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Modern Missionary Mamas

Because your Redeemer lives.

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Letting go is like Jenga

A friend of mine, Meredith, who teaches at Peter’s school, posted this fantastic analogy a few weeks ago. Transition is tough: hang in there, mamas. We get it. 

jenga

Life currently feels a little like being a carefully constructed (but not perfect) Jenga tower about to be dismantled by a bunch of 5th graders. Even though we have 2.5 weeks of school left, adjusted schedules meant yesterday was the last time I got to teach this years 5th grade. I told them I was leaving at the end of the school year. I wasn’t expecting to cry but fat tears rolled down my face when I said it.

At the end of class, a group of my students were playing this game (I have different stations available during check out time #librarian), and all I could think about was Jenga life metaphors. How living this Haiti life has been like slowly building a life here and feeling like each new connection was a wooden block in my Jenga structure. I am out of building blocks so the game’s focus changes.

If you have ever played Jenga, you know that to play, you have to carefully plan which block to tap on, push out, and add to the top. Some blocks move easily, they don’t really shake the foundation and it’s easy to be fearless that you won’t knock over the tower. Some of those pieces stick, you hold your breath as you gently pull them out, and pray that the tower won’t fall on your turn. But there are always those blocks you think are easy to move, you attack them fearlessly, and they stick a little.

Saying goodbye to 5th grade was like taking out a block of life that stuck a little when I didn’t expect it to.

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Noise: A re-entry story

Hi ladies! I want to introduce you to Liz, who’s bravely decided to share her re-entry story with you as a series. Repatriating or re-entry can be a tough thing; it seems like lots of conflicting feelings are common. So it’s great to have some insight into her experience! Thanks, friend. Enjoy!

It’s mid-morning and I’m sitting in my living room, listening to the comforting drone of my neighbor-farmer’s four-wheeler; he is doing his daily movement of irrigation equipment to water the alfalfa field. I’m happy, with my coffee and my laptop and the chirp of robins out of my large living room window.

But there’s the ghost of fear, tension, and my chest feels a little tight. I gently probe the emotion. It’s raw, it’s hard, and I feel the first tell-tale signs that tears may threaten.

What IS this? What is going on?

It’s been 7 months since I returned from my African-culture overseas post and I’m just now feeling like I can allow myself to feel and explore this tension. Until now it’s been too fresh, too frightening. What if I dig into it and it’s too much for me? What if I start crying and I can’t stop – the homeschool day needs to start in a few minutes. What if it sparks a new wave of depression, and I learn that depression is something I will carry with me longer than my years on the mission field?

But with the comforting lilt of the birds and the fresh spring morning air wafting through the window to strengthen and comfort my soul, I allow the feelings to come. Welcome, troubling thoughts. You may come out into the open, fears and insecurities. I’m creating space for you now.

Flashback to sitting in my concrete block house. Also morning, also coffee. Also noises coming through the windows. But here the light is brighter, harsher, the sounds louder. Motorcycles, yelling. The crackling of fire, roosters crowing. My guard shifting his weight, the plastic chair grating against the concrete. He shifts his shotgun and it’s like an electric shock to the brain: adrenaline hits; danger is out there, possibly near, possibly imminent. Remember the bodies in the street last fall? Thieves are shot dead here. Remember the intruder on your property the first year here?

The Lord is my strength and my shield and I lean into him. My Bible is precious as it sits in my lap, its weight and threadbare cover are comforting to me. I thumb its well-worn pages and cling to the words of my days’ reading. Pink highlights the encouraging, comforting verses. They nourish me and sustain me.

But the fears still lurk, some days. What is that yelling? I can understand the local language when it’s spoken to me clearly at a normal pace, but when slang is tossed around amidst a cacophony of other sound, from the street, at full voice, it’s a discordant, clanging symphony. It’s a club of which I am not a part.

Motorcycles kick up dust and the burning trash sends smoke waves through my house; I tell the kids to go upstairs to play since it’s isn’t so bad up there in the center of the house if you close the guest room door.

I love my ministry, I don’t regret living here. Our family has made a choice and I stick by it; I would choose it again. But when they said missions could be hard, I didn’t understand it would make me feel like this. I’m under assault all day from the dust, the smoke, the repetitive adrenaline activations. It’s a chronic stress and I wonder sometimes how long it will take before my regularly high cortisol levels will start taking a physical toll on my body. I’m already on anti-depressants, thanks to an episode of trauma-induced depression and PTSD during my second year.

I don’t know what the voices are saying and I know sometimes people in the street might wish me harm if they could. Just remember what happened to the neighbors across the lane; they were watched by people sitting in the street and when the right moment arose, those same people brought guns and fists and made their desires known through force, violence. My kids are upstairs and Mama Bear is constantly on the alert. It’s better now that the guard is here, but his presence (or rather their presence, as multiple men rotate through my front yard in the course of a week) just veils the threat.

Jumping back out to the present, as the tears threaten harder now, and school really does have to start soon.

Maybe tomorrow I’ll be brave enough to try again.

Putting your identity back together

A few weeks before we left for the field in 2010, we met a missionary who’d been in Mexico for about ten years. She was very open about her struggles, and I was grateful for her transparency, until she turned to me and said this: “You know, as soon as you leave here, you can never go home again. You can come back to the same place, but you won’t be the same person.” I didn’t want to believe her.

In addition to writing bossy informational blog posts, I also like to write fiction. Fiction, much like journalism, must have a who, what, where, when, why and how. And when I read about writing, there’s always an emphasis on letting the “who,” your characters, drive the plot. If your hero doesn’t act from a deep place, out of Who They Are, it’s not very satisfying. We don’t want to see the plot just happen to them; we want to feel that they are affecting change in their world.

Identity blog post

And this is partly why the missionary life is so confounding. Your character, dear mama, is changing. You may lose touch with your cultural center, that abiding sense of what you should do, when the rules you thought governed the universe turned out to be not be very useful in this corner of it. Your “why” has not changed: you love Christ deeply. You want to give your life in service to a Great King, who laid down his life for you. But the vastly different “what,” “where,” and “how” of your life has turned you upside-down and shaken you by the ankles…and now you’re not sure where your “who” ended up in the mugging.

Dr. Lois Dodds of Heartstream Resources for Cross-cultural Workers says it well:  “At home in the U.S., I had created an orderly and satisfying life, as a wife, a mother, a creative person serving the church, a nurturer of the extended family. With our move to the Amazon, it seemed like my carefully constructed life was suddenly thrown in the air, coming down like a jigsaw puzzle unable to hang together. Re-building and re-ordering life in the new culture meant I had to re-form myself as well.”

I can’t speak in complete sentences or do basic adult tasks like drive or go grocery shopping without help…does that mean I’m a child? 

When I started working at our ministry office, the national staff would compliment me on days when I dressed up, one of them going so far as to say, “That’s how you should dress every day.” Am I a slob now? I never felt like I was before.

Like Liz mentioned in the podcast, I too used to be a “to-do list, get it done” kind of gal. Not so now… I feel like I’m running hard, but I’m spinning my wheels a lot. Am I lazy?

So if you’re still looking for the corners on your identity jigsaw puzzle…you’re in good company. Dodd gives some ideas for growth in this article, which is well-worth reading if you have the time:

  1. Realize that you’re not alone. What’s happening to you is not uncommon. (And since you’re reading this article…you can check off that box.)
  2. Affirm your uniqueness and inherent worth. Apart from what you do, good or bad, right or wrong in any cultural context on the planet, you bear God’s image and you are precious to him. You just can’t imagine how loved you are.
  3. Nail down your identity “non-negotiables” : What things are essential to “you” feeling like “you”? For me, this meant finding outlets for my writing…one of which you are reading right now. Another was my sense of humor: I intentionally tried to learn how to tell jokes right away in Haitian Kreyol, because I love making people laugh, but most people here hate sarcasm. They do, however, love hyperbole and personification. The jokes changed, but the essential remained the same.
  4. Realize how much change you’ve already undergone. Write it out: how are you different today from the day you left your passport country? It’s amazing, really. Go ahead and pat yourself on the back.
  5. Meditate, pray, read the Bible to search out how God transforms people. Hint: it’s slower than you may think. The Holy Spirit is a gift to us; take advantage of his presence and his ability to speak truth and comfort to your soul.

Try to find a way to “pivot”–can you take that essential part of you and express it in a different direction? I taught elementary students in the States, but since arriving here, I’ve taught adults, teens, and tutored struggling students one-on-one…and I loved it all. I know a missionary mama who loved music, so she learned traditional African drumming overseas…and apparently, “the lady drummer” was quite the attraction when they went to churches to perform!

Even though it can be a chance to change and grow as a person and discover new interests, you must also acknowledge that this can be a heartbreaking, exhausting process, and implement a self-care plan. And if you think I’m going to stop mentioning self-care any time soon, you can just forget about it. My new favorite thing is baths. Once a week, I fill the WHOLE TUB with WARM water, adding epsom salts and lavender…it feels decadent, and in this world, it probably is.

You know what? I’m abandoning the jigsaw metaphor…it’s tougher than that. There’s no picture on the box to tell you what your life is going to look like. There is no stinkin’ manual, mamas. It takes more artistry than that. It’s more like a mosaic.

My friend JoAnn makes these (you can find more of her work here), and I will never get over how she can take tiny bits of broken tea cup or plate and suddenly, that same piece of material is now telling a completely different story. It has an entirely different use. It’s made up of the same stuff, but the whole is not the same at all.

How have your put your identity back together since arriving on the field, mamas? Be brave! Share!

Photo by Hans-Peter Gauster on Unsplash

MMM Podcast Episode 1: Ministry’s Changing Seasons with Liz Schandorff, Haiti

It’s time, mamas. You’ve been patient. Six of you asked for it, and boy, have we answered. Here’s how to listen:

-Right in this post! Just click play. You can also download it from here. (Amazing, eh? I know your internet stinks, mamas; I’ve got your back.)

-On Soundcloud. They have a nice app for your phone and if you add to a playlist or a station, you’ll always see when a new one’s posted (I think). And please, if you like it, hit like and share it! Let’s spread the word.

Note: I’m not seeing a way to download it from the app…weird. Sorry.

Transition! Change!

The Fine Line Between Expat Chaos and Rhythm

Four Ways Missionaries Can Leave Well For The Field

I know lots of you are in transition as you’re heading back overseas from a summer in your country of origin…these may hit home.

You’ve got this, mama.

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