionary culture state that mission teammates stick together. You might have barely met these people, but they're the first ones you ask when you need someone to watch your kids. There's an assumption you'll get invited for holiday dinners. When you can't figure out how to debone a chicken or get a driver's license or kill the ticks on your dog, they are the first ones you call. You know, like family. Except in a desperate, lonely, out-of-options sort of way. You don't really have a choice. You either depend on these people, or die.  

But with the Dunkers and the Snyders, our relationships became more than mission family. Because of Haven of Peace Academy and Reach Tanzania Bible School, our lives started overlapping and boomeranging back on themselves. The paths of our lives became a mega-highway, intersecting and crossing and merging all into one. 


Think about all of your various friends. You've got your church friends, and your Bible study friends. There's your work friends, and your soccer mom friends. There's your friends who are the parents of your kids, and your community friends, who you keep running into in the grocery store or the local pool. 

Now imagine you have a friend who falls into every category. Every single one. And then imagine that you just happen to be living in a foreign country with that friend. 

You get the idea.


We were at Ben and Lauren's house when Josiah took his first steps. Lauren and I planned Haven of Peace Academy's first graduation ceremony together. The four of us shared a common love for HOPAC, and a common passion to see it get bigger, better, see its impact increase. Lauren served as school counselor, Gil as chaplain, and Ben quickly climbed from math teacher to director. I joined the board of directors for several years, then Ben and his team hired me as elementary principal. 

I drove Mark and Alyssa around Dar es Salaam their first week, and I was with them when they bought their car. Alyssa and I bonded when she spent hours picking lice out of my hair. They came to Tanzania to train pastors, which, besides HOPAC, was our other passion. So when Gil decided it was time to leave HOPAC and start training pastors, we now had a reason to stay in Tanzania. The Dunkers had started a Bible school, and we enthusiastically joined in.

We grew together with the Snyders by building Haven of Peace Academy. We grew together with the Dunkers by building Reach Tanzania Bible School. Somewhere along the way it became the six of us. Sure, we had common interests--missions, adoption, politics, theology, culture--but I think it was common life more than common interests that brought us together.

It's now been ten years. These ten years have not been easy on any of our three families--at many times bordering on tragic. At first we relied on each other because it just made sense--these were the people closest to us. But go through that enough times, and one day you realize that you really know these people. And they really know you, and they still like you. And you think, Wow, this is something really special.

In tangible ways, but also in very real emotional and spiritual ways, they kept us here. We kept them here. 


Have you ever been in an emotionally intense situation--a short-term missions trip or a week-long camp, where you didn't know anybody but formed deep friendships quickly? There is something about being away from home together, living in close quarters and experiencing intense emotions together that bonds people for life. 

Now take that kind of experience and multiply it by five hundred.


I sit here in my quiet living room and watch the darkening sky, listening to the crows bidding goodnight and the crickets waking up. This small space, with the weird pink tiled floor and the couches we could never make very comfortable, is alive with memories.

I see the Christmases. The plastic gangly tree in the corner, the stockings strung across the window, the stale smell of air conditioning pushing out the stifling heat seeking to consume us. Many are here in the room, many we love and consider family, but they come and go during different years like Ebenezer's ghosts. But the Dunkers and the Snyders, they are the constant. They are here every year. 

I see Friday nights with my floor strewn with popcorn and my throw pillows with holes in them and the sweat stains on my couch from dozens of teenagers. Ben and Lauren are here in the midst of them, Ben and Gil playing basketball with the boys outside the window, the girls chatting with Lauren and me. Sometimes the power goes out. And we sit here in the dark and laugh hysterically and sweat even more. 

I see Lauren and me on one of those Friday nights, sitting in that corner on the weird pink tile floor, the swirl of teenagers laughing around us, while I tell her about my trip to see Lily. And about another little girl named Zawadi, who also needed a family. 

I see Alyssa and Lauren and I, all three of us on the well-worn carpet, weeping in prayer over Zawadi. Weeks and months and years. 

I see movies projected on the wall while my kids snuggle in with Aunt Alyssa or Uncle Ben. And finally, Zawadi is there too.

I see the Medina and Snyder and Dunker kids sitting on that tile floor with their striped melamine plates filled with homemade pizza. Don't sit on the carpet! I holler every time. They don't. They know better. Because I say it every time.


There was also the traveling.

We went all over Tanzania together--for language school, for vacation, for HOPAC trips--to Zanzibar, Moshi, Lushoto, Kigomboni, Arusha. And then out of the country--Kenya, South Africa, even Slovenia. 

It wasn't always all six of us, and it was rarely just the six of us, but again, the Snyders and the Dunkers and Medinas were the common denominator. Together we navigated airports and taxis and foreign languages. We caravanned in our mini-vans and would stop on the side of the road for kids to pee. We would always send each other text messages about speed traps. 

We took students to camp and on spiritual retreats, sports weekends and senior trips. We went to mission conferences and HOPAC conferences. We went to the mountains for the week after Christmas--every single year. 

We sat around beach campfires and laughed about ridiculous inside jokes. The guys played board games for seemingly every waking hour. We prayed and played with students side by side. We explored other missionary schools together, collecting ideas that led to passionate conversations late into the night, planning together how to make our school better. 

Every place, every drive, every airport, we wracked up more memories. Sometimes bad ones, most of them good.


Their friendships snuck up on me. 

I was so used to holding loosely to missionary friendships that at first I didn't even recognize the bonds, thin as gossamer webs, slowly beginning to pull us together. Events that seem insignificant, if there are enough of them, one day start becoming quite significant indeed. Building memories, after enough time, becomes building history.

And one day, several years ago, I woke up and realized that the Snyders and the Dunkers and the Medinas weren't just family. When you work and play and grow and cry alongside each other, for so many years, the description is closer to siblings than anything else.

The day I came to that realization was also the day I began to grieve. I was in deep; I was past the point of no return. What we had was quite extraordinary, but what we had would never last. When you move overseas, there should be flashing red lights around a huge sign that reads, "Beware: Make friendships at your own risk. They will be amazing, but they will break your heart."

But it will be the happiest kind of sadness.


It didn't matter how many ways that our roads had intersected. At some point, we always knew they would diverge. None of us belong to this country. It would be just a matter of time before those paths would start going in opposite directions. The Snyders are leaving Tanzania. It's the end of an era.

Of course, the friendship won't end; that would be inconceivable. But it won't ever be the same.

So I am grieving. I guess I always have been. That's the danger of loving something or someone too much in this overseas life. I guess that's the danger of loving anything in this fleeting life. There is no constant. There is no permanency. Not on this side of the veil, anyway.

But we do sometimes get glimpses of eternity in this fleeting life--a perfect sunset, delicious ice cream, a belly-laugh with a spouse or child, a resonant symphony. Extraordinary friendship fits into that category. What's temporary now will one day be forever. And it will be glorious. How grateful I am to have had that glimpse.

Lily's "Support Tree" in first grade: Mom, Dad, Uncle Ben, Aunt Lauren, Uncle Mark, Aunt Alyssa

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

What Did I Ever Do to Deserve This Blue Passport?

I read this week: "Since last October, U.S. Border Patrol agents have apprehended 268,044 people who illegally crossed the southwest border...and about half of them were families...That's a 300 percent jump in the number of family apprehensions compared with the same time period during the entire 2018 fiscal year."

I'm not going to give my opinion on what the US government should do about this crisis; I'm not that stupid. Or rather, I am quite stupid, because I don't know the answer. All I know is that those numbers take my breath away.

These are families. Moms and Dads and children and babies who are willing to walk for 2,800 miles in hopes of finding safety and a new life. Walk. For 2,800 miles. Or how about this from the same article? "Munoz and his family hauled themselves up on top of running freight trains and clung onto the top, the women taking turns to hold onto the baby."

It's beyond my comprehension. Walking with my children for thousands of miles, seeing dead bodies along the way, hoping for the goodwill of others to give us something to eat--all in the hope, the desperate, tiny hope--that a judge will pick my family out of a crowd of thousands and let me into a land where my children will be safe.

My family and I are traveling to the United States in just a couple of weeks. And I read this story and thought, Sheesh, all I had to do was contact our travel agent and it's done. Tickets in hand. We'll get to the airport in Los Angeles with our bleary eyes and disheveled clothes because 20 hours of travel feels like eternity. But we'll show our blue passports and no one will blink an eye. No one will ask me questions. No walls will block my way. My children won't be separated from me. I can hear the immigration officer's nonchalant stamp in our passports. And we're in.

All because God put my soul into the body of a person who happened to be born on US soil. That's it. There is nothing else differentiating me from the soul of the Honduran woman holding desperately onto her baby with one hand and the top of a moving train with the other. I am not better than her. I am not more valuable than her. I have not worked harder than her. There's nothing I have done that makes me deserve that blue passport more than her.

I don't know the answer for the hundreds of thousands waiting for help outside America's borders, or the hundreds of thousands more waiting for US embassy interviews in scores of other refugee camps around the world. But I do know one thing: At the very least, each of these people is worthy of our compassion. And each of these people should cause every American to pause and thank our lucky stars that somehow, some way, we ended up in America. Because for all its faults and divisions and weaknesses, it's the country that millions of people around the world would give their right arm to get into.

Let's not waste it.

Thursday, June 6, 2019

Only God Sees Around Corners

Several years ago, when we had just begun our year-long home assignment in California, Gil and I found out about a ministry opportunity that would have provided us with free housing and a stipend for the time we were in the States.

It seemed absolutely perfect to us. We were incredibly excited by the opportunity, and it seemed like an exact fit with our passion and experience. But we were too late. We didn't find out about it in time, and by the time we applied, they decided not to keep the position open.

We were bitterly disappointed. And I wondered, Why would God show us an opportunity that seemed so perfect, only to take it away? What was even the point of letting us see it in the first place, if he wasn't going to make it happen?

I've wondered that a lot of times since then.

As a principal at HOPAC, I am up close and personal with the recruiting process, which is gut-wrenching, to say the least. I've lost track now of how many times it's happened: We interview someone amazing; everyone is ecstatic that such a cool person is interested in HOPAC; we all get our hopes up.....and then for some reason or another, it doesn't work out. It happened to me twice in the last two weeks.

And I wonder, Why is God getting our hopes up if we're just going to be disappointed in the end? Why dangle a carrot in front of our noses if he's just going to yank it away?

And I don't know why. So I sit here in a funk, kind of mad at God for making me think he's answering my prayers when instead I imagine him saying, "Haha! Made you look!"

Except I am not God. And I don't know what he's thinking; I just need to trust he knows what he is doing. He's got a million moving pieces; how dare I question him on what he's doing with each one? Here I am focusing only on how I personally am affected by the disappointment--how God let me down. But what if the situation wasn't about me? What if he needs me to trust him with this disappointment because it was a necessary part of what he is doing in another person's life?

Or, what if that disappointment is, in the end, saving me from something far more tragic? What if that disappointment is actually an expression of God's mercy, but I, like the screaming toddler, throw a fit when her mother yanks away the luscious-looking, but deadly poisonous berries?

Andree Seu Peterson writes, "Only God sees around corners, and therefore it is very wise to not try to figure out our own way to happiness and safety by relying on our own understanding and worldly wiles. The wise person will trust in God’s ways and stick to them, knowing that life can get messy in the middle, because the person who makes God his trust, the story will turn out well in the end, in the very, very end."

Monday, May 27, 2019

Mad is Not Our Only Choice

As I recently described, a certain child of mine is prone to rages. It happened again at school this week on Sports Day, which meant I had to be mom and principal at the same time. It's rough to be the principal's kid, but personally, I think it's even harder on the principal.

Of course, the chaos and exhaustion of Sports Day can bring out the worst in anybody, but this child made some pretty bad choices in the heat of an argument, leading to some extremely unkind things hurled at a good friend.

I led my scowling, glaring child to a picnic bench away from the din of children who were gleefully passing sponges over, under, over, under.

We worked on empathy. "How do you think you made your friend feel when you said those things?" I asked. "How would you feel if someone said those things to you?"

"I would feel mad."

I tried again. "But your friend isn't mad; your friend is hurt. How does that make you feel?"

My child glowered. "I'm just mad!"

Something clicked for me. "Honey," I said, "I just realized something. I think that sometimes you choose feeling mad over feeling bad. You choose mad because that's a more comfortable emotion than feeling sad or guilty. It's really hard to admit when we do something wrong, and it's a lot easier to be mad at someone who is mad back at you."

And I get that, don't I? It's easier to feel anger than regret. It feels much better to point fingers or deflect blame or lie to myself than to deal with the harsh reality of my own failure. 

I looked into my child's belligerent eyes and thought, My child just needs the gospel.

There, at the foot of the cross, we find freedom from shame and guilt. But the first step is kneeling there, acknowledging that we need freedom from shame and guilt. And that kneeling is the hardest part.

God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.

Let a Bible story--just think of your favorite from Sunday School--run through your mind. Doesn't every single one tell this story of pride and humility? Those who chose not to be humbled--well, their stories didn't end well. We find them eating grass like an ox, swept away by a flood, aimlessly wandering in a desert. But those who submitted to it--in prison, in the belly of a fish, separated by the veil, flat-faced in the dust before a holy God--those are the ones we see restored, redeemed, made new by grace.

And of course, once you've been made new, nothing ever looks the same again. Mad is no longer the default emotion. It's okay to feel shame and guilt, because you've found mercy. It's okay to feel sadness and regret, because you've found a waterfall of Hope.

I look over the timeline of my life and I see the same recurring theme: God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble. How many times I have walked through fire--beleaguered, exhausted, depleted of everything in me, my face in the dust, and I've finally said, "Okay, God, you win." Which was most likely the point all along.

Barbara Duguid writes, "You will never be able to find steady joy in this life until you understand, submit to, and even embrace the fact that you are weak and sinful."

I look again into my child's blazing eyes. My sweet child, may you come to embrace that mad is not your only choice. Let it go, and you'll find everlasting grace on the other side.

And then I remind myself (again) of the same thing.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Surprised by Eternity

There's that scene in Elf when Buddy is testing out Jack-in-the-Boxes. Every single time it pops up, and every single time he gets scared. He's got a huge pile of toys, and yet he's surprised every time. We laugh at him, but we're like that too.

Every moment of every day, time passes. Things change. The cells in our bodies, our children's bodies, are aging every second that goes by. Yet a birthday comes, and we are shocked at how old they've become. At how old we've become. That it's Christmas again. That it's summer again. That they are leaving for college. That we are getting gray hair. That our children are getting gray hair.

I'm 42. How can I possibly be 42? How can that much time have gone by? Yet I'll think the same thing when I'm 52, and 62. The passage of time never stops, and yet I'm always shocked.

We have five weeks left until the end of the school year. How can that be possible? Yet what's weirder is that I think that every single year. Just like Buddy the Elf. I never cease to be surprised.

I wonder why? You would think that after all this time, I would be used to it by now. I'm always striving towards something, either for something to be over (let's get those report cards finished; let's get to the day when all my kids can brush their own teeth; let's get the car fixed once and for all) or for something to happen (I'm counting the days until I see my family, I can't wait to go on that trip, I can't wait for Christmas to come).

The tasks always get finished. The things I wait for always come. And then life moves on. But there's always more tasks. And looking back on things that were greatly anticipated can become a let down. The perfect moments come, but then they never last.

It's like we are wired for permanency. In the back of our minds is this notion that if we keep striving towards that or running towards this or focusing really hard on that goal, that we will get there. There is always perfect, or at least better. And then we'll stay there. Forever.

Yet it's not Forever. Whatever it is might last two seconds, and then the earth turns on its axis and another day passes. We continue our journey around the sun and the seasons change. Again and again and again.

In None Like Him, Jen Wilkin writes, "Those grasping for the comfort of certainty are blithely reminded that the only certainty is change itself."

I keep thinking about that: The only certainty is change itself. In a world that seems to be falling apart around us, that truth helps me let go of so much frenzied striving for perfection. It also gives me hope that whatever seems unchangeable can always be redeemed.

Yet that inborn sense that we are headed towards something, that there's a purpose that all of us are aspiring for, that there's an overarching story that has a last page with a happily ever after--that feeling is so strong that there's got to be Truth to it. If all of us feel that pull towards permanency, certainty, stability, eternity, then isn't it probable that it does actually exist--behind the veil, through the wardrobe, on the other side?

Could it be that God has put eternity into man's heart? That we are consistently surprised by the passage of time because we were created for eternity?

Jen Wilkin writes, "Every circumstance you encounter will change except the circumstance of your forgiveness. Every possession you own will pass away except the pearl of your salvation. Every relationship you enter into will waver except your adoption by your heavenly father."

There's a strange comfort in the acceptance of change in this wrecked world. It allows me to loosen my hold on things that point me towards regret or despair. It helps me not to idolize those beautiful, perfect moments that always slip through my fingers. Instead, may they be tastes of eternity, reminders of what's coming. May they increase my craving for the God who will never change, and who has created me for Eternity. Encountering it might be a different kind of surprise: Oh, this is what I was made for!

Saturday, May 11, 2019

Dear Moms of Littles, Adoption Has Taught Me Your Labor Is Not In Vain

The other night, there was a lot of screaming in my dining room. A lot of screaming. Like, I'm sure that our neighbors thought someone was being maimed or murdered.

But no. Someone was being asked to share a handful of half-dry markers with a sibling. This was apparently cause for a fight-to-the-death battle that involved wailing and flailing on the floor.

Also, no, this was not a developmentally-appropriate toddler temper tantrum. We are way past the toddler stage in this house.

I put on my calm, firm voice and did my best to stay calm and firm for twenty minutes while rage rampaged through my house. When it was over, the child flipped back to their perky, chipper self, while I felt like I had been run over by a truck.

Several years ago I read an article that told me that a child learns emotion regulation from his or her mother before the age of three. The mother's sense of calm actually, physically, passes onto her babies, and teaches her children how to calm themselves down.

That was a game changer for me. Oh. My child didn't have a mother as a toddler. This is why my child cannot regulate emotions. And I've discovered that at the heart of the anger is a deep insecurity. We have the same conversations, over and over again. You are valued and loved. You can trust Mom and Dad to give you what you need. People are not out to get you. It's not you against the world. We are on your side. 

Even though the number of years that child has been in my care has far surpassed the number of years that child spent in an orphanage, it doesn't matter. Those first three years are so critical that it's taking years and years to try to reverse that early learning.

And honestly, what I'm dealing with is mild. As an adoptive mom of four, I am fully immersed in adoption books, forums, and friendships. The stories I hear or read about make me realize that I've got it easy. Sorry, Beatles, but All you need is love isn't always true. An adoptive family can be full of love, but it takes a long time to fix what was broken. Especially if it was broken during those first few years.

So if you are in those "fixing what was broken" years with your adopted child, then you have my sympathy. Mothers With Screaming Children...Unite!

But my point of writing today is to encourage those moms who are raising little people right now--the Under Three crowd.

Some of my kids came to me as infants. Now that I'm past that stage, it's easy to be nostalgic. Those belly laughs and funny first words, the pieces of songs that come out all wrong, the excitement over shiny shoes, the dancing and prancing....because who wants to walk???

But then I remember the sleeplessness. The messes, over and over again. And it wasn't so much the exhaustion that got to me, but the monotony. The tasks are repetitive and feel endless. Changing. Feeding. Throwing blocks in the air. Reading inanely ridiculous books. Talking about yourself in the third person. Listening to Dora one more time. And praying they go to sleep. Dear God, please just make them go to sleep.

The hardest part about all of this was that it often felt so pointless. So small. So insignificant.

But that's where adoption has taught me that it's not. During those early years of sleepless nights and endless messes, you are giving your child a whole lot more than love. Without realizing it, you are teaching her to trust adults to get her needs met. You are giving him a sense of personhood and value. You are teaching her how to regulate her emotions. You are giving him safe boundaries and showing her how to reign in her desires.

Of course, this is not to say that every child who was adopted at an older age is going to struggle with these things. It also doesn't mean that every biological, home-raised child is not going to struggle. Personality and life circumstances are huge factors. But in general, adoption has shown me that those early years really matter. Centrally matter.

So be encouraged, Mom of Littles. These years will pass, and you will never regret the investment you made in your children in those mind-numbingly long years. Keep at it.

One of my all-time favorite pictures (2007)

Thursday, May 9, 2019

What to Know Before You Go

Let’s say you are boarding a transatlantic flight and hear, “Good morning, ladies and gentlemen; this is your pilot speaking. I’m 21 years old, and I’m excited to tell you that this is my first commercial flight! But don’t you worry; I’ve flown my Daddy’s crop duster at least a half dozen times. What I don’t have in experience or education, I make up with passion. I’m just about as willing as they come; my heart is practically bursting with willingness! Now buckle up your seatbelts; we’ll be off as soon as I find that user’s manual."
I don’t know about you, but I’d be out of that plane faster than a fried egg off a Teflon pan.
Yet sometimes we approach missions in the same way. Willing hearts filled with passion are awesome, but they are not enough. So here’s where things get awkward: I’ve titled this “What to Know Before You Go,” when actually it should be more like, “What I Wish I Had Known Before I Went.” Because when I got on a plane to Tanzania almost twenty years ago, I was just about as bad as that pilot. Thankfully I didn’t completely crash and burn, but I learned the hard way, over and over again. Had I taken the time early on to do a little more study and a lot more wrestling, I could have spared myself a lot of grief, and certainly increased my effectiveness in those early years. Learn from my mistakes.
1. You need to have a basic understanding of worldviews.
This goes much deeper than a knowledge of world religions. For example, a person can call himself a Christian, but that doesn’t mean that his thinking, choices, and actions line up with the Bible. The same is true for those who follow other faiths. The religious labels people give themselves just scratch the surface of what they really believe. This is where a study of worldview comes in. If you are hoping to live, work, and have a gospel-impact on people of a different culture, that’s got to start with understanding their worldview–and your own.
Darrow Miller’s Discipling Nations: The Power of Truth to Transform Cultures should be required reading for any new missionary.
2. You need to know how to interpret the Bible on your own.
Most new missionaries have been nurtured in spiritually rich environments–strong Christian colleges and solid churches that often include discipleship, biblical teaching, and small groups. This is wonderful–but what happens when you end up in a city where there are no strong churches? Or those that do exist are in another language? What happens when you find yourself in a spiritually harsh environment with only a small team of other believers who can help you stay afloat?
Online sermons can help. Rich Christian literature can help. But at the end of the day, it’s going to be you and your Bible. Do you have the skills you need to interpret it without a pastor or small group leader’s help? Do you know enough about the various genres of Scripture, the historical context, and sound interpretation practices so that you can be confident of what it’s really saying?
The technical word for this is “hermeneutics,” or Bible study methods. Our family favorite is Living by the Book: The Art and Science of Reading the Bible by Howard Hendricks, but there are many other great resources out there.
3. You need to have worked out a biblical theology of suffering–or at least started to.
Of course, suffering can be found on every corner of the globe, in every social sphere. But any ministry that takes you up close and personal with the messiness of people’s lives, especially amongst the poor and disadvantaged, has the possibility of knocking you breathless with the depth of the suffering you will witness.
What will it do to your soul to see the blind child begging on the street corner? To be friends with the woman who lost her twins due to an unconscionable doctor’s error? To see the little albino boy whose arm was chopped off for witchcraft purposes….by his own uncle? If you haven’t already wrestled with God over the reality of suffering and the problem of evil, you may risk disillusionment, burn-out, or even losing your faith.
Jerry Bridges’ Trusting God: Even When Life Hurts has had a profound influence on my life on this topic.
4. You need to know the theology of poverty alleviation.
What do you do about the beggars on the street corner? Or the constant requests by your neighbors for loans or favors? How do you assuage your guilty conscience when you go out to dinner or spend money on a vacation, knowing that people around you are hungry? Guilt will slowly strangle you unless you have already thought through how you will respond.
A theology of suffering answers, “How can God allow this?” A theology of poverty alleviation answers, “How should I respond?”
If you haven’t yet read When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor….and Yourself, now is the time. It’s an absolute must-read for any missionary (or any Christian, for that matter).
5. You need to know the history of your host country.
Are you able to identify the five most important events in your host country’s history? Do you know how the government is structured? Are you familiar with the nation’s holidays and why they are celebrated? What is every child taught? If you want to get to the soul of a people, then you must understand where they came from. Take the time find out.
All of these areas can be learned by dedicated study on your own. I learn best by reading, so I’ve given my recommendations for my favorite books. But I’m sure there are audiobooks, podcasts, or videos on all of these subjects. If you’ve got other suggestions, please share! Utilize the massive amount of internet resources at our fingertips, and educate yourself on these important issues–ideally, before you go.

This was originally posted at A Life Overseas.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Those Who Suffer Are My Teachers

I've always been ambivalent about Santa and the Easter Bunny. 

I probably would feel that way anywhere we lived, but I especially would never be able to pull off those stories in Tanzania. I can't bring myself tell my children that a magical old man or giant bunny is leaving them gifts when they see children every day who are living in poverty. How could I ever explain to them that Santa only leaves gifts for them, but not for their neighbors? How would I excuse the Easter bunny's negligence of the little girl begging at our car window on the way to church?

I must hold my theology of God to the same standard. 

Living as an American in a developing country has forced me to wrestle hard with what I believe. Am I believing an American gospel? Or the actual gospel?

Even though it's easy for me to disdain the misuse of Jeremiah 29:11, how many times have I caught myself thinking, God would never let that terrible thing happen to me? How often have I needed to remind myself, God doesn't owe me the American dream?

I'm embarrassed to admit the number of times I have wallowed in self-pity, asking God, Why me? Or how often have I realized that lurking around in the back of my mind is the notion that God just wants me to be happy?

Theology that can't transcend culture, time, and experience isn't Truth at all.

If what I believe is true, then it must be true for the Christians of Mozambique who lost everything in one cyclone--home, business, community--only to be hit by another a few weeks later. It's got to be true for the Christian in Sri Lanka who simultaneously lost his wife and three children in a terrorist attack.

How dare I think that God owes me anything? I shouldn't be asking Why me? but rather Why not me? 

Of course, it's not just those in developing countries who suffer. I think of Scott and Johanna Watkins, who discovered shortly after their marriage that Johanna had developed life-threatening allergies to just about everything, including Scott. Or Grace Utomo, who was an extraordinarily talented violinist when she was hit by a car at 23 years old. She now suffers from multiple seizures a day and can hardly ever leave the house.

Can I think about the lives of these suffering souls and believe that God just wants me to be happy? When I worry about the future, should I assure myself that God would never let that happen to me when he has already allowed much worse to happen to others who bear his name?

Ironically, the Bible speaks far more about oppression, injustice, and suffering than it does about happiness. Persecution is an expectation. We tend to forget that Paul wrote Rejoice in the Lord always while he was languishing in prison. There is no fear of contradiction between the gospel of Jesus and the reality of suffering. Which means that the problem lies in my own assumptions, not in the Bible.

I have learned to pay attention to those who suffer and yet remain steadfast in their faith. When my friend Lucy's house was marked for demolition, she told me, "God gives and takes away. We will bless the name of the Lord, no matter what happens."

Grace Utomo asks, Can I really call God 'kind?' and answers, "We would have no idea of how faithful and valuable God really is if we never knew loss in some capacity.  We have souls that live forever, but our physical conditions are only temporary. Our job is to cling to eternity, and to the hope that we will enjoy God most fully at the end of our earthly life. Until then, we have the beautiful (albeit sometimes painful) opportunity to know God as a faithful refuge. If we look beyond the temporary, God is indeed kind."
Scott Waktins writes, "Seeing upheavals so commonly in the scriptures reminds me that not only are Johanna and I in good company, but that it is serving a greater purpose. These difficult circumstances we are going through are not a cosmic accident. They are serving a purpose I don’t fully see, but one that I believe will lead to good. The upheaval of the past years has not upheaved my relationship with God. Instead, it has helped me deeply appreciate the upheaval of Jesus’ life and its lasting impact on the world."

I am not worthy to stand in the presence of these suffering saints. They are my teachers. Theirs is the theology I seek.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Pressed Against the Veil

I taught sixth grade Bible for several years, and the most boring lesson was always about the temple.

I would make my students memorize the sections of the temple: The outer and inner courts, the Holy Place, and finally, the Holy of Holies, where the very presence of God dwelt. Only one priest once a year would have the privilege of entering it, and a veil--a curtain several inches thick--separated the Holy of Holies from the rest of the temple. Since it was rare that a person could stand in the presence of God and not die, that priest would have a rope tied around his leg, just in case he blew it and his lifeless body would need to be yanked out.

My students thought that part was cool. But the rest of it? Boring. I couldn't blame them. But I still taught it, year after year, because I knew that when we got to Good Friday, it would be worth it, and I would hit pay dirt.

We would reach the day of Jesus' crucifixion, they would find themselves interested, in spite of their 12-year-old obligation to never be interested in anything. Things would start clicking into place. We had studied the story of Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac, so they suddenly understood how Jesus' death paralleled that event. We had learned about Moses and the Passover, so light bulbs went off when they realized the significance of Jesus dying at the exact time that the lambs were being slaughtered at the temple.

But that was nothing compared to their reaction when they heard about the curtain.

Nestled into the accounts of Jesus' death is one line: "At that moment the curtain in the temple was torn in two from top to bottom." (Matt. 27:51) Tangible shock waves would go through the classroom.

The curtain. The curtain that symbolized man's separation from God. The curtain that practically no one could go through without dying. That curtain.

It tore in two? From top to bottom? What do you think that would have been like? I would ask them. The priests would have been freaking out! they would exclaim. No one was supposed to go in there! Hardly anyone had ever even seen behind it!

But since they understood the temple, they understood the significance. Jesus' death meant God opened a way to get to Him. Jesus--the one who called Himself The Way. 

The curtain tore. Sometimes, those 12-year-old adolescents who were never impressed by much--sometimes they would even cry.

There's a song I love from about 25 years ago, which sounds like it was recorded 25 years ago, but it's still on my playlist.

Once there was a holy place
Evidence of God's embrace
And I can almost see mercy's face
Pressed against the veil

Looking down with longing eyes
Mercy must have realized
That once His blood was sacrificed
Freedom would prevail

And as the sky grew dark
And the earth began to shake
With justice no longer in the way

Mercy came running
Like a prisoner set free
....When I could not reach mercy
Mercy came running to me

Jesus cried, It is finished! The curtain tore, and mercy came running.

Saturday, April 13, 2019

When You're Sharing Jesus as an Outsider

Gil and I hadn't been in Tanzania very long before we made our first whopper of a cultural mistake.

We had been investing deeply in the life of an Indian young woman who was with us several times a week. She had a rather harsh mother who, we felt, was giving her daughter unrealistic boundaries and unnecessary expectations. Wanting to help our friend, we approached her mother with our advice. "It's not okay how you are treating your daughter," we said firmly. "She is eighteen years old, so she is an adult. She can make her own decisions."

And the mother responded humbly to our 25-year-old, American wisdom and graciously thanked us for enlightening her on how to parent her child. And we all lived happily ever after. The end.

Um, no. We alienated the mother, caused a deeper divide between her and her daughter, and learned a very hard lesson: Culture and worldview matter. In Indian culture, it is unthinkable to consider an 18-year-old unmarried girl to be either an adult or independent from her parents' authority, no matter how harsh their expectations might be. 

And so began our journey into learning how much we did not know about trying to share the love of Jesus in another culture. 

Since America's inception, Christians didn't need to worry about this. Cross-cultural missions was out there--not right here. Okay, so maybe they thought about it when it came to first-generation immigrants. Maybe a church would offer a seminar on "How to Reach Your Muslim Neighbor." 

I'm not saying that American churches weren't concerned about evangelism; my point is that evangelism of middle-class America was not seen as cross-cultural. Sure, there were plenty of non-Christians out there, but we could assume that they shared many of our core beliefs. We had a starting point of agreement: There's a God, He has established right and wrong, and the Bible holds some degree of authority.

And even once most people started abandoning those beliefs, we all still shared a worldview that came from the Bible, whether we were Christians or not: There is an inherent purpose and order to the universe. We can trust our senses. Biology matters. If you're a human, you're a person. Marriage and family is the bedrock of a society. Moral standards are absolute, even if we might argue over specifics.

But we can no longer assume agreement about these things. Which means that even if you look the same and speak the same language and are living side by side with your middle class, white American neighbors, if you're a Christian, you are now a cross-cultural missionary. Effective evangelism in America requires that you understand a different worldview.

I'm not saying that it's wrong to keep fighting for change at the government level--after all, since America is a government of "we the people," we have a responsibility to work towards a government that we believe is best for society. But we're not going to change hearts by changing laws.

And if we want to change hearts, we've got to understand them first. One of the first things missionaries are told at orientation is that People have a reason for what they do. On the outside, people's actions might look really stupid or foolish to us, but dig a little deeper, and there's a reason there. Even behind horrendous traditions such as female genital mutilation or child marriage or albino murders, there's always logic there. So if you come into a foreign culture with guns blazing, forcefully proclaiming that these are wrong, terrible things, you will lose your audience immediately. Missionaries have learned this the hard way for centuries.

That doesn't mean that we accept these practices as "cultural" and don't do anything about them. But it does mean that we spend time--a lot of time--trying to understand where these ideas come from, and get deep into what motivates culture. Because real change comes from the worldview level.

As American Christians become outsiders in their own country, I can't help but wonder if they have the same lessons to learn as cross-cultural missionaries. As I watch from a distance, I see lots of Christians getting really afraid or really angry, because they feel like they are losing their country. Maybe they are. But what American Christians need to remember is that the "Christian culture" in their country for the last two hundred years has been an anomaly in world history. It shouldn't be an expectation.

American Christians, you might need to start living like missionaries. And among other things, this means that in order to be effective in evangelism, we've got to start by truly understanding the prevailing worldview in our culture. Instead of just frantically trying to put out the fires of abortion and sexuality and re-defined family, we've got to understand what's motivating these cultural changes. And that's going to require a study of worldview.

Do we know why we believe what we believe?  Christians have often said, "God said it, I believe it, that settles it."

And the clouds parted and the sun rose in glory behind the open Bible, and all God's people said "Amen!"

And everyone else stopped listening.

We need a different kind of conversation. Do we know the worldview behind what our neighbors believe? Do we know the worldview behind what we believe?

What is our ultimate source of Truth?
What determines reality?
What is a human? What is a person? What determines our identity?
What is the ultimate purpose in life?
What is the role of a family in a society and what makes the concept of "family" so important? 
How do we draw the line between right and wrong?
Why are things so screwed up, and what needs to happen to fix them?

We should be asking these questions. Can we answer them for ourselves? Can we understand how others would answer them...and why?

Nancy Pearcey is my favorite author, and worldview is her favorite subject. But it shouldn't be reserved for college philosophy courses--this is stuff every Christian needs to know. Every child needs to learn. If we want to be effective evangelists in our culture, then we must understand worldview. Welcome to the world of cross-cultural missions.

Start here: Finding Truth by Nancy Pearcey (right now only 99 cents!)
Love Thy Body by Nancy Pearcey

Know of some other good resources on this subject? Share them with us!

Thursday, April 11, 2019

When You Want to Want to Stay Longer

When living overseas, sometimes there’s no doubt that you need to leave. A denied visa, a medical emergency, a government coup, a burn-out, an unresolvable conflict. 
Sometimes there’s no doubt you want to stay. You’ve adapted; you’ve found community, ministry, purpose, and most of the time, you’re loving life. 
But what about when you think you should stay, but you really don’t want to? 
When the need is great, and right now, you’re the best person to fill it. When you’ve received affirmation from local believers and leadership from home that you are a good fit for your role. When you are seeing fruit–or you can almost see it, just over the horizon.
But you are weary of this life. You are sick and tired of the long lines at government offices, of bugs in your kitchen drawers, of being misunderstood (again). The pollution aggravates your daughter’s asthma, and it takes you five hours to run one errand, and suddenly the price of milk doubles over night. Again.
And your old life is looking pretty great. Your friends’ lives on Instagram are looking even better.
You don’t really want to stay. But you’re pretty sure you should. You want to want to stay. How do you get there?
Maybe sometimes you just need a vacation. Or some counseling. Maybe you need to consider a new neighborhood. Maybe you just need to bite the bullet and buy that air conditioner.
But after fifteen years living overseas, do you want to know what has kept me here longer? Changing my perspective from This is an experience to This is my life.
What’s the difference?
An experience is temporary. It’s something that you check off your bucket list before going back to your “normal” life. You’re likely to expect fun and adventure. You’re likely to have high expectations of what you’re going to get out of it, and lower lows when you don’t. 
Since an experience has a defined beginning and end, you also aren’t necessarily looking for the normal rhythms of work and rest. You might be thinking that you need to pack in as much as you can because you know your time is limited. And when you’re looking at your time overseas as an experience, when times get hard, you just dig in your heels and endure it. (Buy an air conditioner? Pish! I’m here to be tough.) The end is always in sight, and you are counting the days till it’s over.
When it comes time to decide if you should stay longer, it’s not even a consideration. The experience is over; so why should you stay? Your sights are already set on home; they have been for a long time. Staying longer seems unfathomable. 
But when you enter your time overseas with the mindset that This is my life, then there is no end in sight. You realize that adaptation is key. Of course, this does not mean that you try to recreate your life back home. But it does mean that you are actively looking for that “new normal.” When times get tough, you aren’t counting the days until it’s over. Instead, you’re thinking about how you can make this work. How you can adapt. How you can either change your circumstances or change your perspective so that you aren’t utterly miserable all of the time. 
What does this tangibly look like? Put pictures up on your walls. Plant a garden. Spend the extra money to get the couch you love, instead of someone’s old ugly hand-me-down. These are little things, but can help significantly with your mindset. Slow down. Watch TV sometimes. Don’t fret over “wasted” time learning language and culture, chomping at the bit to get your “real” ministry started. Watch. Wait. Listen. Learn. When the power goes out or you get three flat tires in a week, pay attention to your thinking. Are you telling yourself, “Just a few more months and this will be over,” or rather “How can I learn to live this way?” 
You want to want to stay? Let me tell you something I’ve learned about contentment in this overseas life: The more you think about leaving, the more you will want to leave. The more you resolve yourself to stay, the more content you will be. 
And one more thing: There will always be a reason to leave if you are looking for it. Always. If you want a reason, you will find it. So here’s my challenge: Instead of just asking yourself, Do I want to leave?, consider asking yourself, Is there a good reason why I shouldn’t stay longer?
Full disclosure: My family is in that place right now, asking ourselves that question. I realize that finding the answer is not simple, because it can be easy to mingle God’s calling with our own desires. Knowing when has been “long enough” can often become more complicated the longer you stay….because the experience has become life! That’s what’s kept us here fifteen years, and the depth of our friendships, the wealth of what we have learned, and the multiplying impact of ministry have made all of these years more than worth it. I pray it will be for you too.
This article was originally posted at A Life Overseas.

Saturday, April 6, 2019

Yes, I Am Judgmental

Let's say that one day you meet a modern-day slave owner in your own country. He's found a legal loophole to get away with it, and he finds no moral problem with owning slaves. He argues passionately that he is good to his slaves and that they have a much better life than they did before he owned them. He staunchly believes that they have consented to this way of life, which wouldn't be far-fetched if they came from poor, hierarchical societies.

In fact, he gets angry with you if you dare question his right to own slaves. Who are you to judge me for my personal choices? If you don't like slavery, that's fine; then don't own slaves. But don't impose your values on me.

Not many of us would be satisfied with that argument. We wouldn't be able stay silent about what this man was doing. We would have a moral obligation to speak up.

How judgmental of us.

Humans are hard-wired to make judgments. We can say that we are open-minded and accepting and not bigoted until we're blue in the face, but when someone comes along who tries to justify raping a child or stealing our car or owning slaves, we suddenly become very judgmental indeed.

So can we please stop trying to pretend that we are not judgmental?

I have chosen to define my moral standards from a historical, literal interpretation of the Bible. I have some pretty significant reasons for that, which will perhaps be for another day's discussion. But that decision means that I believe a lot of things that are quite contrary to what many in my culture believe. Yet somehow that makes me a mean-spirited, bigoted, even dangerous person. Some would say that I need to be silenced for what I believe. At the very least, I should keep my opinions to myself, and not try to impose what I believe on society.

So why wouldn't that standard be permitted for the slave-owner? Why shouldn't he too be allowed to make his own personal choices in how he lives his life and not be confronted by others who judge his morals?

If it seems obvious to you why it would be important to judge the slave-owner, can you therefore try to understand why it is important to me to have the freedom to speak up about biblical morality? A person's individual choices about personhood, abortion, sexuality, gender, and family affect all of us when they start shaping our society. None of us live in a vacuum. We can't assume that anyone's personal choices won't affect other people, because one person's choices affect other people's thinking--and that's how cultures change, and how whole worldviews change. Your personal choices are a big deal to me, as mine should be to you.

"Being judgmental" has become a modern-day badge of shame, and it has caused many of us to be afraid to speak up about what we believe is best for society. But that's not fair. Because those who are labeling others as judgmental are doing the exact same thing--making judgments.

There's an important distinction to make here. Being judgmental is often equated with arrogance, and that is often true. There's a difference between being nasty, cold, or rude with someone you disagree with, versus being kind, but still openly disagreeing. Making moral judgments shouldn't have to assume arrogance. Christians don't always do this right, and that's a problem. Christians often need to do better at speaking the truth in love. But non-Christians need to realize that it's impossible to live as a non-judgmental person.

The bigger, more important questions are these: What is the basis for your judgments? How do you decide whether something is right or wrong? Every single one of us needs to have an answer for those questions, because that's the starting point for having an honest discussion about what is best for our society.

Yes, I'm judging you. You are judging me too. Let's get over it and have a conversation.


*This piece was originally titled, "Yes, I'm Judging You." I changed the title to better reflect what I was trying to communicate. 

After dialogue with readers, I also want to add that I recognize that not all Christians agree on the "literal and historical" meaning of Scripture. That's okay--there is room for debate on certain issues. But Christians who agree that there is a literal and historical meaning at least gives us a starting place for discussion. We might not agree on what that meaning is, but that should just compel us to deeper study to find that meaning, not throw it out as our source of authority. 

Overall, I'm not particularly happy with this piece as I think it comes across as too defensive. I'm not sure if it's particularly helpful. Maybe I'll just eventually delete it. :-)