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Modern Missionary Mamas

Because Christ is our all in all, all over the world.

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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

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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.

How to Prepare Missionary Kids for Furlough or Home Assignment

http://ourgoodwinjourney.com/preparing-kids-furlough/

Man, this article had a ton of resources. I’d probably take me a  week and read through them all. (Possibly, I am Netflixdistracted.) 

One thing we’ve done for our kids when they’re little is a paper chain. It makes it a little more concrete, instead of them waking up every day wondering if today’s the day we fly out. I’ve also written the fun things we’d like to do in the U.S. on the links, and we talk about them when we tear them off. That gives them a better idea of what to look forward to. 

Happy weekend, mamas! 

To the Mama who’s just arrived…

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Dear Brand-New Missionary Mama,

You did it.

You dreamed all those dreams, you prayed all those prayers. You raised all that money. You shook all those hands. You spoke in all those churches. You attended all that training, you passed all those tests. You packed all that stuff. You said those hard, hard goodbyes. You flew all those miles, over all those oceans, in all those cramped seats. You did it. You made it. You’re here.

That was the easy part.

Your family’s feeling pretty insecure right now…and who wouldn’t be? You’ve only changed the climate, the language, and the customs on them, it’s not like that’s everything–oh wait. You’re so excited to be here, it’s what you’ve wanted and prayed for…and yet, you keep finding tears in your eyes at the most inconvenient times.

People are staring at you; it makes you uncomfortable. Your kids are covered in bug bites, so they’re not sleeping well, and you’re thinking of changing all their middle names to “Crankypants.” They’ve rejected the reconstituted milk again today, and you’d really just like one meal that was easy, but that would require going out, and that’s too exhausting.

This is why the mission field breaks people. This first part is off-the-charts stressful. It hurts. And when we’re under this kind of stress, we have to protect ourselves and be gentle with ourselves. Let the beds go unmade, mama. Let them watch one more episode if it means you can finish your lunch without anyone touching you. Dirty socks never killed anybody. Stressful times call for temporary measures.

So how do we keep a mama from breaking in these hard days?

  1. Naps. I laughed when my coworker said this when I first arrived. She was serious, and so am I. The heat, the unfamiliarity, trying to imitate new sounds, it’s all exhausting. You’re making even more decisions than usual, and your brain is on overload. Give it some extra rest. It doesn’t make you a child. Don’t unpack. Don’t do dishes. It’s like they told me when I had a baby: don’t stand if you can sit, don’t sit if you can lie down, don’t lie down if you can sleep. Let yourself recover.
  2. “People-free space.” Oh, you live at the ministry center? Great. What time does everyone go home? Oh, it varies? Not anymore. Send them home at 5:00. Or lock your front door and ignore whoever’s knocking. Or turn off your phone. Have some reasonable boundaries so you can let your hair down, put on your PJ’s and feel free to cry, complain, laugh, process out loud, etc.
  3. Adjust your expectations. And by “adjust,” I mean “lower.” It’s all going to take longer than it feels like it should–let it. You’re on island time now (even if you don’t live on an island). Hakuna matata, as they say. 🙂 You’ll get back to your five-day-a-week workouts…next month. Pick a date, if that helps. Re-introduce order into your life slowly.
  4. Carry a notebook and a pen. Write down cultural questions, words you keep hearing and want to learn, things to ask your boss later, phone numbers for your new veggie lady, etc. It’ll reduce the pressure on your brain to remember things (when it’s already in overload) and you won’t be losing tiny scraps of random paper.
  5. Minimize decision-making. Plan your meals out: for breakfast, it’s cereal or eggs. For lunch, it’s sandwiches. For dinner, it’s spaghetti. Don’t make any more decisions than you have to. If the kids complain, tell them they can each pick a meal and help you with it…next month. For this month, this is the plan. If you need a template, I’ve got one right here for you. Pick out clothes the night before. Just watch one show on Netflix. You get the idea.
  6. Stay off social media. I say this as a kindness and can’t stress it enough: you don’t need to be reminded that it’s snowing at home and you’re missing it. You don’t need to be reminded that you didn’t get to be at the baby shower. You don’t need to be reminded that somewhere, people are taking hot showers in a house free of termites. I know, Facebook feels familiar. It feels like a connection to home, but often, it’s salt in an open wound. If you want connection, turn to your husband. Write a long email to a friend. Call Mom on Facetime. Better yet, crack open your Bible and sit in God’s presence and be reminded that you are enough because He paid it all. If you have to do social media for work, set a timer, post your ministry updates and respond to messages and get off. Let the homesickness heal a little before you dive back into your feed. It’ll still be there.
    Deep breaths. You’ll get through this. Be gentle with yourself. This is hard–this is really hard. But the good news? It’s downhill from here–it’s only going to get easier. Please don’t give up now, before you see how great this is going to be. Every day, you’re learning new things. Every day, God’s going to be faithful to give you what you need for that day. A graceful transition just means keeping everybody alive. Period. Anything more than that is a bonus, in my book.

I made you a little present…it’s goofy, but maybe that’s what you need. It’s called New Missionary Bingo, and the goal is just to remember that all this stuff is normal. It’s not meant to be played in a group, but as life happens, go ahead and check off the boxes. And if you get five in a row or a blackout, pat yourself on the back, and come comment on this post and let us know how you’re doing. Is it getting easier? What are you learning?

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go kill something with a forked tail that just flew by my head. (Man, I couldn’t make this stuff up even if I tried.)

You’ve got this, mama.

Live in tents, build altars 

When we were packing for the field the first time, I took a picture of my keys, because they were so pathetic: one key to my parents’ house. We’d sold our car, moved out of our apartment, and we were so ready to go…but it still felt uprooted, exposed. It made me feel small to be without the traditional trappings of adulthood.

 

The LORD said to Abram, after Lot had separated from him, “Lift up your eyes and look from the place where you are, northward and southward and eastward and westward, for all the land that you see I will give to you and to your offspring forever. I will make your offspring as the dust of the earth, so that if one can count the dust of the earth, your offspring also can be counted. Arise, walk through the length and the breadth of the land, for I will give it to you.” So Abram moved his tent and came and settled by the oaks of Mamre, which are at Hebron, and there he built an altar to the LORD. – Genesis 13:14-18

At a chapel for our organization, someone shared a message based on the passage above. You’re going to feel homeless as a missionary…maybe a lot more often than you thought. And God hasn’t promised you a land like he did Abram, but he’s promised eternal life, complete with a room with your name on it. It’s easier to live in tents when you have this in mind, I find. And when you need permanence, as we all do, built an altar.

It sounds easy, right? It probably wasn’t fancy. I don’t know if it took him long. But he did this several times in the preceding chapters. When God spoke, Abram stopped to memorialize it. Later on, he even laid his precious son on one of them.

Anything you do that inspires worship, that lets your light shine before all those other guys, that’s altar-building. It’s more permanent than you could imagine. I think that’s what Christ meant when he said that Mary’s choice to sit at his feet wouldn’t be taken away from her. The object of your life is that what is mortal might be swallowed up by life, and that’s something no one can steal, no circumstance can remove, no moving company can misplace.

So when you feel like you’re folding, like the seams are coming apart on your tent…that’s exactly how it’s supposed to feel. Just remember to stop, take a deep breath, and lean on an altar for a minute…even if you have kids around both ankles.

You’ve got this, mama.

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