April 26, 2017 § 3 Comments
Our pictures are on the walls!
It’s been a year since I wrote about the long process I and my family were going through fitting back into life in the States and not yet feeling at home—still not having our pictures hung up. Since then, quite a few things have changed, and I would be remiss if I didn’t pass that on as well. I have a new job and my wife is able to stay at home, and we’ve unpacked our pictures and they’re all hanging in the house we’ve been able to buy.
We are so grateful for the ways God has helped us move forward.
But though it’s been over five years since we came back, we can’t say that the transition is completely behind us. It’s still there, just now in less obvious ways.
This post is about reverse culture stress, but it’s not about the difficulties of fitting back into a home culture or family culture or church culture. It’s about the undercurrent of feelings that flow in the opposite direction of our physical move. It’s about the difficulty of wanting to fit in. It’s about the difficulty of wanting to want to.
What are some of the things that hold returned missionaries back from pouring our whole hearts into settling in? What are the feelings—good or bad, right or wrong—that can keep us from jumping into this new chapter? Here are a few I’ve noticed. . . .
Finish reading at A Life Overseas. . . .
November 11, 2016 § Leave a comment
To the men and women in the armed forces, thank you for serving our country. The sacrifices you make are more than I will ever truly know.
I just listened to a re-airing of a 2012 NPR interview with Brian Castner, author of The Long Walk: A Story of War and the Life That Follows. Castner served as commander of Explosive Ordnance Disposal units in Iraq. The entire conversation is well worth listening to, but one part that jumped out to me was when Terry Gross asked Castner about a letter he’d written.
When groups visited us on the mission field, we’d have them write letters to themselves before they left, and we’d mail them the letters several months later. The idea was that the notes would be a reminder of what they had felt and experienced—sort of an encouragement to their future selves. We also think this is a great thing to do with missionaries who come off the field as a way to help them process the changes that they are going through.
Castner’s letter is one he wrote to his sons before he went to Iraq, a letter that they were to read if he didn’t come back, a letter that still sits in a safe, a letter that now frightens him. It’s not always easy to get a message from the person you used to be.
“You haven’t read it since you’ve gotten back,” says Gross, “and you don’t even remember what you wrote. So I guess I’m wondering why you kept it, and yet why you haven’t read it.”
You know, as a bomb tech, you don’t spend a lot of your life being scared, but I’m scared to read that letter. I don’t want to read it, because I don’t know what I put in. And I’m afraid that it’s going to just be full of bravado and flag and country and this is my great purpose and a lot of the things that I felt that just don’t make a lot of sense anymore.
I kept it because it is honestly who I was, and either when my sons are older or after I’m gone, it’ll give some insight, I suppose. I feel like I can’t throw it out unless I read it first. And since I’m too scared to read it, it’s still sitting there.
The host on NPR says that Castner recently came across the letter, and he reports that it remains unread.
June 10, 2016 § Leave a comment
I watched the movie with my kids during one of our times on furlough/Stateside service. It’s easy to draw parallels between the Pevensies’ travels and cross-cultural service, and given the Christian underpinnings of C. S. Lewis’s writings, the missionary aspect isn’t too far away either.
The lyrics of “The Call” certainly are evocative for me. They begin
It started out as a feeling
Which then grew into a hope
Which then turned into a quiet thought
Which then turned into a quiet wordAnd then that word grew louder and louder
‘Til it was a battle cry
I’ll come back
When you call me
No need to say goodbye
The song plays over the closing scene of the film, as Peter, Susan, Lucy, and Edmond return from Narnia to World-War-II London. If you’ve ever come back “home” after living abroad, you know the feeling. It’s as if nothing has changed, but everything has—in big and small ways. Susan is called by the wrong name and Edmund realizes he’s left his new flashlight behind.
Of course, the lyrics don’t fit the missionary “call” perfectly, and “The Call” isn’t a “missionary” or “Christian” song. That makes sense, as Regina Spektor isn’t a Christian songstress. Born into a Russian Jewish family in 1980, the Spectors moved to the Bronx when Regina was nine. She tells The Village Voice,
I don’t even know half the time what exactly I believe. I do know that in some moments, I’m sarcastic about religion, and sometimes, I’m in awe of it, and sometimes, I’m angry at it, and sometimes, I love it.
The Village Voice says Spektor “can’t explain the meaning behind any of her songs, because she doesn’t so much write them as much as let them happen” and then goes on to cite “The Call” as an example of that process. Spector referst to writing the song, which she did late at night after a private screening of Prince Caspian, as “one of the most pure things that ever happened to me.”
If even Spektor doesn’t claim to know what her songs mean, I figure that gives me liberty to work my own meanings into “The Call.”
It also lets me stop trying to understand “Samson.”
Samson went back to bed
Not much hair left on his head
He ate a slice of Wonder Bread and went right back to bed
And history books forgot about us and the Bible didn’t mention us
And the Bible didn’t mention us, not even once
(Cristina Black, “Are You There, God? It’s Me, Regina Spektor” The Village Voice, June 10, 2009)
April 22, 2016 § Leave a comment
Head over to A Life Overseas to read my complete post.
When most people open up their closets in the morning, they usually ignore the out-of-style shirts on the edge, the wrong-color sweaters, the too-tight pants. Instead, as much as they can, they grab something that looks right, something that fits right, something that feels right.
When you transition between countries, your cultural closets get switched. Your choices become limited, and you often have to put on things you’d rather not wear. You’ve given up comfort for other purposes. Some of this discomfort is just an annoyance, like a scratchy tag inside the collar of your shirt. But some can seem unworkable, like that same shirt two sizes too small.
It’s the Water and the Dirt
When I and my family moved overseas, we weren’t surprised by culture stress. We may not have been fully prepared, but we weren’t surprised. What did surprise us, though, was that we couldn’t always identify the causes of our irritation and pain.
For many stressors, you know just what hook to hang them on. Singing at church feels a little off? It’s because everybody’s clapping on a different beat than you are. Can’t sleep? That’s because of the all-night traffic outside your window. Nagging cough? Pollution.
Being able to name a problem helps us sort things out. It gives us vocabulary for talking about it with others. It helps us better understand our new home and ourselves. It helps us find solutions. It helps us cope.
But sometimes, there is no hook, at least not an obvious one.
A few months after we landed in Taipei, my wife developed a “cold,” a cold that lasted on and off for over a year. Our doctor couldn’t find a solution and none of his remedies helped (one medicine caused her heart to race). Finally, he diagnosed her with shui tu bu fu, which can be translated as “not acclimated to the water and soil.” That’s odd, because we didn’t drink the water, and with all the concrete, and we rarely saw the soil. . . .
November 18, 2015 § 2 Comments
[Read the full post at A Life Overseas.]
“You can’t keep a bird from flying over your head, but you can keep it from building a nest in your hair.”
You’ve probably heard a form of this saying, usually referring to some sort of temptation.
I like the old Jamaican version: “You can’t keep crow from flyin’, but you can keep him from pitchin’ ‘pon you head.”
What birds are circling nearby for you? Lust? Anger? Hopelessness? Greed?
Yeah, I’ve got those. But there’s another kind of bird that wants to roost in my hair. It’s nasty and dirty, with grey oily feathers. It’s heavy and clumsy and foul smelling. It’s eyes, they’re a dull green. It’s name is Jealousy.
This is not the kind of righteous jealousy felt by God, whose name is Jealous (Exodus 34:14). No, my jealousy makes me lay claim to things that are not my own. If there are taller people in the room, not only do I look for a box to stand on, but I’m also tempted to kick the feet out from under them. There’s nothing attractive about Jealousy, and the nest it wants to build is repulsive, as well, made out of frustrations and excuses, crooked sticks, rusty paper clips, snakeskins, and used Band-Aids.
Jealousy is the offspring of a strange combination of parents: One is “You’re not good enough,” and the other is “You deserve better.”
It’s been hovering close by for a long time, like a loyal friend. But it’s not a friend. I hate it. I hate it. I hate it. I hate it. And yet, there it is.
Continue reading at A Life Overseas.
May 2, 2015 § 4 Comments
You’ve seen those images of all the fish swimming in one direction with one fish swimming agains the flow. The message: That one fish is the only one going the right way, despite the crowd.
It’s not always a lot of fun being that fish, especially when it seems as if you’re the one going in the wrong direction.
During what would become our last State-side service, I and my wife had decided that our time as missionaries would come to an end. But before making that public, I attended a missionary convention held by our fellowship of churches. I remember sitting with several thousand others in Lexington’s Rupp Arena, listening to a plenary speaker give a passionate call to the audience of potential missionaries. “Let someone else build the houses,” he said. “You follow Christ, go into ministry.”
Let someone else be a doctor or an attorney and argue cases in court. You go follow Christ. Let someone else teach in the public schools. You follow Christ. Listen, there will always be people who will go into all those other occupations. But there are a rare few who will say, “I’ll follow my Christ wherever he leads me.”
I’d said similar things, at least to myself. I should be on the front lines. Others would fill in behind. I’d told myself I could never settle for regular work. How could I ever be satisfied living a commonplace life in the US?
And yet, here I was traveling in the opposite direction, burned up and burned out. I was leaving the mission field, not heading to it. I was stepping away, hoping someone might hire me to build that house or teach that class. . . and in time, hoping just to get hired, for just about any job.
Five years ago, David Platt, mega-church pastor and now president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s International Mission Board, wrote Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream. I have a copy on my bookshelf, but I’ve never read it. I’ve heard good things about Platt’s book, and I’m sure it’s challenging. But it’s not the kind of challenge I’m looking for right now. The book I chose to read instead has a different kind of title. It’s The God of the Mundane: Reflections on Ordinary Life for Ordinary People.
Pastor Matt B. Redmond wrote The God of the Mundane as a response to what he had heard himself preach many times:
Change your world. Change the world of someone. Anyone. Sell everything. Sell anything. Give it away. Do something crazy. Be radical. Make people stand up and notice. Take a risk. Jesus moved from heaven to earth and gave up his life and yet you—you just go about your daily life.
But in time, his ponderings, expressed in his blog, Echoes and Stars, led him to ask if there is a God for the bulk of people who live out their lives performing mundane tasks. “Is there a God, for instance, for those who are not changing anything but diapers?”
In his book, Redmond answers the question with a “Yes,” writing to and about stay-at-home moms, dental hygienists, plumbers, children taking care of elderly parents, and bankers. In a blog post, he addresses the youth of a church where he once ministered:
Don’t be afraid of being small. Too often I probably made it sound like if you were really serious about your faith, you should think about ministry. Being a teacher or doctor or farmer was not worthy of your time. Well, that’s just stupid. Don’t be afraid to be in a “small” part of the kingdom. Be ordinary and unknown and be content. That’s more radical than anything else you will hear in the church today.
When he wrote The God of the Mundane, one of the images in Redmond’s mind was of a banker, frustrated and stuck in a job he doesn’t love. After writing his book, he left his career in ministry and became that frustrated banker.
Before reading his book, I had left my position as a missionary and had become frustrated, too. So often in Christian circles, the missionary life is considered the opposite of mundaneness. Redmond refers to it that way, too. But he doesn’t believe that a mundane life, lived in devotion to God, is unimportant.
Neither does he believe that we should stop asking people if they are “willing to give it all and go overseas as a missionary.” “It’s not a bad question to ask,” he says. “There is no question in my mind that this question needs to be out there.” But he also wants other questions asked:
[A]re you willing to be numbered among the nameless believers in history who lived in obscurity? Do you have the courage to be forgotten by everyone but God and the heavenly host? Are you willing to be found only by God as faithful right where you are? Are you willing to have no one write a book about you and what you did in the name of Christ?
When someone studying for a non-missionary career asked him his advice on selecting a missionary biography, Redmond suggested she begin by reading one about a Christian banker.
By that I meant she needed to read a book about a Christian living a mundane life. She told me she could not find one. Figures.
I would characterize Redmond as someone who is trying to be content in his present occupation, but who is not satisfied. He struggles with wanting to do something that better fits who he is, but he doesn’t want to turn his back on those like him who are not doing the BIG THING. He admits that it’s often hard for him to accept his own advice with confidence.
I find myself in the same place. I miss so much of being a missionary and still want to be a part of that work and community. And yet I don’t believe that God loved me more, valued me more then than he does now.
I still have my copy of Radical. I plan to read it someday. Someday, but not today. Today I’m reading and rereading Redmond’s book.
Maybe he’s written the closest thing you’ll find to a biography about a “Christian banker.” But rather than writing about something he’d lived, he wrote it first and now he’s living it. And as he’s been writing in his blog, it’s the living of it that has given him a real understanding of his own words.
Life often works out that way. Figures.
(Barry Cameron, closing session, National Missionary Convention, Lexington, KY, November 21, 2010; Matt B. Redmond, The God of the Mundane: Reflections on Ordinary Life for Ordinary People, Kalos, 2012; Matt B. Redmond, “Tuesday’s 10: What I’d Like to Tell My Former Youth,” Echoes and Stars, August 13, 2012)
April 18, 2015 § 8 Comments
What do you see when you see a dock?
A place for studying the horizon?
For dipping a toe in the water?
For casting off?
Or a place for lowering your sails?
For stepping onto dry land?
For coming ashore?
Is it a place for setting out or coming back? Much depends on the compass of your heart.
If for you, the dock is too short, out of desire or necessity, you build it forward, step by step, plank by plank, as you go—through the spray and the mist and the fog. And when you’ve built till you’re more coming than going, you see another shore—build, step, build, step. You are there.
This is crossing cultures. This is creating a bridge. This is going from home to home.
Then, at some point, out of desire or necessity, you step back onto the bridge. You must have been gone a long time, because what was once a complete span is now incomplete. You need to build to close the gaps. And at times you’re simply on a dock again, building to a shore you cannot yet see. Strange. It was a bridge before.
This time while you’re crossing, you find that in the mist there are others with you, and when they talk, you understand them, because they are speaking your language.
“Where are you from?” you hear someone ask, and the answer, “That’s an interesting question.” “You, too?” one says. “Me, too,” another replies. You understand them, not because you use the same words, but because when you speak those words you agree on the impreciseness of their meanings: near, far, hot, cold, friends, enemies, rich, poor, family, strangers, here, there, hello, goodbye. Their meanings are slippery, like the damp boards beneath your feet. And the slipperiness is comfortable.
In time, you cross the bridge again and again, sharing familiar greetings with those in the misty middle. But never do you set out without having to repair what was built before. You continue . . . build, step, build, step.
What is a bridge, but a paradox, leading from home to home, from not-home to not-home? Your heart’s compass spins. The shores, they push and pull, they give hugs at arms length, they don’t plan on changing, but they do. The same can be said of you.
And then, out of desire or necessity, you settle down farther inland. You put down roots in loose soil. There’s a dock over the next, next hill. You go to visit from time to time and walk its length. You listen to the slap of the waves. You breathe in the smell of the ocean. You taste the salt in the air . . . and you remember the sounds and the smells and the bitter-sweet flavors of where you used to be.
What do you see when you see a dock?
You put down roots in loose soil, but you still speak the language of the bridge.
These thoughts are inspired by Mission Training International‘s “Pair of Ducks.” MTI uses two rubber ducks—a “yay duck” and a “yuck duck”—to show cross-cultural workers and their kids that all the places where they’ve lived have their good and bad parts.