Category Archives: abroad

reminded that I’m a foreigner

Serving abroad, for me, comes with the caution to not be ‘the foreigner who comes in thinking they know it all.’  It’s a temptation; after all, Christians here honor me as a missionary, thinking I’ve made great sacrifices in order to be here.  I have a masters degree from the USA, so I’m treated as a scholar.  I speak several languages, have some free time now that the boys are in school, and seem to have an endless amount of resources that could help the local church and people.

But I’m still so clueless.  This week I started on a project meant to help pastors with preaching and thinking about theology after they leave seminary.  A quarterly preaching newsletter that offers ideas for sermons, reflections on scripture texts, and a short theological piece.  For our first newsletter, Eric took two of the topics (the cross, and Easter) and I thought, I’ll cover the topic of doubt, using the story of “doubting Thomas.”

I went to the library and immediately found tons of material.  (Did you know Thomas meant “the twin”? Maybe doubt is a twin of worship – the two not opposites, but connected?)  On my way out of the library, with all my handy research, I asked a local student if people here talk about “Doubting Thomas.”  No, it turns out that there might not be a Malay word for doubt.  We could translate belief and unbelief, trust and distrust, but doubt to me is something in between  – “finding it hard to believe.”  Wanting to believe but hesitating.  That’s not as cut-and-dried as belief or unbelief.  It just didn’t translate.

And so I was plunged into again realizing that I am a foreigner.  I don’t know language or the art of translation; I don’t know what stories from Scripture are the biggies for people here; I don’t know how local theology approaches belief.  I end up feeling like I don’t know much.

But, I didn’t give up.  Today I went backwards: find a good story (Zacchaeus) and a theme in it (promises).  And I ended up having a lot of fun, downloading the Malay language Bible on my phone and writing a draft of a topic that I think will be at least comprehensible.  That’s the key in all of this, not giving up.  An arrow has to be pulled back, and back, and back, before it can be “flung forth” towards its target.  Yesterday I was a little down, today I’m a little hopeful.  Cade’s French lesson yesterday was “comme ci, comme ca.”  It comes, it goes.  Sometimes I feel right at home here, sometimes I feel like a clueless tourist.  The key is being open to the idea that tomorrow might be better.

Image

A photo that does me so proud

IMG rock climg Dante Artur StanA friend of Dante’s (in the yellow shirt) is moving to Hyderabad, India – something that is a commonplace kind of thing when attending an international school in a quickly developing nation. This picture was taken at his good-bye party (rockclimbing! in Kota Kinabalu!)

When I look at this picture, I see what kind of friend Dante is growing up to be. In an international setting, people are coming and going – moving, attaching, saying good-bye. The kids can’t always articulate it, but it is often a challenging kind of life. Yet a pat on the shoulder, sharing some cake… and everybody gets to live in the moment, for just a little while longer. Friendship, at any age, is such a gift, and it comes from being able to both stand on your own *and* reach out to span the gaps.

Randomness and Coping Skills

Today was an odd day for a missionary; it was a standard day for a housewife. I have to admit, I am stumbling over how to understand who I am and what I am here for – pretty deep questions! I know, intellectually, that I am here to support Eric as he learns a language and as he becomes a full-time lecturer, and as he ministers through teaching theology at the Seminary and in workshops throughout Sabah and Malaysia (and perhaps beyond that as well). When I was a pastor, I emphasized that every profession is a way to minister to others. Every job can be a vocation – a holy calling. Since we used to live in a town with a lot of housewives, I was very clear that that role is a precious one. That even if it is a luxury afforded to few, it is a way to make a difference in the family, in the community, and by extension, in the world.

Now that I’m a housewife, and I spent my day leading the PTA Walkathon (a huge event), getting hot lunch for my kids (a special treat), and taking them to a playground and then a birthday party – I have to admit, I look at my day and think, “ministry?” But I don’t want to shoot myself down, so I do my best with today, and tonight I will pray for wisdom and perspective, and I will trust that God will direct and provide and give some hints to that deepest of questions, “Why am I here?”

And, because being a homemaker is an essential calling, I’ll share two tidbit images that might support others in their callings to care for families.

#1: a cleaning schedule, from Flylady.net. Do not do all of these in one assigned day. But some Wednesdays (for example), do schedule in 15 minutes to try one of these tasks, and as you do that 2-3 times a week, you will find your house becoming a more welcoming place (and your soul a little less stressed, if you value having a home that has at least a few flat surfaces not piled with “stuff”).

And #2: from the “is that really happening?” file… At the birthday party today, it was a pool party, but it turn out here that just a pool isn’t enough… you have to have some of these:

yes… it’s clown cars. Two cars pulled up, driven by clowns in full get-up (how do they drive in those shoes????). They made hundreds of balloon animals and then had a magic show which produced a live bunny. The Korean mum hosting the party was horrified, as she had to keep the bunny in a box for the rest of the little show, and she clearly did not want to be near this rodent. (My mom brought a live snake to my school as a kid, so my boundaries for animals are a little more wide open!)

I thought it ironic that they didn’t arrive together – I mean, Malaysia is famous for its small cars, so why not at least put two clowns together in one? Instead they arrived separately in the slightly larger Myvi’s (pronounced “my vee” as in my vehicle). In this picture the mum is insisting that they take the bunny in the green box back NOW.

And here is a picture of me with the clown …. They apparently aren’t considered scary here. But notice that the clown seems to have made a machine gun out of balloons? Maybe clowns are, indeed, creepy. Maybe Malaysia just needs a few more cheesy horror films in order to realize this.

At any rate, my day is done. I am going to sleep and pray heartily, and tomorrow I am going to learn to make porridge with a friend from the seminary. If I am to be a homemaker, I am going to do it with friends who can cook!

Playing “Half the Sky” with my boys

Today is Sunday. The Sabbath. A day to rest and recover, to recharge for the rest of the week. We went to worship at a Church that meets in our apartment building and got home by 11:30 and promptly turned on all our screens. Some days I’m sad when we are all attached to screens, but today we needed the rest. My husband turned on his baseball-league-managing game. The kids were transfixed by a reprogramming of the Masters golf tournament. I settled in to catch up on facebook. Ahhhh…. Peace.

A friend on Facebook had invited me to play a game. It’s called “Half the Sky” and it is based on a book of the same title,

about how women hold up half the sky –caring for their homes, their communities, daily making small improvements and investments and using their creativity to find empowerment to change their world. The game starts with a mother whose daughter is sick, but she cannot afford a doctor or medicine. She collects mangoes from her garden, sells them for money, barters them for a ride to the hospital, and trades her hours waiting there for the medical services that will save her daughter’s life. The game has drawings with dialogue, simple but fun games to play; it donates real immunizations and books as you play, and through all of it, it makes you think.

Soon the boys were playing along with me. I love that they were so focused on the female characters (click here: author ratios for why female voices are so often lacking). I asked Dante if it seemed fair to him that the women were getting all the attention – and though he is usually all about fairness meaning exact equality, he seemed to understand why it was important that the women in the story are being empowered.

Then we played part of the game where you get to collect books in a game. We talked about places near us that are just like the game – needing books, and specifically books in the right language (not only English!). There is a school for immigrant children just down the hill from us, and another school run by the owner of a jungle lodge we’ve visited, that are both in desperate need of basic supplies, including books. Imagine a school with no library – or a whole community with no library. As a US American, that seems almost impossible. Maybe there are such deserts in inner cities or on First Peoples’ reservations. That is the point of the Half the Sky game – to lead your thoughts down these paths, to make improving a community seem both possible and needful. It makes you look around where you life and see either how much you have, or where needs exist. Near us, an immigrant island had a suspicious fire last week where 200 homes burned down – probably 1,500 people lost their homes. Our kids went through our things and sent many clothes, toys, and we especially included a few picture books. It has new meaning to us, playing this game and interacting with our world.

The next stage of the game is based on microfinance loans. Muhummad Yunus won a Nobel prize for starting a bank that would loan small amounts to people in poverty, because even the smallest gains made by the loan recipients meant so much to their family and gains trickle through the whole community. Today Kiva.org is a microfinance powerhouse. You loan $25 (US dollars) and choose the recipient. Loans are paid back within 18-24 months. As a new pastor, I had loaned $50 of my own money, letting the youth of our congregation choose the recipients. Since then I’ve re-loaned the money as it was paid back, and have loaned to 13 different individuals/groups, to expand their market stalls, buy a motorbike for a taxi business, build a barn for livestock, buy materials for their tailoring business. So as we played in the game, we opened a window to Kiva and looked back at the people who we’ve loaned to. The last loan we made was to a woman in the Philippines – little did we know she would practically be our neighbour in our new land. Off we went to Google maps, where you can make the little man walk all over the land on the map.

Up popped a congratulations screen on the game – this time with several flags. The boys have a flags-of-the-world poster and went to identify the flags. One of them was from Kenya, which led to looking at the pictures of our missionary friends in Kenya, Mike and Leslie Fonner. Their picture is one of many in a collage on our dining room table, with a clear plastic tablecloth over it, so as we eat, we connect to our friends and family around the world.

From the game, we wandered through flags, gender issues, empty libraries, Kiva loans, and what the Philippines look like. And I realize just how rich my kids’ life is. I wonder what they will do, growing up with so many connections and so many supports (because we couldn’t live this life without the love of family, the Church here and at home, the schools the came from and to, and probably a hundred other things that I take for granted each day).

And though I am excited for my kids, I also know that what I really feel is my own self being changed. I spend a lot of time thinking about how to get extra US books to these immigrant schools, and whether English books are helpful or if there is another path that needs to be trodden – to get books in Bahasa Malaysia to kids in need. I think about how much we have (when we came with only 2 suitcases each – we still have enough to share). I think of the families rebuilding homes after fires. I begin to see more than my portion of the sky – to explore connections to Half the Sky.

See where your adventure takes your head, heart, and life: https://www.facebook.com/HalftheGame.

Taking pictures because a visitor came!

I was overjoyed to pick my mother-in-law up from the international airport today.  She had flown all the way from Washington DC – from DC to LA to Tokyo to Kuala Lumpur to KK.  The trip takes about 3 days.  She has the benefit of being a nurse, used to changing her sleep schedule.  We had the difficulty of traveling with two young kids who could not sleep once we entered our new hemisphere.

KK Airport - Terminal 1

KK Airport – Terminal 1

I had not been to the airport since we were picked up there.  I remember very little of that first trip… we were all overwhelmed.  But today as we drove, my mother-in-law was snapping photos and I realized how wonderful it is to have her perspective here, now.  She is not as overwhelmed, she has guides that already know her, and she only has to last two weeks here!  But her response to what she was seeing brought me a lot of joy.  It was the kind of time when you see your life through someone else’s eyes, and realize the wonder and excitement before you every day.

A very concrete set of buildings, with a hotel, apartments, and several businesses.

A very concrete set of buildings, with a hotel, apartments, and several businesses.

She took pictures of buildings that I now call ordinary.  She took pictures of palm trees.  She took a picture of me, driving on the right-hand side of the car.  She took a lot of pictures, and now when I see them, I think, these are far from ordinary.

Driving around Kota Kinabalu... tourist snapshots!

Driving around Kota Kinabalu… tourist snapshots!

Each place has its wonder, that doesn’t have to wear off; or at least, it can be rekindled.  An apartment building can be amazing in its weaving of culture, architecture, personal styles, and frankly, laundry.  It’s all there waiting to be beheld.

Yet at the end of the day, it was this picture that captured the spirit of the day:

Family, together.

Family, together.

We all want to come home, somehow, whether it’s to a familiar place, or to the arms of family.  This moment between our homesick son and his newly arrived Nana gave a context, a grounding, for all the other pictures.  Places have meaning because of what they tell us about ourselves or one another, and today this city of ours was a place where we embraced and were embraced.  All the memories we share, the wonders we behold, have meaning to us because they are how we connect to our world and one another.  We aren’t collecting images, we are finding life together.

Gallery

Cooking with New Friends

This gallery contains 1 photos.

 

Day 12 of 20 *Questions*: What potential memories am I bartering, and is the profit worth the price?

Ah, this is the question that, in part, led us to serving as missionaries in Malaysia.  We were just fine where we were – a beautiful congregation that we co-led as pastors, hopes of Eric finding adjunct teaching in the tri-state area, kids in a great school, financial stability, and a great Y and public library.  It was the American dream.  (Yes, our garden even had a picket fence.) 

But as happy as we were, it still wasn’t *our* dream.  Our dream has always been to serve abroad.  For Eric’s Ph.D program we tried to move to South Africa, because we felt this strong pull to moving outside of America.  Nothing against America – but I know that I’ve always wanted to see how others outside of America experience life, and to see their perspectives on the life I’ve assumed as “normal.”  But South Africa didn’t work out (in part because I was pregnant, and my mother put her foot down that “my grandbabies WILL be born in an American hospital” … and there are times when you don’t mess with a fierce Mama Bear.)  Our plans would have to wait, and we mostly thought they were gone, and that was okay.

Until this opportunity in Malaysia opened up.  This time we had Mom’s permission!  (Thanks mostly to Skype and Air Asia.)

In coming here, we had to ask ourselves about our potential memories.  We were giving up Little League and youth group pizza nights and a house that we had named.  (Blueberry Cottage, if you’re asking.)  We were giving up a place where dogs are vaccinated for rabies and vehicle emissions are controlled – those certainly help toward creating memories, though they’re often unnoticed.  We were bartering those memories in order to come here  – and we were certainly deciding a lot for our kids without their voice or consent.

Hospitality!

Hospitality!

But under it all, we decided that the biggest and defining memory for our kids would be them watching us follow our passion.  That hope goes for all who had to grieve at our leaving – our family, friends, congregation and colleagues, and even our kids’ friends.  We bartered their memories as well, and that is no small thing.  But I fervently hope that people who have lost track of those specific dreams might have a door or window opened by knowing that people can indeed follow their passion – whatever that passion may be for them.

This question asks us to balance our todays and our tomorrows, as well as the things that give us satisfaction now versus what we will look back on someday.  This question reminds us that we are always defining our future and that we have a say in what not only our future will be, but the future of those tied to us.  It reminds us that we are always negotiating, always finding our way.  This question reduces our complacency, and replaces it with verve.

My favourite word: Fling

A lot of people don’t listen to the words in music. I remember once being in the car with Eric, singing along to a song that said, “I don’t care whose ring you wear, ’cause as long as no one knows then nobody can care” (Uncle Kracker). Yikes! Who could actually sing that to someone? It’s a great song, but every time I hear it, I think, Yikes.

So I’m clearly a person who cares about the words of songs. The right wording at the right moment in the song brings me elation. When the words and music match, I remember how music opens us up to the divine, and I am so grateful. Even when I’m listening to the blues, I am gladdened. It doesn’t have to make sense (but please, try to make the lyrics of your songs make sense. Please.)

For years one of my favourite parts of Christmas is hearing the words of “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.” The whole song is evocative of how we long for peace, for rest, for hope as the generations unfold and year turns to year. But my favourite line is: “…when peace shall over all the world it’s ancient splendors fling; and the whole world give back the song which now the angels sing.”

It’s my favourite because I always have the image of angels flinging peace, like bits of golden glitter, over all the world. Maybe like pixie dust, or the twinkling of stars, or just like big handfuls of glitter. You know, if glitter gets on you or your stuff, you will never get it out. It’s powerful stuff. A camp counsellor at Mar-Lu-Ridge once glittered the sleeping bags of the male staff quarters one summer, and I bet those bags are still sparkling. That is probably why I imagine peace being tossed over the world like glitter – because it is beautiful at first, and because it has staying power that no one expects. That is how I want to imagine the peace of God that passes all understanding.

Our blog is called Flung Forth Anew because we want to be like that glitter, like that peace – tossed all over the earth, with gifts that not only make beautiful the ministries we land in, but that after we have served, that changes will last, both in sites where we go and in our hearts when we return home. We trained with ELCA volunteers going to Nairobi, Kenya; Tokyo, Japan; Ethiopia; Cameroon; and with our leaders who are centered in Chicago, Illinois – and the ELCA has volunteers both in 1-year and long-term positions in more than 90 countries. We are flung across the globe. And with each new place that we visit or serve, we are made new, our eyes sparkle with the connections between people and ministries and organizations.

In the hymn, ancient splendors are flung forth anew into today’s world so that the whole world can give back the song which the angels sing. May all of us, wherever we have landed, be a sparkle in the Father’s eye, a force for peace in the world, and glitter that catches people’s eye so that they want to explore God’s kingdom and live into God’s reign of peace.

The Hap-Happiest Season of All… or, 3 months away from home

Advent greetings, friends. Is your Christmas tree up yet? Our is, no thanks to my annual humbugginess. I am definitely a humbug. I love the idea that God comes to Earth, to meet us as we are, that God isn’t afraid of being a vulnerable baby, that it took a whole cast of people to live out the original nativity that we celebrate. I just hate untangling Christmas lights, and people running up to me saying, “If we don’t get the decorations right, it ruins the whole feel!” As Mary about the whole feel of Christmas, and I bet there was no turkey, wrapping paper, or post office involved!

OK. You get the gist. But, there are parts of Christmas I really like, especially the music. Eric made us a whole Christmas playlist from our digital music collection, 11.1 hours of all kinds of Christmas music! And amongst the music came this radio favourite:

It’s the most wonderful time of the year 
With the kids jingle belling
And everyone telling you “Be of good cheer” 
It’s the most wonderful time of the year 
It’s the hap-happiest season of all
With those holiday greetings and gay happy meetings 
When friends come to call 
It’s the hap- happiest season of all ‘

We tend to hear these songs and accept them as a picture of normal holiday feelings. But really, kids are not jingle-belling, they’re prepping their list of demands from Santa; and if you’re in a blue or cruddy or tired mood for any of a thousand reasons, being told to “be of good cheer” is not going to cheer you up, especially if you are depressed or grieving or lonely. Is it the most wonderful time of the year? I love that moment of candlelight at Christmas Eve worship, but I think I really like those first days of spring when you can smell the earth blossoming more. And the song goes on – those holiday greetings (that we politicize and haggle over) and gay happy meetings (in our free time, right?) when friends come to call (and we don’t worry about if our house is photo-shoot ready)? Really? In my mind I romanticize the days before electricity and cars and central heat, when people had nothing to do in winter except feed the animals and wait for spring, and if they did go out across the prairie, they would stay awhile with friends just to warm up before coming home. When things were slower, less was expected, and people knew their neighbors’ names *and* their stories. Maybe it wasn’t that great in real life, but I tend to think of it as better than today’s consumer rush and drastic expectations of ourselves. There. Have I ruined the song for you?

Now, it’s not quite fair that this song played just about at our 3-month mark of being here. Here is a chart of average responses to moving to a new place:

The process of adjusting to living in a new place, by Clide Sargeant, with revision by Daniel Kealy

Note that there’s a dip there. I was warned that this would be coming (and many thanks to author Clide Sargeant, with revision by Daniel Kealey) and so I can keep some perspective on my emotions and reactions and expectations these days. I can be gentler with myself. This morning I lost my voice, had a terrible head cold, and looked at this chart – right below “frustration” it notes that this is the time when people develop colds, headaches, and are most prone to take sick leave. So I spent the morning reading the not-so-holiday “Hunger Games” trilogy. I took the boys to mail Christmas presents and didn’t lose my temper when we found we had to re-pack them twice and still not get it right (“ah, I thought, ‘frustration.'”) I sent an e-mail inviting friends to come to call.

The seasons come, whether it be Christmas or monsoon or “frustration.” But in our missionary handbook, right beside the chart that says some seasons will be hard, are these verses, appropriately, from the book of Lamentations.

“The thought of my affliction and my homelessness is wormwood and gall!        My soul continually thinks of it, and is bowed down within me.                                           But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope:                                                         The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, God’s mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is God’s faithfulness.                                      “The Lord is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in God.” -Lamentations 3:19-24

Keeping the candles inside the cathedrals?

missionary training's prayer candles

Light and the Word –      gifts from God

With the power outages on the East Coast, a lot of people have been using candlelight for everything from walking around their house to doing late-night Sudoku.  Candles are such a symbol of faith.  They cannot light themselves – they must receive light from someone else.  Once lit they can be generous with their light – sharing flame without losing anything, casting light over a whole room, giving warmth and a unique glow that is both calming and energizing.  Flames burn and wicker and dance, and are so mysterious.   Jesus Christ is the Light of the World – and he said to the crowds,”You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. 15No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”  (Matthew 5:14-16)

But candles are also frail.  Have you ever tried to carry a candle outside?  Wind can whip it out at any moment.  Even walking with a candle can be a challenge – that little bit of movement takes all our focus and gracefulness.

Most people have had the occasion to see candles at Church.  They are a sign of -1- God’s presence, of -2- the holiness of a place, of -3- the Spirit working in mysterious ways.  Yet aren’t each of these three alive and life-giving in every place and time?  I am reminded of the lyrics of the song “April Showers”:

(Oh) Like April Showers on the slick cement

When I consider how our light is spent

Keeping the candles inside the cathedrals

Hold on tight, Don’t go into the night So full of evil

So often as Christians we focus our energy of worship, fellowship, and giving within the walls of cathedrals, in part because the beauty of Church buildings is inspiring, but also because outside of the cathedrals our candles are open to all kinds of winds and chaos.  Candles won’t stay lit; our spirits are frail; we cannot prove our beliefs; we may feel alone when away from the gathered saints, so our witness is silenced.  Yet it is the world outside of the cathedral that needs the warmth of faithful friendships.  This world needs the beauty and mystery of God in a world where to value something we first have to measure it.  This world needs to see candles get blown out and miraculously re-lit by the Light of the World, over and over again.  It is the darkest places that need light the most.  And, you may not know how much your light matters to people around you.  “Remember to be kind to everyone, for each one is fighting a battle that you cannot see.”  Carry your candle, O lights of the world – feel God’s presence in the carpool and the holiness of your kitchen and the Spirit sending you to a world in need.

Enjoy the song “April Showers” by the Christian band Caedmon’s Call:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HagtNrzW5NY

Find the lyrics here:  http://www.metrolyrics.com/april-showers-lyrics-caedmons-call.html

PS – and the song goes on:  “Rain rain don’t go away, we need you this dry and dusty day…  Rain rain don’t go away, though some may say please go away.”  You may remember the child’s song “rain rain go away, come again some other day.”  The song April Showers plays on that, saying that the rain is like the waters of baptism, the flood of God’s presence washing through our lives.  Rain is powerful stuff – as these storms have proved.  We might want the rain to go away so that we will feel safe, so that our lives won’t be risked and changed.  But if we’re talking about the rain as God’s presence, then we do need God to come into our dry and dusty souls, refresh us, give us life abundant – even as we try to deny that we need God in order to live.  Ah – what a song, and what images of our need and God’s love!