Thursday, August 10, 2017

When I Was the New Missionary

I was 22 years old, I had just finished my teaching degree, and as far as I was concerned, I was ready to be a missionary.  After all, I had been an MK and thus knew everything there was to know about missions in Africa.  And for that matter, I pretty much knew everything there was to know about life.  Like any 22-year-old.

I went to our mission organization's candidate school twice.  Once while single, since the plan was to head to Tanzania after my first year of teaching.  Then this dream guy named Gil Medina messed with my plans and I ended up getting married instead.  So two years after my first time at candidate school, and 9 months after getting married, I went again--this time with Gil.

Visiting the States always brings back so much nostalgia for me. So much of my history is in America; it floods me with memories.  And this time around, I was reminded of that pre-Tanzania season of my life.  I was invited to be a facilitator at our mission's missionary training a few weeks ago--this time as the experienced missionary.  So I spent a week in July with our mission's newest crop of missionaries.  And I saw myself in them, 18 years ago.  

Candidate school, 1999
You would think that after being a missionary kid, and attending candidate school twice, that I would have been ready for my new life overseas.  I sure thought I was.  But in reality, I had no idea what was about to hit me.

I had a massive panic attack and mental breakdown ten days after arriving in Tanzania in 2001.  As a result, I was barely coping for the entirety of the first year we lived there.  I dug up my old journals last week while at my parents' house, which flooded me with even more memories.  This is what I wrote a few days after that breakdown.

August 10, 2001
Everything within me is wrestling.  I scream, "I hate this!  Let me go back!"
And the pain of missing people sinks into my soul and creates an overwhelming sadness.

I'm telling you this for a couple of reasons.  Partly because it's good to look back and see how far I've come.  Even though that period in my life was certainly the darkest I've experienced, it's reassuring to remember how God showed up in the midst of that pain--even though I couldn't see it then.  It's comforting to understand now how necessary that pain was, and how profoundly it contributed to who I am today.

But I also wanted to give you the backstory to this piece I wrote for 'A Life Overseas.'  I wrote it on the plane as I was coming home from helping to facilitate the new missionary training.  It was such a privilege to spend that time with about 40 new missionaries--many ages, many walks of life, headed to countries all over the globe.  And I hope that the beginning won't be as hard for them as it was for me.  I know that even if it isn't, it will still be hard.  But I wanted them to know that it's worth it.

I wrote the following piece through tears.  Tears in remembering, but also tears of great thankfulness and joy.  Because, oh, how it's been worth it!  That's what I wish I could tell my 22-year-old self, sitting in candidate school.  She had no idea how hard it would be.  But I'm sure glad she didn't give up.

Here's an excerpt, but I hope you'll read the whole thing.  It expresses a great deal of how I feel about the last 15 years of missionary life.

Dear New Missionary,

It’s going to be hard.  Really hard.
And it won’t just be the things you anticipate will be hard.  Sure, there will be the bugs and you might hate your kitchen and driving might terrify you.  You might cry because the potatoes are just not cooking right and you accidentally insult someone and no one speaks to you at your new church.  Your kids might get a strange rash and you will buy the wrong medicine and you’ll wonder what on earth you were thinking to bring your family to this strange place.
Then there’s the fear.  You won’t let your kids play outside without you; you’ll hold your purse a lot more tightly; you’ll worry about the pollution affecting your lungs.  You’ll sleep a lot less soundly and get up at night just to check out the windows, one more time.  It might feel like everyone is smirking at you behind your back.  And you’ll wonder why you ever thought you could have an impact on this new place.
But then there will be the things you didn’t anticipate would be hard.  Your sin won’t stay in your home country, in fact, it will seem to ooze out of you in buckets.  Your team leader won’t have enough time for you, and you’ll feel left dangling, high and dry and bewildered.  The poverty surrounding you will hang constant guilt around your neck.  You will communicate like a two-year-old.  You’ll lose your sense of self-respect.  You won’t feel good at anything anymore.
You will, in essence, lose yourself.  And it might feel like dying.
But, in that losing, you will find yourself.  And in that dying, you will live.

Read the rest here.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

I Am Not Cut Out For This

I've had that thought hundreds of times over these past sixteen years of missions: I am not cut out for this.

I am probably the least adventurous person on earth.  I need a plan.  I need a schedule.  I need things to go according to plan and to schedule.  

I hate transitions.  I hate change.  I think I would be happy if everything in my life could stay exactly the same, always and forever.  

Yet here I am in a life that is full of adventure, whether it's as simple as a chicken on the loose in my house or as scary as a snake in my daughter's bed.  I'm living in a culture that does not value plans or schedules (but thinks people are a lot more important...I guess there's a point there).  And even when I try to live by a plan anyway, then I lose electricity or the store is out of sugar or the rain has closed the roads.

And now here I am, facing another international move, yet again.  We leave America on Wednesday to return to Tanzania.  The anxiety keeps me up at night and wakes me early in the morning.  I despise saying goodbye to the people we love; it rips my heart out every time.  But I know that even once I get back and get settled, that I will continue to thrust myself into these transitions over and over again.  I have put down roots in Tanzania, but I am a guest.  It will never be permanent.

I think to myself, Why on earth did I choose this life?  I am not cut out for this.

So why do I keep doing it?

You could call it a calling, but that makes it sound so noble and sacrificial and godly and stuff.  When in reality, I want to do this.  I want this life.  It's complicated, isn't it?  Because if I say I want it, then that makes it seem like there are no sacrifices and I never get sad or have regrets.  But if I say that I am just being obedient to a calling, then that makes me seem like a martyr.

Choosing this life is both of those explanations.  Yes, I hate spontaneity and change and transition--but I've lived long enough to see the joy that makes it worth it.  Yes, I'm not too thrilled about living a life in two worlds and all the packing and the sense of rootlessness.  But there's that joy again.  The joy of learning from other cultures.  The joy in living a life of purpose.  The joy of living a life with less.  The joy that comes from anxiety that is cast upon Him.

And really, we're not cut out for a lot of things, are we?  We get into marriage, or motherhood, or the menial job, or the stressful job, and we think, I'm not cut out for this.  But we keep doing it anyway, because there's always joy.  Joy in doing hard things.  Joy in getting through a day we never thought we would live through.  Joy in knowing that no matter how bad it gets, this life is not all there is.  

But he said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.'  Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

My Kids Don't Have to Be Good at Everything

Being an American parent is exhausting. 

Your kids are supposed to participate in sports (more than one) and music and math and competitive spelling.  They need to have experienced horseback riding and seen the National Parks and gone to a Broadway show and know how to build a robot.  Oh, and of course, they need to know Latin and be classically trained.

And if they haven't accomplished all these things, you are letting them down.  You have failed as a parent.

I feel this even in Tanzania.  I have tried for three years to find Grace a piano teacher with no success.  I don't want to drive her an hour each direction every week, and I haven't been able to find someone close by.  She keeps reminding me that she wants to learn piano, but she's finished fifth grade and it still hasn't happened.  Which makes me feel like I am depriving her of something really important.  Because everyone knows that every child is supposed to learn an instrument, right?

There are other things my kids miss out on because we live in Tanzania--gymnastics, Children's Museums, craft stores, beautiful parks with towering oak trees, watching seasons change.  Lily reminded me recently that she would love to take ballet lessons.  Not going to happen.

I am a collector of lists of children's books, as my favorite activity with my kids is reading out loud to them.  But every time I get a new list, I panic slightly because there are just so many good books out there that my kids need to read.  And I can never catch up.  For a moment I think, But their lives will be tragic and deprived if they haven't read every single one of the Little House books!  How will they survive?  And you wonder why Gil thinks I'm dramatic.

There's this intense pressure in American culture that your kids must be good at everything.  And if they can't be good at everything, then in the very least, you must expose them to everything and teach them everything else.  And if they don't, they are really missing out and will probably become hobos when they grow up.

But I've had to remind myself that I need to step back from the frenzy and ask, Who says?  Who says that my kids will never learn discipline if they don't learn to play an instrument?  Who says they won't learn teamwork if they don't play sports?  Who says that they won't be good thinkers if they never learn Latin?  Who says they won't learn to love their siblings if they are not homeschooled?

Of course, those are all good things.  But somehow we've convinced ourselves that we aren't succeeding in the rules of parenting if they don't get all of the good things.  Can't there be more than one way to successfully raise and educate a child?

So when I start feeling the pressure and the panic that my kids are missing out, I try to remember what they do have, what they have learned.  My kids know how to navigate multiple cultures and countries and international travel doesn't phase them.  They are great swimmers who love snorkeling. HOPAC shines when it comes to performing arts, community service, and ethnic diversity.   In our home they've learned to be hospitable to our many guests, and my girls have learned to love cooking as much as I do.  So even if Grace never gets piano lessons (though I am still looking!), no one can ever accuse her of being deprived.

If my list of what my kids are learning causes your stomach to tense with stress, then make your own list.  Maybe you're passing on your gift of creativity, or gardening, or adventuring.  Maybe you're using YouTube for art lessons.  And honestly, the vast majority of middle-class American kids will never be deprived in the true sense of the word.  Even if your kids never learn music or sports, even if they never master another language or horseback riding, they still will be some of the most privileged kids in the world. 

 And, of course, the qualities of courage, kindness, patience, and humility are by far what will make a child successful in this life--and those can be learned in a million different ways.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Grace Like Water

The elderly man with kind eyes approached me after a speaking engagement at one of our supporting churches.  He explained that he had been convicted to diligently pray for his grandchildren.  And then he asked me if I would like him to pray regularly for my children, too.

I was speechless that a stranger would do this.  That he would take the time to approach me, encourage me, and commit to praying for my children.

But there's more.

There's the woman in Indiana who only knows me through this blog and sends us money through PayPal to spoil our kids.

There's the large family who lives in a small house but supports our ministry generously, and I think about how they could live in a bigger house if they weren't supporting us.

There's the friend who gave us tickets to the Long Beach Aquarium, with specific instructions that we were to go only with our kids, so that we would have time together "just us."

I could go on.  Those are just a few examples.

I am one who is lavished with grace.  And I feel so utterly unworthy of it.

This home assignment has been hard for me.  To be honest, it's been harder than any of the other times we've visited home.  I'm not exactly sure why, because everything has gone relatively smoothly, and as you have seen in my pictures, we've created lots of wonderful memories.  Maybe it's because I've put down too many roots in Tanzania and it gets harder for me to adjust to America as time goes on.  Or maybe because living out of a suitcase for four months with four kids is a lot harder than when we just had two kids.

But whatever the reason, it brought out ugliness in me that I am ashamed of.  I've been grumpy and irritable a lot of the time.  I've let anxiety get the best of me way too often.  I've had way too many sleepless nights for no fault other than my own untamed emotions.  It stinks to have to look at people you love, and the God you serve, and ask for grace.

Yet that's what I have received, over and over again.  By family members.  By church friends.  By strangers.

I would have been really good at any kind of legalistic religion.  Following the rules, working hard, doing my duty--all of those things come naturally to me.  Perhaps that's why serving and giving often come easy for me.  But receiving that which I don't I deserve?  That's a whole lot harder.  It's humbling.  It makes me feel small and unworthy.

So I guess that's why receiving undeserved grace reveals my pride.  I actually am small and unworthy, no matter my accomplishments.  Is that why I often lose the significance of God's grace in my life?  Because I want to prove myself worthy?  Because I want to convince myself that there actually is something in me that deserves it?  My pride would like to think that.  

So then I fall again, and I grasp helplessly around for a fingerhold on the ledge of grace.  God grants it to me through a kind man wanting to pray for my children or a generous gift from a friend.  But those are just reminders, glimpses, of the grace he has given me through his Son.  Because that grace is astonishing indeed.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Medina Life, June 2017

We were invited to join a bunch of friends from our home church to watch an outdoor movie in the Hollywood cemetery.

Aquarium of the Pacific
A friend gifted us with tickets to the Long Beach Aquarium and lunch at Bubba Gump!  This was such a wonderful day....and even though the sea life was pretty awesome, I think my favorite part was these amazing birds.

one of my favorite-ever pictures  :-)

Out with the family, go-karting and minature golfing.

Wiffle Ball
My normally soccer-obsessed boys have adapted well to America by appropriately obsessing over baseball.  They play wiffle ball almost every single day with their dad or grandfathers...sometimes for hours at a time.

Spirit West Coast
Daddy took Grace to her first-ever concert....and oh my goodness....this 11-year-old's year was made because she not only got to hear TobyMac, but she got to meet Hollyn!  

The Warriors Won
....and since we are California natives (and my folks are in the Bay Area), this was a very big deal!  My adventurous husband decided we needed to join the millions headed to Oakland to see the victory parade...and we were rewarded by seeing Steph Curry in the flesh.

Since we finally finished homeschooling, when they're not playing wiffle ball, my kids are in whatever pool happens to be nearby.  Almost every day.  Seen here with their sweet cousin.

Visiting my cousin who builds super cool things like this super cool wine barrel go-kart...

...and this super high tree house.  (Notice I am not up there.)

Gil and I went to a conference in Austin, and while we were there, got to re-unite with six friends from college. 

Meanwhile, Bibi (my mom) held down the fort by caring for all four kids and doing fun things like "letter of the day" meals.  

What is summer at church in America without VBS?  This year not only did my kids get to participate, but Gil and I got to be the "missionaries of the week."  The kids raised over $2000 for study Bibles for our pastors in Tanzania!
Grace with her leader and group

While visiting our home church, we had the privilege of staying two weeks with our pastor and his family.  What a huge blessing to us!

And if this looks like June was a crazy month, yes, it was.  Lots of great memories and wonderful times reconnecting with friends and churches, but also lots of travel and lots of ministry presentations.  We're down to our last few weeks in the States!

When Missionaries Think They Know Everything

I wrote this post for missionaries, but it's a revision of something I wrote a few years ago, and it applies to anyone who is experiencing any kind of cross-cultural life (which really should describe almost everyone in the U.S.).  

A few years ago, a video started making its way around my Facebook feed–shared by lots foreigners who live in my part of Africa.  The video showed two African men shoveling sand.  There was a very large pile of sand to their left.  The two men were shoveling the sand into a wheelbarrow, filling it up, and then dumping it…two feet away.

The person filming this video obviously thought the men were complete idiots.  “Watch this!  Wait for it…wait for it…” she gleefully exclaimed.  And when the men dumped out another wheelbarrow of sand just inches away, she could be heard bursting into giggles.

By the time I saw the video, it had over 13 million views and 300,000 shares by people who obviously thought the men’s idiocy was equally hilarious.  I didn’t share it, but I had to admit that it did seem pretty amusing.

That is, I thought it was funny until two African friends set us all straight.  They explained:  While making concrete, in the absence of a cement mixer, a builder will use a wheelbarrow to measure.  One part cement, two parts sand, three parts gravel.  These men were not idiots.  They knew exactly what they were doing.  They were using the resources they had to do something that was actually quite rational.



I was terribly ashamed.  Not just for myself, but for the millions of foreigners who come to Africa and think that we know everything.  That one little video made me re-evaluate how I view my host country.  It made me wonder how many other times I had the same attitude of condescension about something I knew nothing about.

There was a tag on that video:  #TIA:  “This is Africa.”  This is a common hashtag in my part of the world, but foreigners often turn it into something demeaning.  For example, “Spent all day waiting for my car to be fixed, and then realized they ‘fixed’ the wrong part.  #TIA."

But let’s step back a minute and take a look at that from a distance.  What is “TIA” communicating in this instance?  That everything always goes wrong in Africa?   That no one knows how to fix anything?  That we should have the expectation that everyone in Africa is an idiot?  What would the mechanic think if he read it?

As Christian missionaries, it’s easy to assume that we are above this kind of behavior.  After all, we’ve been vetted, interviewed, and scrutinized more than most people will be in their lifetime.  We’re supposed to be godly, right?  We’re supposed to love the nations, right?   Missionaries could never be racist….right.

Call it racism, stereotyping, or ethnocentrism, but one thing we need to get really clear is that it dwells in all of our hearts in some form or another.  If we’re really honest with ourselves, we have to admit that we really do think we know what’s best.  Our way of doing things is really the most effective.  Basically, I am better than you.  Or at the very least, my culture is better than yours.

Go here to read the rest.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Surprise! We Need to Learn from Christians from Other Cultures

Fairly often, Gil makes his Tanzanian Bible school students pretty uncomfortable.

For example, in March, Gil taught a class on developing a biblical worldview.  This was for his second-year students, so they already had a solid knowledge of Scripture, and Gil had a good relationship with them by that point.

Something came up about tattoos, which was met by a strong negative response by the entire class.  Gil was intrigued by this, so he posed the question, "Which would bother you more, if your pastor got a tattoo, or if your pastor committed adultery?"

Unanimously, the class agreed that a tattoo would be much more disturbing to them than adultery.

Of course, this led to a very lively conversation with a lot of Bible pages flipping around, and Gil offering them some pretty strong challenges.  Our American mission leader was visiting that day, and when he told the class that his two adult (Christian) children both had tattoos, the students were dumbfounded.  Gil and our American leader were dumbfounded that they were dumbfounded.  Some of the students were so agitated that they went home that night and spent hours searching their Bibles for proof that a tattoo was the Cardinal Sin.  Which, they sheepishly admitted, they didn't ever find.

And that's just one example of a day in the life of Reach Tanzania Bible School.  This kind of discussion happens all the time.

It might be tempting for us American missionaries to believe that we are in Tanzania to set straight the African Christians who don't know any better.  After all, we have theology degrees and conferences on doctrinal statements and We Know The Bible.

What we've learned, though, is that they need to set us straight too.  We white Americans have a thing or two that we can learn from the African Church.

When we talk about church in America with our Tanzanian friends, it's their turn to be shocked.  Your church services are only an hour and fifteen minutes long?  And that's the only service you attend all week?  And you've never, ever done an all-night prayer vigil?  Like, never?  Are there even any Christians in America?  

In America, your devotion to Christ is measured by the amount of personal time you spend in prayer and Bible study.  Am I right or am I right?  Well, in Tanzania, your devotion to Christ is measured by the amount of time you spend in prayer and worship with others.

Of course, you might protest that measuring godliness sounds like legalism.  Which is true--but we still do it, don't we?  If you are American, what would you say to a Christian who never did personal devotions, but spent many hours every week in church worship services?  Would you even know where to put that person in your spiritual hierarchy?  And would you be able to back up your conclusion with Scripture?

It's easy for us, as foreigners, to come to Tanzania and point out what they are doing wrong.  Those deficiencies pop up to us broadly and clearly.  But I wonder, what if a Tanzanian Christian came to the States and was given a voice in the white American Church?  What deficiencies would be glaringly obvious to him?

To start with, they might wonder why we get so excited and passionate while watching sports, but when in our worship services, look bored out of our minds.  Maybe they would point out the reluctance of America Christians to open their homes to others--certainly to strangers, but even extended family members.  How about our lack of being unconditionally generous with our resources?  Maybe our gluttony?  The way we waste food?  Or how we consistently serve donuts every week to congregations who are already unhealthy?  Maybe how we downplay the older people in our church and instead do everything we can to attract the young?

Maybe you don't see those things as "big" problems.  Maybe you want to defend our own church culture as not being that bad.  But let me tell you something--those things--like passionate worship and generosity and hospitality and devotion to prayer and respect for elders--the way that the Tanzanian church does those things?  Puts the American church to shame.  The contrast is stark.

The truth is that every culture--including every Christian culture--has blind spots.  We have our hierarchy of sins and our hierarchy of godliness, and we know we are right and no one can say otherwise.

But that is dangerous.

God created culture, and he loves ethnicity and diversity, even in (especially in) his Church.  I absolutely believe in the authority, inspiration, and the unchanging nature of Scripture, but we also must remember that it was written for all generations, all cultures, all peoples.  I think sometimes western Christians assume they have the trump-card on what Christian culture should look like....but why?  What if an African (or Asian, or South American) Christian holds to the authority and inerrancy of Scripture, uses solid principles of interpretation...and yet comes to different conclusions and applications?  Is it possible that they could be seeing things that we've missed because of our own culture's influence?

This is why we were created to need each other.  And in a country as diverse as America, I wonder why it is so rare that white Christians grasp that truth.  Don't we realize that we are missing out when we refuse to bring other cultures, other colors, other languages into our church conversations?  Don't we realize that even in that refusal is a major blind spot that we will be held accountable for?

We also have to understand that because white Americans have usually had the upper-hand in American Christianity, that people of other ethnicities and cultures are not going to automatically come to us with their concerns about our church culture.  Their voices have been overlooked for way too long for them to try, or they are just too polite.  It's got to be our initiative, our first step, if we are really going to learn from them.

It might start with something as simple as going to a Christian friend from another race or culture and asking, Where are the blind spots in white American church culture?  How are we sinning--against you, against God, against our neighbor--and just ignoring it?  

And then swallow our pride and listen.  Listen.  That kind of humility is something that Tanzanian Christians are teaching me.  I hope I can be like them.