Monday, December 5, 2016

Life’s hard…everywhere

I [Chris] have had a really interesting question lobbed at me a couple of times recently.  The question, though worded differently each time, is basically something like this:  is it harder or easier to live without so many modern conveniences when you're in Cameroon?  The question points to an obvious implicit dichotomy.  On one side, you have life in Cameroon without ubiquitous technology but with many things that have to be done manually – things that we take for granted here in the US.  On the other, you have life with every conceivable modern convenience which then leads to having so much more to do/worry about.

My answer has essentially been, “It’s harder everywhere.”  That doesn’t make much sense, although it’s the truest answer I can give.

Honestly, it’s at the core of some struggles we’ve had in adjusting to life in the US.  And to be clear, struggles of adjustment in the US are mostly between the ears – stuff that’s hard to find a place for and comprehend.

So on the one hand, when we’re in Cameroon, we see a hard life for so many of our friends.  We have friends, some in the village, some in the city, that live in conditions that our American friends could not imagine.  There are struggles in child-rearing – the most significant of which is finding money for school fees.  There is not guaranteed public education to benefit from and the fees a family with three children must pay can take about a month’s worth of income for someone from the working middle-class.  Lower middle-class and below?  Education might be rationed within the family (selecting which child will be educated) or not even become a part of their life.

There are struggles in the day to day.  Many people in Cameroon, again both in the city and in villages, struggle to have clean drinking water.  As a result, families may have a lot of illness which they probably won’t have the money to treat and the cycle just spirals.

Also, imagine living in a home with a curtain for a front door, basic cloth curtains in the windows (no glass or screens), no indoor plumbing, and an outdoor kitchen.  There you have a fairly average home in our city.

And this is just scratching the surface.  Frankly, when I consider our “struggles” after considering struggles of the average person living around me in our context in Africa, I feel like a spoiled brat.  Our lack of a dishwasher, our two bathrooms that only have ¾ height wall between them, having to spend most of a day to do the week’s grocery shopping at several different stores, power outages a few times a week, etc. are difficult for us coming from the US, but less than a drop in the bucket compared to what our neighbors contend with daily.

So yes, life is hard in Cameroon.  But that doesn’t mean it’s easy in the US.

Having so much modern convenience means a fuller docket in daily life.  There are so many activities to chase our kids to.  There are appointments to make and then keep.  There are so many technological things to catch up on and keep up with…in part because our kids needed “devices” to use in the classroom (it was a shock to come back here to find that just about every middle school kid has a better phone than me).  There’s learning Google Classroom in order to help the kids with homework.  It goes on and on!

And then came the need to manage some of our financial matters and take care of our retirement funds while we’re here.  And the management of our fundraising and all of the people and churches that are implied in all of that.  The sheer number of “irons in the fire” has quickly become overwhelming. 

There are so many things to take care of on so many angles that life here in the ultra-modern world…is hard.  But beyond the visibly difficult aspects of life in the US is that we make it worse by covering it up.  It seems that in Western culture, all of the conveniences that we have and use mostly serve to mask the frailty of our existence and put “makeup” on the real struggles that are deep in each of our hearts.

It can be a mess in our heads, living in both worlds simultaneously.  We’re still in touch with life in Cameroon and wanting to be back there in 8 months.  But we’re here now with feet in both worlds and not completely hanging tough and savvy in either one.  Both the heart and the head are struggling to manage both and have proper perspective.  Being bi-cultural is great, but it has exposed the blind spots that we had in our understanding of this life and how certain struggles were hiding behind the method of life. 

Then there is the deeper implication:  the fact that life is hard everywhere points to our brokenness – every darn one of us.  From the most impoverished to the most wealthy, we’re all insecure, lost, and lonely in a difficult world.  We’re all in need of a purpose…and a way toward fulfillment.

My prayer is that this season of advent will usher us toward the understanding of the greatest gift ever given:  Jesus, God’s gift that gives us the opportunity to dwell in fullness forever.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Well done, good and faithful servant.

Our family had an old friend pass away last week.  It is sad, for sure – especially for his family.  But there is an underlying joy because of the fact that when I think of this guy and what he did with his life, I can’t help but picture that moment when he reached the glory of heaven and he heard the Lord say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

We first met Larry Mills in the year 2000 in Pharr, Texas when we began attending Living Word Evangelical Free Church.  Larry was a guy that was very involved in the life of the church as a deacon, Sunday school teacher, AWANA leader, etc.  He was the type of guy that everyone sort of gravitated to as a friend.  He wasn’t a polarizing person and was very well respected.

About a year and a half after we met Larry, his wife Brenda, and their family, Larry and Brenda felt called into full-time ministry.  He became a missionary with Mid-America Mission and was going to Arkansas to run a Christian camp.  When he began his fundraising process, I remember vividly hearing Larry’s story and how his life was changed to become a powerful force for the Lord through extreme brokenness.  He lived for many years with a severely limiting heart condition – on the magnitude that, according to conventional medical explanations, he should not have even been alive when we met him in 2000.  But the Lord found it fit to defy convention and keep Larry around for a few more decades via a couple of sets of artificial heart valves.

So Larry left our church community in Texas to be a missionary to Arkansas…and then my connection to him became unique.  In the wake of Larry’s departure, there were many roles to be filled in the life of the church.  I became very familiar with the refrain of, “Hey Chris – Larry used to run the junior high AWANA group and we were wondering if you could take his place,” or, “Larry was leading this Sunday school class – could you take it over?”  I must have been approached about four different things to replace Larry’s roles in the church – some I accepted and some I didn’t feel qualified for.  I felt flattered to be seen as a replacement to a guy that everyone respected and depended on.  But at the same time, I didn’t feel like I measured up to be “Larry’s replacement,” having seen how his life was so in tune with the gospel.

I remember talking with Larry about a year or two after he had begun his ministry in Arkansas and hearing him talk of extreme discouragement at the start.  He was able to confess his need and not act as if he had it all under control.  That conversation made a strong impression on me.  I’m still trying find that level of humility in my life…I’m so not there yet.

Larry Mills was a fantastic family man and a missionary of very great substance.  His task of running a Christian camp in Arkansas evolved into other things throughout his decade and a half of ministry in Arkansas.  He took on administrative tasks for the ministry.  He spent a lot of time in pulpits, filling in as churches in the area had need.  He took on prison ministry in a few prison units in Arkansas. 

I must say that his prison ministry struck me the most.   Every week for the last four or so years, we would get an e-mail with prayer requests from prisoners that Larry was reaching out to, either in person or through correspondence Bible courses.  I’ll admit that I didn’t read the prayer requests every time.  But often reading them was an encouragement to me – seriously!  It wasn’t the, “Wow, their lives are so screwed up that it makes my problems look pretty small,” type of encouragement.  It was the, “Wow, Larry is putting it out there, being used mightily by God to reach the rejected and forgotten of society - against all odds,” type of encouragement.  Reading the words of those prisoners, many of whom were requesting more course materials and praising God for their spiritual growth, made me relearn every week how one gets used by God like Larry did.

Larry Mills wasn’t perfect and didn’t have it all figured out.  But his ability to confess that and rely on the Lord to lead him is what made him a good and faithful servant.  Well done, Larry.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

With My Tribe

The one part of our work that I [Chris] have positively loved the most since entering our ministry life, is our co-workers.  I’ve been amazed at some of their stories and have made some of the best friendships of my life in these last five years.  This past weekend, I had a reaffirmation of just how much I love the people I work with.

I went to Dallas for the Evangelical Missiological Society conference.  The event was held at the Graduate Institute of Applied Linguistics, where we studied in 2012 in preparation for the field.  I had been asked to present during the conference and I also volunteered running sound and doing some photography at the conference.  It was a full visit in more ways than one.

In part, it was full because I was busy.  I was all around the conference taking photos whenever I wasn’t checking on projectors in the different presentation rooms.  I also ran the sound board a few times for some sessions.  In the middle of it all, I presented during a thirty-minute session.  I don’t think I did a very good job on my session, but so be it.  I like these things to marinate in my mind and I didn’t really have my topic fully “tenderized” in my head, so it was a little rough around the edges.

Even before the conference began, having arrived a day and a half early, I visited with two different longtime friends from Virginia that have relocated to Texas, in addition to seeing my sister and her family that live around the DFW area.  Also, when the conference ended, I was able to visit briefly with the church that we called home during our time of training in 2012.  Those visits were all fantastic and relationally rewarding.

But, with apologies to all, the greatest fullness from the weekend was from being “with my tribe…” my ethnoarts family.  I was able to spend at least a little bit of time with more than 15 of my ethnoarts colleagues during four days at the campus in Dallas and it was straight up joy.

For those of you that at some point in your life have been in love, do you remember the butterflies you got in your stomach when you were about to ring the doorbell to pick up your date?  The anticipation of the moment that you finally get to be with that someone special?  That’s the feeling I get whenever I’m about to be with my tribe.  I know it sounds silly, and maybe even foolish to describe it in those terms…but that’s the type of feelings I have when I’m with these folks.  They are just awesome to be around and I can’t get enough of their company.

One thing that has been really difficult to describe in our last few months of furlough is the closeness I have with my ethnoarts family and how it can be a bit taxing emotionally that some of us have such deep connections but are scattered far and wide around the world.  I have colleagues from different domains that I love very much and that work right beside me in Cameroon…but it’s just not quite like being with my tribe.

So now it’s back to Virginia, where there is only one of my ethnoarts family nearby instead of more than a dozen.  But be assured, my mind is always wandering to the big calendar in my head, thinking how long it is until the next time that I get to be with a large segment of the tribe…and the next time…and the next…even looking forward almost two years to various meetings and events where I will be enjoying some here and some there.  I truly work with the best and most fun people in the world.  You could say it’s bittersweet, but I don’t think that’s quite right:  they’re so good, so sweet, that they outclass the bitter.  Sweetbitter…that’s what we'll call it.

With mentors and colleagues Frank Fortunato, Robin Harris, and Brian Schrag.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Transitions, part II

The last blog entry detailed transitions that had already happened or were on the verge of happening. Those transitions were largely personal and had a bit about the family's transitions as well.  In this entry, I [Chris] would like to detail the transitions that we envision during our year of furlough in the United States, with a particular focus on the work side of life.

Retooling is a word that I've used a bit already in some of our presentations that we've done since being in the US.  As I understand the word, it means to update something.  Our retooling is not going to be updating in the form of a different focus, but will be more of an addition of capacities...more like development or growth of what we're able to do on the field for when we return to Cameroon.

One of the additions is going to be in the area of trauma healing.  I'm looking forward to taking a class entitled Arts & Trauma Healing at the Graduate Institute of Applied Linguistics in Dallas during months of January/February.  Trauma healing is already happening in our location overseas, given the needs of people fleeing neighboring countries that are in the midst of terrible events.  I anticipate being able to add to the work in Cameroon with our special brand of trauma healing containing an arts component - sort of like art therapy.

Another transition that is going to happen is in my own professional growth.  About a year ago, I put together a growth plan with one of my mentors with the goal of attaining the status of Arts Consultant within our organization.  There are many pieces and parts to the process including some continuing education, some research, some publishing, some independent study, etc.

As I move toward consultant status, the work in Cameroon will change a bit as well.  In our next term overseas, I will be working in more areas of Cameroon and, potentially, the Central African region.  This will be done with an eye of transitioning toward the development of nationals to take up the work.  As an organization, our mission has the value of elevating people to do the work within their own communities.  With this in mind, one of my projects during our furlough is to get one of our key EthnoArts training classes set-up in French so that we can train and develop more Africans to continue arts ministry.  Our goal is to have local leaders developed so that things continue smoothly (hopefully even more smoothly) for decades after we have left the field.

Thank you for praying over our transitions, both past and future, personal and professional.  We expect to learn a lot and we want to have the eager expectation of seeing how the Lord will use transitions to teach and grow us a bit...or a lot.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Transtions, part I

It’s such a part of our life right now that I [Chris] really hate hearing the word transition anymore.  It’s one of those things where I know it’s real, but I would rather deny it than talk about it…because to talk about it in correct proportion to the amount of transition we’ve done, would be to talk about it constantly.  But alas, the monster must be confronted!

We’ve got transition everywhere in our lives right now.  The obvious is that we just transitioned from Cameroon to the United States and will transition back to Cameroon again in a year.  But there are so many more - transitions for the kids into US public schools for the first time, a transition in our sending church with a new senior pastor, transitions in leadership for our mission organization…the list could go on.

Transitions away from friends and pets were a bit difficult.

The bright side is that not all transition is bad and not all of it is filled with uncertainty.  We have some transition going on now that will be great for our work in Cameroon.

So in the spirit of detailing the “good, the bad, and the ugly,” we’ll fill you in on the transition that has happened and what’s ahead and what it means for us as we begin our year of furlough, or home assignment, in the United States.

There was much transition subtly happening in our lives in Cameroon, long before leaving the country.  We were reaching a level of ease and becoming much more functional within the culture.  I also was becoming more at ease with my work and thus more productive.  I feel as if I can look years down the road and construct a plan for my work rather than being tentative because of a lack of cultural savvy.  In our last few weeks before heading to the US, I was able to lead songwriting workshops more confidently, work on research projects with good direction, and see where it was going to lead.  Seeing marked progress in this subtle, slowly developing transition gave a sense of accomplishment before our leave began.

Above:  Working on an alphabet song in the Iyasa language
Below:  Workshop participants from Kwasio and Batanga language communities with certificates at the completion of a workshop in late May.

Lori and the children were also feeling this same sense of comfort in managing family life and school life.  The kids transitioned from feeling new in their schools to feeling as if they really belonged.  Lori had much of our life at home into a routine and life flowed much more smoothly than it did at our arrival two years before.

The "six-handed dishwasher" in Cameroon.
After we finished the school year and packed up for our year in the USA, we took a little side trip to “close up” some old transitions.  We made a 9 day stop in France during our travels.  We found air tickets that allowed this to happen and thoroughly enjoyed our stay.  We made a point to visit people and places that were important to us during our time of language study in France (2013-14).  We also visited a couple of places that we had wanted to visit back then, but had run out of time for.  

We saw the kids’ schools, walked past our old apartment, attended our church, ate with several friends, caught up with several of our French professors, etc.  It was fantastic and very cathartic, I think especially for the kids.  They put out a lot of effort to assimilate to school and learn the language during that year, only to leave shortly after finding their comfort zone.  My favorite memory was right at the beginning of our stay.  I was walking with Kristin (12) through Paris, searching for a bakery near a train station while waiting a few hours for our train to depart.  As we walked along the street, she said, “I don’t feel like a tourist here.  I feel like I belong here.”  She enjoyed knowing that at one time, it was a struggle to be in that environment, but was now at ease.  She also enjoyed that, even after two years away in Africa, she still felt confident in French culture.  I’m hoping that helped her turn some transition experiences in to positives that she can build on.

Reunited with our favorite breakfast and lunch options in France.

We still like to climb up to old buildings.
Albertville, our old 'hood!
Seeing snow for the first time in over two June.
Seeing old friends in France.

Arriving in Virginia, a new transition awaited as we moved in with Lori’s mom in Lynchburg.  We’re learning to be more flexible with our family’s way of doing things versus Lori’s mom’s style of life (more of an issue after three years away in different cultures).  We even had to adjust to the feeling of being in air conditioning often.  It was a shock to find that air conditioning was not really pleasant at first and required some getting used to.  The living situation also requires adjustment to our typical schedule and tasks around the house.

A couple of days after our arrival in the US, we were at the 70th Sutton Family Reunion in Pennsylvania.
This is our branch of Lori's very large family.
For the kids, there is a huge new transition that looms and will probably be among the toughest challenges of this coming year:  school.  In the days immediately after our arrival, we began the process of getting the kids enrolled in their respective schools.  It was hard for us having to explain their educational background of the past few years, such as the conversation about Noah and his enrollment in foreign language classes:  “Yes, my 14 year old tenth-grader-to-be is well qualified for AP French and will quite likely be bored in the class - and also has a better accent than the teacher.”  There were also the shots and physicals.  Our kids have easily had twice as many shots as typical kids their age, but some were not accepted because of how and where they were administered.  Transition hurts in multiple ways sometimes!

When school starts, they’ll have the big social transition…again.  For the past two school years, they have been in a close-knit community of mostly expatriate kids in their international schools.  Before that, they were dropped into the French public schools with zero French language skills.  The year before that, they were in a charter school in Texas.  And the year before that, they were homeschooled in Virginia.  Honestly, I’m amazed that they’ve kept it together so well during all of that.  But I know this new transition will be a big challenge, even for seasoned transitionees.  They will need a copious amount of prayer as they learn a new educational system and new social rules.

Hiking Crabtree Falls in VA with longtime friend Peter.
The last of the transitions for this installment is transitioning relationships.  People change a lot when you’re away for three years.  Some of our friends have new children - some multiple new children!  Some of our friends have moved away.  Some of our friends have experienced break-up of their families.  Some of our friends have experienced tragic loss.  The joys and the sorrows are both draining for us as we renew our friendships because there are so many new realities to put together in our heads - honestly, it’s exhausting to process it all.  We’ve also learned that with some people, the friendship restarts as if there was never an interruption while others are slower to reignite.  The kicker here is that it is not necessarily relative to how deep or shallow the relationship had been…it seems quite random and hard to predict.

The other, less-anticipated relationship challenge was leaving friends in Cameroon.  In the missionary culture, we know that things can and do change quickly.  Sometimes a home assignment like ours marks the permanent end of a friendship due to people changing assignments, moving back to their passport countries, whatever.  There is an air of suspicion among our Cameroonian and expatriate friends of whether we will really return.  That too can be draining.

Goodbye picture with Abanda, the guard posted across the street from our home in Cameroon.
We thank you for your patience in this post that might seem like a series of complaints.  Our intention is to show what we’re struggling with and where the uncertainty in our lives is right now.  In another post to follow in a few days, we want to share the transitions that we envision during this year in the United States, mostly on the work front.  It will cover what our work looks like during this year in the US and how that will transition to more effective ministry in Cameroon beginning in 2017.