For the past year, my life has been consumed with collecting journal articles, analyzing data, and writing papers on the mental health of expats. I have a binder organized with 115+ scholarly journals, I have Dropbox folders full of more, and I have bookmarks of online blogs and resources.
Words like culture stress and adjustment, repatriation and coping have filled my vocabulary for so long, it’s hard for me not to identify myself closely with them.
What have I learned?
I’ve learned that it’s stinking hard to walk a life of radical obedience.
When you move overseas for the sake of Good Work, you are welcoming a whole host of emotional, physical, psychological, relational, and spiritual battles into your daily routine.
Your mattress is harder than you’re used to, so you wake up a little more sore than you did before, which makes it harder to walk to the bathroom. When you get there, you need to chase a few lizards or spiders or beetles out so that you can shower in peace. By the time you get dressed, you’re already covered in sweat from the lack of air conditioning.
Breakfast takes longer because you have to think about which water is safe to drink. You’re also thinking about every drop of food that lands, knowing that in a few minutes your countertop will be covered in ants. Once you figure out how to turn on the gas bomb to cook the eggs you hope are good (since you bought them off the shelf at room temp), you sit down to a quick meal before running off to language school.
You walk a mile to the bus stop. You’re the only white person on the bus. You figure out how to count 3,000 kip out of your wallet to pay the bus driver and walk into a 1.5 hour lesson in a foreign language.
On the way home, you remember you are out of money, so you exchange some USDs for a pocketful of your new currency, and use that for a market run. In the market, the smell of yesterday’s trash mixed with not-so-freshly slaughtered meat slams you in the face, and you try to remember what you just learned in language school to ask the vendors a nee tao dai? (how much for this?). And when your accent is good enough, the vendor responds in her native tongue and you are forced to quickly translate nung seen saam sip baet pan (138,000). You awkwardly stumble to convert dollars, kilos, and language in your head, doing your best to look natural at something that is completely opposite from what you’ve always known.
With your hands full, you walk the rest of the way home, shifting the weight of bags as you wipe the sweat off your face. You struggle to open the gate to your home and can’t wait to just sit in front of a fan for a few minutes. But when you put the market bags in the kitchen, you see that you missed one tiny crumb at breakfast, and 5,000,000 ants have made themselves comfortable carrying off anything they can find for food. Oh, and how do you say 5,000,000? You must practice, so you translate your own thoughts into haa laan.
It’s a whopping 12:30 PM. You have a baby to feed…a husband who also needs to eat…all the new produce needs to be bleached…there are clothes that need to be washed. Ahhh, and there are the ants. And all you can think about is how badly you want to be sure and nap when the baby goes down.
Once everything is settled, you take a deep breath, grab your phone, and plan to rest for at least an hour. Everything you’ve read about says to set boundaries for yourself.
Take care of yourself. Know your limits. Culture fatigue is real. Give yourself some grace. Allow yourself to walk away from culture and just exist in your own home.
So what do you do when you are new to a place and doors of friendship are opening? What boundaries do you set when a local person texts you and asks you if you would like to experience the holiday with her? To learn about her land? To spend some time with her family?
How do you allow yourself to walk away from culture when that person invites you out at the exact same time you were hoping to rest?
I will tell you, you want to decline the offer. You want to ignore the text, pour ice water on your body, and take a long nap and pretend that nobody in the world knows you exist.
That’s what you want to do. But you can’t.
You can’t because you’ve asked Him specifically for this moment. You’ve asked for a local person to offer you hospitality. You’ve asked that some person would be drawn to you and would make an effort at relationship.
And when that happens after only a single, solid week into you knowing that person, it’s a flashing neon sign calling you to obey.
I know what research says about boundaries. I know what it says about mental health and living overseas. I’ve had a glimpse at the surmounting stress of this lifestyle, and I don’t mean to diminish at all the need to retreat…to rest.
But here I am, stuck in the middle of protecting my own personal boundaries and striving toward my own sanctification with my Creator. And I don’t always know which side is the most holy.
When my personal boundaries leave no room for putting others ahead of myself, am I really living a life of obedience to Christ?
It’s a delicate balance, because there is always work to be done.
When I read my research articles, I tend to lean more on the side of boundaries. Don’t let people too close. Don’t encourage others to take advantage of you. Don’t allow the poor to become dependent.
I see some of these characteristics in Christ. There were occasions he withdrew and valued the time alone or with his closest friends. I think we would all agree that some boundaries are needed in order to have the energy to invest in greater ministry.
But I see the other side, too. The side where faces and names and souls are of the utmost importance. Where each person is an opportunity to love better and seek less of self.
And Christ also embodied this. He stopped to speak to the woman with the issue of blood. He cared for the children who climbed into his lap. He healed a man tormented by demons. These needy, helpless people were around him constantly, and he SAW them. He saw them with understanding and compassion.
As I reflect this weekend on the death, burial, and resurrection of my Savior, I see the power in dying to self.
“The time has come,” said Jesus in reply. “This is the moment for the son of man to be glorified. I’m telling you the solemn truth: unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains all by itself. If it dies, though, it will produce lots of fruit. If you love your life, you’ll lose it. If you hate your life in this world, you’ll keep it for the life of the coming age.” –John 12:23-25, Kingdom New Testament
Christ doesn’t explicitly say what it means to die to self. I suppose it’s different for everyone, perhaps even every day.
There are days I don’t feel I could give up much more. I feel so overcome with grief and pain for leaving my family and friends. I feel frustrated with the cheap cooking utensils here or my lack of knowledge about this culture.
Then, I read a blog by a woman serving in rural Africa living in a hut with a mud floor, hoping she isn’t in too much danger to abandon her ministry for evacuation.
And I realize my service is a joke compared to some people. Even on my greatest days of sacrifice, I have a clean, tile floor and a grocery store within a mile’s walk.
What seems painstakingly difficult today may become natural over time. And at that point, I can expect a new cross to bear.
Not because Christ wants me to be miserable, but because Christ sees the value in bringing glory to the Father.
I don’t suppose God will ever ask me to do more than I can manage. He won’t ask me to work so tirelessly for Him that I lose heart and give up.
He doesn’t want me working for Him at all, you see. Everything I could have done to earn my own place in eternity was satisfied when One Man gave up his literal life for me.
But God might ask me to be a little uncomfortable sometimes, if it means others will point to Him and witness His Holiness. He might even ask me to do this a lot of times, if I’m willing to be pruned to bear more fruit.
God can only use the willing. Only the willing can sacrifice. Only those who sacrifice can die. And only the dead can reproduce new life.
How is God asking you to give up your life? Is it for a spouse or a child? A sibling or coworker? Is it a materialistic comfort or a religious tradition? For me this week, it was an afternoon when I was completely exhausted. Instead of napping, God opened a door for me to visit with my landlady and learn more about her life and culture. I can’t say that I obliged with great joy in the beginning, but the reward of an afternoon together has filled my heart over and over this week with a hopeful anticipation that He is making something new.