Gifts without Bows: Telling and Receiving Stories as They Are

December 24, 2015 § 3 Comments

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This is a time of gift giving. It’s a time of buying and making and choosing and wrapping.

In our family, we tend toward minimalism when it comes to wrapping gifts. From my father I inherited the practice of using newspaper. When your package carries the latest headlines, there’s no need for bows or ribbons. And if you’re feeling extra festive, you always have the Sunday comics.

We all know it isn’t the paper on the outside that matters, but we sure do act like it sometimes.

I think that one of the best gifts to give and receive—any time of the year—is the gift of our stories, our feelings, our truths. Sometimes they come in worn-out shoeboxes, in paper bags with the tops folded down, or in cardboard boxes marked “Kitchen” from the last move. They’re offered with trepidation and best received with reverence. They’re precious, authentic gifts, rugged and unedited.

And without a bow.

Are we willing to receive such gifts, or do we prefer presents wrapped neatly in shiny paper, with colorful ribbons curled just so? Do we want only the stories that have tidy, happy endings, tied up with a platitude or moral or lesson? Do we carry our own supply of bows in case the gift givers are lacking?

Are we willing to give those gifts as well? Do we hold back the deep realities of our lives, the honest hurts, waiting until we can decorate them with a “that’s when I knew it all happened for a reason,” an “I learned so much,” or a “now I can see it was all part of God’s plan”? In the waiting there is sorrow and pain.

I can’t help but think of my missionary friends, and other cross-cultural workers, too often feeling the need to adorn their stories so that no one will “misunderstand,” too often saying what is expected or what is easier to hear. I can’t help but think of myself when I’ve done the same thing.

Not all gifts are meant to be shared in the open. Some are too personal. Some can only be given in a private, safe, accepting space. Can you create a space like that for your friends, for their parents, for their children? Without such a place, their precious gifts stay hidden away. And hidden gifts are often forgotten and remain ungiven . . . simply for lack of a bow.

The decorations aren’t necessary. Give your gifts without bows, we’re listening. Receive our gifts without bows, we’re talking.

Merry Christmas.

[photo: “Project365-Day21,” by Farouq Taj, used under a Creative Commons license]

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In Sports and Member Care—Be Safe

April 23, 2013 § Leave a comment

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This post is about the need for safe confidants in the lives of cross-cultural workers. But before I address that directly, I’d like to share three relevant stories from the world of sports:

From Major League Baseball
In 1978, All-Star catcher Carlton Fisk played a key role in the Boston Red Sox’s tight pennant race. But he was playing hurt—with injuries that had the potential for long-term harm. In a Sports Illustrated article published the next year, pitcher Bill Lee described Fisk as one of those players who “like to gut it out.” “He’s just going out there because of his puritanical upbringing,” he said, “you know, staunch, quiet, archconservative, play-with-an-arrow-in-your-heart type of thing.”

Even though Lee thought Fisk should take some time off, no one on staff with the Red Sox told him to sit down—not the manager, not the owner, not even the team doctor, Arthur Pappas.

The role of team doctors and “especially the question of where their loyalties lie” was the focus of the SI article. What was Pappas’s top priority, Fisk’s welfare, or the team’s? Should a player expect a team doctor to look out for him the same way a personal physician would? Is there a conflict of interest built into the system?

While Fisk praised the qualifications of Boston’s physician, he also knew that Pappas not only worked for the team’s owners but was a part owner himself. Fisk admitted that the decision to play was ultimately his own, but he wondered if he’d gotten the best advice. “He’d be wanting to get you better,” he said about Pappas, “but not with the players’ interest at heart. He’d want to get you better for the team.”

(William Nack, “Playing Hurt—the Doctors’ Dilemma,” Sports Illustrated, June 11, 1979)

From the NFL
Twenty-nine years later, Sports Illustrated looked at this difficult issue again. (The titles of both articles include the word Dilemma.) This time, reporter Selena Roberts talked to an NFL player who told her about being injured on the field the previous season. When he’d seen his team’s medical staff rushing toward him, he’d wondered, “Whose side are they on?”

Roberts also talked with Andrew Tucker, team physician for the Baltimore Ravens, on the topic of confidentiality concerning “personal matters.” “This is where that unique situation of dual responsibility comes in,” he said. “If a player’s medical issue—like depression—gets to the point where performance is affected, then I have the responsibility to certain people in the club. . . . Now, sometimes players will choose to share that information with other people.”

One answer to the problem, wrote Roberts, is an NFL-wide health-care system that puts doctors under a “league-union cooperative” rather than on the payroll of individual teams. This would increase trust in the patient-doctor relationship and encourage more openness and honesty.

Robert Huizenga, former team doctor for the Oakland Raiders, said that after he left the organization, he was surprised at how many players only then sought him out for help. “How much was hidden from me?” he asked.

(Selena Roberts, “Rx for a Medical Dilemma,” Sports Illustrated, November 3, 2008)

From the NBA
In 2007, Greg Oden was selected by the Portland Trail Blazers as the #1 pick in the NBA draft, but since then things have mostly gone downhill from there. He soon had microfracture surgery on his right knee and missed his entire first season. He played most of the following season, but by his own admission, during that time he “pretty much became an alcoholic.” Before his third year with Portland, he got his drinking under control and got himself into shape, but his season was cut short when he fractured his left kneecap. Then a couple weeks later nude photos he had taken of himself were leaked to the Internet.

Oden was in need of counseling, and he contacted sports psychologist Joseph Carr. Paying for sessions out of his own pocket, Oden met with Carr regularly, but that ended when the Blazers also hired Carr. When Oden saw Carr talking with people from the Blazers’ front office, he was suspicious that Carr was disclosing information from their sessions, and he stopped their meetings. According to Oden, it “seemed like a conflict of interest.”

(Mark Titus, “Oden on Oden,” Grantland, May 9, 2012)

Member Care—Safety First
When athletes don’t feel “safe” with team doctors or counselors, they don’t get the care they need, and they suffer. When cross-cultural workers don’t have safe confidants, they suffer, as well.

We all need safe people to talk to. Safe people care about us as individuals. They accept us for who we are, not for what we can do. They don’t listen to us with competing agendas or loyalties. (For more on what makes a person safe, see Drs. Henry Cloud and John Townsend’s Safe People: How to Find Relationships That Are Good for You and Avoid Those That Aren’t [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995].)

While this safety is important to everyone, it is especially crucial for cross-cultural workers, because they have been removed from their natural support network. That makes safe, trustworthy confidants more difficult to find and often more needed. With fewer and fewer casual and informal relationships, cross-cultural workers must often turn to those in their own organization, who have a vested interest in the organization’s success or who sit in the workers’ line of authority.

In the Christian community, the giving of emotional and spiritual help to missionaries, and other cross-cultural workers, is often called “member care.” Ronald L. Koteskey, in “What Missionaries Ought to Know about Member Care,” writes that it includes many facets:

friendship, encouragement, affirmation, help, and fellowship as well as sharing, communicating, visiting, guiding, comforting, counseling and debriefing.

For some, the person who fulfills these roles is called a “coach” or “mentor.” I am using the term “member-care giver” because it is what I’m more familiar with and because I don’t think that what it represents needs to be limited to the church. Neither does it necessarily carry the meaning of someone with specialized education or training, though those things can sometimes be beneficial.

Using the definition above, I can say that member care is necessary for all cross-cultural workers. But when it comes to safety, not all member care is equal. So what can we do to promote true safety?

Safety is vital to deep, healthy, trusting relationships, the kind of relationships that cross-cultural workers desperately need. Here are some observations to help in making those relationships a reality.

  1. Safety can’t be claimed, it must be earned. We can argue all we want about how someone should be seen as safe, but if the worker doesn’t feel that way, then should doesn’t matter. The doctors and counselors in the sports examples above would say that they are trustworthy, but that doesn’t take away the athletes’ concerns. A member-care giver can take steps to make himself more safe, but he can’t force someone else to see him that way.
  2. Where there is a lack of safety, it is only natural that there will be a lack of openness. And when there is a lack of openness, those giving member care will hear only incomplete stories.
  3. Safety is damaged when the worker is accountable in his job to the member-care giver—or when the member-care giver reports to someone else who has that role of authority. And this authority isn’t always clearly defined. Take, for instance, missionaries, whose emotional and spiritual supporters back home now support them financially. How open will missionaries be with people who are investing in their work? What about the leadership of the sending church, or the member-care professionals on staff with the sending agency? Do missionaries wonder, “Whose side are they on?” Can missionaries even ask this question without feeling disloyal to their church, to God?
  4. Who can honestly say to a cross-cultural worker, “In this relationship, you are my priority. I am more concerned about your physical, emotional, and spiritual wellbeing than I am about the success of your work. If you quit this vocation, I will still support you because I am invested in you”?
  5. We can learn from counselors who begin their sessions by saying, “What you say to me is confidential. I won’t share it with anyone (your boss, your organization, your parents, your coworkers, etc.) without your permission, unless you pose a danger to yourself or someone else.”
  6. If a member-care giver talks to a worker about others’ personal problems, that worker can assume that her problems are being shared with others, as well.
  7. In discussing the situation in the NFL, Selena Roberts suggests the formation of a “league-union cooperative.” To date, the football powers that be haven’t implemented such a system. And while there’s no “league” or “union” for cross-cultural workers, concerned people have come together to form “cooperatives” of sorts to provide safe member care (or coaching or mentoring). There are many of these groups, and a wide range of them can be found in a quick search of the Internet. Among them you’ll find trained member-care givers, professional counselors, people who “get” what cross-cultural workers are going through, those with their own overseas experience, and opportunities for extended care and training, on the field and at dedicated facilities. For those looking for help or training coming from a Christian worldview, or for those just wanting to get a taste of what is out there, here are three groups which I’d recommend:
    – Mission Training International (MTI)
    – Barnabas International
    – Link Care

If you are a cross-cultural worker, don’t go it alone. And don’t simply go through the motions of member care with someone you don’t trust. It is vital—and well worth the effort—to find someone who is truly safe . . . a confidant, an advocate, a friend.

(Ronald L. Koteskey, “What Missionaries Ought to Know about Member Care,” Missionary Care: Resources for Missions and Mental Health)

[photo: “Flashes vs Cardinal Soccer,” by lindsayjf91, used under a Creative Commons license]

These Newsletters Aren’t Sent Either

February 19, 2013 § 6 Comments

3742918775_f3b2aee5be_mRuth E. Van Reken’s honest revelations in Letter’s Never Sent has me thinking about all the missionary newsletters I’ve written and read. Missionaries are a good group for emphasizing the positives and putting a good spin on the negatives. Newsletters just aren’t a safe place to share deep struggles, especially when many of the readers are current or potential donors.

I’m not saying that every newsletter should be filled with pain. I’m not even saying that every missionary has enough pain to fill a newsletter. What I am saying is that if the only things you know about missionaries come from newsletters, presentations, and answer-the-routine-questions conversations, then you don’t know the whole story. And what I am saying is that if you are a missionary who is hurting, you are not alone in what you’re going through.

In fact, if you’re any kind of cross-cultural worker or a Third Culture Kid or a trailing spouse or an expat or a repat or a soldier overseas or a family member left behind, and if, at one time or another, any of the following could serve as a heading for your next newsletter or blog or prayer update . . . believe me, you are not alone.

Nobody cares.
God has been silent for a long time.
This was a mistake.
I’ve changed, and I don’t like who I’ve become.
I feel betrayed.
I’m overwhelmed.
I don’t care anymore.
I think I’m going crazy.
Where is my joy?
I wish I could die.
I feel like a failure.
I’m afraid.
I’m lonely.
I’m angry.
I’m disappointed in myself, and I think God is, too.
I don’t belong.

Let me say it one more time: If this is where you’re at or where you’ve been, You are not alone.

And I hope you’re never, ever left to feel as if you are.

[photo: “Creativity,” by Mark van Laere, used under a Creative Commons license]

Regrets and Remembrances: A Prayer for Those Who Leave Home

January 17, 2013 § 2 Comments

With one plane ride the whole world as TCKs have known it can die. Every important place they’ve been, every tree climbed, pet owned, and virtually every close friend they’ve made are gone with the closing of the airplane door.
—David Pollock and Ruth Van Reken, Third Culture Kids

5420666395_e086b79cf9_mThis closing door doesn’t just happen to Third Culture Kids. It’s also the experience of immigrants who leave behind many what-could-have-beens in their old country. Cross-cultural workers feel the door close when they leave their work and return “home.” (What other job requires you to leave the country once you’re no longer on the payroll?) International students close the door with the hopes that new opportunities will open many more. And refugees often see the door slammed and locked by soldiers carrying guns.

5420666545_cd2c078381_mBut while the door is closed, the mind is still open to thoughts about what was left behind. Some thoughts are joyous and life giving. Some are hurtful and life stealing. And often they come intricately, painfully intertwined, called up by a scent, a word, a sound, a flavor, a feeling or a dream. Bittersweet.

For those who find themselves on the other side of a closed door, I offer this prayer, inspired by Reinhold Niebuhr’s “Serenity Prayer.”

God, grant me the confidence to let go of the regrets that I should not hold on to,
The ability to hold on to the memories I should not let go of,
And the wisdom to separate the one from the other. Amen.

(David C. Pollock and Ruth E. Van Reken, Third Culture Kids: Growing Up among Worlds, Boston: Nicholas Brealey, 2009)

[illustrations: (upper) “Joined” and (lower) “Cupped“) by Pete Hobden, used under a Creative Commons license]

Managing Missionary Finances: New Book Launched This Week

November 13, 2012 § 8 Comments

What is the number one stressor for missionaries? According to the results of a survey conducted by member-care trainer Brenda Bosch, the answer is “financial pressure.”

Not only can a lack of funds cause headaches, but so can keeping track of income and outflow, reporting to supporters, handling exchange rates, filing taxes . . . and the list goes on. I dare say that most missionaries don’t enter the vocation because of a love for bookkeeping, so any help on the financial-tracking front is welcome.

One such help is Money Management for Cross-Cultural Workers, written by Ryan Eidson, of Copper Coin Coaching. This workbook is targeted at missionaries who, for tax purposes, are considered self-employed, but it contains a wealth of information for all people working overseas—regardless of their particular financial situation.

Organized as a 90-day tutorial, Money Management leads the reader through a step-by-step process for understanding, organizing, and tracking funds, developed by Eidson and his wife while they served as missionaries in East Asia. The book also includes access to a spreadsheet template—with detailed instructions on using it—links to audio interviews with experts in the field, discussions of the Biblical principles guiding financial decisions, and links to and summaries of many applicable documents from the IRS.

While I and my family served as direct-support missionaries in Taiwan, we followed the financial guidelines of our missions organization, but Eidson’s book would have certainly been a valuable tool in helping us in answering questions that, at the time, we didn’t even know to ask. For me, one of the big stressors of our financial year was filing taxes. Not only was I sometimes confused by all the forms and schedules and rules, but it was tax time that often made me rethink my figures from throughout the previous year. About two-thirds of the way through his daily lessons, Eidson gives these encouraging words: “Remember, after you complete this entire workbook, you won’t have to fret when tax season comes. You’ll have all your records ready. Press on!”

Discounts for “Launch Week”

During this week’s launch of the second edition of Money Management for Cross-Cultural Workers, the Kindle version is available free at Amazon today and tomorrow (Nov. 13 and 14). Also, Eidson is giving away a set of free bonus digital goods to those who purchase the book this week. Details here.

(Brenda Bosch, “Summary of Missionary Survey Outcomes,” Global Member Care Network Conference, April 2012)

[photo: “Foreign Currency and Coins,” by Philip Brewer, used under a Creative Commons license]

Disenfranchised Grief and the Returning Cross-Cultural Worker

July 5, 2012 § 17 Comments

Disenfranchised grief, also called “hidden sorrow,” is caused by “a loss that is not or cannot be openly acknowledged, publicly mourned or socially supported.”  This definition comes from an article I recently came across from Australian Family Physician, discussing the response of general practitioners (family physicians) to repatriated cross-cultural workers affected by grief.

What makes their grief disenfranchised is that their losses are not typical to the population at large, so others often discount those losses or don’t understand them. It is difficult to have compassion for a person when you don’t recognize why he is grieving. Others with disenfranchised grief include “ex-spouses, caregivers, nursing home staff, pet owners, children, adoptees, individuals with developmental disabilities, . . . those who may be grieving suicide or AIDs victims or other forms of stigmatised death, . . . victims of sexual abuse, indigenous people and prisoners re-entering their original subcultures.” While this seems to be a list made up of disparate groups, their commonality is that the losses they suffer are often easy to ignore or downplay.

The part of the article that most helped me understand the concept was the authors’ explanation of six types of disenfranchised grief. I am presenting the list here, but I’ve taken the liberty of providing my own examples of how they might apply to repatriated cross-cultural workers:

  • The griever’s relationships are unacknowledged
    [“You can enjoy yourself now that you’re back with your own people.”]
  • Lack of acknowledgment of the griever’s loss
    [“People move all the time. It’s not like somebody died.”]
  • Exclusion of the griever as not being capable of grieving
    [“She’s just a child. She’ll make new friends.”]
  • Exclusion of the griever due to the circumstances of the loss
    [“You knew what you were getting into when you decided to go overseas.”]
  • Exclusion of the griever due to their way of grieving which is not deemed appropriate by the community
    [“The Bible says ‘Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds.'”]
  • Self initiated disenfranchised grief where shame plays a significant role
    [“Why don’t I trust God more?”]

The authors go on to stress how important it is that general practitioners understand disenfranchised grief and take steps to deal with it. Not only may family doctors be asked to treat physical symptoms that are a result of grief, but they may also be the only affordable and “safe” help that is available to the re-entering worker.

I wish that we could all understand and acknowledge others’ grief, whatever the source, so that we could “mourn with those who mourn,” giving them the community they need so they don’t have to grieve alone.

(Susan Selby, et al, “Disenfranchised Grievers: The GP’s Role in Management,” Australian Family Physician, Vol. 36, No. 9, September 2007)

[photo: “grief,” by Tomek.pl, used under a Creative Commons license]

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