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A Christmas Story about a Surprising Baby Named God (not that one)

Quick link: A Muslim, a Christian, and a Baby Named God

 

This is a story close to my heart because it is about my first friend here, someone who was and remains exceedingly precious to me and my whole family. Someone who made me believe that this place, so different from Minnesota, could become home. Someone, without whom, I sincerely doubt we could have stayed so long.

When I needed someone to love my kids, she did. When I needed someone to make me laugh, she could. When I wanted to understand a cultural thing, she untangled it for me. When I need someone to hear my anger or my sorrow, she welcomed it.

This is a story of two women, coming from such different places, with such different faiths and such different ways of living, and finding each other, finding ourselves, together. It is about becoming mothers and about digging into our souls and finding beauty there.

When God and his mother were released from the maternity ward they came directly to my house to use the air conditioner. It was early May and the summer heat that melted lollipops and caused car tires to burst enveloped Djibouti like a wet blanket. Power outages could exceed ten hours a day. Temperatures hadn’t peaked yet, 120 degrees would come in August, but the spring humidity without functioning fans during power outages turned everyone into hapless puddles. I prepared a mattress for Amaal* and her newborn and prayed the electricity would stay on so she could use the air conditioner and rest, recover.

In 2004 when my family arrived in Djibouti, I needed help minimizing the constant layer of dust; Amaal needed a job. I needed a friend and Amaal, with her quick laugh and cultural insights became my lifeline. My husband worked at the University of Djibouti and was gone most mornings and afternoons, plus some evenings. We had 4-year-old twins and without Amaal I might have packed our bags and returned to Minnesota out of loneliness and culture shock.

I hired Amaal before she had any children. She wasn’t married yet and her phone often rang while she worked, boys calling to see what she was doing on Thursday evening. To see if she wanted to go for a walk down the streets without street lights where young people could clandestinely hold hands or drink beer from glass Coca-Cola bottles. She rarely said yes until Abdi Fatah* started calling. He didn’t drink alcohol and didn’t pressure her into more physical contact than she was comfortable with in this Muslim country. She felt respected. She said yes.

Click here to read the rest of A Muslim, a Christian, and a Baby Named God

Parenting and Risk, Outside the Camp

Quick link: I’m Not Called to Keep My Kids from Danger

This is an article published by Christianity Today Women. (I hope fathers as well as mothers read it, or are thinking about these topics as they parent!) The piece was commissioned in response to a recent post John Piper wrote about bringing kids abroad, to live in risky or dangerous places.

His piece focused on spiritual risks. I’ve written a lot about fear and danger, mostly in terms of physical aspects. I believe, as I wrote in the Proper Weight of Fear, that safety is an illusion, it can even be crafted into an idol. No matter where we live, our kids are never guaranteed any level of safety. What are we going to do with that sobering reality? My piece responds to Piper’s, with a personal take.

Fifteen years ago, my husband and I did the riskiest thing we could imagine and took a job in the Horn of Africa. People often responded by asking, “Are you bringing the kids?” We had two-year-old twins at the time.

…Yes, we were bringing the kids.

It still amazes me that people ask this question. But I heard from a friend who arrived in Africa about a year ago, she too, had been asked this. And several others have commented that people ask the same question.

Yes! We’re bringing our kids. And we don’t believe we are destroying them.

As I drafted this essay, I asked my kids if they thought they lived a dangerous or uncomfortable life. One responded, “I think its pretty comfortable. But from the outside, someone might not think that.”

One thing about risk and danger and pushing beyond our comfort zones, is that it is, partly, a matter of perspective. I look back at the US lately, and I feel a tingle of fear! I’m starting to understand my African friends who ask, “Aren’t you afraid to visit the United States?” and who assume I would have no fear about living where we do. Clearly, some places are more dangerous, physically, than others. I have never been to Mogadishu. Also, we do face unique risks regarding disease and healthcare. I am not ignoring those scary realities. But, the conversation about fear and risk is more than physical danger and more than simply thinking everywhere outside the US is less safe.

Anyway, head over to CT, and read the piece, about going outside the camp.

I’m Not Called to Keep My Kids from Danger

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13 Things I Want American Christians to Know about the Stuff You Give Poor Kids

This post was inspired by an article (link at the bottom) about Operation Christmas Child, by Samaritan’s Purse. I decided to expand it beyond OCC to a look at general gift donations. This is a ‘sorry, not sorry’ post. I mean, I know this is hard to hear. It is hard for me to write. I’m honestly kind of nervous to post it because I’m often afraid of American Christians. So, I’m sorry. Then again, I wrote it and I’m posting it, so I guess I’m not sorry.

When you give a gift to a child and his mother or father can’t afford to, you steal that parent’s dignity. What about, if you really must give a gift, provide a way for the actual parents to purchase that gift and give it themselves? You could subsidize local toys or candies. You could send money to another family (local or expat) in an area stricken by poverty so they could hire a poorer person and pay them well so that they could purchase gifts for their own children.

Stop making it about you. If your objection to the above suggestions is that this doesn’t expose the child receiving the gift to your generosity, you need to examine your heart. Don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing (in 2017 we could say, don’t hashtag on Instagram what your right hand is doing). Why do you need to receive any acknowledgement, any glory, any honor? If it is truly about the poor, then make it truly about the poor and step aside. This could also be: stop making it about your kids…

There are other ways to teach your own children about generosity. I am tired of this excuse from American Christians when they are confronted with the uncomfortable reality that their charity might be damaging those they intend to serve. If you can’t think of any other way to teach your children to be generous, let me gently suggest a little creative thinking. How about being generous with a less well-off child in your child’s classroom? How about being generous with a newly arrived refugee family? And I don’t mean by simply giving them toys. I mean by inviting them into your home for dinner. Or driving them to the doctor’s office. How about being generous with siblings? How about being generous with wisdom and nuance? (Please go read Using Your Poor Kids to Teach My Rich Kids a Lesson)

Your gift might put undue future pressure on the family. One woman who received a box took the toothpaste out and didn’t want her son to have it. She said he would want it all the time, then, if he knew what it was and she couldn’t afford that. There are locally acceptable (and effective) methods for brushing teeth. How are poor families supposed to keep up this level of gifting year after year or for child after child?

Your box is not preaching the gospel message. If Jesus were Santa Claus, okay. But Jesus is not Santa Claus and his message is one of humility, poverty, sacrifice, and the cross. Not yo-yos and slinkies and candy. Do you really want the message to be: Have some M and M’s, have a pencil, have a t-shirt, have a side helping of religion? I know the argument that such and such a pastor used the boxes in this or that way. Yup, I’ve heard the stories and they are good stories, probably mostly true. But maybe the pastor could have used locally sourced toys that the parents were empowered to give with their own means.

Of course there are moving stories, I just don’t really believe them. I’m not saying the people telling the stories are lying. I’m just saying I’ve seen way too much context and have heard far too many stories shared without sufficient context, to take these stories at face value. I’ve heard stories spun and respun and re-respun, depending on who is listening and what the teller thinks they want to hear.

Kids love the gifts and ignore the message. As one person commented on my Facebook feed, kids suffer through the Jesus talk because they want the toys. What happens when someone else tries to tell them beautiful things about God, but has no toys to offer? To quote this person, “What we win them with is what we win them to.” If you want to project the idea that faith means getting toys, shoe boxes are a great way to do that. Making a kid happy is fine, just don’t pretend it is more than that. Otherwise, this is borderline scary manipulation.

Generosity is not about stuff. American Christians tend to act like what people need is more things. More toys, more shoes, more t-shirts. We limit our thinking about giving to a monetary thing, stemming from our consumer values and culture. But generosity needs to run so much deeper. Generosity is also about giving time, giving friendship, giving presence (not presents), giving dignity, giving emotional freedom, giving welcome, giving a lack of judgment, giving hope, giving trust, giving an experience, giving space.

People who aren’t in positions of power are not going to refuse you. Leaders in their communities, forward-thinkers, mightily effective people in their local context. These people are still not going to come to the behemoth that is American Christianity and say ‘no.’ It is almost impossible for those in a position of power, like Americans, to understand this. As one woman commented on my FB thread, “And although the pastor who facilitated the program (receiving shoeboxes) was one of the most forward thinking, well-educated and articulate pastors I’ve met – (ever!), he would not go to the organisation sending them, and say, “you know what, this isn’t really serving us.’ People who are not in a position of power rarely will refuse what is given to them, even it if doesn’t actually meet a need.”

Gifts can be damaging. You don’t want to hear this. Please hear it. Running team practices I’ve coached have dissolved into fist fights because American contractors passed out Gatorade, but not enough and too quickly for me to stop it. Also, they gave soccer balls to the running team. I had to confiscate the balls, pull kids off each other, cancel practice, and figure out an appropriate response to threats to rape the girls on the team because they were given something other kids weren’t. The contractors drove away just before the chaos ensued, with their iPhones full of photos and their hearts satisfied with the knowledge that they had been ‘generous.’ Thank you, thank you very much.

The things you give aren’t used for what you think they are used for. (This is not a story Samaritan’s Purse will post on their website, and it isn’t the only one of its kind): When Saddam Hussein was terrorizing the Kurds and pretty much anyone who didn’t agree with him, an American was in Baghdad meeting with the Minister of Health. The minister abruptly said “I have to go – do you want to come with me? I have to do something for our leader’s birthday.” The American goes with him. They go to a warehouse in Baghdad, and there sit piles and piles of Samaritan’s purse Christmas Shoe Boxes. The Minister of Health is supervising minions to deliver all of them to the Children’s Hospital as gifts from Uncle Saddam for his birthday….a bunch of Iraqi kids got wonderful gifts from Saddam by way of Franklin Graham at Samaritan’s Purse.

I’m asking you to be humble and teachable, I’m not asking for repentance. Sometimes when humans do something and love doing it and do it for years and later find out it might not be the best thing to have done, we are plagued by guilt. So plagued, in fact, that we refuse to admit it. The fear of being wrong or of having made a mistake, even with good intentions, is unbearable. So we press on. But let me be clear, I don’t believe it is ‘sin’ to pack a shoe box. Good grief. Everything isn’t so black and white. I just think we can do better. We all, I hope, are on a journey that will continue until we die, a journey of growth and change and learning. One of the awesome things about grace is that it exists! It is abundant and never-ending. May we never stagnate.

Please listen. Please, please, pretty please with a cherry on top, listen. I know the article criticizing Samaritan’s Purse (link below) comes off quite strong and isn’t perfect but to jump on the author’s use of the term ‘toxic charity’ as an excuse to ignore the argument is not okay. People who have experience are trying to talk about these things. People who live in areas where helping hurts are trying to talk about these things. I know it goes against the grain. We are a do-something people. People with bravado and gusto. Please listen to people who are saying something, even when it is uncomfortable for you or might suggest you change your behavior.

(a 14th thing, bonus, after reading other’s thoughts): How would you feel? Imagine someone from a different country comes into your neighborhood or your child’s school, you might not even be present. They hand out toys and cookies, nicer things than you have given your own children. Maybe iPads or video games or gift cards to Dairy Queen. Then they tell them about a different religion. Just think about how you would react.

People of faith are incredibly generous people and I am so thankful for the many ways we have been blessed by generosity, the many ways we have been challenged to be more generous ourselves – the kind of generosity that hurts, that costs something. Let’s press on together, being generous and being wise and growing in love and creativity.

Resources:

Stuffing Shoe Boxes for the World’s Poor? Maybe You Should Reconsider

Ten Alternatives to Christmas Shoe Boxes (this is a really good list)

Please, for the love, please, read this book: When Helping Hurts

 

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Creative Travel

Quick link: 7 Travel Options for Airplane-Weary Expatriates

Over at A Life Overseas today, as we head into a season of peak expat travel. Some of us are so.stinking.tired of airplanes. Some of us love them, but the cramped quarters, the sheep-herding mentality, the long immigration lines, the getting yanked from your seat and bloodied, the stress of no Kindles or computers in the cabin, the fear of what if they are in the cabin…it is getting to be a bit much.

We need relief! Thankfully, there are several better options for travel. Here are a few:

Run Fast (1 Kings 18: 45-46)

Tuck your skirt or man-skirt up into your belt and run like mad. You might outrun chariots and you might outrun a thunderstorm. Your swag might be a death threat from a queen. No worries, run on!

Fish Cargo (Jonah)

Get swallowed by a fish, nearly digested, and spit up on the land of your choosing. Er, no. The land you absolutely did not choose. But, there you are, undigested, make the most of it.

Click here to read the rest of your new (old) travel options: 7 Travel Options for Airplane-Weary Expatriates

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Redefining Success for the Faith-Based Expatriate

Quick link: You Are Not a Failure

Over at A Life Overseas today, writing about something that’s been bugging me a bit lately.

I’ve read lots of blog posts and essays about failure lately, about people who grew up wanting to change the world and end up discouraged. Jonathan Trotter wrote about this a year and a half ago. Sarita Hartz wrote about it just last week. Abby Alleman wrote about it in February. I guess its my turn.

To people who made youthful commitments they didn’t follow through on, to people who moved back ‘home’ earlier than planned, to people who don’t see what they dreamed of seeing, I want to say: You’re not a failure. And, you didn’t even fail.

You were on a date and you’d been trained to think this was a marriage. You got on a train and mistakenly believed you could never, ever get off. You’re lost in a new city and you think U-turns are not an option here. You fell in love and like most first loves, you fell out of it again. Or, it was in truth just a crush. Thankfully no one expects us or pressures us to marry our sixth grade ‘boyfriends’ and none of us feel guilty for abandoning them on the playground. But if, in our youthful naiveté and with the emotional high of a summer project, we make grand pronouncements of a lifetime commitment to service in the name of faith and turn our backs on that – we call it failure.

No one should be berated, by themselves or anyone else, for getting lost and making a U-turn. Even with Siri and GPS, we are not infallible. And when it comes to lifelong decisions, even with the Bible and the Holy Spirit, we’re allowed to change direction as we grow and evolve.

Click here to read the rest of You Are Not a Failure