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'm Judging You

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.

*Thank you to Nancy Pearcey for inspiring this post. 

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Sitting in the Dust with the Disgraced American Church

In What's So Amazing About Grace?, Philip Yancey tells the true story of a prostitute who rented out her two-year-old daughter to men in order to fund her drug addiction. When asked why she didn't go to a church for help, she exclaimed: "Church! Why would I ever go there? I was already feeling terrible about myself. They'd just make me feel worse."  

Dreadfully ironic, isn't it? On one hand, there's the prostitute who is afraid to go to church because of the lack of grace offered her, while on the other hand, the deacon-turned-child-molester is offered a free pass in the name of "grace."

This is a humiliating time to be an American evangelical Christian. The disgraced missions agency. The disgraced mega-church pastor. The disgraced entire denomination. I'm afraid to read the news and see what's next. So much muck, covered up for so many years. 

Every time, my internal response is horrified disgust. How can people like that call themselves Christians? And I want to do everything I can to disassociate myself with that person or that group or that church. I want to shine up my shoes and put on my kind face and show the world that not all Christians are so reprehensible. Most of us are decent, moral, good people, right? So please, won't you like us again?

Then I wonder if that attitude is actually the elemental problem.

All my life I have struggled with the desire to be the good girl, to follow the good Christian rules of praying before meals and sticking a fish on my car and moving to deepest darkest Africa. There was this underlying current to the evangelical culture around me that if we all looked really nice and happy all the time, we would attract people to Jesus. So it makes sense that when we discovered that underneath that veneer was a lot of evil and depravity, we anxiously stuffed it under our perfectly vacuumed carpets. We felt a strong need to protect God's reputation.

It's ironic that God doesn't seem to care about his reputation nearly as much as we do. We paste the smiles on, but he has no problem flinging those carpets aside for the world to see. If we won't deal with our skeletons in the closet, then he'll let a major news outlet do it for us. Considering the danger of hidden sin, perhaps even the media is a form of his grace.

We are so quick to condemn the Prosperity Gospel--the notion that God wants his people to be continuously healthy and increasingly wealthy--but what if there was an even more sinister Prosperity Gospel infiltrating our churches? A Gospel that says that God's people would never abuse children, never be mentally ill, never struggle with gender or sexuality, never be narcissistic? Because we're too good for that. Those kind of problems wouldn't happen here.

So I'm asking myself this question: How do we, as the American Church, really, truly display God's glory and his grace? Because looking nice and shiny and perfect on the outside has obviously not worked. One, because those on the outside see right through to the pride that under-girds that image, and two, because (duh) we actually haven't been as nice and shiny and perfect as we thought we were. 

The dictionary defines "disgraced" as having fallen from favor or a position of power or honor; discredited. But what if being disgraced is actually God's conduit for us to fall into grace?

The answer is right there in front of our faces, and we just keep forgetting it. The gospel acknowledges both the depravity of sin and the riches of mercy. These disgraces in the American church show us how far away we are from understanding real grace. We have no reason to boast and nothing to hide; in the end we are all beggars. Ironically, not unlike the prostitute.

Barbara Duguid writes, “One reason God allows us to fall flat on our face is so we will not be people who stand before Him taking credit for His good work. We get confused about that. If we are strong and victorious in a certain area of our lives, we start writing books about how everybody can be as good as I am on this topic. But if God lets us fall flat on our face and we’re in the dust, we realize, 'That wasn’t me. That was God, and left to myself, I’ll be flat on my face.'”

I am a part of the American Church, so I sit here with her in the dust, my reputation tarnished, my deepest secrets laid bare, my good name dragged through the mud. My choice is simple: Will I be the Pharisee, the one who prides myself on not being anything like those terribly disgusting people, and belligerently disassociate myself from having anything to do with them? Or will I be the tax collector who beats his breast and cries, "Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner?"

Only one went home justified that day. (Luke 18:9-14)

When Jesus faced a condemned prostitute, he got down in the dust with her. Maybe if we recognize that we deserve to be down in the dust too, Jesus will meet us there. And maybe, just maybe, the next time that prostitute needs a place of refuge, she'll come to us. And we can find grace together.

Friday, March 15, 2019

The Big Bad Wolf

I keep a list of things that inspire me to write, but the list just keeps getting longer but the ideas don't get crossed off. My head is at HOPAC for nine hours a day and what's left goes to family and cooking and other exciting things like trying to navigate the US immigration system so that we can get Johnny his US citizenship.

I get brilliant flashes of inspiration but no time to work them out, and for a person who has grown accustomed to processing my thinking by writing, this has created a massive traffic jam in my head.

In my old life, the one where I would sit at my computer and contemplate the intersection of my American-ness with Tanzanian culture to the soundtrack of Dora the Explorer, I used to get sleepy all the time. I would constantly find myself nodding off, and it didn't matter how much sleep I had gotten the night before. I think I was bored. I know I was bored. Bored and restless. But I also had time to bring meals to new moms and bake 100 cupcakes at a time and have people over for dinner every weekend. And I had time to write.

And now I am often exhausted but I don't get sleepy, even when I am supposed to, because my mind is so full of so many bazillions of details that I can't shut it off. I feel like a kid digging a hole in wet sand right where the waves stretch, the kind of hole where no matter how much sand you pull out of it, the hole never gets deeper. You can even have a giant pile of wet sand next to that hole--sitting there as a monument of all you think you have accomplished--but the hole never gets dug. I keep waiting for the day when I will finally feel like I am on top of everything, but I've been at this job for 19 months now, and that hole still has just as much sand in it.

My eye started twitching the other day, which is always a sure sign of stress, which I'm pretty sure was instigated by the United States Department of Immigration, which has, I believe, a secret plan to drive me over the edge. All I'm trying to do is complete the process of getting citizenship for my son who has been in our legal custody for well over three years now, which seems like it should be simple (since it was relatively so for our other three children), but as any good American knows, immigration to America is no longer simple. These days I'm picturing US immigration as a doorless, windowless, impenetrable bunker that refuses to give anyone any shred of useful information other than one guy who growls through a peephole, "You want information? Use your children's college fund to hire an immigration lawyer! Now go away!" and maybe "Not by the hairs of my chinny chin chin!" just for good measure.

There goes my twitching eye again.

Maybe this is why I was the Big Bad Wolf for Book Character Day last week. I huffed and I puffed, but in the end I ended up roasted in a pot.

Your hunch is probably right. I am losing it. You might want to just walk away slowly at this point.

What I really want to do is sit here and write a good long essay exploring the role of stress in a Christian's life. When is it good? When is it burnout? When was my life more glorifying to God--during those days when I made people happy with my cupcakes, or these days when I spend most of my days writing people emails that I know will make them unhappy?

That's an exaggeration, of course. Not all of my emails make people unhappy. But I can think of at least a dozen this week that did. There's a reason why principals have a bad reputation. (Like I said, Big Bad Wolf.)

But the problem is that I am too stressed and my brain is too full to be able to do any evaluating; all I can do is hang on for dear life and keep frantically scooping sand out of that hole.

I know I need to actively search for more rest and I know that after one more week, I'll have a break from school, so things will look different at this time a week from now. But I also want to somehow figure out how to live fully and gloriously and fearlessly in the middle of the stress, because this is where I think I'm supposed to be. If I'm looking around and it really seems, from all I can tell, that I'm living in the will of God, then there's got to be a way to do it without eye twitching. So if you've got that figured out, can you let me know? Because I don't have time to think about it.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Josiah Went to the Amani Rainforest

(So did Gil, who took all these wonderful pictures.)

Going to Amani in fifth grade is the highlight of the year, and since that tradition started way back when I taught fifth grade at HOPAC, it's especially fun to see my own kids go. In fact, one of my first posts on this blog was from an Amani trip!

African violets are native to the Amani Rainforest.

So are chameleons of all shapes and sizes.

These guys are much more interesting in the forest than in my bathroom.

Friday, March 1, 2019

What Have I Done to My Children?

My family's front porch in Liberia faced the ocean. A dirt road and a lagoon separated our house from where the sand began and the waves crashed, but it was enough of a beach house that the fridge rusted and my mom had to mop the salt off the floors every day.

Many hours would find me on the hammock on that front porch, one of the few places where my introverted tween awkwardness felt at home. It was a rough rope hammock, and I would sit sideways on it like a swing, my legs pushing against the cement railing on the porch. Liberian sunsets on that ocean, complete with silhouetted coconut palms, were as post-cardish as any honeymooner could ask for, but my clearest memories are of the rain.

Liberian rain was never some mamsy-pamsy sprinkling; it was a waterfall from the sky. The smell of that rain would engulf me, full of sea salt and warmth and growing things. And I would swing on my hammock, dreaming my young-girl dreams, and watch the lightning crack out of a dark sky and strike the expanse of my ocean.

We often miss the beauty of our childhoods while we are in the midst of it, much too focused on interpreting those best-friend-comments and science-project-scores to pay much attention, but the rain and the lightning and the swinging hammock was such a large, enveloping beauty that even in my twelve-year-old self-centeredness, I was able to feel something like awe.

Across that dirt road, in a house that was even closer to the ocean, lived friends. Their kids were around the same ages as my brother and I, and we spent many an afternoon canoeing on the swamp or trying to make a clubhouse in their attic, but it was so hot we could only each spend a few minutes in there at a time before we climbed down, gasping for breath. I practiced piano in their house every day, since they had a piano and we didn't, and one at a time, we borrowed all of their Asterix and Tin Tin comics. "Bock, Bock!" I would holler at their screen door, because that's what you said in Liberia when you came to someone's door. They would always let me in.

We made a teepee out of palm branches and their daughter and me created fantasy lands for our Barbie dolls in the sand and the swamp and the forest around our homes. They were from Arizona, so at Christmas they introduced us to the tradition of paper bag lanterns--luminarias--which filled the humid night air with magic.

My third-culture-kid childhood was filled with so much beauty--both in the land itself, and in so many people who loved me and became like family, because that's what happens when you find yourself thrust into a land with other foreigners who, like you, have no idea what they are doing.

I always wanted my own children to have a childhood like that.

Remarkably, they have. They already have more stamps in their passports than most people get in a lifetime. They've stood in the shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro and visited the Apartheid Museum in South Africa. They've fed giraffes in Kenya and watched baby sea turtles hatch and spent hundreds of hours in warm tropical oceans. And they have been deeply loved by Zimbabweans and Brits and Americans and Tanzanians who have enriched their lives with accents and cultures and family-bonds.

But as I dreamed that life for my kids, I failed to remember the grief.

It is easy to remember all the great stuff but naively think I would be able to protect my kids from all the hard stuff. Changing schools and relationships and countries and cultures several times in the course of a childhood--as extraordinary as it all sounds--is also excruciating.

Grace came home with a large drawing board in a plastic artist's folder last week.

"It's from my art teacher," she said proudly. "He's starting me on advanced art. He says that he's going to give me a head's start for IGCSE Art in 9th grade. I mean, if I'm here in 9th grade."

If I'm here. Because we don't know.

We had lunch with friends the other day, the ones who have felt like family for ten years. But they are leaving Tanzania this summer, and their daughter and Grace are an unbeatable duo--truly a sight to behold--on their basketball team. "You've got to come move near us and go to my school, and we can play basketball together!" she pleaded with Grace. Because it's unthinkable to imagine living apart.

That same day we got more news: Another family we know and love will be leaving even sooner. I told the kids in the car; I didn't want to look them in the eyes. Everyone was silent.

They are getting used to this.

And I wonder, What have I done to my children?

I remember how I wept when I found out that we wouldn't be able to return to Liberia; wept for the loss of my home, wept for the country that was being destroyed by war. That family who lived on the other side of the road--after two years of water balloon fights and piano practices and luminarias and sharing every part of life--we separated into different worlds and we never saw them again.

I look into my children's stony faces, steeling themselves against another loss; I hear the if I'm here in their voices and I remember my own childhood--the part I don't like to remember. "I wouldn't trade it for anything," I'll say without a moment's hesitation. But is it fair to impose on them the pain that goes with it? Do I have the right to say to them, "This is going to hurt a whole lot, but it will be worth it?"

I guess that's the thing about parenting--we make all these choices for these small people under our care, and they don't get any say in it. We choose where they will live, how they will be educated, how many siblings they will have, who they will be friends with. None of this seems like a big deal when they are little and an extension of us, but then they get bigger and smarter and they start to realize that some of the choices we made for them have difficult repercussions. Our enthusiastic, It will be worth it! starts to sound more hollow, to them and to us, because the truth is, we really don't know if it will be.

I'm realizing that as much as I want (and try) to write my kids' stories for them, I really only get to make the basic outline. I can create the setting and even write in a bunch of the characters, but they control the perspective, which is really what makes or breaks a story. And ultimately, I must trust that there's an Author who's a whole lot bigger than I am, and who loves them a whole lot more than I do, who is doing most of the writing behind the scenes.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

The Back-Burner of Missions (and Why It Shouldn't Be That Way)

Four-year-olds don't walk, they twirl and prance. They think everything about the world is fascinating, even writing their names or matching shapes or learning to sit criss-cross applesauce.

On Saturday, I met dozens of them. They visited our kindergarten room while some teachers and I asked them to count and say their letters and watched them play and dance while we took notes. Some were shy, some were cheerful, some, we could tell, would be a handful, but that just made them all the more charming.

I was enchanted. But I was also depressed. There were just too many. Three times too many, to be exact. All of them had come to be assessed for next year's kindergarten class, and all of them were wonderful. But there were just too many. I will only be able to offer places to about a third of them.

Their parents sat outside drinking coffee under the trees. Their eyes were hopeful, expectant, a little nervous. I tried not to make much eye contact. It is just too hard, knowing that I will have to turn down most of them. I don't want to get their hopes up.

Their emails turn my stomach into knots. We've never wanted any other school for our child since she was born! HOPAC is our first and only choice. My child loved his visit with you! He is so excited to attend HOPAC now. 

I know my response will break their hearts. Your child was wonderful; we just don't have room. He can join the 40 other children on our waiting list for that class. 

We never advertise, but we never fail to have at least sixty applicants for kindergarten. For some families, it's because of the Christian environment at HOPAC. For some, it's our reputation of sending students to the world's top universities. For others, it's the price. Among similar schools in Tanzania, we offer the best quality for the lowest fees.

Mystified, parents will ask, Why don't you just expand?

And the answer is always the same: We can't get enough teachers.

Though over half of our students are Tanzanian, we are a missionary school, relying on volunteers from westernized countries to raise support to teach here. Of course, we hire Tanzanians whenever we can, but finding Tanzanian Christians who are qualified to teach in an international school is not easy. Which means we are dependent on the Church (mainly from the US and Europe) to send us teachers.

But for some reason, recruiting and sending missionary teachers is not a priority for the Church, or even for most mission agencies. Maybe because teachers fall into the category of second-class missionaries. Sometimes it feels like church planters or aid workers seem more exciting or important.

I don't understand why teachers are often on the back-burner of missions. Parents of all kinds of religious faiths are pounding down the door of our Christian school, desperate for their kids to attend. We get the privilege of influencing those kids for seven hours a day for thirteen years. We teach with a biblical worldview. We train our students in poverty alleviation. The gospel permeates everything we do. How is this ministry not a priority?

Please, Church, prioritize missionary teachers. Find them. Encourage them. Support them. It's one of the most strategic avenues of missions that I've witnessed in my twenty years overseas.

And if you're a Christian teacher, why not you?

Sunday, February 3, 2019

What Adoption Has Taught Me About Abortion

Nicole Chung's birth parents didn't want her, so they put her up for adoption. She writes about her journey to find her birth family and process her identity in the poignant memoir, All You Can Ever Know.

Nicole found out that her birth parents told her siblings and their family that the baby was born dead. They wanted her erased from memory, as if the pregnancy never happened. But life doesn't work that way. Nicole writes, "Words I’d once heard from a birth mother flashed in my mind: If there’s something that everyone should know about adoption, it’s that there is no end to this. There’s no closure."

As an adoptive parent, I've learned this tragic truth from experience as I help my own children work through their grief and loss of their first families--a loss that will continue to haunt them as they grow up and start their own families. We can celebrate the redemption and beauty of adoption till we're blue in the face, but that doesn't take away the heartbreak.

How ironic that it's the same for the birth mother. She may even tell everyone the baby died, but she knows, niggling around in her mind, refusing to be ignored, that her baby is out there, growing up somewhere. I think about that often as I look into the faces of my children who spent nine months growing in the body of another woman, their blood flowing alongside hers, listening to her voice, feeling her joy and sadness and fear. My children wish for one glimpse of her face; I wish for one chance to tell her that her baby is okay.

It's easy for us to judge the woman who wants that baby dead and hands over her money to make it all go away. Perhaps she does it because she knows, by instinct, that adoption won't grant her closure. Perhaps it scares her to death knowing that one day she may pass a person on the street that mirrors her face. Perhaps it's easier to just know that the baby is dead, and hope that a dead baby brings more closure than a baby raised by someone else who will someday inevitably want to find the woman who gave her away.

I spent years longing to be pregnant, so I don't know what it feels like. But I remember talking to a friend who kept getting pregnant despite her and her husband's efforts to hold it off. She is an amazing mother and adores all of her children, but her pregnancies were unusually harsh, and she noted the irony of hers and my situations. Despite my longing, I couldn't help but feel empathy towards her. Pregnancy starts with such a seemingly insignificant act but holds incredibly significant consequences.

Pro-lifers keep using the "But it's life" argument against abortion, without realizing that for many pro-choice women, that's not a consequential discussion any more. Everyone knows it's life. Pro-choice advocates are fighting for the right for a woman to choose not to reproduce. Sure, a third trimester baby could just be delivered and whisked off to an adoption agency, but that's not the point. Because that live baby means that somewhere out there will be a person living and breathing and thinking that has an eternal, inexplicable connection to that mother. Which could be terrifying. Terrifying enough that it's easier just to destroy it and hope that it brings closure.

It doesn't, of course. But I'm writing this today because I think it's important that instead of just loudly protesting (though that's important too), we need to take a moment to try to get into the heads of these women. Yes, laws need to change because laws shape the worldview of a nation. And laws that destroy personhood and denigrate motherhood are a worthy fight. But changing hearts is equally as important, and that's got to start by listening, understanding, empathizing, befriending. I pray for those opportunities.

Sunday, January 27, 2019

We Have a Hedgehog and His Name is Hamilton

"What do baby hedgehogs eat?" I hear Grace ask.

"I have no idea," I say.

She gives me a 13-year-old look. "I wasn't asking you, Mom. I was asking Siri."

Well, excuuuuuse me. 

Contrary to what many may believe about our life in Tanzania, we don't live in the Serengeti; we live in a city of six million people. But we do have a rather enormous backyard, and it has brought us an interesting variety of wildlife: Chickens (not really wildlife, but certainly wild), tortoises, kingfishers, monitor lizards, bats, snakes, and hedgehogs. I got over the novelty of hedgehogs a long time ago....those things are loud when they want to be--like when a dog is trying to kill it. After many, many evenings of frantic barking and wailing hedgehogs, we got used to finding the poor prickly creatures and chucking them over the fence, just to get everybody to shut up.

But then my children found a baby hedgehog, which, according to my children, is apparently an entirely different category of hedgehog which shouldn't be thrown over the fence but needs to be brought into the house and fed and named and snuggled (as much as a creature with spines can be snuggled). The children's father immediately went along with this idea as soon as Google told him that this type of hedgehog will cost you about $200 in the States. He's always up for a good deal. The children's mother was not consulted, because she is the family's stick-in-the-mud.

So there you have it: We now have added Hamilton Willow Leo Medina into our family, which is a very long name for something that weighs about five ounces. Hammie now has his own, homemade, elaborate cage complete with a hamster wheel, even though he is not a hamster and may not like wheels. In fact, he showed very little appreciation for the cage, because while we were eating dinner he got out of it and got lost in my bedroom, which meant that there were four children crawling around the floor with flashlights while Mom was hollering, "I don't want a hedgehog to die in my bedroom so no one gets to watch AFV until you find it!"

And of course, this is all very confusing to Snoopy, who as a Jack Russell was bred to search and destroy small moving creatures and has, until this point, been encouraged to do so. But no one seems to listen to me when I bring this up. Siri is smarter than me anyway, so what do I know?

Saturday, January 26, 2019

It's Not Really About the Cold

The first five hours of the drive to Lushoto take us north through the flat savannah of Tanzania--shrub brush, miles of pineapple and sisal plantations, villages of stick-and-mud houses.

But after those five hours, we get to a junction where we make a sharp right, and the road winds another two hours up into the Usambara mountain range, where the town of Lushoto is located. We drive past waterfalls and rock formations, sharing the the curvy mountain roads with elderly women carrying enormous bundles of sticks on their heads.

Our family has a tradition when we make that right turn up into the mountains. We note the outside temperature, which is usually somewhere around 34 degrees (94 degrees Fahrenheit) and we make bets as to what the temperature will be when we hit Lushoto. This year the winner had predicted 24 degrees (75 degrees Fahrenheit), which is just about as luxurious as we could expect when escaping the heat monster of Dar es Salaam.

We say that the reason we love Lushoto is because of the cold, and that's why we've been there over a dozen times during our years in Tanzania. But there's more to it than that. Because we've never gone to Lushoto alone, but always with people we've called family during that particular year.

This year, Johnny busted open his knee one night while the kids were careening around in the dark, and we realized pretty quickly he was going to need stitches. Lushoto is remote town, and there's no 24-hour urgent care we could take him to, so we needed to wait until morning. But our friends immediately sprang into action, collecting bandages and painkillers and sticks to act as a splint. (In the end, one friend found a random pair of nunchucks in a shed, so Johnny had the most awesome splint ever invented.)

Somehow we keep going back to Lushoto, even though not all the memories are happy. Ironically, the only other time our family has experienced stitches was also in Lushoto, when Gil put his arm through a glass window seven years ago. Then there was also the time a different year when friends were robbed of their computer and camera while we were all eating dinner. Or the time when one teenager got typhoid, or the time when one family rolled their van on the way home.

But I think the common denominator each time has been that whether we are playing games or reveling in our long sleeves and drinking cappuccinos (not me--blech--but this is the highlight for my friends), or whether we are figuring out how to splint a seven-year-old's leg with nunchucks, life has just kept throwing us together with these people. And Lushoto kind of encapsulates that for all of us--the highest highs and the lowest lows--which in the end create these kind of bonds that usually only happen when you share blood.

One of these families is leaving Tanzania forever next week, and another is on their way to leave this summer. We're not sure how many Lushoto years our own family has left. So the bitter mixes with the sweet in the midst of all the memories. But that's kind of what makes memories stronger, isn't it?

Grace's birthday always happens when we're in Lushoto, and this year she found out she'll get to see Hamilton this summer.

These two...someday they'll get their own post.