Monday, November 8, 2021

Home Ministry Assignment 101

It's been rather quiet on this blog for awhile.  That hasn't been because I haven't had things to write about or things to communicate, but because we've been on Home Ministry Assignment (HMA) since June and our time has been filled to the brim with other things.  Good things, but lots of things!

Back in January, when we looked toward our HMA halfway through the year, we weren't sure what would be possible in terms of meeting with people and doing our normal HMA routine.  By the time we arrived in the States, the world had begun opening up again and we found ourselves able to do HMA with relative normalcy.  We've been extremely grateful for that because it's allowed us to travel and speak at churches and simply spend time with people.

Even though we've been doing this missionary thing for over 5 years, we've realized there are still many questions about what this time in the States looks like for us.  In light of that, here's a brief "Home Ministry Assignment 101" to help explain what we do here.

Mission Headquarters

We travel to our mission headquarters for a time of rest and renewal, as well as a debrief of our last term on the mission field.  It's a time when we can reconnect with all the staff at HQ that works on our behalf and also to meet with people in our Member Health department as needed.  It's a time when we pray together and worship together and tell stories.  A childcare program takes care of our kids and even does age-appropriate activities to help them debrief also.  The boys love going to HQ because it's always a ton of fun for them!

Additionally, this month we will participate in a training event with our mission headquarters.  It will be virtual, but we'll still see people from WGM and discuss topics that pertain to the administrative side of ministry.


We also fundraise every time we're in the States.  Fundraising is necessary for various reasons, such as attrition of previous support, increased ministry expenses due to inflation over time, and new ministry projects that need funding.  Often we'll make our needed expenses known when we speak at churches.

Speaking at Churches

We always visit our supporting churches and speak about the ministry in Kenya.  That happens while standing around a display table we put in the lobby, as well as when we have the privilege of speaking from the pulpit.  We've also engaged with people through other creative means, such as organizing a book club discussion, speaking at an evening fireside chat, having a drop-by open house, and speaking at a mid-week luncheon.  Basically, we travel around and talk about Kenya a lot!

Connecting with Supporters

We spend a significant amount of time connecting with individual supporters in person.  It requires a lot of scheduling and communication beforehand, but then we get to hang out with people and talk more about Kenya!  We often share meals with people as we do this, and sometimes that means going from a breakfast meeting to a lunch meeting to a supper meeting all in one day, but that's one of the reasons we're in America: to connect with people who care about what God is doing in Kenya.

Working at the Hospital

Eli picks up shifts at an ER every time we're in the States.  He does this to maintain connections and work relationships here, as well as to simply keep doing medical work while we're gone from Kenya.  It also helps our personal finances so we can afford to do extra things as a family while we travel across the country.

Attending Conferences

We have the privilege of attending some conferences when we're here.  The most important one is the Global Missions Health Conference that takes place in Louisville every November, which offers helpful and pertinent sessions, as well as the chance to connect and network with others in the medical missions world.

Time with Family

This should be obvious, but perhaps the most important part of our HMA is spending time with our families.  Living half a world away from them is not easy, so getting time with them is crucial and refreshing.

Life Chores

This isn't a fun part of HMA, but a necessary part.  There are always things to do - what we've termed "life chores" - that we can only do when we're in America.  Things like sorting through our long-term storage, scanning and printing documents, calling banks and insurance companies, updating our technology, finding size 14 wide shoes for Eli to take back to Kenya, etc.  We're always surprised at how time-consuming these chores are, but they must be done.

Planning for Homeschooling

I do my best to take advantage of the access to education resources here in America.  I try to plan 2 years of homeschooling in advance so I know what to bring over ahead of time and what to ask visitors to bring over when they come.  I stock up on supplies that I can't get in Kenya, like Scotch tape, glue sticks, folders, etc.  I spend days (literally) looking through homeschool catalogs and scouring the internet to compare curriculums to decide what to use with our boys.

Rest and Rejuvenation

It's actually hard to find time to rest and rejuvenate on HMA because we're so busy traveling or recovering from traveling.  But I must emphasize how important this is for us, especially for Eli who's at the hospital nearly every day in Kenya.  Living cross-culturally can be tiring, and living/working at a mission hospital is particularly tiring because of all the effort required to work without resources, to be constantly understaffed with patients constantly coming through the hospital doors, and to be surrounded by so much death.  Having an extended time to be away from the hospital is extremely important for Eli's mental health.  When we return to Kenya after HMA, Eli's strength has returned and he is ready to dive back in to work at the hospital.

As for me, this time in the States is extremely important for getting help with the kids.  We have easy access to grandparents and friends and babysitters who help watch our boys and pour into them.  It's one of the biggest ways that I can take a breath while we're here.


So that's what we do on HMA!  It's a busy time.  An important time.  An encouraging time.  It's something we're grateful for because it enables us to keep doing what we're doing in Kenya.

Thursday, June 3, 2021

Reflections on Ministry

As we are on the cusp of another major transition, I am finding myself in a mode of reflection.  Our second term on the field has blessed us with some of the highest highs of our life, and has also cost us some of our lowest lows.  It's an enormous task to process the past 2+ years, where we've lived in a place that has felt more like home than anywhere else in years, and where we've experienced so much loss that when I made a list of griefs and losses I almost forgot to include Covid-19.

Interestingly, what I've found myself thinking about so much lately is the medical ministry.  Perhaps that sounds odd - aren't we always thinking about the medical ministry and aren't we medical missionaries after all?  Yes.  Well, at least half of us are.  Eli is a medical doctor working in medical ministry every day and it does consume much of his thoughts.  I, on the other hand, have little to do with the medical side of our ministry and think of it rather infrequently.  Despite that, I am fully committed to the medical ministry in the sense that I am fully committed to supporting Eli and I deeply care about what happens at our hospital and with our residents and I desire to see God's kingdom built up because of it all.  But my daily life has nothing to do with medical anything (which is probably best for all involved).

Yet what my husband does every day is the whole reason we live and serve in Kenya.  What my husband does every day impacts our family and requires commitment from all of us.  What my husband does every day is ministry and that is what keeps us doing what we're doing.

We are not humanitarian aid workers.  We are not adventure-seekers.  We are not tourists.  We are not transplants who find enjoyment in living someplace different for its own sake.

We are missionaries.  We have a specific purpose.  We have a mission.  We desire and hope and pray to have lasting impact by what we do.

If we didn't desire to have an impact - a Kingdom impact - then we wouldn't live and serve in Kenya.  

There are many expats who live in this country who don't have a mission to be impactful by living here.  They are doing all manner of other occupations and living normal lives.  Sometimes I envy them.  Living a normal life in this country would be wonderful.  There's so much beauty here in Kenya, so many adventures to experience, so much good food to enjoy, so many cultures to appreciate, so much good fun to be had.

But that's not what we signed up for.  We signed up to be on mission, to have an impact by what we do and maybe even see that impact come to fruition.

And that is why this life of ministry can be so hard.  If we didn't concern ourselves with patient outcomes at the hospital, if it was neither here nor there what the spiritual ministry of the hospital was, if discipleship wasn't a main motivation behind all that we do, then our life would be much easier.

But we do care very much about all these things and we pour ourselves into them.

We moved to Kenya to be in medical ministry.  No one goes into ministry because it promises success or happiness (although it can and does offer such).  People go into ministry because they are called and because they believe in the impact of the Gospel.

We are such people.

And it's because of a life of ministry that we've experienced some of the highest highs and lowest lows of our life.  Some of our highs would have never been enjoyed if it had not been for ministry.  Some of our lows would have never been suffered if it had not been for ministry.

We have been shaped by our experiences these past 2+ years.  We've learned more about ourselves, we've been strengthened and humbled, we've endured and pressed on.  We've been lost and confused, found and encouraged.  I actually thought when we started this term that it would be easier than the last, which goes to show how naive I still was.  I'm not sure seasons of life ever get easier - they are all hard in different ways, just as they all have blessings to be enjoyed in different ways.  This term was hard, harder than we expected, and it was also good.  We're grateful for it, and we're hopeful the lessons we learned will help us with the lessons we have yet to learn.

Because, Lord willing, there is much more ministry ahead of us.

Monday, March 15, 2021

When Callings Collide

I recently read a novel that was hard to finish, not because the storyline wasn't interesting or because the pacing was off, but because the main characters were entirely too one-dimensional.  Each of the main characters had a specific calling in life that guided all their thoughts and actions.  They were passionate about their callings, but singular in them.  What I mean is, there was nothing else to motivate them or drive them, nothing else to talk about even.  The characters were rather myopic in their outlook on life.  Their entire worldview was funneled through the one lens of their one calling.

It was boring to read about them.  It was frustrating because it didn't feel realistic or relatable at all.  I almost gave up on the book because the characters bothered me so much.

In reality, most people have more than one calling at the same time.

In reality, most people have doubted those callings at one time or another.

In reality, not every day is full of joy because you're living out your calling.

In reality, discovering and living out your calling in life is often a sticky, jumbled mess full of high highs and low lows.  It is, quite simply, complicated.

The messiness is multifaceted.  Some callings are lifelong, some are seasonal.  Some are thrust upon us, some are chosen by us.  Some are obvious, some are difficult to discern.  Some are ours alone, some need to be shared and navigated alongside others.  Some are vocations, some avocations.

And many of them exist in tandem.  I don't set aside my calling as a mother in order to pick up my calling as a missionary.  They coexist today, and will coexist again tomorrow.  The same goes for everything I'm called to.  I'm called to marriage, to motherhood, to missions, to writing.  Every day of my life I am a wife, a mother, a missionary, and a writer, and it's the regular collision of these callings that is so difficult to balance.

Things can get very messy when callings collide.

But that's true for most of us.  I am certainly not the only mother out there struggling to find time and energy to pour into my marriage at the end of a long day on the home front.  I'm not the only missionary in the world needing to process my cross-cultural life through writing and finding next to no time to do it.  I'm not the only spouse on the mission field scrambling to justify the label "missionary" when she spends all day at home teaching the kids while her husband spends all day helping and serving the poor.

When callings collide, it can be rather difficult to keep track of all those callings, let alone live them out all at once.

Which is why it's so complicated, and also why we need God's grace every day to live out the callings He's given us.

It's nearly impossible - if not actually impossible - to succeed let alone excel in multiple callings at once.  Most days I completely fail at one or another, and sometimes I fail miserably.  A couple weeks ago my son told me how upset he was because I'd broken a promise to him and, compiled with a bunch of other negative emotions he was experiencing at the time, he said to my face, "I'm just done."  Meaning, he was done with me.  I won't attempt to explain the depth of my grief at being told by my son that I was a failure of a mother, but I use it as a recent example of how hard it is to fulfill even one of our callings let alone anything more.

Today marks the day that I had set a particular writing goal for myself on a certain project.  I set the goal months ago, thinking I could actually achieve it in time.  Well, today is here and I'm nowhere near that goal.  I have completely failed and I'm forced to wonder how this failure figures in to my long-term writing goals.

What does it mean to be a wife and a mother and a missionary and a writer?  What does that look like day in and day out?

I honestly don't know.  Because even when I focus solely on one calling at a time, I don't do it well every day, or even most days.  I get annoyed with my husband, I yell at my kids, I shut myself in the house to avoid any cross-cultural encounters, I ignore my writing project because eating chocolate and watching Netflix is just plain easier.  I fail, and fail, and fail, and fail again.

BUT.  But God's grace remains just as constant as our failures do, and His grace speaks truth into the lie that we probably weren't actually called to this and God must've made a mistake (which is a lie I've been battling a lot recently).

God's grace declares, "You were made for this even though you aren't perfect at it."

His grace speaks, "Acknowledge your failure but also acknowledge My presence and My strength to hold you up."

His grace breathes, "I created you and I chose you for this.  I still choose you for this.  I did not make a mistake."

When callings collide, so does God's grace and love and mercy.  He is gentle with us when we fail.  He is comforting when we grieve.  He is kind in His encouragement, tender in His care, patient in His guidance.  And perhaps more than anything, He is bold in His continued claim of us.  God never called me to be a perfect wife, a perfect mother, a perfect missionary, or a perfect writer.  He called me to be these things and to make of them whatever I could, with His help.  When He called me to them, He knew I would fail at every one of them.  And He still claims me as His own.  And He still invites me to fulfill these callings.

I think God is pleased that I accept the callings He's given me, and that I wrestle through the difficulty of when those callings collide rather than throw them away because it seems too hard or downright impossible to figure it out any other way.

So I keep taking them up, these callings of mine, and wrestle with balancing them most days.  And I pray that God will always send this reminder when I need it most: when callings collide, so does God's grace and love and mercy.

Friday, February 5, 2021

In the Grief of Goodbyes, I Lift Up My Eyes

In the last seven months of 2020, we said no less than seven goodbyes.

That's a lot of people leaving in a relatively small amount of time.

That's a lot of tears.

And grief.

And loss.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: nothing could have prepared us for the never-ending parade of goodbyes in this missions life, and it is one of the hardest aspects of this calling.  We've been on both sides of the coin.  We've been the people who've left - from family and friends in our home country, as well as from friends and colleagues at our first ministry site.  We've also been the people left behind - left to hold down the fort at our ministry site, left to stay the course when other people's courses have changed.  It's not easy on either end of the goodbyes, but it's particularly strenuous when the goodbyes topple on top of each other in short order.

Last weekend we said another goodbye, the first of this year.  One of our graduating residents officially moved away, taking his beautiful wife and precious baby boy with him.  They moved on to their next season of life, to a place where God has led them and provided for them, to a place where they will sow seeds of love and kindness and compassion that will bear fruit for God's Kingdom.

When they drove away, I turned around and cried.  Because we love them and didn't want to say goodbye.

But goodbyes are guaranteed here.  We live in a transient place.  It's not just the missionaries who come and go; it's everyone.  My Kenyan friend once noted how hard it is to live and work at a mission hospital because there are so many goodbyes.  Interns come for a year, then leave.  Residents come for four years, then leave.  Doctors come for various amounts of time, but many of them leave because they are far from home and home has a way of calling people back.

I'm sure that, someday, home will call us back too.

But that day is not today and we have found ourselves in the position of staying put and saying goodbye over and over again.

I daresay it is a cross to bear.

I've come to think that saying goodbye is a product of this broken world.  When Adam and Eve sinned in the garden, part of their punishment was to leave.  They were forced to say goodbye to all that was familiar, to leave the place where everything they knew was together in one place.  Granted, they were the only people on the planet, but they were at home in the garden and with the creation around them and it was good.

They were together in one place and it was good.

And one day, when the Lord restores all things and sets the world right, we will be together in one place and it will be good.  I've heard it said that all these goodbyes make us long for heaven even more, and I agree.  Heaven will be Home.  One home for all of God's people.  No more moving from here to there, no more saying goodbye and feeling a part of yourself break as the car drives away with a piece of your heart in it.  Heaven will be a place where we can find each other easily, where no one is beyond reach because of distance or time zones, where no one has moved on to a new season of life.  We will all be in the same season - a forever season of being together with Jesus and with each other.

Oh, how I long for that!

In the meantime, I've been reading and meditating on Psalm 121.  I've especially loved this psalm since moving to Chogoria, where we can see the peak of Mt. Kenya from our front porch on a clear day.  I've been reading it as I grieve so much loss in this season, loss which makes me hang my head and weep.

I lift up my eyes to the hills --
where does my help come from?
My help comes from the Lord,
the Maker of heaven and earth.

I have sat on our porch in the morning and chosen to raise my head even as I weep.  I lift up my eyes to the hills - the foothills and the mountain peak of Mt. Kenya - and ask myself, "Where does my help come from?"  And I answer as the psalmist does: my help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.

Recently I've latched onto the final verse of Psalm 121, which has somehow escaped my notice before but has become a lifeline:

The Lord will watch over your coming and going
both now and forevermore.

What a promise for us all.  He watches over our comings and goings, and He watches over the comings and goings of those around us when it's our turn to stay.  None of our movements are unseen by Him and none of our goodbyes are unnoticed by His ever-watchful eyes.  We come, we go.  Others come, others go.  The Lord watches over it all.  I am helped and comforted by that.

So I will keep lifting up my eyes to the source of help, to the Maker of heaven and earth, to the One who created us to be together in one place and who declared it to be good as such, and who will make it so again.

Friday, November 20, 2020

A Reminder of Why

Our 7-year old son surprised me the other day with this question: "Mama, did you know you would live after having babies?"

I think his question was two-fold.  First, did I ever wonder if I would die in childbirth like so many women throughout history have (and so many who still do today)?  And secondly, was I afraid to have babies because of the prospect of death?

My answer to his question was simple: Yes, I knew I would live after having babies.  I was never concerned that I might die.

Why is that?  Because I had babies in America.  I had three beautiful baby boys in America.




I then explained that being in America meant I could be taken care of the whole time I was pregnant and while I was having a baby.  I had a good doctor who knew how to take good care of me and the baby in my tummy, and she had everything she needed to take care of me.  And if there had been a problem, she would have known what to do and she would have had what she needed to do it.

I didn't deny that some women do still die in childbirth in America, but that it's so rare I wasn't worried or scared for myself to have babies.

My son was satisfied with this answer, but I sensed an opportunity to explain more.

The reason so many women can still die in childbirth in other places around the world (like here in Africa) is because they don't have enough doctors to take care of them.  And even if they have doctors, they don't necessarily have the resources needed to take care of them.  They might not have medicine or surgical tools or knowledge of how to do C-sections or post-partum emergency surgery.  Quite frankly, there's a lot required to keep pregnant women healthy and safe throughout a pregnancy let alone labor and delivery.

I explained to our son that his daddy is someone who knows how to take care of women having babies.  He spent years learning how to be a good doctor, and he even learned how to do C-sections (which was something our son had never heard of, so I explained, which was a bit ironic since our children still don't know how babies are normally born).  Having someone like his daddy around is a really good thing for women having babies.

But far too many women in this world do not have someone like that around.  Far too many women do not have a doctor within reach when they need one.  Far too many women still die in childbirth because they simply don't have available healthcare - no doctors, no medicine, no tools, no life-saving resources of any kind.

And so I explained to my son: That's why we're here.  Because Africa needs more doctorsYour daddy is one more doctor in Africa right now, and he's training more people to be doctors, to be good doctors who love Jesus and want to help heal people like He did.

So far we've helped six new Family Medicine doctors get trained, and next month there'll be six more graduates who will be helping people in Africa.  I named people that our son knows from our compound here at Chogoria - one who is staying in Kenya, two who will be returning to Burundi, and one who will be returning to Congo - all of whom will be a huge blessing to many people who need the help of a doctor.  Imagine how much good they will do, how much healing they will bring!  That prospect is why we are here.

Our conversation was unexpected, but I am so thankful it happened.  It gave our son a bit of insight into how blessed and privileged we are to be from America, where his mama didn't have to wonder if she would live after having babies.  And it gave our son a specific understanding of why we live here in Kenya. 

As of yet, our children have never questioned why we live here.  They've been told why, but they've never questioned it.  They accept it in the way children often accept things - with a shrug of the shoulders and no further thought about it.  But we want them to know why.  It's important to know why because moving halfway around the world isn't something done flippantly.  And it's important because if our children ever do question our choice to live here, we can point them back to why.

In truth, sometimes Eli and I have to point ourselves back to why.

The day our son prompted this whole discussion was the day Eli watched eight people die at the hospital in a 24-hour period (and most of them had nothing to do with Covid-19).  Days like that can really force the question of why we're here.  Why are we here where Eli has to witness such suffering over and over again, and feel the perpetual stress of working in an under-resourced area?

Earlier this week I reached the end of my rope and said, "I want to go home" and meant it.  Seasons like this with extra burdens on our shoulders and an inability to handle those burdens without the presence of our family and all that's familiar can really make me wonder why we're here.  Why do we stay here when we could be close to our families instead?

Moments like those make our son's unlooked-for question so appropriate and so helpful.  They give us the reminder we need, and the encouragement we need, to keep doing what we're doing on the days that it's hard to live in a foreign place.  When we need the occasional reminder of why God has placed us here, we remember that He put Africa on our hearts all those years ago, which He did because there aren't enough doctors in Africa and He wanted us to play a part in changing that.  

It's that simple.

Our hope and prayer is that someday, if our son ever asks, "Mama, do these women in Africa know they will live after having babies?" we will be able to answer, "Yes.  Yes, they know they will live."

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Social Anxiety in a Collectivist Culture

Our son Caleb has struggled with social anxiety for a long time.  I use the word "struggle," but there've been days (and sometimes still are) when he's wrestled, battled, waged war, succumbed, or been all-out defeated by his social anxiety.  It's been a defining part of our parenthood journey as well as a defining part of our cross-cultural life.

We started seeing signs of social anxiety when Caleb was just 2 years old, but we didn't understand what was happening at the time.  We thought he was a difficult toddler and he'd simply phase out of it.  But he didn't phase out of it, and by the time he was 3 the struggle had increased, and it peaked at age 4 with several scenarios in which he was completely debilitated by the social situation he found himself in.  I have too many memories of our son falling apart, sobbing out of control, and literally hiding under tables or under beds or in the folds of my skirt in order to escape the social situation that was causing him stress.

Most of us feel like hiding from a social situation sometimes, but the picture below shows what our son actually did during the height of his social anxiety.  I laugh at it now (because it's so ridiculous), but the reality is that his 4-year-old self didn't know how else to cope with social anxiety any other way.  Hiding was his best strategy.

The onset of this particular struggle was distressing to us not only because our son was clearly unwell but because this was something he would have to work through and figure out in order to live life.  Most people can excuse a young child hiding under the table, but he will not be a child forever and neither will the hiding strategy be excused forever.  

Caleb's social anxiety was also distressing because by the time he was 3, we were headed overseas to live in a collectivist culture.

Our own American culture is individualistic.  We give priority to individuals - to their wants, needs, opinions, etc.  It's okay, if not applauded, for someone to stand out from the crowd.  It's okay to not participate in something if you don't want to.  It's okay to spend time alone and be a quiet introvert.

Conversely, collectivist cultures (like Kenya) give priority to the group.  People choose to align themselves with a group because there's strength in the group.  People find their identity in the group and will form group opinions and not separate themselves unless there's some drastic reason to.  People stand together (even literally) and don't feel the need to have space from each other.  The herd mentality is strong.  If someone starts an activity (like singing or dancing), others tend to join in.  People spend almost all of their time with other people because no one wants to be alone.

As you can imagine, living in a collectivist culture can feel like a nightmare for someone with social anxiety.

I once joked with a Kenyan friend that I'd never met an introverted Kenyan and she surprised me by saying, "Oh, my brother is an introvert."  It was the first I'd heard of introversion here and I was a bit relieved to know there were people here who could identify with some of our own introverted ways.  But then my friend said, "He liked to be by himself a lot as a child and was very quiet.  Everyone thought there was something wrong with him."

And I again found myself confronted with our old nemesis, Parental Distress, because it seemed to remain true that the average Kenyan does not understand people who like to spend time by themselves let alone someone with a distinct aversion to group gatherings.  Therefore, it also seemed to remain true that the average Kenyan does not understand our son whose behavior is rather un-average in this cultural context.

Our son Caleb has always needed extra space and time to adjust to social situations, especially in a new place with new people.  When Caleb displays signs of this need (such as distancing himself from others), a typical Kenyan interpretation is that he's shy.  And if someone in Kenya is shy, the appropriate Kenyan response is to come closer to them and encourage them to participate in the group because, the thought goes, being in the group is the best and safest place to be.

That thinking, however, is directly opposed to what Caleb thinks and feels.  Having strangers get in Caleb's face and tell him to come, come, come, while also putting an arm around him to physically direct him where they think he should go - well, let's just say it has never gone over very well.

He would cry, shake his head no and physically try to escape from their touch.  So they would try harder to bring him into the group, which made him resist harder, and we quickly had a dramatic scene on our hands.

Basically, everyone thought there was something wrong with him.

But there is nothing wrong with our son.  He has a weakness, to be sure, and needs help in managing his social anxiety and learning coping strategies for stressful social situations, but there is nothing wrong with him.

Interestingly, there were many times when I'd watch in frustration as a Kenyan tried to interact with my son who clearly did not understand or appreciate his need for space and I would think to myself, "What is wrong with you?"

I would allow myself to think there was something wrong with a Kenyan for behaving that way toward my child because, from my cultural lens, needing space is okay.  Wanting to be alone is okay.  Not wanting to participate in a group activity is okay.

From a Kenyan cultural lens, however, needing space is strange and perhaps unhealthy.  Wanting to be alone marks you as odd.  Not wanting to participate in a group activity just means you need more people to gather around you and encourage you to participate and then you and everyone will be okay.

Our son does not fit into a typical Kenyan framework.  He is misunderstood by almost every Kenyan who meets him.  Our usual explanation is to say that he's shy, because people can at least understand a shy person.  But the reality isn't that Caleb is shy - it's that he struggles with social anxiety.  There isn't a frame of reference for that here, however.

So our son's struggle has been our struggle too.  We've fought for him to have the time and space needed in new situations.  We've let him stay outside when visiting someone's home for the first time, and we've excused him from participating in group activities, and we haven't forced him to greet strangers.

But we've also worked and worked and worked to help him grow in this area so it won't be such a struggle.  We've brought him to places that were new to him while assuring him that he could stick close to us the whole time.  We've made him attend birthday parties even though he didn't play all the games or sing along with the rest of the kids.  We've expected him to greet people he already knew.  We've stretched him as far as we could without breaking him, and when he grows comfortable with something, we've stretched him again.

And that beautiful boy of ours has grown so incredibly much.  I will never forget the time he joined me on an errand and a stranger greeted him and asked his name, and without any hesitation or prompting on my part, Caleb answered the man as if it was an everyday occurrence for him to respond in such a way.  My mouth nearly dropped open.  I could hardly believe it was our kid who said that.

And I will never forget the day he walked into a house in the village without hesitation or any discomfort.

And I will never forget the day he shook the tambourine as we caroled around the wards of the hospital with a big group of people and liked it.

And I will never forget the day he participated in a relay race and then wanted to do it again.

And I will never forget the day he started clapping along to the songs in Sunday School like all the other kids were doing.

Our son has come so far.  Caleb has grown by leaps and bounds with his social anxiety and we know he will grow continually because God has proven Himself faithful to bless and help our son.  In the moments when he's still struggling and it's obvious that Kenyans are confused by him, I find myself wishing I could shout, "But he's come so far!  You have no idea!"  Which is true.  But getting someone to understand why our son is the way he is or trying to explain how far he's come from the days of hiding under tables isn't the end goal.  The end goal is recognition of and adoration for what God has done, whether anyone else knows it or not.  As Caleb's parents, who have been with him throughout this entire journey of social anxiety, we have been front-row witnesses to his struggles and subsequent victories, to God's grace and God's deliverance.

We've also become more aware of how deeply ingrained our cultural worldviews are and what we consider to be "right" or "wrong" until we stop and think about things from another cultural perspective.  What is true of Caleb's social anxiety - "He's come so far!" - I hope is also true of us as his parents.  I hope it can be said that we've come so far from when we first landed in this country - in our understanding of the culture surrounding us and in our ability to live our days filled with grace and growth.

That is the end goal.  Not to declare "We've done it!" but rather to say "We've come so far!" and to give glory to God along the way.

Sunday, September 6, 2020

The Stuff of Fiction and What God Thinks of Our Stories

When writing fiction, all the experts say you need a good hook to draw your readers in - an inciting incident to propel the story forward and keep readers turning the pages.  That, and you have to make your readers care about your characters.  If readers feel invested in your characters, they'll keep reading.

A fair amount of drama doesn't hurt either.  A secret past or hidden identity is often a good move.

And action if possible.

And engaging dialogue.  Definitely that.

And good pacing in tandem with a good story arc.

In other words, it takes a lot to gain a reader's interest in a story and then to subsequently hold that interest till the end of the book.

This is all well and good in the fiction world.  People tend to read fiction for the enjoyment of entering another world and living vicariously through fictional characters.  I am one of those people.  My particular preference is historical fiction set in 1800s America or the WWII era set anywhere in the world.  Add in some romance and my satisfaction is complete.  I love learning history through the eyes and ears of fictional characters, and I love exploring the cultures of bygone ages through the narrative descriptions filling the pages of a novel.

I'm also a rather critical reader.  I fully invest in the main characters to the point that I can get frustrated when there's a hole in the narrative that did a disservice to the characters or when the backstory isn't believable or when the character acts out of character in a way that isn't purposeful to the story line.  The reason I nitpick over details is because I expect fiction to be neatly packaged even if the characters themselves are a hot mess or the story doesn't lead to an ending I'd prefer.

But that's the way of fiction.  It can be well constructed and delivered because it's completely made up.  Characters can grow and change over the course of the story.  They can speak only the words worth speaking that will drive the story along.  They can appear in scenes that are interesting and critical because any uninteresting or uncritical scene has been deleted from the draft.  The story can move along with smooth transitions from one chapter to the next, and loose ends can be tied up.

That's why I love fiction.  It's relatively crisp and neat, no matter what events are actually happening in the story line.

When I think about what makes an interesting story - about what the fiction experts say is necessary - I'm struck by how much those requirements do not fit reality.

Even people who have plenty of drama in their life can't say they've always had smooth transitions from one scene to the next.  They can't say they're experts at spoken exchanges, always saying whatever is compelling and eloquent at the right time and place.  They can't say they didn't have long stretches of nothing new happening and wishing they could skip ahead to the next interesting part of the story.

If people with plenty of drama in their life can't say that, then people without much drama can't say that either.

I'm someone without much drama in my life.  Anyone hearing my story wouldn't find much to be interested in.  Perhaps the most interesting thing about me is that I moved overseas to be a missionary, which has proven interesting to many people, but isn't the stuff of fiction per se.  There's very little action in my story and certainly no secret past or hidden identity to kick things off.  I live a relatively simply, mundane, uninteresting life.

My story will never be told in a fiction narrative because the one problem with fiction is that it doesn't recognize a universal truth: all stories are interesting page-turners to God.

God is the creator of all things.  He is the creator of the earth and everything in it.  He is the creator of humanity.  He is the creator of stories.  He is the creator of our stories and He is very much interested in them.

One thing my attempts at writing fiction has taught me is this: creators of characters and their stories care deeply about those characters and their stories, even if no one else does, even if no one else understands why that scene pricks your own heart or why that part of a personality resonates with you or why that choice kept you thinking long past your bedtime.  Creators of characters care deeply about their characters.

And God, as the creator of us and our stories, cares deeply about us and our stories.  He was hooked the moment He created us and He's invested in how the story goes and where it goes.  Every page is meaningful to Him and there isn't a single human story that He'll give up on because it just wasn't engaging enough to Him.  His interest and His love for our stories have no bounds.

He is the Author and the Reader.  He simultaneously writes our stories and reads them.  I imagine Him writing with one hand and turning a page with the other, devouring what's there because He's so moved and captivated by our stories.

Psalm 139 paints a poignant picture of how much God invests Himself in us.  Our lives are at the center of His thoughts, at the heart of His consideration:

O Lord, you have searched me and you know me (and are interested in me despite my boring life).

You know when I sit and when I rise (even though most of my sittings and risings are not worth mentioning).

You perceive my thoughts from afar (and understand them even when they're jumbled and unintelligible and not worth putting into words much less putting on paper).

You discern my going out and my lying down (because You care about every coming and going and watch over me even as I sleep).

You are familiar with all my ways (even the monotonous ways).

Before a word is on my tongue, you know it completely, O Lord (and love me the same whether the words coming off my tongue make You proud or make You cringe).

You hem me in - behind and before (even though sometimes I should probably be hemmed out).

You have laid your hand upon me (and keep it there no matter what).

Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain!

Psalm 139 was written by someone with more drama than even the greatest fiction writers could possibly concoct.  King David's life seems like the stuff of fiction on steroids, so it's ironic that his words speak so strongly to someone as uninteresting as me.  Yet I take heart in these truths written by someone whose life was a riveting page-turner. 

God knows me and is familiar with all my ways and His hand is laid upon me.

God is interested in my story.  He's invested, deeply invested, and such knowledge is too wonderful for me.

Especially because it means I can connect with my Creator without wondering if He'll want to connect with me too.  If anything, He is the one reminding me that He loves my story and that it matters.

Henri Nouwen once wrote to a student, “[Y]our story is the story with which you can come to know God’s story better, and it is his story that makes your story worth living.”

Our stories are not the end-all. None of us have the greatest story ever written, but all of us have a story that intersects with it. Our stories are possible because God, the Creator, wrote a grand story that includes all of us and which gives our stories purpose and meaning.

Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain!

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Song for this Season

This summer has not been what I expected.  I thought Summer Break meant Mama Break, and maybe in another time and place that would be true.  But it has not been true in this time and place.  I had expectations of sending the boys outside all morning while I catch up on projects and read to my heart's content.  I had hopes of writing a lot.  I had dreamed of waking up early for the sole purpose of reading Scripture and actually starting my days with prayer.

Apparently those were high expectations.

Instead, Summer Break has meant Mama Gets No Breaks because in this time and place there are hearts that needs tending, relationships that need mending, and hopes kept from rending.  It's been a season not of keeping all the plates spinning, but of holding the one plate we've got tightly and securely.  It's been a season of hanging onto each other in the midst of relatively mundane days, learning to meet each other's needs in new ways since most of our anchors have up and gone.

A few years ago I wrote a song which has crept into my mind lately.  At the time we were finishing our first year on the mission field, and there were a thousand thoughts and emotions surging through me.  I still have a thousand thoughts and emotions, and although our circumstances now are vastly different than they were then, my heart easily identifies with the words and sentiments of this song.  So I've been singing it again, just to myself, just to pour something tangible out.

It's been a song for this season.

I love this picture below: our sons running home from the hospital with boundless energy, and the jacaranda tree in full bloom in the dry season.

For anyone else whose anchors have up and gone and who needs the encouragement of trees blooming in the dry season, here's a piece of my heart from me to you.

Narrow Way
© 2017 Krista Horn

Some say to take the road less traveled,
the path that’s not well-worn.
As I’ve journeyed down that road,
my heart’s grown as it’s been torn.
Torn for hopes not realized,
and yet grown through anguished cries.
As I’ve walked this narrow way,
He’s sustained me day by day.

Some say the harvest still is plenty,
and the workers still are few.
As I’ve seen this truth before me,
I’ve felt a harvest in me too.
Room to grow in love and peace,
pride and judgements – oh, to cease!
As I’ve walked this narrow way,
He’s refined me day by day.

Some say how great is the reward
for all those who pay the cost.
But some days the price is steep,
and His promises seem lost.
Is it true that there’s still worth
serving the ends of the earth?
As I’ve walked this narrow way,
He’s grieved with me day by day.

Some say that going against the current
requires being both strong and brave.
Yet as I’ve swam through this deep ocean
I’ve been floundering in the waves.
Floundering but sustained along
by a God who shames the strong.
As I’ve walked this narrow way,
He’s upheld me day by day.

Some say success is simply measured
by results that can be seen.
But what gauge can know the merit
of obedience to the King?
For a faithful heart is more
than the triumphs we long for.
As I’ve walked this narrow way,
He’s smiled on me day by day.

Some say to take the road less traveled,
the path that’s not well-worn.
As I fix my eyes on Jesus,
I still walk though I am torn.