Day 26: The White Savior Complex {31 Days of #WOKE}

 

At first, she was scared of my white skin. But I know we will learn each other. We are bound together by spirit and our humanity. And now, by cloth. I feel like mothering all of this country's children. I was chosen for this! #babygotback #mybackthatis #tickettoride #morningworkout #trim4Him #squatdatot #notmybaby #yet
barbiesavior At first, she was scared of my white skin. But I know we will learn each other. We are bound together by spirit and our humanity. And now, by cloth. I feel like mothering all of this country’s children. I was chosen for this! #babygotback #mybackthatis #tickettoride #morningworkout #trim4Him #squatdatot #notmybaby #yet

In her recent memoir, Dangerous Territory: My Misguided Quest to Save the World, former missionary Amy Peterson proposes that it is time to retire the word “missionary.” Why? Perhaps because the word carries vestiges of imperialism, colonialism and the white man conforming the “heathen” to his culture and way of life. It also perpetuates the white savior complex where the white person swoops in to save the day such as in films like Dangerous Minds, Avatar, The Blind Side and The Help. (Which I tried and failed to do my first year teaching in the inner city.)

A popular Instagram account, called Barbie Savior, capitalizes on this theme, showing a Barbie doll in a variety of exotic settings followed by humorous hashtags: #imagiver #igivetopeople #andijustkeepgiving #justlikethegivingtree #exceptiambetter #thesetshirtsaresohotrightnow

The word “missionary” is certainly a loaded word.

Our new church is taking a short term missions trip this summer. Equal parts of me groaned, but also longed to take off for a week this summer to travel to Nicaragua. As someone who has been on short, medium and long-term missions trips, here’s my take on the matter of missions.

On a 5-week trip to Tajikistan in 2004.

1. Short-termers can do a lot of harm.

I won’t harp on this, but when you go into a place without knowing the culture or language, you can create a lot of chaos. (Read The Poisonwood Bible for many examples of what NOT to do—this should be required reading for missionary hopefuls. Also, see my post on The Problem with the Wordless Book.) Many short-termers go on trips to build churches or other structures, but in reality know nothing about building and take jobs away from locals.

Sometimes short-term trips can harm the work of the full-time missionaries. I lived in a remote area of China that had a very large Muslim people group. We had numerous Christian groups come through and talk to Imams at the Mosques and people throughout town, then leave us in a wake of new suspicion from the government. Being a Communist country where missionaries were not allowed, this behavior put our positions at risk. In addition to this, hosting large groups of short-termers can distract long-termers from the work they need to be doing and be very draining. Planning for meals, rides, accommodations and work all while using another language in another country is a lot of work for the long-term missionary.

On a one-week trip to Central America.

2. In spite of this, there is still value in doing short-term trips.

I decided to go into full-time missions because of a short-term mission trip I took with my youth group when I was 16 years old. I don’t think I would have made that decision otherwise. I now see short-term trips more as “vision trips” than anything else. They are an amazing opportunity to expand your worldview and see firsthand what God is doing in other cultures around the world. Even though they can be very expensive, I think this window into another world has life-long implications for westerners experiencing an entirely different way of life. Because of this, I would still encourage anyone to go on a short-term trip.

3. Long-term is better.

Any sort of sustainable mission work is only sustainable because of the longevity of the relationships built over months and years of trust. Learning the nuances of language and culture takes more than a week-long crash course. It requires being immersed for a long period of time. Once you have survived the waves of culture shock, you can begin the hard and sometimes life-long work of making friends and earning a right to share your faith or introduce new ideas for community development.

4. Empowering locals is best.

I still think local people are usually more effective at helping those within a culture than a foreigner would be. Many missions organizations now have this view of training local people and working themselves out of job. This is a broad statement and dependent on the kind of work, but a Chinese can best explain the Bible to another Chinese. A Ugandan will trust another Ugandan more than a white face. And a Nicaraguan will understand where to buy building materials, communicate with contractors and how to complete work on a project in cheaper, more effective ways than a white missionary.

***

Our Spiritual Hierarchy

Those in the church need to be careful about creating hierarchies within Christianity. Growing up, I believed missionaries were at the top of the spiritual hierarchy, then pastors and those involved in domestic full-time ministry. So naturally bankers, construction workers, servers and stay-at-home moms were at the bottom of the spiritual totem pole. You can read more about my journey stepping off the missionary pedestal here and here.

Youth groups and college ministries often perpetuate this myth of the missionary hero as they play intense music, show emotionally moving films and then follow with messages about not wasting your life by getting a normal job and buying a house when you could do the real kingdom work and be a missionary. Why would you want to waste your life when you could make your life count for God?

Now I realize the danger in emotionalizing the call into missions. Many people are on the mission field who do not belong there. And if there were less sensationalism surrounding missions, perhaps the average person might actually be able to see themselves there after all.

I still have a love for other cultures, languages and countries. I would still rather go than stay, but I also know that the subject of missions is not as simple a topic as I once believed.

Amy Peterson concludes: “The word missionary has become more problematic than helpful. Instead of describing reality, it blurs our vision and limits our imaginations. It has outlived its usefulness, and I vote we give it a proper burial” (Dangerous Territory p. 207).

I have to agree.

***

Have you ever done a short term missions trip? What did you learn?

In what way did your “whiteness” impact your ministry positively and/or negatively?

 

New to the Series? Start HERE (though you can jump in at any point!).

A 31 Day Series Exploring Whiteness and Racial Perspectives

During the month of March, 2017, I will be sharing a series called 31 Days of #Woke. I’ll be doing some personal excavating of views of race I’ve developed through being in schools that were under court order to be integrated, teaching in an all black school as well as in diverse classrooms in Chicago and my experiences of whiteness living in Uganda and China. I’ll also have some people of color share their views and experiences of race in the United States (I still have some open spots, so contact me if you are a person of color who wants to share). So check back and join in the conversation. You are welcome in this space.

Image: Barbie Savior Instagram

**Contains Amazon affiliate links

Day 20: The Problem with the Wordless Book {31 Days of #WOKE}

“The black represents sin, red is the blood of Jesus, which brings us to the next bead—white, when we are washed clean of our sin.”

We sat in pairs and prepared to share the gospel by color. I was 16 and going on my first mission trip to Costa Rica. Our church youth group had practiced our mime for months—an allegory of the story of Jesus–and our bags were loaded with extra Bibles in Spanish. We all memorized some basic Spanish so we could share the gospel as we gave away bracelets with colored beads, called “Power Bands.”

This method of evangelism, a bracelet version of the “Wordless Book” has been an evangelistic tool since the end of the nineteenth century. It is said to have been invented by the famous English preacher, Charles Spurgeon. In this method, each color represents an aspect of the gospel. The Teen Missions website gives the following guide:

Each color of the Wordless Book / Wordless Bracelet represents an important Bible truth about Salvation

BLACKSin  Romans 3:23 | All have sinned

RED Blood  I John 1:7 | Jesus’ blood covers all sin

WHITE Pure Psalm 51:7 | Jesus washes away confessed sin

YELLOW Heaven John 14:2 | Believe on Jesus and receive Eternal Life

GREEN Grow 2 Peter 3:18 | Grow in the knowledge of the Lord

In a sermon delivered in 1866, Spurgeon read the verse : “Wash me and I shall be whiter than snow.” (Ps. 51:7), then shared:

“There is something about this in the text, for the person who used this prayer said, “Wash me,” so he was black and needed to be washed; and the blackness was of such a peculiar kind that a miracle was needed to cleanse it away, so that the one who had been black would become white, and so white that he would be “whiter than snow.”

If I were in the presence of an African American as this sermon was delivered, I would certainly be cringing every time the word “black” was spoken.

The imagery of purity being associated with the color white and sin or evil being associated with the color black is commonplace in western culture. But what is happening at the level of our subconscious when we associate “black” with sin and “white” with purity and then turn around and categorize one another as “white” and “black”?

I can hear the naysayers now:

“Don’t be so touchy.”

“Does everything have to be about race?”

But as a mother, I have to wonder what my children internalize when they are taught that black is sin and white is purity.  Which color would you rather be?

Perhaps it is time to abandon the Wordless Book.

If you were (or are) a person of color, how would it make you feel to sing the following song (as is recommended by websites advocating the Wordless Book):

“Wordless Book” Song by Frances M. Johnston

(Show the colors as you sing.) 

(Black) My heart was dark with sin until the Savior came in.

(Red) His precious blood I know

(White) Has washed it white as snow.

(Gold) And in His Word I’m told I’ll walk the streets of gold.

(Green) To grow in Christ each day I read the Bible and pray.

Along with the fact that this method implies that black is bad and white is good, another problem with the Wordless Book is that our associations with color are not universal. When I lived in China, for example, I learned that white is the color of death and used in funerals and red symbolizes good fortune. In this regard, short term missionaries can sometimes do more harm than good when they fail to study language and culture before trying to share Christ in a foreign land.

We can do damage when we assume our western symbols are universal. Using the Wordless Book in a place like China would be nothing more than confusing (which is interesting since according to Wikipedia at least, it was used by China Inland Mission and missionary Hudson Taylor in China).

Open-air preaching in China using the Wordless Book

So what are some alternatives?

Rather than using colors, some people use the metaphors of being “dirty” and “clean,” utilizing object lessons like a dirty T-shirt washed clean to present the truth of salvation. Another alternative is to use the more biblical language of “light” and “darkness” when talking about sin and salvation. Though the Bible uses the word “white” in reference to purity, it never uses the word “black” to describe sin. The closest the Bible comes to color-coding sin is in Isaiah 1:18 that says “Though your sins be like scarlet, they shall be white as snow.”

God can and does use even our faulty methods to share His love. But if there is any chance that our methods offend, confuse, belittle or perpetuate stereotypes, then perhaps we should abandon them for the sake of unity.

New to the Series? Start HERE (though you can jump in at any point!).

A 31 Day Series Exploring Whiteness and Racial Perspectives

During the month of March, 2017, I will be sharing a series called 31 Days of #Woke. I’ll be doing some personal excavating of views of race I’ve developed through being in schools that were under court order to be integrated, teaching in an all black school as well as in diverse classrooms in Chicago and my experiences of whiteness living in Uganda and China. I’ll also have some people of color share their views and experiences of race in the United States (I still have some open spots, so contact me if you are a person of color who wants to share). So check back and join in the conversation. You are welcome in this space.

 

Images: 1) Bracelets  2) Open-air preaching in China

No Longer Heaven’s Hero {review of ‘Dangerous Territory’ + Book Giveaway}

Who wouldn’t want to be heaven’s hero? Why would anyone willingly choose the “white picket fence” life over an exotic life guaranteed to be exciting and eternally meaningful? And if giving up everything to move across the world is clearly more holy, why would anyone claiming to love Jesus choose anything less?

That’s what I used to think, so I was delighted to find I wasn’t alone.

Amy Peterson’s debut book, Dangerous Territory: My Misguided Quest to Save the World, is a memoir about the two years she lived in Southeast Asia and the fallout she experienced after sharing her faith in a country closed to evangelism. With clarity, poetry and engaging story-telling, Amy chronicles the deconstruction and reconstruction of her faith after her idealism is obliterated.

With an academic background in intercultural studies, Amy weaves the history of missions and cultural analysis throughout the book, occasionally interrupting her narrative with fascinating essays about missions. Zooming out from her story during these brief interludes allows the reader to position Amy’s personal narrative into the larger picture puzzle of missions, past and present.

As a writer over fifteen years later, Amy regards her younger, idealistic self with the mercy of a wise mentor, neither criticizing nor judging, but sharing her thoughts as she remembers them. She gently offers her reader a glimpse into some fallacies young Jesus-followers can fall prey to. She also challenges many assumptions about Christian life, ministry and missions made by the church at large. Amy transparently shares her personal grief, loss, hope and doubt in hopes the reader will take her hand on the road and learn right along with her.

***

Though I was sent to China instead of Southeast Asia, reading Amy’s book was like viewing a stranger through a window and mistaking her for myself. Our stories bear so much resemblance, Amy saved me hours I might have spent writing a very similar book.

I was with the same organization, lived in a very remote area with one teammate, completed the same masters program, spent time at the same places in Thailand during our yearly conference and had crushes on boys in my program (though not the same ones). I also walked away from my time overseas with more questions than answers. After five years in China, I—a goer with no intention of staying in the states–returned home to get married and give up my status as Church Darling. The missionary invitations, inquiries and special treatment stopped abruptly and—like Amy—I wondered, “What if God didn’t want me to be useful? Could I surrender to that? Was I willing to be useless for God?” (182).

It’s humbling to give up our “heaven’s hero” status when we feel we’re stepping into the status quo.

But I have come to similar conclusions in my quest for a special calling, purpose and meaningful life. Namely, that our calling begins and ends with love. Our first call isn’t to China, Africa, Southeast Asia, missions, marriage or motherhood. Our primary calling is to intimacy with Jesus Christ. All other callings will fade, shift, surge and grow through the seasons of our life, but that calling will sustain us for our entire lives and even beyond.

***

If you or someone you know is interested in spending any amount of time overseas, I would highly recommend this book as a vulnerable account of a modern day twenty-something (not an overly-romanticized missionary biography), who left home with good intentions and returned with a greater awareness of the fact that she wasn’t loved more because she was willing to go, but began and ended as an adored child of God.

Or perhaps you feel that going abroad is only for the holy? Although Amy clearly had a strong faith, her story reveals that God doesn’t send heroes, he sends the ordinary. He sends the willing. And He sends them not to change the world, but to catch a glimpse of His love for the world first-hand. In her conclusion, Amy admonishes missionary-hopefuls: “Don’t go because you want to save the world—go because you want to learn to love it. Go because you know that you are loved” (217).

***

I have an extra copy of Amy’s book that I would love to share with you! Leave a thoughtful comment on this post sometime between 2/7/17 and 2/14/17 (by midnight, U.S. Mountain Time) and I’ll enter you to win a free copy of Dangerous Territory. I’ll announce the winner on 2/15/17 and get it in the mail to you ASAP!

Have you ever been on a quest to save the world? How did that work out for you?

~Leslie

BUY THE BOOK HERE. (Right now it is only available on Kindle, but print copies should be available soon.)

Falling Off the Missionary Pedestal {for SheLoves}

I was privileged to share this at SheLoves last week!  Things have been a bit, eh, busy around here since we had our baby on September 10th, so I’m just now getting around to sharing it on Scraping Raisins.  


 
As a twenty-something single missionary home for the summer, I sat quietly judging the other girls in the room who were laughing and talking about which color Kitchen Aid Mixer they had registered for at their bridal showers. I thought about my own home—a 300 square foot cinderblock apartment in China with one sink in the kitchen that looked like it belonged to an auto mechanic and a “shoilet”—a toilet that got wet when you showered because the shower was in the same tiny space.

As I listened to those girls, rather than feeling envy, I felt smug. I was doing the Hard Thing: purposely living a life of discomfort for the sake of the gospel. I had climbed the evangelical Christian ladder right up to the top, perching on the pedestal the church reserves for missionaries. I wasn’t going to waste my life like these other girls who could guiltlessly own a $300 appliance that would collect dust on their kitchen counters.

I had this “living for Jesus” thing all figured out. Hard always equaled holy, I believed. Discomfort was always best. And poverty was external and had nothing to do with the poverty of my own soul.
But have you ever strode confidently into what you wholeheartedly believed was the direction you were meant to go when out of nowhere a giant shepherd’s rod slips around your waist and yanks you backward … hard?

That was how my five-year missionary tale ended—abruptly and with little explanation from that “still small voice.” Before I knew it, I was back in America with the Kitchen Aid Girls, drinking La Croix and chatting about recipes we found on Pinterest.

And I was miserable.

***

That was six years ago.

Since living in China, life has gone from multiple roads, all wide open with glorious possibility, to an ever-narrowing path where I can only see enough of the way ahead to put one foot in front of the other. Getting married “late,” we were on the fast track and had three kids in four years. Sometimes I wake up stunned, wondering what happened to my life.

As a missionary, I had been a superstar, both in China and back home...continue reading at SheLoves.

~~~

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A Fellow Failed Missionary {a review of ‘Assimilate or Go Home’}

As a white woman reaching out to refugees and those in the low income housing where her family lived, Mayfield illustrates a slow coming to terms with her own savior complex, privilege and ignorance.Missionaries are the elite. Sometimes assumed to have the “highest calling” a Christian can have, they are asked to speak at the pulpit, gather small groups in crowded living rooms, share color-saturated slides of exotic peoples and lands, put out glossy monthly newsletters and receive money from well-wishers. They are the darlings of the church—proof that those sitting in the pews on Sunday mornings do, in fact, care about the lost. And at the very least, the pew-sitters go themselves for a week or two to sidle up to and admire the work these long-term warriors are doing on the front lines.


I should know.

I’m a recovering missionary myself.

So when I came across the work of D.L. Mayfield recently, I felt an instant bond and got my hands on her new book Assimilate or Go Home: Notes from a Failed Missionary on Rediscovering Faith as quickly as I could. I was not disappointed.

Having written for McSweeney’s, Christianity Today, Relevant, Geez, The Toast, and Conspire!, among others, Mayfield is an experienced story-teller. This, her first book, is a collection of candid, wry essays that illustrate her lofty aspirations to save communities of refugees she entrenched herself among in America. Though she does not berate herself per se, she humbly concludes each snapshot of her do-gooder attempts by admitting that the results were rarely as she hoped.  As a white woman reaching out to refugees and those in the low income housing where her family lived, Mayfield illustrates a slow coming to terms with her own savior complex, privilege and ignorance. Instead of making converts, she was reminded of the impoverishment of her own soul. 

Through heart-breaking, sometimes hilarious, stories, she begins to internalize the truth that Henri Nouwen proclaimed, that “When we are not afraid to confess our own poverty, we will be able to be with other people in theirs.”[1] Ministry as she knows it is turned on its head as she discovers that the person who most needs saving is herself.

***

As a person who was also “called to missions,” I lived six months in Uganda, taught in an inner city school in Chicago and served five years in China. I can relate to many of the struggles Danielle wrestles with in her book. Like her, as a teenager I drank from a steady stream of missionary biographies, impassioned sermons and pleas to be “sold out and radical” for Jesus (which always meant selling everything, rejecting white picket fences and secretly judging anyone else who didn’t feel similarly called). I did the Christian college thing, went to the hard places and tried to live the radical life. But then I was called somewhere I never intended to be: right back where I started.

It wasn’t until I returned to the “normal” life of the “uncalled” that I began to understand the extent of my own poverty as I no longer embodied the shiny Christian label of “missionary.” I was just me.

***

In a recent interview on the podcast, Relief, put out by The Englewood Review of Books, Mayfield states that her new goal in life is no longer to save the world, but is now “to save her own people, the evangelical do-gooders.” While the book spotlights her own misplaced motives, she indirectly points out the deficiencies in white evangelical Christianity that seek to be generous without the commitment of long-term relationship, hospitable without being willing to live among the poor or bold in evangelism without regard for the culture, language or background of those they are trying to serve.  

Assimilate or Go Home is a necessary read for any and all who aspire to be the “do-gooders” and world changers. Similar to Barbara Kingsolver’s fictional work about a bumbling missionary family in Africa, The Poisonwood Bible, I would venture to say that this should be in every do-gooder’s library as a study in humility and even, at times, a study in what NOT to do.


So in Mayfield, I’ve found a kindred spirit. She is another bent, broken, humbled and slowly maturing follower of Jesus who is realizing that the way up is the way down, the way forward is the way backward, and the way to life is through death–to herself, her dreams and her propensity to make herself the hero of her story.

***

“The Way of Jesus is radically different.
It is the way not of upward mobility but of downward mobility.
It is going to the bottom, staying behind the sets, and choosing the last place.”[2]
~Henri Nouwen

***



[1] Nouwen, Henri. “August 19.” Bread for the Journey. New York: Harper Collins, 1997. Print.
[2] Nouwen, Henri. “June 28.” Bread for the Journey. New York: Harper Collins. Print.

~~~

Buy the book Assimilate or Go Home: Notes from a Failed Missionary on Rediscovering Faith and check out Danielle’s blog!

~~~

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Serving Single in China


I recently had this essay published in a magazine for singles in Australia called SPAG Magazine.  The editor has given me permission to republish it here.  

Scraping Raisins Blog Post: Serving Single in China

Cowering behind the faded window curtain, I tentatively peered out into the darkness.  Another explosion sent me inching deeper into the tiny cinder block apartment for safety.  Slowly, logic began to overlap my irrational thoughts.  Perhaps the “gunfire” outside wasn’t a group of Chinese militants coming to kidnap the brand new single woman missionary after all.  Could it be that maybe—just maybe–it was simply fire crackers to celebrate a traditional festival?
In my five years of living in China, the first night was the most frightening.  But as anyone who has done the brave thing has ever experienced, reality often ends up being much tamer than our imagination.  So once I began to adapt to my surroundings, many irrational fears fled and left me with confidence.  In 2004, God had led me to move across the globe from the U.S. to live alone in China as a single woman missionary.
Here is my story.
Choosing Independence
If I told a psychologist three of my literary role models, they could probably psychoanalyze me fairly well.  Anne from Anne of Green Gables, Maria of The Sound of Music, and Jo from Little Women were my heroes.  Though each woman eventually married, marriage was never the goal of their lives.  Instead, they were strong, independent women who knew what they wanted and refused to let a man barricade the way to their dreams.  Like these women, marriage was never my endgame.   
I went to a Christian university where many women’s goals were to leave with the famed “M.R.S. degree.” My roommate’s father warned her that if she couldn’t find a man there, she would have a hard time finding one anywhere. Horrified, I vowed I wouldn’t get married during or immediately following college because God had called me to serve Him overseas and I didn’t want anything—or anyone—to get in the way of that call.
My Call to Missions
When I was 16-years-old, a missionary visited our church to share about his family’s work in Uganda.  Complete with a slideshow of his children growing up learning how to throw spears and wear war paint, I was enthralled.  At the end of his fiery sermon, the pastor did an altar call asking if anyone wanted to “give their life to missions.”  Heart burning and hands sweating, I made the trip forward to answer the call.
From that time on, I read every missionary biography I could get my hands on and absorbed myself in the lives of Amy Carmichael, Bruce Olson, Jim and Elisabeth Elliot, George Mueller and Hudson Taylor.  I copied Jim Elliot quotes into my journal and practically tackled visiting missionaries so I could find out about their lives.  I was enamored with the romantic notion of throwing my whole self into God’s service. 
In college, I led the Africa prayer team and signed up for a six month internship in Africa, where I was sure God was calling me to spend my life.  My first experience abroad was in Uganda, where I faced culture shock and came up against many of my unrealistic ideals about being a missionary.  I was less useful and life overseas was harder than I had anticipated.  After returning, I decided that if God wanted me to live abroad, then He would have to make it unmistakably clear.  A few years later, God showed me that it was time to go.  He led me as a 25-year-old single woman to a three-year commitment—which turned into five–to teach English to college students in China.   
Advantages of Being Single
Fear, excitement, hope, anxiety and wonder swirled internally as I prepared to leave for China in July of 2005.  I sold my car, quit my teaching job and said goodbye to friends and family.  Though I had moments of doubt when skeptical family members would question my decision, I was confident that if God called me to China, then He would be the one to sustain me there.
Once there, God proved that He was more than enough.  I was surprised that though the loneliness was acute at times and my marital status was a mystery to the Chinese, who almost always married by the time they were 30, there were so many advantages to serving God as a single woman.
Compared to my married teammates, I had the gift of time.  As I only taught about 16 hours a week, I was able to spend the rest of my time learning Chinese, meeting up with fellow teachers and teammates, having students over weekly to teach me to cook Chinese food, exploring the city, visiting my students in their homes in the countryside, and seeking Jesus in the long mornings.  I noticed that many expat married women with children were much more isolated as their time was spent homeschooling and creating a cocoon for their family.  They often seemed to be much lonelier than I was as they didn’t have time for many other relationships outside of their families.
I soon realized that I felt much more comfortable as a single woman in China than I did back home in the United States.  In China, I was a part of a team that felt like family and was always welcome at the table of my Chinese friends.  They eventually assumed that single women were the norm in my country, so they didn’t put pressure on me to conform to society the way my friends and family back home did.  After summers at home, I was often eager to return to China, where I felt a sense of belonging and like I was more accepted than I was in the church and society during my short stay in the U.S. 
                                                                                                                  
Missions: Sacrifice or Privilege?
My teammate and I had many visitors over the years I was in China.  Some were friends, others were on “vision trips,” but some came for the sheer purpose of encouraging missionaries on the field.  Many times these trips were made up of older married men in ministry with good intentions, but a narrow view.  Sitting down to bowls of spicy noodles, they would ask my teammate and me about the “sacrifices” we had made in giving up everything and going to China. I knew they referred to not being married or having a family, the comforts of home and missing out on weddings, births, deaths and life events back home.  I could tell they felt sorry for us.  Yes, there were sacrifices, but I felt like these men were missing the point.  Being in China felt more like a privilege than a sacrifice.  There is a supernatural peace that settles in your soul when you know you are right in the center of God’s will.  And you don’t want to be anywhere else.
Scraping Raisins Blog Post: Serving Single in China
The street I walked down everyday in northwest China.
Luggage, Logistics and Loneliness
In spite of the overall peace and joy I felt, of course I had my moments of wishing I were married.  Dealing with luggage on long journeys home and simple life logistics were often pity party triggers.  On cross-country train rides, I joked that I wanted a husband so I didn’t have to haul my suitcase up and down the staircases at the train station.  On plane trips, I wished I had someone to watch my luggage so I could run to the bathroom instead of having to lug it into the stall with me.  It seemed life would be easier with a companion. 
But I also longed for a “constant” in my transitory life.  If I had someone who knew both my China and U.S. self, I wouldn’t have to go into long explanations with pictures and diagrams to every single person I knew.  At least there would be one person who knew me on both sides of the globe. 
The biggest internal struggle I had as a single woman was feeling like I was giving up all prospects of marriage by moving to the middle-of-nowhere China.  Like Mary Magdalene, who broke her alabaster jar of perfume at Jesus’ feet, I felt that I was sacrificing all hope of marriage.  There were only three other foreigners in our entire city:  my female teammate and another single male and female from the U.K.—both in their 60’s.  Our organization didn’t allow us to date Chinese men, so I knew marriage would have to be a miracle if it was what God wanted for my life.
Missions vs. Marriage
“In your way, in your time, if it’s your will” was always my prayer when I talked to God about my desire for a husband.  But in a fight for contentment, I stopped praying about meeting someone.  I noticed prayer was sometimes a nice excuse to indulge in fantasizing, so I trusted my mother and other close praying friends to bring my desire before the throne. 
When I returned to the states for my brother’s wedding in the middle of my fifth year in China in January of 2010, I had no aspirations of meeting a man.  Some friends and I planned to spend the weekend at a cottage and I ended up carpooling with a guy who had mysteriously been included on the guest list.  Convinced that if God wanted me to get married, then he wanted me to marry a missionary, I chattered away with this actor from Chicago the entire three hour drive with my guard completely down.  No way could he be “the one.”  But by the car ride home two days later, I knew I was in trouble.  I was falling in love.    
Scraping Raisins Blog Post: Serving Single in China
On the outskirts of the city where I lived my first three years in China.

Questions about Calling
I flew back to the states in July of 2010 for a year-long furlough, but got married six months into it.  Though marriage itself has been easier and better than I expected, I’ve done a lot of soul-searching about what it means to be “called,” guilt over leaving the mission field and grief over giving up the life I thought God was leading me to live.
Though God made it very clear that this was His new plan for me, I still struggled with the fact that marriage and missions seemed to be mutually exclusive in my life.  It is much easier to step in to ministry than it is to step out of it.  It is even harder when you are trading in your independence and commitment to your call for a man. 

Amy Young, a woman in leadership with our organization at the time, was gracious as I apologetically confessed that I was leaving for a man.  “Life is long,” she said.  In a book she wrote titled Looming Transitions, she elaborated on this idea and said, “This transition will not become the sum of your life…It’s natural for people to mark things in terms of before or after events: graduation, marriage, a certain job, a baby, a painful breakup, a big move, or a serious health issue. But those events don’t become the story. They become a page in the story or possibly the beginning of a new chapter. They join a plot larger than the transition each one creates. Part of staying fertile, then, involves reminding yourself of the bigger picture–the bigger story–that came before and will live on after it” (pg. 37).   “You will outlive this season,” she says (pg. 47). 

I once met a couple in China who had been leading short term mission trips every summer for 20 years.  They were 70-years-old, which meant that they began their ministry when they were 50.  They were enjoying the fruits of a long life of walking with Jesus.  We have no idea what God wants to do in our lifetime of following Him.  The older I get, the more I appreciate the rear view of life more than the forward view because of all the glimpses I see of Jesus on the road with me when I never even realized it.
Looking back, I am thankful for the years that I was single.  I am now in my sixth year of marriage and pregnant with my third child.  I miss those long mornings in China spent in the presence of Jesus.  I miss the days of exploring, wandering and taking time to get to know people without tiny hands pulling me and high pitched voices demanding my attention.  I am grateful that I had adventures and grew into my skin before I met my husband so that I knew who I was and who I belonged to before I committed my life to someone else.  And I see the wisdom in God leading me home.  He knew I had begun to worship my call.  In the past few years, he has shown me that I am not called to missions, teaching, art, writing, marriage or motherhood.  My first call is to intimacy with Jesus.  And nothing compares to intimacy with Him.
Through going, returning, singleness, marriage and motherhood, God has been my anchor.  He has consistently reminded me that though my circumstances change, He remains the same.  His love is steady and my identity in Him is secure.  Just because I am not serving Him as an overseas missionary right now does not change His character or the way He sees me in any way.  He is still moving, breathing His Spirit and whispering His plans just as much at home in the states as He was when I lived in China.  And it turns out that He—not a man–was my “constant” all along.
References:
Young, A, Looming Transitions: Starting and Finishing Well in Cross-Cultural Service, 1st paperback ed, pp. 37 & 47, Createspace Independent Publishing Platform, USA. 2015
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Used with permission from SPAG Magazine
Here’s the link to this edition of the magazine, which will only be active until the fall:  SPAG Magazine (June-August 2016)  

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Single in China~ The biggest internal struggle I had as a single woman was feeling like I was giving up all prospects of marriage by moving to the middle-of-nowhere China.

When You Feel Like God Misled You {Middle Places}

I am honored to be sharing at the Middle Places online community today.


God misled me and lost my trust. From the time I was 16 I believed that I was created to be a missionary. Once, on a flight with violent turbulence, I actually had the thought God won’t let this plane go down, because He needs me to do His work.

It sounds so arrogant now, but at the time it felt incredibly faith-filled.

It’s been 20 years since my original calling and not only am I not living in a hut leading people to Jesus, I just test drove my first mini-van. I’m “just” a regular old stay-at-home mom with a dishwasher and attached garage.

But living abroad did end up being a significant part of my story. From 2005 to 2010 I lived in northwest China, intending to be there forever–even if it meant being single. But God’s narrative looked much different from what I had planned for myself and He had me fall in love with an actor in Chicago who, while open to God’s leading, was not “called to missions.” But he was God’s pick for me. And it was time to go home.

If you’ve ever lived abroad, then you know that your insides feel about like the innards of a baseball as you try and untangle your values, identity and worth as you readapt to a culture that should feel like home, but doesn’t. Now referred to as re-entry, it is synonymous with an astronaut re-entering Earth after adapting to space.

Imagine Alice returning from the Looking Glass, Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy stepping back out of the wardrobe or Dorothy returning from Oz and you have a bit of a picture of how you might feel after adapting to another culture.

But add in falling in love with that country, culture and people and you have another layer to step through.
And it broke me….continue reading at Middle Places 

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The Cult of Calling {A Life Overseas}

I’m over at the online missions journal A Life Overseas today with some thoughts about calling.


I don’t like to say that God “calls me” anymore.

When I graduated from a Christian college, I believed I would change the world. I was determined to be useful, significant and different. I wasn’t going to join the throng of sell-outs who eventually move to comfy white-picket homes in the suburbs and attend churches where conversations afterward are meaningless and trivial, because I was called to be a missionary–the highest calling a Christian can have.

Every decision I made propelled me on that path. College? A place that would offer overseas opportunities. Major? Something useful, but that could also slide under the radar if I went to a closed country that was anti-Christian. First job? Teaching in inner city Chicago until a door opened up to go overseas (obviously). First chance to go abroad? China, because closed countries are the place to be if you really love Jesus.

I finally had the chance to answer God’s call on my life to serve Him as a missionary after a few years of teaching in the states. I sold my car, quit my job and moved to China. Yes, I was lonely at times, but I was finally doing what I was called to do, so I loved knowing that I was living such a high calling and making a difference in the world. And then something tragic happened: I fell in love with an actor in Chicago, who was not “called to missions” (careful about short trips back home when you have your guard down).

And I had to face some hard questions.

What if God hadn’t called me to missions after all?

What if I was being just a tad prideful about my “calling”?

What if I was worshipping my call?

When I made the decision to move back to the states and get engaged, I felt like a failure. Though God had made it unmistakably clear that this was the man He intended for me, I still struggled with all the demons in my head yelling at me that I was selling out by leaving the mission field.

But God.

He wanted more for me. He wanted me to step down off my pedestal and walk among the “uncalled” for a while. He wanted me to untangle my identity, unwinding all the programming I had received that led me to believe that I was “more,” that I was doing “more” and being “more” than other Christians. The lies. That my life was somehow more meaningful because I was serving Him in another country. That I was special because I had that call on my life.

And He wanted me to understand something about the way He calls His children.

I am not called to missions, marriage, motherhood, writing or teaching. I am called, first and foremost, to intimacy with Jesus Christ.

That is my call.

Even art: writing, acting, singing, painting, sculpting, dancing or any other creative venture as a calling on our lives has the potential to lure us away from our First Love, to become a golden idol that we prostrate ourselves to.

So I no longer raise “calling” to the level that I once did, because I tried to find myself there and got lost. When my calling was taken away, I was left wandering in the soul wilderness of despair, a place of despondency where those who are loved as image-bearers of Jesus have no place.

So to what—to whom–are we called?

We are called to Jesus Christ—to lean on His breast, wipe His feet with our hair, dance before Him, fall in love again and again, feast on His body and bread, and indulge in the love that died for us. And out of the rush of that call, we are to give Him all that we have and all that we are. If we have the gift of words, then we write for Him. If He opens doors to serve Him through missions, we pour ourselves out abroad just as we would at home. If He gives us family and children, then we enjoy them, work for them and love them hard. And if He gifts us in dance, acting, song, painting or any other creative venture, we wildly hand back these gifts as an offering to Him.

And if He moves us to a place we don’t want to be? If we are injured and can do longer paint or sculpt? If we age and can no longer dance? When our children grow up and move away? Then we will not fall apart, because we are NOT our art. We are not our ministry. We are not our “calling.” We belong to Christ and are stamped with the love of the Holy Spirit, in whom we live and move and have our being. And He never looked at us and saw our gifts anyway (though they made Him smile).

He has always looked at us and seen us as His beloved adopted children, and He is the one that stands singing over us, dancing in joy to be with us and giving us the most profound words ever written. Our callings are a taste of glory, a gift to be given back, an opportunity to experiment with creating like God creates. But they can never define us, make us complete or bring us ultimate fulfillment, because they are an imperfect tool to glorify a perfect God.

So, no, I no longer say that “God calls me,” in the same smug way that I once did, assuming that a call is forever or even that there is a hierarchy of calls, with some being more holy than others. Instead, if I use those words, I preface it by saying that I am called to this “for now.” And if and when that calling shifts, I am left standing on solid ground, because my calling is to intimacy with Jesus Christ. And He never changes.

Republished at For Every Mom on May 12, 2016

White People Are Boring

Though I am as white as they come, most of the time I wish I didn't live in America--or at least didn't live surrounded by other white people.

Though Im as white as they come, most of the time I wish I lived in another country–or at least didn’t live surrounded by other white people.  Having traveled to multiple countries, I find other cultures, ethnicities, exotic foods and customs fascinating.  I especially love collectivist cultures in South America, Africa and Asia where spontaneous visits, eating off the same plates, invitations to family meals and sitting around chatting for hours are the norm, not the exception.  People are not seen as individuals, but draw their identity through being a part of the whole.  Because of this, the church instinctively knows how to move as one unit with more fluidity than we do in the west.

In China, I was close to a young Chinese couple that led a small house church.  When a couple in their group started having martial problems, they didn’t just refer them to a book to read or a counselor to go to, they MOVED IN WITH THEM.  Literally, moved into their house for several weeks to help them work through some of their issues.  Can you imagine something like that happening in western countries?

In Uganda, friends would go out on weekends and visit friend’s homes unannounced.  I remember meeting an African family studying in America at my college and they complained that they just didn’t know how to make friends in a culture that didn’t just “drop in” on each other, but had to plan everything weeks in advance.  In China, it took me weeks of being stood up to realize that I was planning too far in advance (one week).  When I asked my Chinese students when you should ask someone to dinner if you wanted to go on a Saturday, most said Friday–the day before.

Since returning from living in China five years ago, I’ve definitely struggled with some of my motives in wanting to live overseas.  Yes, I felt that God had “called” me overseas and to this day, I am in tears when I hear missionaries share in church or if I see videos meant to inspire people to go.  Just this Sunday a man stood up in church and shared about a short term trip to Ecuador and every part of me wanted to jump on a plane in July–with or without my family–and be there.  But I have also had to wrestle with the fact that I liked being viewed as different, special and radical–both in my own culture and in other cultures.  And I am addicted to adventure, the exotic and the Next Thing.  I live in the tension, wondering if I’m “called” or if I’m just eager for change.  

So instead of looking for ways to go abroad, I’m struggling to be content where I am.  And that means loving the people right here in my city in Colorado, which happen to be 92% white.  But so far many of those boring white people have certainly shocked me.

My first friend after we moved last year is a woman I met at the park.  We connected and since our kids were the same genders and ages, agreed to meet up again sometime.  Though colorful tattoos decorated her arms and back, I didn’t think she was too different from the other women I had seen around.  She mentioned that she and her husband own a martial arts academy, so naturally I googled it and her as soon as I got home.  Turns out before kids she was not only an instructor, but a world champion martial arts competitor.  

One of our neighbors is a stay-at-home dad who is in a band on the side.  A woman at church mentioned she takes snuff when she goes to her in-laws.  Out of a Bible study of 20 women I’m in, over half have lived abroad.  A woman we had over from church yesterday told us about her daughter who is a professional synchronized swimmer.  And I mentioned to two women at a moms’ group that I started a blog and both of them happen to be writers as well.

As I wrote last week about trying to notice people all around me, part of this is realizing that I am making unfair assumptions about people as “boring,” writing them off before I even have a chance to know them.  But what I’m really doing is not building a wall around others, but around myself.  Because I can’t know others well unless I also allow myself to be known.  

“If someone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen.  And this commandment we have from Him, that the one who loves God should love his brother also”  (1 John 4:20-21).  

We are called to a life of loving others, no matter their outer appearance.  

So I’m praying for open eyes to see people without prejudice or prejudgement.  I’m striving to be content where I am.   And I’m asking that God help me to see people as He sees them and love them as He does.  Because, truly, no matter what country, culture, race or custom, those who know Jesus are my brothers and sisters, “For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus…There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:26, 28). 

I, not God, am actually the one making the distinctions and declarations, because God Himself looks at us all and simply sees His beloved children.  And I long to see people of all colors (including my own) as He does–full of beauty, life, creativity and His very characteristics.


Do you ever feel like white people are boring?  Do you have any stories of people who have surprised you?

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Though I am as white as they come, most of the time I wish I didn't live in America--or at least didn't live surrounded by other white people.

Goodbye to the Other Leslies

I really thought my life as a nearly 37-year-old would look very different from the way it actually looks today.  

As a 20-year-old, let’s say, I envisioned my future self as living in another country, speaking another language and having a family with bi (or tri)-lingual children.  I planned on raising them to love other cultures, attend local schools, eat ethnic foods and travel the world.  We would possibly even live without plumbing.  And my husband would be right there beside me–leading people to Christ and possibly even preaching or teaching in other languages.  That’s how it was supposed to go.

And if I stayed single? (my plan B) I’d get my PhD and have lots of disciple “children” in another country, like Amy Carmichael, who was a single missionary in an orphanage in India for over 50 years.

Oh how God has a sense of humor.

Though I was on that very path, God U-turned my life six years ago to bring me back exactly where I started (or so I thought).  And I found myself living a life I never dreamed I’d live:  an “ordinary” one.


The crossroads of life have a catch.  Once you pass them, you can never go back. 

I recently listened to a podcast called Sorta Awesome that talked about saying goodbye to all of your potential yous that never came into existence.  And I feel it’s time that I bid those other Leslies adieu.

I really thought my life as a nearly 37-year-old would look very different from the way it actually looks today.

 
Goodbye to the single Leslie who would change the world.

Goodbye to the Leslie who would marry someone of another race and have gorgeous bi-racial children.

Goodbye to the Leslie who would marry someone in full-time ministry.

Goodbye to the Leslie who would get a PhD studying an ethnic minority in northwest China.

Goodbye to the Leslie who would be a social worker (my first major).

Goodbye to the Leslie who would transform the inner city of Chicago through her badass teaching methods…think Dangerous Minds (I tried that, actually, and that Leslie didn’t materialize).

Goodbye to the Leslie with 6, 8 or 10 children (probably not biologically possible for me anymore), or the Leslie who would be the “mom of boys” or “mom of girls” (I have a boy and a girl).

Goodbye to the Leslie who would be a nurse (I got accepted to nursing school, but didn’t go).

Goodbye to what could have been.

Hello and welcome to what is.  To what God has done, is doing and will do.   

Thank God for the roads taken and the roads not taken.  Because at every crossroads, He was there.  He was pointing, guiding, urging, leading and holding my hand, whether I knew it or not.  

Goodbye, fair Leslies.  Those would have been good lives, too, were they what God had planned for me.  It turns out He wanted me to be a teacher, live for a time in China, be single for a season, finally marry an actor in Chicago, have two adorable stinkers, move to Colorado and begin a little blog

And “ordinary” is relative, after all.  This Saturday night, I cooked dinner to James Taylor in the background, with my one-year-old daughter on my hip, helping me deliver cardamom, cumin, coriander and turmeric to the counter to make chickpea curry.  Meanwhile, my sick husband was curled up with tea, a cozy blanket and a book at the kitchen table.  

In the other room, our son played with our former Saudi Arabian exchange student, laughing and making trucks talk back and forth.  My daughter got bored “cooking” and dove into the cardboard box in the living room that is our best new toy.  

Earlier in the day, we all squashed into our Corolla to drive 45 minutes up into the snow-covered mountains to Rocky Mountain National Park, pausing on turn-outs for breath-catching views.  We put the kids to bed after dinner and conversations about the intersections of Muslim and Christian theology and melted into the couch to watch a new British murder mystery T.V. series. 

Yes, our life is ordinary.  But ordinary is the way your foot eventually molds grooves into stiff shoes.  It is the way a gorgeous new dress gradually becomes “you” and a natural part of your wardrobe.  “Ordinary” for us does not look like “ordinary” for others.  In fact, your “ordinary” may be very exotic to me, and vice versa.  Ordinary is no longer a bad word to me.

Though I am not changing the world at a macro level, love, cultures, food, friends, laughter and challenges are happening at a micro level under my roof just as they would have had I found myself on another path.  This is the Leslie that God intended to be.  So I will stop turning to look back at those other Leslies that could have been and allow them to fade into the distance, granting them a fond, but firm farewell.  I do not regret a single road taken.  Though life is not as I expected, it is still pretty spectacular, even in all its ordinary-ness. 


What about you?  How does your life look different (so far) from what you had planned for yourself?  How have you seen the grace in that?  I’d love to read your stories in the comments!

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I really thought my life as a nearly 37-year-old would look very different from the way it actually looks today.