Sunday, August 25, 2019

Should We Have Waited Until We Were Older?

Gil and I met at 21 years old, married at 23, and were living in Tanzania by 24. We had been married all of nine months before we moved overseas. We had gotten to know each other as co-leaders of a cross-cultural ministry in California, and our desire to be missionaries was one of the main factors that brought us together. Our mission organization had vetted us, interviewed us, and sent us to two weeks of training. I had spent half of my childhood as an MK, and both of us had spent several years in ministry during college. As far as we were concerned, we were ready.


That didn’t keep us from crashing and burning. We were too outspoken about our culturally-insensitive opinions and therefore offended local friends. We over-committed ourselves to ministries that kept us apart from each other too much of the time, which strained our relationship. We naively expected too much change too quickly in new believers’ lives, which led to disappointment and disillusionment. After two years, we were depressed and demoralized.
Many times over the past twenty years, we’ve seen many new missionaries arrive on the field who were older and more experienced than we were, and they didn’t seem to struggle nearly as much as we did. I’ve asked myself, “Should we have waited until we were older?” Would another couple of years of married life in the States have spared us from heartache? Would more maturity have kept us from making so many naive mistakes? Would we have known how to set better boundaries?
Of course, there is no “perfect” age to move overseas for the first time, and there are certainly pros and cons to relocating at each stage of life. But if you are young, pursuing missions, and asking yourself, “Should I wait until I am older?” or if you are a parent or a church leader of someone who is asking that question, here are my thoughts.
Consider the advantages:
Our energy and passion gave us perseverance. I remember the first time I went roller skating when I was eight. I must have fallen a few dozen times, but I just kept getting right back up again. These days? I think just one fall would send me to the sidelines for good. There’s a God-given quality of youthful idealism that keeps us going when things get tough. Yes, Gil and I fell hard. Our most difficult years in Tanzania were definitely those first two years. If I had experienced them at an older age, I might have given up. But our youth gave us perseverance, and taught us and toughened us for the years ahead.
We were more willing to be adventurous, try new things, and put up with hard conditions. Twelve-hour bus trip? No problem. All-night youth lock-in that included 30 hours of fasting? Sure! Back then we thrived on new experiences, crazy outings, and busy schedules. We didn’t have kids and had the freedom to follow every opportunity. Those first two years, my schedule involved getting up at 4:45 every morning and coming home 12 hours later. These days, I get tired just thinking about the stuff we did in those younger years. But now that I’m older, I love having young people on my team for their willingness and ability to do whatever needs to get done.
We built our family while we were already living overseas. It can be tough for women with young children to start their experience overseas as a stay-at-home-mom. Learning language and getting into the culture is a challenge with kids at home. And as an MK educator, I’ve seen the agony of parents relocating their children overseas. Gil and I were able to avoid that by building our family after we had already adapted to life in Tanzania, and I had several years to settle into life and be in ministry full time before I needed to devote more time to my family.
Minimize the disadvantages:
Prepare, prepare, prepare. Get a degree in an area that God can use to open doors for foreign visas–or at least pave the way for relationships. Get some Bible training–either at a college or through rigorous discipleship. Take a Perspectives course. Read books. Learn to manage your finances, cook, and communicate well verbally and in writing. And most importantly–serve. Serve in your local church and serve in your community. All of this can happen even in high school–so start now!
Don’t go without a mentor, and be humble enough to listen and change. This should be standard advice for any cross-cultural worker, but the younger you are, the more important it is. This doesn’t mean that everyone older than you is more right than you. This doesn’t mean that you won’t have any ideas to contribute–because I hope you do! But remember that experience usually builds wisdom. Slow down, listen, be a learner. Change takes time. Be patient.
Be open to staying at least five years. Here’s where things get radical. In an era where two weeks is the standard commitment to missions, a year or two sounds positively eternal. Anything longer than that sounds crazy. For us, the first two years were like boot camp, so it would have been a shame to get through it and not stay longer. The longer we stayed, our impact increased exponentially. Life got easier and our mistakes were fewer. What started as an experience became life. Most mission fields desperately need long-term workers. Why can’t that be you? 
This article first appeared at A Life Overseas.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

I am a False Prophet

Worriers are false prophets.

I am a false prophet. I am constantly predicting things that don't come true.

I think about my husband dying and how I would possibly be able to raise these children by myself. I think about my children's choices and imagine them on the street or behind bars or in my basement (supposing I have a basement). I think about waking up to my house on fire. I think about the economy failing. The government failing. The airplane failing. Myself failing.

I wake up in the middle of the night and think about how miserable I'll feel the next day if I don't get back to sleep. I think about about whether I will make the wrong decision, about whether I already did make the wrong decision, about whether I said the wrong thing or wrote the wrong thing or offended him or hurt her. 

Contemplating these things isn't necessarily a bad thing, if all I was doing was contemplating. A wise person thinks ahead, after all, and some introspection is good for the soul. 

But I don't just think about these things. I feel the emotion as if they are definitely going to happen, or are already happening. My mind and body react as if the terrible thing I imagine has already come true.

How many false predictions have I made to myself over my lifetime? Millions? Billions? How much adrenaline has been unnecessarily let loose in my body? How many hours of sleep have I lost just by worrying about how many hours of sleep I might lose? How much ibuprofen have I taken for headaches caused by catastrophic situations that never materialized?  

I'm wrong 99% of the time, and yet pathetically, I still continue to make predictions. I play the lottery with my worries. Sure, it didn't happen the last 5000 times, but it just might this time. I'm like the foolish person who shells out $3.99 a minute to have a psychic give another wrong glimpse into the future, just in case this time it's right. 

And what about that one percent? Those very, very few times when the worst does happen, what then? 

Elyse Fitzpatrick wrote, "You know, the problem with fears that exist only in our imagination is that, since they aren't real, we must face them alone. God's grace isn't available to help us overcome imaginary problems that reside only in our mind. He will help us to put these imagined fears to death, but it's only in the real world that His power is effective to uphold us in trouble. It's only when He calls us to go through difficult times that His power is present to protect, comfort, and strengthen us." (Overcoming Fear, Worry, and Anxiety

Oh yeah. There's that.

Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life? Your heavenly Father knows [what you need]. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.
~ Jesus

Monday, August 5, 2019

Dear America, You and I Have a Complicated Relationship

Dear America,

You and I have a complicated relationship.

You gave me my citizenship when I was born. In fact, my dad was serving at an army base when I arrived one freezing winter day in New Jersey. My passport is American navy blue. I belong to you, whether I like it or not.

Yet for over half my life, I've lived in other countries. Pieces of those places have latched themselves onto me. I've never wholly and completely been one of your own, which has left me feeling like an outsider. But like the astronauts who have the privilege of seeing our planet as a small blue marble, I've had the privilege of seeing you, for many years, from the outside. A different perspective is always a privilege.

Back when I was younger and much more of a black-and-white thinker, I have to admit that mostly I was just critical of you. I focused only on your negatives, and other countries seemed much more unique and interesting. So even while I reaped enormous benefits from belonging to you, I distanced my identity away from you. But now that I'm older and wiser? Well, how I feel about you is much more complicated.

We're visiting America this summer, and the other night, we were driving up a windy stretch of mountain highway, and the traffic stopped dead. We could tell that just around the bend ahead, a bad accident had happened. But as we sat and waited behind the thousands of other brake lights impatiently twinkling in the night, a looming light appeared in the sky. And we watched, in awe, as a helicopter circled slowly and then landed. It was only fifteen minutes later that it rose into the air again and the traffic started moving.

And I thought, This is why America is amazing. 

Then I thought, That's a new perspective for me. 

I've always been critical of your consumerism and hoarding, your ability to produce so much junk that even developing countries don't want the excess. Yet I also see your capitalism and how it has brought an unprecedented standard of living to millions of people, and I want that for other countries too.

I despair over your debauchery--you fuel a massive, perverse online industry that exploits women and children, college campuses that are nothing but one big party, and sexuality that has hijacked how we define identity. Yet I see your freedom--to own property, to start churches, to send your daughters to college, even to publicly criticize your president--freedom that most in the world don't even dream of. And I realize that this freedom is inextricably connected to allowing people to make bad choices.

I hate that I have to tell my 11-year-old African son that when he is in America, he can't put up his hoodie in public. I hate that I have to explain to him why. Yet, I love that I could take my daughter (who happens to be an American immigrant) to the brilliant musical Hamilton and she could see a stage full of actors portraying the Founding Fathers--and who share her skin tone.

I love how you are one nation made up of people from many nations, a country founded on ideals, not ethnic groups. Yet sometimes it remains an ideal, not a reality, as fear and complacency keep neighborhoods and churches in their own separate corners. But other times, it doesn't, and that gives me hope.

I used to view your suburbs with disdain, with their soul-sucking uniformity and monotony. Now I see how those neat little lines of houses represent a miracle in human history--millions of ordinary people living with plumbing, electricity, security, independence. How easy it is for me to forget how I benefited from that "ordinary" life--riding bikes around my parents' cozy cul-de-sac without any worry that I might not eat that night, or that soldiers might come and burn it all down.

It's easy to crave adventure and uniqueness from within the safe confines of that blue American passport. Yes, I love living overseas, and it is a privilege. But you know what I've realized? It's even more of a privilege to enjoy the benefits of being American while living overseas.

And that humbles me. It makes me less critical and more thankful.

You, my country, are complicated. But so is life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in a fallen world.