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Friday, September 30, 2016

Seasons Change

It's the last day of the month. I always get a little melancholy on this day. A month is ending and while I'm excited about the prospective of new adventures in the coming month, I'm sad to say goodbye. It seems funny, really. Days and months are merely markers of time with no significance other than we attach to them. I, however, attach much significance. Perhaps too much.

September has been full. This was the month I passed the liminal stage between who I was in America and who I was becoming here and melded into my new identity. Somehow it has felt as natural as who I was before the 17 years I still try to forget. Perhaps it's because it is. I do not know all the details yet of how and for how long I will stay but I do know that I am finally content.

Now I wake up in the morning curious to see what the day's adventures will bring. Now I can sleep at night with a heart filled with life. My life is filled with social and work and church activities which keep me busy. Yes, there are days when I miss the familiar, when everyone around me is speaking in their native language and I feel left out, or when I just want to hop in a car and drive somewhere. But those are becoming fewer as joy continues to expand in my heart.

Speaking of goodbyes, I've noticed that I go through cycles related to the possibility of saying goodbye. As a TCK, I am often suspended between instant connection and fear of rejection. It's a strange dichotomy. I think as children we all believe that people love us and we open up our hearts easily. As we grow older, however, we begin to learn through hard life lessons that people will hurt us and we start to build walls to protect ourselves. The TCK, however, clashes with both of these expectations.

As a child/teenager, I had to work twice as hard to connect and try to fit in. I never spoke the heart language of those around me, except for a few short years in Africa, and I didn't understand all the nonverbal cues or inside cultural jokes. Even as I appeared to connect easily, I was beginning to select with who and how I would connect at a later age. By the time I entered my early 20s, I had learned to carry myself with an air of superiority merely to protect myself.

In the past 15 years or so, I have seen a pattern emerge in how I relate to people. Initially, we are best of friends. I will share emotions and experiences that others may take months or years to feel comfortable sharing. I need to connect so I know if we can be friends on a deeper level. This is the other thing that TCKs look for--a deeper connection than the superficial.

Once I know we can be friends, I become loyal to the person. However, there always comes a tipping stage. In this phase, I realize that I have shared a lot with them and I suddenly worry that they will reject me. In order to cope with the possibility of saying goodbye, I push them away first. It hurts like crazy, worse than ripping off a band-aid, but I know I am taking back control of my heart and no longer vulnerable. So I push.

In the final stage, I wait. There are those who leave, bewildered, confused, or not even realizing what has happened. Then there are those precious ones who wait also. When I'm ready, they are still there. Even if I don't know how to express my fear of rejection and instead hurry through life with my head down, focusing on my feet instead of people's faces, they step into sync with me and walk beside me. When I say words I shouldn't say, they patiently forgive and keep loving me. These are the ones who remain.

I'm not sure I know how to break this cycle, though I know it needs to change. I now recognize the flags that go down as I run around the track, three times, four times, each flag a different colour. Most of the people stand in the bleachers, cheering yet disconnected. Except for my dear dear friends. They step down, lace up their shoes tight, take a deep breath, and fall into stride beside me.

So please forgive me if it's the last day of the month and I'm feeling a little melancholy. Autumn is in the air and a pinch of bittersweet is sinking in as we hurry to the end of the year. I don't want to say goodbye. Not to the month, not to this glorious wonder-filled year that has changed my life and opened my heart. Not to the ones who speak acceptance with a single smile. I'm stretched a little thin of saying goodbye. No more.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Colours & Promises

I love songs. They echo what my heart is feeling but I can't express in words until I hear it in a song. Sometimes it's a phrase, other times it's a verse. Then there are the magical moments when the entire song is exactly perfect. Christina Perri's A Thousand Years is it.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

You Don't Stay

. . .seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you. . .Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper. ~Jeremiah 29:7 NIV
It was late evening but when I stepped over the broken slate gray cement brick that propped open the heavy metal door onto the pebbled roof, I saw with relief that it was empty. I would be able to hop up on to one of the heating/cooling units and sit comfortably there as I overlooked Beirut by night. I was excited. It had been too long.

When I lived here before, we had a water tower at the end of the driveway and they built a special water treatment room over it. The addition included a large square cement block roof that I could hop up on and sit, cross-legged, as I overlooked the Mediterranean Sea by night, little boats lit up and dotting its surface. I was rather protective of my special place where I would journal my teenage angst, talk to God, think and process my day. Leaving that was one of the hardest things to do because my new homes never had a private place in nature where God could fill my heart.

Then I returned and though I was no longer living in my old house, I found a new retreat. Each time I stepped over the brick onto the roof, I held my breath at the beauty of the city before me. During the day, the clear line between sea and sky or the planes coming in for a landing brought me joy while at night the lights and cityscape lit up the sky.

Yesterday, as I looked out over the city, a quiet resolve began to build in my heart. I had been hearing dear friends sharing from their heart during the past week and each time I heard them speak, my heart ached. They simply said, ""You come, you go, and you don't stay. But we stay." It was so true. Though not all missionaries do this, there are some who go on mission trips so they can add another stamp in their passport or take a photo with a local child and post it on Facebook with hashtags #blessed and #missionary#war-torn#country. This hurt the local mission work as they arrived with their iPads and iPhones, muddling the purpose of bringing hope in Jesus with hope in a better earthly life.

For many years, I struggled with the calling to missions. When I was 19, I went to a missions conference where I carefully signed a pledge promising that I would dedicate my life to long-term missions. Over the years, I kept remembering my promise and feeling guilty that I wasn't fulfilling it. My mother tried to help me see that working at a self-supporting institution, making sacrificial wages, living thousands of miles from family and all that was familiar, was mission service. But it didn't seem legitimate because I spoke the language and fit in so well that my friends were surprised to find out that I wasn't American. I'd adopted the accent, the casual California wear, the food and the culture. I knew who Andy Griffith was and could sing the theme song to Friends.

My sister and our friends started to get excited about Asia. They studied Chinese, they went on short-term mission trips, and two of the guys even moved to China and married Chinese women. I went on a two-week choir trip to Taiwan and cried my way through half of it. The food was unfamiliar, even the bananas were funny!, and I couldn't imagine myself living there long-term. I was terrified that God would send me to China or Taiwan.

Over the years, my heart still longed to return home--to Lebanon. I knew part of it was saudade, a Portuguese word that means a deep longing for something very precious to you, something you may never see again. Being raised across cultures, my heart was placed in multiple countries and Lebanon was not the only one that held ties to it. But when the opportunity came to return, even for just a year, I reached out for it with both hands.

All those years I listened to mission stories about Asia and Africa and South America and wished hard that I would have a calling but I never did. Now I know that God used that desire to bring me here for a purpose. I still don't know if my calling here is short-term or long-term but I want to be open to wherever God calls me. There is a huge mission field that will take many years to reach. There need to be relationships built and joyful Christianity modeled. And it takes time. Time to show that we're not people who just come, change everything, and then leave.

I cried through the sermon today. One of the new teachers, a good family friend, shared his story about recent open-heart surgery along with the fears and pain and struggle to recuperate after the surgery. My mother, brother and I had gone and sat in the waiting room with his family while he was in surgery. We didn't say much, we just brought things to do and snacks to eat, Michael had a prayer, and we waited. It was a small room, just barely big enough for the 6 of us along with another family also waiting for their loved one to come out of open-heart surgery.

I remembered going to see him afterwards. He was fast asleep, sedated, and pale. Tubes were everywhere with machines monitoring everything. We didn't stay long but we each said a fervent prayer in our hearts and then we quietly left for the hour-long drive back home. I kept in touch with his wife during that time, asking how we could help, and in the days following he had a difficult week because of the chest tubes that gave him great discomfort. I sent out an email asking for prayers and soon he was feeling better.

Even though I knew the end of the story, I still held my breath as he told it, waiting to be sure that he was okay. Tears ran down my cheeks as I imagined him not being here, standing in front of us, a living breathing heart-beating testimony to God's grace and mercy. It was a story that began more than 20 years ago. If we hadn't come to Lebanon as missionaries, my brother would not have had the idea to come back on a mission trip. Then the family friend and my brother wouldn't have come 3 consecutive years to do health outreach in the community. Then he wouldn't have felt a calling and pursued it to start a pre-med program at the university here. Then he wouldn't have had his physical and found out that he was in the beginning of heart failure.

Sometimes I get frustrated with God because I don't see an answer to my question materializing right away. Hearing the story today has encouraged me to recognize that some questions are still being answered. Some answers may have begun 20 years ago or they may be starting now. In the same way, when it comes to sharing the gospel and the freedom of salvation with others, if we don't see results right away, we don't need to be frustrated or to think it doesn't make any difference if we speak or don't speak. God is working everything out for good according to His purpose, not ours (Romans 8:28).

This is my dream for the future. To see clearly that I am in God's will and to be content there regardless of life's situations. To know that the small every day things have meaning because God has a purpose for my life. Whether it is here or elsewhere, I want to be the one who came. . .and stayed.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Where I End, You Begin

Every single day that I've been here, I've thought What will happen next? Being on a 1-year contract leaves a great deal of uncertainty in my mind and I don't do well with uncertainty. I prefer my life to be mapped out so I can know what to expect and how to reach my goals. My mom told me not to worry about it, to enjoy the adventure, and then in the last couple of months or so to start planning. But no. Every single day I've thought about it and worried about it.

I've often found that when I'm struggling to understand God's will, He sends understanding through a song. It may be Christian, it may be country, it may be a simple song someone strummed on a guitar, but it's in the words that my heart finds rest. Today it was The In Between by Lindsay McCaul. The main idea of the song is that in the time of restlessness between no longer and the not yet, all God is asking is that I trust Him in the time of inbetween.

This is the perfect call to a TCK. I've lived my life inbetween. Inbetween cultures, languages, contexts, families, religions, educational systems, if you can think of it I have lived between it. This liminal existence was so ingrained in me that even after I had lived 17 years on a small campus, I still felt like I lived in limbo, waiting for the next experience to begin.

It's not a comfortable place to be--this inbetweenedness. Here I am excluded based on race or language or diet or perceived status. I'd forgotten what it meant to be left out, at least where I lived before it was my choice if I didn't want to join the group of young people who got up at 6 am on a Saturday morning to pray or walked around campus memorizing King James verses from a brown plastic verse pack. But I had the luxury of surrounding myself with people who spoke English, preferred a healthy diet, and were astounded when I assured them I was not American.

The feelings of liminality, of being between, was kept inside me. These feelings were rooted in being between multiple cultures of my past, my home life, and my public persona. They had little basis or influence by the people I encountered. It seems like a paradox, because I did experience liminality to a deep degree, but it was not because the host country didn't welcome me. I chose to keep it at bay. Here, the reverse seems apparent in the microcosmic profusion of cultures.

I'm facing yet another crossroads. I seem to have seen several of these recently. Career changes, graduate studies, a year here. Then what? What will happen next? Struggling to learn how to trust in the inbetween.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Settled Change

It's been a few challenging days for me. I don't deal well with change, yet, ironically I have placed myself in a ministry position that constantly invokes change. Students returning, eating in the cafeteria again, unsure whether I'd be teaching, new volunteers, have all contributed to the feeling of being unsettled. I was encouraged, though, to read articles on culture shock and adapting. They reiterate that culture shock comes and goes in waves, depending on the person and the situation. It's encouraging to know that eventually the feelings pass and life resumes its normality, whatever that is.

The last couple of days I've come back to my room after work and was startled with an unpleasant scent memory from the first few weeks. I remember best when the senses are involved. For example, smelling freshly cut grass brings me back to climbing trees and running on the lawn at Newbold College when I was a kid. But this time the smell of summer reminded me of not feeling at home here, of wishing I could go home because it wasn't fun to be here. I'm thankful those memories are long in the past now. Even as I work to find my place, I know I'm a lot more comfortable being here than when I first came.

After a while, life settles. The highs disappear, the lows smooth out, and life becomes fairly average. It can be disappointing. I'd expected to always have a full social calendar with a close-knit group of friends to go everywhere with. The reality is that I'm still building the depth of connection that I already have back in the US. But I'm not in the US anymore, I'm here, so I need to invest the energy into community so my heart can settle too. Life may settle but if my heart is restlessly wishing for the past, as it has done for far too many years, then I will never be able to fully embrace the experience.

It's one small thing at a time, really. Today, I walked my 10,000 steps and did more than my hours of work. A dear friend cheered my day with photos of her babies trying pureed vegetables for the first time and another dear friend sent me a box of maple cookies all the way from Canada. From accomplishment to blessing, each moment I want to weave into a ladder that connects my past to my present and allows me to enter this new reality while keeping a hand in the past in a positive way. For if it hadn't been for my past, I wouldn't be the woman I am today. This is the good side of change.

Friday, September 2, 2016

In My Country

In my country. . .

This is a phrase I hear a lot here. When I heard it the other day, it made me stop and think. Here was someone who knew where their country was. They knew where they belonged. They had a country and in their country things were done a certain way. I didn't have that luxury.

After meeting someone for the first time, and since I travel the percentage of meeting new people increases, the first question they ask is Where are you from? When I returned to Lebanon, I told people I'm most recently from California but I've lived all over the place. If they wanted to know more, I gave them the Reader's Digest version of the continents I'd lived on and if they were really interested I'd throw in countries and ages. I lived here til I was 9 and there til I was 15, etc.

The second question tended to follow rather quickly. Which country did you prefer to live in? If they found out I carried multiple citizenship with quadruple ethnicities, two of which were not even related to my citizenships, their alternate question was Which culture do you most identify with? A new ATCK (adult third-culture kid) asked me that the other day and I didn't know how to answer them. I identify most with the Middle Eastern, European and American cultures was my reply. I'm still thinking about whether that is true.

The older I get, the less a single cultural identity seems of significant importance to me. Perhaps it's because the world is growing more accepting of the global nomad norm, as porous borders absorb thousands of refugees and intellectual tourism or trade is on the rise. Even with airplanes dropping out of the sky, millions of people step into metal cylinders and hurtle across oceans and continents to start a new life or fantasize it is their own for a few days.

I'm finding I'm not so unique anymore. Not long after putting a name to my childhood experiences, I began to meet others who shared similar patterns of uprooting from and adapting to various cultures. I learned there were thousands of TCKs out there and most of them could identify with my experience even if they'd lived in different countries or eras. For a while I found my identity as an ATCK and was proud of my heritage. I joined Facebook groups and poured my heart out on threads that dealt with loss. I focused on cross-cultural experience in my graduate studies and carried out a qualitative study of more than 65 TCKs to evaluate the connection between grief, loss, and adult identity.

After completing my graduate studies, I eagerly accepted a volunteer call in the country I'd lived in before immigrating to the US. In a way it felt like coming full-circle. I was now home even though it didn't look like home anymore and the friends I'd had were gone. I settled in to life and tried my hardest to identify with the Lebanese culture. I found that the hospitality, generosity, and warm friendliness were common to my values but the secular emphasis on materialism, outward looks, and advancing up the career and social ladder were not part of my worldview.

When I step back to consider who I am and which culture I identify with, I realize that my identity is as multifaceted as a red diamond which is considered the rarest diamond in the world. Every time you turn the diamond, a different prismatic explosion occurs. Similarly, as I try to understand who I am, I find that as I encounter different people or experiences, I relate differently to them. Even I cannot always predict how a certain situation will affect me.

My country is an African-European-Middle Eastern-American melding of countries. The good and the bad is squashed into a volumetric space no larger than 4 cubic feet. There are times when my identities clash, like a bad hair day for a multiple-personality person. When I'm expected to act Western but my natural instinct is Eastern, I freeze. I struggle sometimes because I feel like I should choose sides but the side to which I'm loyal shifts with the situation.

In my room, I have Dutch stroopwafels and speculaas, a glass with a picturesque Lebanese scene painted on it, a British flag backpack, Korean noodles, a Taiwanese postcard, an American calendar, a British best-selling biography, and a picture of my Bangladeshi sponsored child. I'm as comfortable with this flavour of the world as I am sitting in a Dutch train speeding through the green countryside. I identify with each culture in its unique way, depending on how long I lived there, at what ages, and the level of connection I hold with it.

The next time someone asks me Where do you come from? I'm still not sure what I'll tell them. I cannot say Lebanon because they will immediately know I don't speak Arabic. I cannot say California because they will ask me about politics and I won't be able to give them an intelligent answer. I cannot say Africa because they will laugh at my pale skin. I cannot say England or Holland because they will expect me to have the accent, neither of which I have.

Perhaps I can tell them I'm a kaleidoscope of cultures and each person who gets to know me will see a different picture of who I am based on their understanding of culture and openness to getting to know who I really am. Perhaps my identity will continue to change or merge til one culture is dominant. Perhaps I will finally settle down, not just physically, but emotionally so I can truly feel that where I am is who I am. Til then, I live in the between, the liminal experience strengthened each day as I grow content in who I am now and accept that who I am tomorrow may change. It is no longer in my country. It is in my heart.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

The Miracle of the Broken Pieces

A familiar story. Five loaves; two fish. A hungry crowd. Doubting disciples. A miracle. Yet perhaps the miracle was not even in the feeding of the five thousand. Perhaps the miracle was in the broken pieces.

The disciples had just returned from a mission trip, you could say. Jesus had commissioned them to preach and heal, sending them out to the villages. When they returned, they told Jesus everything and He took them to Bethsaida. It appears from the verses in Luke 9 that Jesus wanted to spend some time quietly with His disciples but soon the crowds found and followed Him. Never impatient, He welcomed them, and spoke to them about the kingdom of God, and healed those who needed to be cured (vs. 11).

When the disciples mention a need to feed all the people and Jesus tells them to provide the food, their reply seems one of indignation. How can they feed thousands of people with the small provisions they have unless they go and buy more food? After days of working miracles through Jesus' power, they doubt His ability to provide enough food for a simple meal of fish and bread.

We all know that Jesus blessed the fish and bread, broke the bread into pieces and gave the food to the disciples to distribute. There is depth of thought there also, that God gives us the blessings and expects us to pass them on to others so He can multiply those blessings through us. It's like church potluck when the food doesn't run out with 50 unexpected international guests. Or like one of my good friends who is constantly feeding others and giving things to those in need while God meets all her needs in perfect timing.

This isn't what caught my eye though. Valid points, yes. Theologically sound, yes. A lesson for us today, yes. Everyone ate til they were satisfied and in the same way, God provides for our needs and doesn't leave us waiting. But as I read the final sentence, I stopped. The disciples gathered up all the leftovers. Twelve baskets of broken pieces (vs. 17)

You would think Jesus would have calculated just exactly enough to feed everyone without any left over. After all, leftovers just go to waste, right? You would also think that Jesus would have kept magically multiplying whole loaves so that when everyone was full there would be entire loaves lying around if there were going to be leftovers. Pieces of bread dry out quicker, especially if it's the flat bread that is common in the Middle East. We always wrap the bag tight to make sure it doesn't dry out otherwise within 30 minutes the bread has turned to a thin hard cracker.

Often Jesus did things that didn't make sense to the people or His disciples. In this instance, they may not have even thought about the spiritual implications of broken bread. The layers to this story, though, are many. Later in Luke, Jesus Himself breaks bread at the Last Supper and hands it to His disciples. This time He isn't asking them to pass on the bread to a crowd; He is feeding them. At the same time that He is meeting their physical need for food, He is echoing His calling to this earth. He solemnly instructs them to eat the bread in remembrance of Him (Luke 22:19).

The bread becomes a symbol of Jesus' soon-to-be death. The bread reminds us, then and now when we take Communion, that Jesus' body was broken in spirit and in reality for our wholeness. A spear pierced His side and a deep sadness pierced His soul when He believed that His Father had forsaken Him. Yet despite the incredible physical pain and the even-harsher emotional pain, Jesus determined to continue til the end so victory would be realized.

I don't think the disciples knew then what the 12 baskets of broken pieces really meant. In passing the broken bread to them, Jesus was commissioning them to share the gospel with the world. He had already minted them through the practical application of ministry in preaching and healing. Now, He had performed a miracle to strengthen their faith. At the same time, His quiet example was spreading a foundation for when He would no longer be with them. There were 12 disciples and 12 baskets. Each disciple had a calling to take the Word of God from Jesus and function as a vessel to pass on the good news to whomever was open to hearing.

In sharing the broken pieces, Jesus was offering wholeness. Jesus wanted the disciples to understand this but it would take them time. The same gift is offered to me today. While the broken pieces of bread may seem like second-best, they are perfect for God's plan. He wants to use me, a broken person, to take the gospel to others.

Did you notice that the broken pieces weren't left on the hillside to be eaten by the birds? They were gathered up and carefully put into baskets to be eaten in the future. Similarly, God doesn't reject me because I'm broken. He carefully gathers me close, keeping me near His heart, until there is opportunity to be used for Him. There is a mentality out there among Christians that if you have any problems, you just need to pull yourself up by your bootstraps and get over it. You're supposed to be perfect. If you're anything less than that, you're not good enough for God and if you even confess to something, you need to figure out how to deal with it within 24 hours.

I have learned that God doesn't work that way. He knows I am a fragile person (Psalm 103:14). Instead of expecting me to measure up, God sees my brokenness and has compassion on me. He holds me close and extends healing through loved ones and experiences personalized just for me so I see how much He loves me.

Each basket had a purpose. I have a purpose. A broken piece of bread may seem useless but one day someone will be hungry and need to eat it for sustenance. Giving the gift of bread, even if it is broken, encourages the receiver. In the same way, sharing Jesus' love with others encourages those who hear. I'm a broken piece, I'm not perfect, and I often feel like I'm just sitting and waiting for God to use me, but because I'm broken, I can receive broken bread, or the Word of God, and pass it on to others. If I was perfect, Jesus wouldn't need to do a miracle with me. What astounding mercy!