November 8, 2012 § 2 Comments
I’m a fan of the writings of Henri Nouwen. Before his death in 1996, the Holland-born author and theologian served as a Catholic priest; taught at the Menninger Foundation in Topeka, Kansas, and at Notre Dame, Yale, and Harvard; worked with Trappist monks in New York’s Abbey of the Genesee; lived with the poor in Peru; and became pastor at a L’Arche community for the mentally disabled in Canada. Along the way, he wrote over 40 books.
One of the hallmarks of Nouwen’s works is his honest sharing of his personal struggles. This is probably nowhere more apparent than in his Inner Voice of Love, originally a series of “secret journal” entries written during a period of deep depression. In the introduction to the book, Nouwen writes that it was only at the urging of friends that he decided to have The Inner Voice of Love published.
In the book’s pages, Nouwen touches on themes that strike chords with many cross-cultural children and adults, global nomads, and others who are physical or spiritual “strangers in a strange land”—with those who are looking for a community and home to call their own. In fact, it was shortly after he joined the community of L’Arche, what he called his “true home,” that Nouwen was faced with his depression. “Just when I had found a home,” he writes, “I felt absolutely homeless. . . . It was if the house I had finally found had no floors.”
Over the course of the next six months, Nouwen moved from agony “to a new inner freedom, a new hope, and a new creativity.” Following are some of the “spiritual imperatives” that Nouwen wrote to himself during this journey, as he sought the path home:
Coming Home and Trusting Your Heart
Sometimes people who do not know your heart will altogether miss the importance of something that is part of your deepest self, precious in your eyes as well as God’s. They might not know you well enough to be able to respond to your genuine needs. It is then that you have to speak your heart and follow your own deepest calling.
There is a part of you that too easily gives in to others’ influence. As soon as someone questions your motives, you start doubting yourself. You end up agreeing with the other before you have consulted your own heart. Thus you grow passive and simply assume that the other knows better.
Here you have to be very attentive to your inner self. “Coming home” and “being given back to yourself” are expressions that indicate that you have a solid inner base from which you can speak and act—without apologies—humbly but convincingly.
Sharing Your Pain as a Fellow Traveler
You wonder whether it is good to share your struggles with others, especially with those to whom you are called to minister. you find it hard not to mention your own pains and sorrows to those you are trying to help. You feel that what belongs to the core of your humanity should not be hidden. You want to be a fellow traveler, not a distant guide.
The main question is “Do you own your pain?” As long as you do not own your pain—that is, integrate your pain into your way of being in the world—the danger exists that you will use the other to seek healing for yourself. . . .
But when you fully own your pain and do not expect those to whom you minister to alleviate it, you can speak about true freedom. Then sharing your struggle can become a service; then your openness about yourself can offer courage and hope to others.
For you to be able to share your struggle as a service, it is also essential to have people to whom you can go with your own needs. You will always need safe people to whom you can pour out your heart.
You Are Welcome Here
Not being welcome is your greatest fear. . . . It is the deepseated fear that it would have been better if you had not lived.
Everything Jesus is saying to you can be summarized in the words “Know that you are welcome.” Jesus offers you his own most intimate life with the Father. He wants you to know all he knows and to do all he does. He wants his home to be yours. Yes, he wants to prepare a place for you in his Father’s house.
Keep reminding yourself that your feelings of being unwelcome do not come from God and do not tell the truth. The Prince of Darkness wants you to believe that your life is a mistake and that there is no home for you. But every time you allow these thoughts to affect you, you set out on the road to self-destruction. So you have to keep unmasking the lie and think, speak, and act according to the truth that you are very, very welcome.
(Henri Nouwen, The Inner Voice of Love: A Journey through Anguish to Freedom, New York: Doubleday, 1996)
August 4, 2012 § 20 Comments
In the hallowed tradition of “You Know You’re an Expat / Third Culture Kid / Missionary when . . .” lists, I offer my own version for repats. This is for the times when you’re reminded that your plug doesn’t always fit the outlet.
Since I’m a former missionary to Asia who’s repatriated back to the US, a lot of my list leans in that direction, but I hope there’s something here for repats of every stripe (or voltage, as it were).
You remember you’re a repat when . . .
1. Your passport is your preferred form of ID.
2. You comment on how cheap gas is in the US.
3. You ask your friends who they’re picking to win the World Cup.
4. Your CNN web page is set on “International.”
5. You accidentally try to pay for something with the strange coins from the top of your dresser.
6. You don’t trust your friends when they say they’ve found a “good” Italian restaurant.
7. You ask the clerk at the convenience store if you can pay your electric bill there.
8. You don’t know how to fill out taxes without Form 2555.
9. You think Americans are loud.
10. You talk about Americans overseas and call them “foreigners.”
11. You find out that living overseas is not the top qualification employers are looking for.
12. You learn to stop talking about the nanny and groundskeeper you used to employ.
13. You have to ask how to write a check.
14. You forgot how many numbers to dial for a local phone call.
15. You tell your toddler, “No seaweed until you finish all your hamburger.”
16. You try to order fried chicken at Burger King.
17. You check prices by converting from what a similar item cost overseas.
18. People say, “football,” and you ask, “Which kind?”
19. You don’t know how to respond when people say, “I bet you’re glad to be back home.”
20. You prefer to hear news reports from someone with a British accent.
21. You wonder why all the commentators on TV are yelling.
22. You wish you’d brought back ten of your favorite kitchen utensil because you didn’t know it’s not sold in the States.
23. You realize international students are you’re kind of people.
24. You ask where you can get a late-model, low-mileage Toyota for around $2000.
25. You turn on the subtitles on an English movie because you don’t want to miss anything.
26. You ask the clerk at the video store if they have VCDs.
27. You wonder if organization should be spelled with an s.
28. You load up your suitcase and you try not to “pack like an American.”
29. You stop bringing your bi-lingual Bible to church.
30. You just smile at people who say, “So I guess you’re all settled in now.”
August 4, 2012 § 7 Comments
You remember you’re a repat when . . .
31. You stock up on Mountain Dew because you never know when it won’t be available again, and you check the expiration dates.
32. You think the public schools are great because the teachers are all proficient in English.
33. You read all your junk mail because it looks important.
34. You don’t hang pictures on the wall in case you’ll be moving again soon.
35. You still have unopened boxes shipped from overseas, and you don’t have a clue what’s inside them.
36. For Christmas, you open up one of those boxes.
37. Even though you own a house, you still catch yourself turning the music down so you won’t “bother the neighbors downstairs.”
38. You’re invited to a bar-b-que and your first thought is “I hope they don’t give me the fatty part of the goat’s tail.”
39. You hand the cashier at Wal-Mart your credit card instead of swiping it yourself.
40. You put your hand lotion in 3 oz. containers just to drive to visit grandma.
41. You’re frustrated that you have to ask for chopsticks in a Chinese restaurant.
42. You have to ask what’s the right amount to spend on a wedding gift.
43. You give up trying to decide which shampoo to buy.
44. You ask your friends to take off their shoes when they enter your home.
45. People ask where you’re from and you just answer with the name of the city where you live now.
46. You skip reading the Facebook posts of your former coworkers overseas because it’s just too hard.
47. When you buy clothes, you check to see that the brand name is spelled correctly.
48. You stop telling stories about your old host country because people stop asking for them.
49. Now that you’ve returned, your family members can tell you they didn’t know why you went over there in the first place.
50. People who knew you before you left ask if you’ve “gotten that out of your system.”
51. You go to the hospital for surgery and you take your own towels and gauze.
52. Your high schooler is pulled over for a routine traffic stop and gets out of the car before the policeman approaches.
53. You question the waitress’s math skills until you remember she simply added tax.
54. You realize that Taco Bell isn’t quite as good as you remembered it.
55. Your daughter calls herself an “African American” because she was born in Africa.
56. You look forward to mowing the lawn, because you have a lawn.
57. You say “here” and you mean the US, not the town you’re in.
58. You take an umbrella outside when the sun is shining.
59. “Made in Taiwan” labels fill you with nostalgia.
60. People correct you when you pronounce foreign names the way they’re supposed to sound.
August 4, 2012 § 7 Comments
You remember you’re a repat when . . .
61. You describe a city as “small” because it has only a million residents.
62. You hear yourself saying at the dinner table, “Where’s the garlic?”
63. You pull out the winter coats when the temperature gets below 70 degrees; or you pull out the shorts when it gets above 40.
64. You get a bill from the doctor and you call to see whose clerical error made the amount so high.
65. Glade’s “Ocean Breeze” scent isn’t any substitute for the real thing.
66. You assume everyplace in the US has WiFi, just like in the city you used to live in.
67. Wearing your traditional ethnic shirt isn’t as much fun now that you’re not going back again.
68. You ask at the grocery store if they have KLIM powdered milk. When they say “No,” you ask when they expect it to be in.
69. You buy three cartons of Hagen Dazs ice cream because it’s one third of the price of Hagen Dazs in your old host country. When you get home, your spouse reminds you it’s still too expensive.
70. You reset your new computer’s clock to military time.
71. You need to convert to the metric system to make sure of distances and temperatures.
72. You get fully dressed to sit in your living room because someone may be peeking in the window.
73. Airports feel like home.
74. The thought of moving again sends you into a panic attack. But your spouse feels the same way about staying put.
75. Your college-age children resent that you took away their opportunity to go “home” for the summer.
76. You can’t remember why anyone would like pineapple from a can, the same for orange juice from concentrate.
77. You understand why the restrooms in LAX have signs saying, “Do not stand on the toilets.”
78. People say, “football,” and you ask, “Which kind?”
79. A friend sends funds to a scammer who sent out an e-mail saying he’s you, stranded abroad, and your friend believes it because, hey, you travel all the time and you’re always needing money.
80. You don’t know what to buy your parents for Christmas now that you can’t give them souvenirs.
81. You shed a tear after finally eating the last package of dried fruit that you brought back with you.
82. You do your happy dance when you find another package of dried fruit in the outside pocket of your carry-on bag a year later.
83. You cringe because you hear someone say she’s “starving to death.”
84. You realize that all the documents on your computer are formatted for A4 paper.
85. You tell your waiter, “I’d like my water with ice . . . if you have any.”
86. You get nervous about buying tickets at the movie theater, because you forgot what the “rules” are.
87. You still can’t drink water straight from the faucet.
88. Your children are happy to see that the US has Costcos, too.
89. You miss the familiar sound of the daily call to prayer . . . or a rooster crowing . . . or late-night traffic . . . or the song the trash truck plays.
90. You show up at a party 2 hours late because you don’t want to be the first one there.
91. You put your favorite DVD in the player and it says, “Region Unsupported.”
92. You understand that some things just take a lot of time.
June 18, 2012 § 15 Comments
Back in the States after being gone for a long time,
in the cereal aisle at Wal-Mart.
My list says “bran cereal” with no instructions
on how to pick out the right kind.
I tell the kids to quiet down
and remind them
that “everybody here knows English
so they can understand everything you say
A friend turns the corner and sees us: “Hey!
Long time no see.
Didn’t know you were back.
Look at you.
A little grey around the edges,
but not too bad.
Bet you’re glad to be
He’s describing me like you’d describe a used book:
Slight shelf wear.
Dust jacket missing.
Discoloration on edge of spine.
A few underlined passages and extensive notes in margins.
We chat about
how big the kids look and about
the new high school being built,
and then he says again,
“Bet you’re glad to be home.”
This time I respond with “Well,
both places have their advantages.”
My daughter shows me a box of
off-brand Fruit Loops,
raising her eyebrows like two question marks.
I shrug my shoulders and she puts it in the
That is the way I feel,
like a used
But deep inside, I’d rather
be a manuscript.
Like one of those manuscripts
that’s been sent to
44 publishers and rejected
Then the author’s wife sees it
in the trash folder
on the computer and sends it
in for one last try.
It’s picked up
and becomes a bestseller,
and it’s made into a movie
that wins two or
three Academy Awards.
That’s what I’d like to be, now
that I’m starting over
with this new life
in a new place that everybody says is