On Blackwater Massacres and Christmas Eve

I rarely get political on this blog. While the theme of communicating across the boundaries of faith and culture doesn’t exclude politics, it would limit me too much. But I don’t think of this post as political. Rather, I see it as fitting for connecting the dots to a God who cared enough to walk among us

Last night the news came through that President Trump had pardoned several people. For me, the most disturbing pardon was given to four government contractors, who in 2007 massacred 14 Iraqi civilians and injured 17 others. Witnesses described the attack as a completely unprovoked ambush of innocent people. In Iraq, the tragedy is called “Nisour Square Massacre.” The group who were sentenced, now pardoned, worked for a private military contractor called Blackwater.

Among those killed was a 9-year old boy, shot in the head as he sat in the back of his father’s car.

The trial and subsequent guilty verdict was applauded by human rights leaders around the world. It showed the world, but especially Iraqi citizens, that military contractors would be held accountable for their actions.

I remember living in Phoenix at the time when news of the attack was broadcast. I remember being horrified but in an impersonal way. This was before I had visited Iraq; before I moved to the Kurdistan Region of Iraq and had the privilege of working under a boss who was from Baghdad; before I had worshiped in churches with Iraqi Christians. This was before all of that. I felt it, but not the same way.

I hear this news, news of justice rolled back, with a heavy heart. It contributes to what my friend calls a year of “incomprehensible sadness.” And this, just a day before Christmas is celebrated by a majority of the Western world.

The questions go through my mind – who paid for this pardon? Whose connections reversed justice? And though I know I can connect the theological dots, as it were, to what any of us deserve versus what Christ has done for us in his mercy and grace, I’m not going there.

Rather, I think about who is so far removed from this event that they make a decision with so little thought to the agony of the victims’ families? Who would dismiss the importance and significance of what a guilty verdict meant in the case?

A quote by John le Carré says that ‘a desk is a dangerous place from which to view the world.’ This decision was surely made from a view behind a large desk.

As usual, when I encounter something like this and try to make sense of it, I turn to reflective writing. Where is the ‘But God’ in this? Where, on Christmas Eve, can I find some measure of hope in what has proven time and time again to be an unjust world?

So I go back to the desk quote by John le Carré and there is where I find my hope. When Jesus entered our world as a small helpless baby, he moved away from the desk and entered the place of action where all of life happens. He encountered deep pain, anger at injustice, joy at weddings, dining and drinking with sinners, the beauty of a sunrise, the sadness of a woman cast out. He got out from behind the desk and got into the thick of it. We are told he “emptied himself and took on the form of a servant.”

That God, in his love for us, entered gladly through the person of Christ to live out the joys and struggles of life locked within the limitations of the human body, ultimately conquering sin, suffering, and death is the ultimate moving away from the desk scenario. This is the incomprehensible story of the incarnation.

He loves us enough to get away from the desk. And on this Christmas Eve of 2020, a year where I have grieved and mourned personal and collective death and loss, injustice and wrong, I find my only hope is to rest in the promise that some day evil will be conquered and it won’t be from behind a desk.

So I pause, close my eyes, and hear the beautiful words sung on Christmas Eve “a thrill of hope, a weary world rejoices, for yonder breaks a new and gloriously morn.”

May Christmas Eve 2020 bring a measure of hope to your world.

A Life Overseas – On Family Albums and What I Didn’t Know

Posted by Marilyn

Our family albums tell amazing stories. Picnics in the shadow of the Great Pyramids of Egypt; bucket baths in Swat Valley – home to Malala the brave; hiking in the foothills of the Himalayan mountains; feeding pigeons outside the Spice Bazaar in Istanbul; climbing on canons in Quebec City; wandering through Topkapi Palace with cousins, an added bonus; early morning train journeys from Ankara to Istanbul; roaming the streets of Cairo and boat rides on the Nile. 

Amazing stories, each one of them. Each one an entry into a thick family album.

And then the stories changed, and with them the photographs. Those fading photographs changed from plane rides to road trips, from palm trees to sugar maples, from apartments in a large Middle Eastern city to a Victorian home on Main Street in New England. Suddenly there were leaves to rake during golden autumns. Warm winters with no need for snow boots changed to delighted cries of “It’s snowing” followed by sledding on the small hill in our back yard. Spring saw us aching for the warmth of summer and forcing forsythia to bloom and bring color and new life. And then there were the summers, where daily trips to the ocean, even if it was for only an hour, were necessary as we experienced the magic of low tide on rocky New England beaches.

We were no longer on planes every year, our passports ready to be stamped. Our suitcases had layers of dust on them and the trunks that had so faithfully crossed the ocean found other uses storing legos and other toys. The reminders of our former lives were reduced to photo albums, stories, stamps in our passports, and Arafat and Rabin, sworn enemies, looking out at us from a heart-shaped frame on our mantle.

Our photo albums capture points in time, but not the whole narrative. Not the narrative of transition and loss, of starting a new life and trying to recreate home. Written through every picture is the hidden narrative of finding home within transition. Finding home in a world that changed frequently.

And what about our children in all of this? What about those blonde and dark heads, those blue and brown eyes, those toddler And elementary school bodies that even then were growing into a space far beyond our walls of safety? What about those kids captured so well in photographs, and yet – not really captured at all?

I knew nothing of the third culture life when we began this journey. I knew that I felt most comfortable between worlds but I had not discovered the language to articulate this. I knew I felt different in the United States then I did in Pakistan, but the research was new and not mainstream. I was a third culture kid raising third culture kids, and I didn’t have a clue as to what that really meant.

Shallow roots are tender, they need care as they are being transplanted. We hurt shallow roots because we didn’t know any better.


In the midst of such constant change, how do we still find a way to be in the world, to build a home under ever-changing conditions? I think the answer is found not in the concept of home per se but what a home provides us, which is a place of dwelling. To dwell is to linger, to safely be.

DR. MICHELLE HARWELL 

When we live lives that take us miles from family and home cultures, we learn that a home is far more than four walls and a roof. Home becomes people, routines, precious objects that make their way across oceans and transitions, and digging up roots that, though shallow, are still roots.

How do we navigate all of this? How do we adapt when change and transition feel like the only constants?How do we keep up the rhythms of home, and a sense of belonging when the walls of home have moved?


As children, I think we take for granted that a home is gifted to us. It’s made for us through the routines, the four walls that surround and the emotional rhythms that build a sense of familiarity and holding. As we grow, that sense of belonging to a place and a people translates to a more robust internal belonging and holding that allows us to venture further and further out into the world.

DR. MICHELLE HARWELL

I didn’t know back then – but now I do know, and this is what I would tell my younger self – Click here to read the rest of the piece at A Life Overseas.

“At two and a bit, he understood neither distance nor time. What he understood was that we were there, but he was not. For the first time in his short life, he learnt how to say goodbye.”

DANAU TANU AUTHOR OF GROWING UP IN TRANSIT 

A Life Overseas – Capable of Complexity

I’m at A Life Overseas talking about needing to be capable of complexity when we talk about the TCK experience!

I loved growing up overseas. I loved that I knew how to traverse the globe at a young age, that I grew up on curry and hot pakoras, that I could see some of the highest mountains in the world from the grounds of my boarding school. I loved the colorful stamps in my passport – the story of my life in a legal document; the feel of excitement when a plane took off; the visceral sense of home when I was surrounded by palm trees and minarets echoing a mournful call to prayer. I loved it.

And…..

Ah! That word “and”! That freeing, amazing change agent! And it was also hard. I struggled with belonging, with connecting to place. I experienced long nights where tears of homesickness and grief were shed, with only God and a bunk bed as witnesses. I sat uncountable times in rooms full of people enveloped in a bubble of longing, with the words from Ijeoma echoing through my brain: “too foreign for here, too foreign for there – never enough for both”.

It takes many missionary kids years to accept that their experience was a complicated, beautiful package of good and hard. Owning the hard feels like a betrayal. And might I say, there is nothing that makes an MK/TCK bristle like a condescending adult looking at you and automatically saying “Wow – that must have been really hard. You must be glad to be back in [insert country].” I remember standing up as straight as my five foot three frame could make me and saying, with daggers in my voice and eyes, “I loved my childhood. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.” My voice said “Just try me, lady, and I’ll throw that macaroni casserole in your condescending face!”

Okay – that’s harsh. But I was a teenager, and to be told what my life must be was simply unbearable.

For years, all I could do was claim the positive. I was like the Joel Osteen Missionary Kid, except that my teeth weren’t as bright and shiny as his. My childhood was perfect, thank you very much, and don’t even start with the negative.

The problem is that of course, it wasn’t. There was the good and there was the hard. Trying to be fair to both those things felt like an impossibility, so I stuck with the good.

Here’s the thing: When we talk about the MK/TCK experience we have got to be capable of complexityI’ll say that again: we have to be capable of complexity. As Tanya Crossman points out so well in her book Misunderstood, the third culture kid narrative is a perspective and not a one-size-fits-all single story. Each TCK story contains things that are deeply painful and other things that are incredibly unique and joy-filled.

I recently read a book called All You Can Ever Know: A Memoir by Nicole Chung. Though born of a Korean family, Nicole was adopted as a baby by a white family. The book is her story of coming to terms with her adoption and ultimately finding her birth family. But it’s much more than that. It’s a story about belonging, about the stories we tell ourselves to make sense of our reality, about the stories that families tell to make sense of their family narrative. At one point, the author says this:

Family lore given to us as children has such hold over us, such staying power. It can form the bedrock of another kind of faith, one to rival any religion, informing our beliefs about ourselves, and our families, and our place in the world. When tiny, traitorous doubts arose, when I felt lost or alone or confused about all the things I couldn’t know, I told myself that something as noble as my birth parents’ sacrifice demanded my trust. My loyalty.*

Though my circumstances were not those of an adoptee, this paragraph made a deep impact on me when I read it. How many of us as third culture kids, as missionary kids, had our own family lore that we believed? How many of us believed that we must trust our parents’ sacrifice, and wrongly believed that we must not let them, or anyone else, know when things were hard?

In my own journey I have found that the things that I found difficult were also difficult for my parents. I have come to know more fully some of the stories that I only knew partially. I have come to realize that saying something is hard does not mean that it was not good.

Read the rest at A Life Overseas by clicking here.

A Life Overseas – “But they aren’t as smart as I am”….

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As a public health nurse working with underserved communities in Massachusetts in cancer prevention, I’ve been greatly challenged as we look at racism and inequality in communities that we serve. We are doing this because the evidence of health disparities in non-white communities is overwhelming. One of the ways to begin to address this is by seeing our programs and communities through the lens of racial equity, looking at why, historically, these communities have had worse health outcomes. Studies show that much of this is a result of prejudice and bias on the part of health care professionals; some of it conscious, but much of it unconscious.

It is hard, hard work. Like looking into a mirror and seeing the flaws on my skin, I come face to face with my own prejudices and my own wrong beliefs. I have continually had to confront my deep need for forgiveness and healing.

In every area of life, racism, prejudice, and bias exist – and that includes missions. We are an incomplete body when all we see is white leadership; when our missions conferences are overwhelmingly led by speakers who look like we do. We are a crippled group if we are only led by those who look like us, think like us, and act like us. And we are desperately in need of grace and forgiveness if we think this is okay.

In writing about racism and prejudice, I must first acknowledge my own inadequacy in talking about these things; there are far better and wiser voices, but in obedience I’m opening the door to a conversation that I pray will lead to something good. I also must admit that it is not an easy conversation to have, but it is too important to avoid.

I grew up as a privileged, little white girl in a country where people had varying shades of brown skin. It took me a long time to recognize my prejudice and even longer to be aware of my privilege. Some of my recognition of this came when I began to write. The more I wrote, the more I articulated my perspective, the more I was reminded that that’s what it was – my perspective. I viewed the world through a particular lens and that lens affected all my experiences.

As I moved on to writing Passages Through Pakistan, I realized how my childhood was affected by growing up in a land that had been colonized not many years before I came into the world.

There was a darker side to high tea I would only confront much later. This pleasure that so delighted me as a little girl was a survival of Pakistan’s colonial past. The “British Raj” era, or the era of British rule, lasted for almost 100 years. It included the entire Indian subcontinent. Pakistan was born in 1948, and my parents arrived only five years later. I was completely blind to my privilege as a little, white, English-speaking girl. I cringe now at what I took for granted. 

Those who were white and English-speaking went to the head of the line. Those who were white and English-speaking could casually criticize Pakistanis without thought. We traveled where we pleased, we went first class or third class on trains –it was our choice. We were educated and would have a world of opportunity. I thank God for parents that had the conscience and determination to discipline me and teach me in various ways that I was not better than those around me. Still, with a strong personality and ego to match, those lessons sometimes fell on ears unwilling to listen and a heart that would need continual reminders that privilege is not something I earned or deserved.”*

When I went back overseas, I was no longer a child. As an adult I had to confront some of my ugly and just plain wrong thoughts. Among them were these subtle, and deeply dangerous thoughts….


Read the rest here at A Life Overseas. 

A Life Overseas – When You’re Sure God Loves Ann Voskamp More Than He Loves You…


”I’m pretty sure God loves Ann Voskamp more than he loves me.” 

I wrote this to a friend recently. I don’t even know Ann Voskamp, but I was still convinced that when it came to actual love, I was in the dog house and Ann was in the castle on the hill.

I mean, what’s not to love? She clearly loves Jesus. She gives money to the poor. She eats off the land (she’s a farmer’s wife for god’s sake). She adopts kids from places Far Away. She writes books that are poetic and lyrical and get onto the New York Times Bestseller’s list. Her inanimate books even love Jesus. She travels the world and writes about it. Plus, she’s thin. Everyone knows that God  likes thin people best. She even has a quote on the walls of the American University in Suleimaniya, Iraq. I saw it with my own eyes. Actually, through my husband’s eyes because they wouldn’t let me past security, but whatever.

So, yeah – I’m pretty sure God and Jesus and the whole Trinity love her more, because when I compare my little life to that of Ann Voskamp? I can’t even.

I have weighed myself on the scale of God’s love, and I have been found wanting. 

It’s kind of depressing. No – it’s not kind of depressing; it is deeply depressing. Not that they love her more, but that in my heart I really believe this. And if you’re honest, you probably believe that God loves some people more than he loves you.

Because let’s just get it out there in black ink: It’s so hard to believe that we are loved uniquely, deeply, completely, and unconditionally by a God who delights in us. It is so easy to see why he loves other people, but it is so difficult to get that he loves us. He saw what he made, and he called it “Good!”.  Our thinking is distorted and we are tricked into believing lies abot God, lies about ourselves. 

Here’s the rub: If I really believe that God loves Ann Voskamp more than me because of all the things that she does better than I do, then I probably believe that God loves me better than some other people. As much as I deny that, the reasoning is logical based on my distorted theology.

Comparison kills and we will always be found wanting. Whether we convince ourselves that we are better or worse than the person we are comparing ourselves to, we will always lose. Always.

Comparison and envy rot the soul. 

A few years ago I wrote a piece about envy. I’ve included it today because this is what I need to come back to when I have thoughts like the one I confessed, thoughts that undoubtedly, God loves Ann Voskamp more than he loves me.

May all of us give our distorted theology to God and thank him that in his master design he made each of us and loves each of us – deeply, uniquely, and completely.


We sat in our postage stamp size garden, tea and home made cookies in front of us. The weather was beautiful — a cloudless seventy degrees, typical of a Cairo spring. It was early afternoon and the call to prayer had just echoed through the area from a nearby mosque.

We were talking about language learning, the time it takes, the struggle, how we vacillated between feeling like idiots to feeling like small children reduced to no verbs and minimal participles.

“I wish I had language ability like Claire. Her Arabic is so good!*”

The cloudless sky darkened and green entered my soul.

“Well – if you and I had been here as long as she has and if we didn’t have as many kids our Arabic would be good too!” I said it lightly with a laugh – eager to hide the ugly of my envy.

She laughed, whether in agreement or out of politeness, and the moment quickly passed.

But it didn’t. Not really.

Because this had happened more than once; this ugly envy that entered my soul around a myriad of things. Whether it was language learning or how many Egyptian friends I had, envy had this way of creeping in and affecting my friendships, destroying unity. 

Read the rest here.

A heart at peace gives life to the body, but envy rots the bones~ Proverbs 14:30

Have you dealt with potential competition or envy with fellow workers who are overseas?  It’s a hard but important question!

*name has been changed!


 

A Life Overseas – On Home and Keeping Place

Longing for home

“Home is a human place. Instinctively, each of us, male and female, knows the sound of its welcome – and the joy of our possible return.

Readers – Today I am at A Life Overseas talking with Jen Pollock Michel about her newly released book Keeping Place – Reflections on the Meaning of Home. Will you join me there? I’ve given you a brief preview below!

This community knows the challenge of creating home in odd spaces and places around the globe. We also know what it is to be homesick, to long for familiar sights and sounds, to occasionally cry during the dark of night, reaching out to a God who created place.

In her newly released book, Keeping Place – Reflections on the Meaning of Home, Jen Pollock Michel writes about this human longing. The back cover eloquently conveys what the book extends to the reader:

“Keeping Place offers hope to the wanderer, help to the stranded,and a new vision of what it means to live today with our longings for eternal home.”

I had the privilege of reading an advance copy of Keeping Place. Throughout my reading, I thought about my upbringing, as well as the many moves I have made in my adult life. I also thought about this community and the ways we leave one home and create a new one, always aware that in home and place, the temporal and the eternal meet.

I asked Jen if she would meet with our community here at A Life Overseas and talk about the book – which really means have a conversation about home and place.

I hope you enjoy the conversation as much as I did!

Interview with Jen Pollock Michel

Can you give us a sense of how you came to write a book about place and home? 

I feel like I’ve spent my entire life searching for home. This is partially because we were a very typically mobile American family during my childhood: my dad chased the tail of opportunity, and we moved for those opportunities. And although I wanted to give a more rooted life to my own children, we’ve also moved a lot for my husband’s career, including a move to Canada six years ago.

But it’s not just mobility that has left me longing for home. I’ve also experienced a lot of loss in my life: the premature death of my father, the suicide of my brother, a sometimes emotionally distant relationship with my mother. It’s these life experiences that springboard a Scriptural exploration throughout the book.

You currently live in Toronto, Canada – a place where you didn’t grow up and a country where you don’t legally hold citizenship. How has living where you are a guest shaped your view of home?

It’s now been six years that we’ve had no permanent immigration status in Canada, so I’m writing about home from the “stranger” perspective, for sure. In an ex-pat life, the longings for permanence and belonging are particularly acute, and it’s easy, of course, to nostalgically think of the place we’ve left behind as the home that would settle those longings.

But truthfully, I’ve realized in writing the book that these longings aren’t just characteristic of the ex-pat life. It’s not as if we’re the only ones to feel dislocation in this world. No, I think it’s most true to say that exile is the human experience and has been since Genesis 3 when we left the Garden behind. This exile can be dislocation geographically, but it can also be estrangement in our relationships with others and most importantly, with God.

What truths (characteristics) of God did you learn through writing this book? 

Probably most importantly, I’ve begun to see God is as “homemaker.” That word tends, for many Westerners, to connote a woman who abandons career to stay at home with her children, and this conception has given us a very narrow view of homemaking. But to look carefully at the arc of Scripture (which begins and ends at home) is to see a homemaking God. At the very beginning, Genesis 1 drives toward this idea that God is making a habitable world for his people. “It is good” is a way for God to say, “It is homelike. People can live here.” And then of course in Revelation, we see God bringing heaven to earth and welcoming his children to dwell with him.

For me, a view of God’s homemaking inspires a whole new affective quality to his work of redemption. It’s not just that God has sent Jesus so that he can “acquit” sinners in a kind of impersonal legal transaction. It’s that God has made His own Son a stranger for our sake.

Salvation isn’t just pardon: it’s welcome. It’s homecoming.

You can read the rest of the piece here

No Easy Answers – A Life Overseas


Readers, my mom and dad were in the country of Pakistan and raised five of us in that context. 

Yesterday on A Life Overseas my mom shared a poignant story on children, choices, and ultimately learning to trust God with our kids. Would you join us there? 
I have included the beginning of the piece here.

Do YOU think it’s right to take innocent children to those heathen countries?”


The small elderly woman confronted me with the question. Ralph and I were newly appointed missionaries hoping to go to India. I glanced down at my tummy- had she guessed I was pregnant? I didn’t think it showed yet. I likely mumbled something about God’s will and tried to change the subject. 

We did take that innocent child with us to Pakistan, not India, and in the next 10 years we had four more. We were 20-somethings, full of hope and excitement and ideals. God in His mercy hid the future with its pain and struggle and tears of raising children overseas from us.

Not too many years later it had become clear to us that for most missionaries’ children in Pakistan boarding school was a part of that future. Our mission actively supported the founding of Murree Christian School in the northern mountains, eight hundred miles from where we lived. Five children from our mission were enrolled in its first year of existence.

“How can the Lord expect such an enormous sacrifice of us?” I asked myself. “It’s too much. I can’t do it. It can’t be right.” I struggled, asking how this could be God’s will for parents to send such young children away from home.
Eddie would start first grade in my home town during our first furlough. This timing put off our painful decision for a year. But God’s call to Pakistan was very clear to both Ralph and me. Did that call have to mean sending our children away at such a tender age?

In February 1959 Ralph went off to Karachi to arrange our furlough travel leaving me at home with the three children, behind the brick walls that surrounded our tiny courtyard. The Addleton family (Hu, Betty and their two little boys) were the only other foreigners in that small town in the desert and suggested we all go to the canal ten miles away for a picnic. Eddie was so excited that we were going to travel on the Queen Mary from England.
“I’m going to sail my Queen Mary in the canal,” he said, showing me the long string he had tied to a nail in the bow of his small wooden boat.

A couple of hours later, he stood at the edge of the canal, throwing his boat into the water and pulling it back. I kept an eye on him, but he was such a careful little boy. He would never fall in – Stan (his younger brother) might, but not Ed. A jeep driving along the dirt canal road, raised clouds of dust, and we checked the whereabouts of each of the children. Assuring they were all safe, we adults sipped mugs of coffee.

I looked around again just as the jeep passed us. Eddie was gone! I couldn’t see him anywhere. I jumped up and called his name, only to see his boat floating down the canal. Hu Addleton dove in, swam to the middle and began treading water, feeling the bottom with his feet. Bettie gathered up the little ones and the picnic things loading them into the Land Rover. I stood, helpless beside the canal. The water was so muddy, the current so swift. How could Hu possibly find my little boy in that murky water?

Then Hu called out, “I’ve found him!” He dove under and came up holding Eddie’s limp body. He handed Eddie up to me and somehow I knew what I had to do – that morning waiting for the Addletons to arrive, I had re-read a Readers’ Digest article about what was then a new method of artificial respiration, called “mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.” Eddie’s face was purple. I cleaned mud and sticks out of his mouth, before turning him onto his stomach to see a gush of water from his mouth. Laying him on his back, I started breathing into his mouth. Hu knelt beside us on that grassy canal bank praying loudly, begging God to give us back our son. How many minutes past, I didn’t know….

Read the rest here

Thanking you for joining us to read this poignant, personal story!