Sunday, November 23, 2008

Culture Clash in Cambodia

Jennifer McPhail--Cambodia

As the plane soared above O’Hare airport, the elevation change reflected the rapid change in my life situation. I was raised in small-town Deep South America, child of a country church pastor, and very comfortable with my Bible-belt social sphere. Until I married Forrest McPhail, I had never been on an airplane, and until deputation, I had never been west of the Mississippi, much less outside of the U.S.A. To complicate my naivety, my doctor advised me not to accompany Forrest on our survey trip of Cambodia, since I was seven months pregnant with our first baby at the time. Now, on my third flight ever, I was moving half-way around the world to a place I had only seen in pictures.

Of course, the starlit glow of deputation had fairly convinced me that people everywhere were wowed by our sacrifice and commitment. The appreciative natives would doubtless dance around rejoicing once they heard the Good News of Jesus Christ we were bringing to them. I had prepared myself with missionary biographies, so I was ready to give it all, live in a hut, and eat rice and stir-fry at every meal. The complications of the 21st century were all completely outside my box.

We descended from the clouds into steamy Pochentong Airport, where the senior missionary we would work with during language school met us. His philosophy for 12-hr. time changes was to keep us busy until evening, so our first stop was the bank to set up our monthly wire transfers. I was stunned there when I met another missionary wife at the bank wearing jeans and a tie-dyed shirt! I expected a sarong and a checkered headscarf! From there it just got worse. I had bought a refrigerator and a washing machine by the end of the month, and life was looking more modern all the time.

Between language school, caring for our baby, and learning how to live with a house helper, we kept fairly busy and happy for the next few months. One big surprise for us was that the senior missionary would be relegating teaching responsibilities to Forrest and me after just seven months of language training. Their family was due for furlough, and the only other family had joined the team only two months before we had. The rookies were it!

Trials began to escalate. Our home flooded three times, twice above the electrical outlets, and we decided to move to higher ground, literally—we took a second-floor apartment. Our first landlady was less than happy, and so less than kind. My house helper was acting more like she was in charge of me, instead of the other way around, and she also began looking to us to take care of her financial crises, which came quite regularly. An attempted coup happened in the city, and the gunshots disturbed me greatly. Ever after, I could not tell if I was hearing fireworks or firearms until Forrest could comfort me (of course he could differentiate!). Worst of all, we began to understand Khmer, and so we could hear the less-than-kind comments about the “long-noses” or “frenchies,” as they call us. It seems we were not so popular as I had expected, and we began to sense this from church members as well!

Naivety was crumbling, but I was building some strong walls of resentment in its place. The beautiful smiles of the Cambodians I met began to look sinister. Forrest told me he felt like a walking dollar-bill, the way folks asked us for money all the time, especially if we wanted to tell them about Jesus. I had my pocket picked at market once, got price-gouged often, and experienced lewd remarks from the male population when I went out. I began to retreat into my home and garner my needed emotional support from husband, daughter, teammates, and email.

At this crucial point, God would not let me be. My husband disappointed my expectations, our toddler hit a most awful tantrum stage, teammates got busy with their own families, and emails from family never came when I needed them. My Sunday school class of 60-75 children ranging in age from three to twelve years was stressful, especially since my only assistant was my mischievous two-year-old. My carefully prepared lessons often came apart at the seams as I was distracted by snickers and echoes of my mispronunciations around the room.

I began to struggle with unreasoning fear at night. I would wake in terror that I could not shake, pull the sheet over my head along with a pillow, and tremble for hours. I knew oppression was a possibility, but looking back, I think adjusting to a place where I simply could not make things work like they always had led to anxiety that erupted in this way.

One morning, footsteps rushing past our landing alerted me to the fact that a missionary colleague was looking for Dr. Tom, our teammate, because the man’s wife had been hurt badly in a hit-and-run accident nearby and needed Dr. Tom’s help. The missionary community rallied in a wonderful way to get medical help, but our friend died. Their family had been staying in the building our church met in as they prepared to leave for furlough the day of the accident. I was thankful to have heard our friend’s testimony at supper a couple nights before. She told us of her great contentment with God’s working in her own life and in her relationships with her husband and children. Never had I known someone to show such peace before great tragedy. How I wanted that!

Finally, my bruised heart and thwarted will were ready to receive the feast God was preparing for me. God led my husband to a passage in Mark where Jesus was experiencing a difficult time, humanly speaking, in His ministry. In chapter 6, Jesus receives the news of the violent death of John the Baptist at the hands of King Herod. We read in verse 31 that the Lord and his disciples were so busy at that point that they could not even eat. They decided to leave by boat for needed rest in a quiet place. But the people saw them, and they ran and met them at their destination!

“And Jesus, when He came out, saw much people, and was moved with compassion toward them, because they were as sheep not having a shepherd: and he began to teach them many things.”

Jesus knew their hearts, their motives, and their thoughts. Many of these people wanted whatever they could get from Jesus. Others had a thirst to see the supernatural. Unredeemed humanity is not lovely, no matter what country it resides in. And yet, He was moved with compassion. I began to understand that what I needed most was Christ’s love for these Cambodian people, an unwavering love that is not based on the loveliness of the loved ones. Forrest and I began to pray to have that love, and God began to work in us.

For me, though, that was not the only issue at stake. None of the comforts that had eased my spirit at other points in my life were helping. Many of the pleasures I had enjoyed were not even available now! No libraries, malls, videos, or phone conversations. I had a gorgeous dream once that I was in a big department store where everything had price tags (Phnom Penh was still backwards then), and I shopped for hours! Comfort foods were gone too. I was shut up, like many campers feel when they go for a week of summer camp. But, like at camp, I was better prepared to hear God speak.

Desiring God, by John Piper, came into our possession, and I started to read. The more I read, the hungrier I got! Jesus Christ fulfills every longing that I felt then or will ever feel! I was craving things of the world without even realizing it, because I was dissatisfied and anxious without them. Hope sprang up in my heart that God would be all in all for me, come what may. It felt like a conversion experience, and my Bible was suddenly a personal letter for Jennifer-the-new-missionary-in-Cambodia.

If I had known what would await me on the nether side of the globe, I doubt if I would have so glibly fielded questions at our display table in the church lobbies of America. In fact, I think I would have left the task to someone better prepared. But now I would not trade my life for any other, not because of the adventure and romance of our calling, but because of how God has pushed and prodded me out of complacency and into joy.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Serving in Ghana

Patty Sommer--Ghana, West Africa

I was quite sure when I moved to the mission field that I would be the first missionary never to suffer from culture shock. I had heard it talked about, and I even had one missionary friend try to give me some advice about it, but I was sure I would never have problems like "everyone else." Boy, was I in for a surprise!

When we came to Ghana we were supposed to work and live with an older missionary and his wife near the capital for a year; we were not supposed to learn the language, because the national language was English; we were supposed to go live in the Western Region after the first year. Within the first 12 hours, all the plans had changed - the missionary was only going to stay for a short while because of health problems; we learned that even though the national language was English, hardly anyone could really speak it; a problem arose with our contact in the Western Region. Within the first 24 hours, we moved into a "local" apartment in a very poor part of Kumasi, in the Ashanti Region. Needless to say, culture shock hit hard and fast. I was also six months pregnant (that's another story in itself :) ), and my hormones were going wild. I couldn't understand what was wrong with me. Some moments all I could feel was anger. Sometimes, I was overcome with fear. And sadly enough, I even struggled with hatred. Nothing made any sense. What was up was down; what was black was white. I had come to Ghana to love these people and lead them to know Christ, but most days it was all I could do to drag myself out of bed. I began counting down the days until I could go home! In fact, I was so excited each morning when I got to tear off another day on my calendar! I think I probably had the worst case of culture shock ever!

The wonderful thing about this hard story is that in the midst of one of the darkest times in my life, Jesus was right there with me. There were many days that I took my eyes off Him, but He never took His eyes off me. One of the first lessons He taught me in this time was that all I needed to figure out was what He wanted me to do each day, and then do them. Psalm 61 was a wonderful blessing, especially verse 8, "So will I sing praise unto thy name for ever, that I may daily perform my vows." The second lesson the Lord taught me was actually from a quote on my calendar (the one I couldn't wait to see disappear!). It said, "Whatever you can do,...Begin it. ~ Goethe. It seems silly that the Lord would use that, but it really caught my attention. I'd lost sight of the fact that God had brought John and I to Ghana, and He had a reason for everything I was facing. He didn't want me to give up; He wanted me to get up! He wanted me turn to Him in my weakness and seek His strength, not my own. He wanted me to do what I could, not spend all my time and energy worrying about what I couldn't do.

I would love to say that after the initial six months everything was perfect, but that wouldn't be the truth. Culture shock often has more than one level. After about two years in Ghana, I started really struggling again with fear. I was scared to death to go anywhere without John, and most days I didn't even want to leave my house at all. This was exceptionally hard for me (and John), because I've never been a clingy person. This is when God taught me another important lesson - that fear is one of Satan's favorite tools! I had to cling to II Timothy 1:7, "For God hath not given us the spirit of fear, but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind." What freedom that verse brought me! For a time I had to pray that verse almost non-stop, but the wonderful thing is that God proved that verse to me. As I relied on Him to take away that fear, He filled me with the power, the love, and the sound mind I so desparately needed! What a mighty God we serve!

And now, I've learned another reason that God gives culture shock. He gives it to us so that some day we can help others! II Corinthians 1 :4-5 says, "Who comforteth us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort them which are in any trouble, by the comfort wherewith we ourselves are comforted of God. For as the sufferings of Christ abound in us, so our consolation also aboundeth by Christ."

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Culture Shock

Sarah Layer--missionary to Poland

I had often heard about this much-discussed phenomenon we call culture shock: in college missions meetings, from other missionaries we met while on deputation, and from the missionaries we started to get to know when we got to the field. It just didn’t make any sense to me. We had already been in Cracow, Poland for a year or so and still I hadn’t experienced anything I would call shocking. There was stress, of course, trying to comprehend Polish grammar and use it in everyday conversation. At times I felt really uncomfortable, unsure of myself. Sometimes I even caught quick glimpses of how different this new culture was. But in general, my world was consumed with my brand new baby girl and with our study of the Polish language. While I felt frustration at times, I also felt we had lots of time to adjust. To tell the truth, actual ministry in Poland felt comfortably far-off. But before we planned our first furlough, my husband told me he felt we were ready to quit language school and move to a new town to begin church planting. “What?!” I thought. “Are you kidding me? We need several more years here to learn how to minister in Poland, to learn this crazy language!” Besides that, we were just getting to know a great young couple; we had fallen in love with our sweet landlady and her family; we had our American friends so close by for a support system. And we were going to just up and move to a brand new place in this already confusing culture?

Suddenly I started to feel some shock. Added to that, I found out I was pregnant. We went home to the States for a whirlwind furlough, came back, had our second baby girl and made plans to move. When we arrived in our new town, I felt like I had been tossed into the ocean without a life raft. In Cracow, there were many foreigners and often I could hear and speak English, but in Siedlce we were the only foreigners. To say that we didn’t get a warm welcome by the Polish people in our new town is an understatement, but we must have seemed foreign and scary to them too. Our coworkers were scheduled to arrive six months or so after we did, so for a while we were on our own. And I felt alone. More than I ever had in my life. Weird things started to happen: I started to get panic attacks and I couldn’t breathe; I felt overwhelmingly afraid at the oddest times. I knew at the time the fear was irrational, but even so, it felt very real. I felt as weak and helpless as my 6 month old baby. The only thing I had strength to do was cry out to God every minute of the day to save me, to keep me from going under.

It’s painful to remember those days, but I learned some important things. First, I experienced true dependence on God for the first time in my life. Before, I was proud of my independent spirit and of my ability to cope in any situation. Sure, I knew in my head that we humans are weak and dependent on our God, but for once I truly felt that I could do nothing, even take my next breath, without Jesus. I now better realize how weak and inadequate I am to the task and how desperately I need God.

I also have a new compassion for those struggling with depression. I recall a conversation I had a long time ago with someone battling depression. I didn’t have a clue what she was talking about. I’m appalled now at how impatient and unfeeling I was when I basically told her to just shake it off. Compassion was the hallmark of Christ’s dealings with people and because of my own struggle, I now have a new appreciation for other peoples’ pain.

Ministry is always hard, no matter where you are, because we’re all human and prone to conflict. It’s even more complicated when you throw in a difficult new language and a sometimes baffling culture. But we’re not alone. There are many of us struggling with the adjustment to our mission field, struggling to love those we don’t understand. But we’re not alone. Don’t feel you have to trudge through all by yourself. If you’re an experienced missionary who has triumphed over some hard times, reach out to those who are new. If you’re new and floundering, reach out to those who have walked where you walk today. And most importantly, remind yourself daily of God’s goodness. He loves you and has you exactly where He wants you for your own good and for His own glory.

Monday, November 3, 2008

What ?????? NOT ME!!!!!

Polly Whitmore -- Yap Island, Micronesia

My husband Bob and I accompanied a young missionary couple to the island of Yap on their survey trip in 1999. We were both on staff at Faith Baptist in Taylors, SC. The Yap adventure was a real stretch for me - but I was glad to return to 'normal' as a mom of 2 boys. THEN Bob said he thought God was calling us to return to Yap with Paul and Sherry Zimmer and their children . WHAT????? NOT ME! I'm not a missionary! My boys may be someday - but not me! Well, we prayed for each other over the next 2 years - God worked slowly in my heart....We left for Yap with one supporting church and one individual supporter. We knew we would get jobs on island for the first term at least. MY job was teaching SCIENCE full time at the public high school! I have a business degree from BJU and HATE science! I taught 175 island ninth graders each day in the hot, hot, hot environment - where chewing and spitting bright red betelnut is standard activity, sitting and popping lice is a social activity, and toplessness is culturally accepted - one parent/teacher conference was really an adventure in solid eye contact for me!

Sherry and I cried pretty steadily for the first 6 months. I thought I was going insane. I'd frantically email for prayer and insight . Don't fall for the devil's lie about not asking for help - that's exactly what he wants you to believe - that people will think you're weak, but that's exactly what we are! We are weak people, willing to be used by God. One nice thing about the tropics, though, is that you can cry all day long and no one will notice because you're sweating so badly! I learned to sweat and cry with grace. After six months, one day I looked at Sherry and said, “You may not understand, but today I took my first deep breath.” She was shocked and said, “ME TOO!” It was like I was holding my breath on a scary roller coaster ride. Bob would take me in the car - with windows rolled up - so I could practice laughing again. I LOVE to laugh - but I completely lost the ability for the first 6 months.

We now have 2 granddaughters. Phone contact is still difficult due to cost - I miss the voices. But email is a blessing. Honesty about your struggles is crucial. Get a few close friends to be your prayer warriors. Keep good communication with your husband. Study His Word - sharpen your sword as a woman. I read When Life and Beliefs Collide by Carolyn James. It’s VERY good (why women need to know their theology) - about how 'helpmeet' means 'ezer' and is usually used to refer to God riding in the sky with His flashing sword to battle. WOW! Search that word – it’s very enlightening. Also I'm studying about virtuous women - THAT word also has a lot of strength - like women of valor! Learn your theology - apply His truth to your fear. You personally are in a battle. One missionary wife balked about that and said, “My husband tells me what to think.” They are now off the field permanently. The devil loves to come after the wives - we don't always see the importance of studying and applying God's truth.

I asked a veteran missionary lady about all my crying. She nodded and said, “Oh, that's normal! I did too, AND I used to hide money under the couch cushions to secretly buy a plane ticket out of there. I didn't care what my husband and kids did - I just wanted out!” WHAT??????? Of course, I thought that was so funny - but immediately felt SO much better... and so 'normal.’ What a relief to know that God knew my need and was right there with me through the journey. The other thing I've noticed is that missionary wives’ experiences are very similar to anyone in transition or facing a new chapter - like adjusting to widowhood, a traumatic move to a new city etc., and THEY have Walmart and phone service! But I've listened to many who were in despair - just like I was as I adjusted to Yap.

It has been REALLY helpful for me to start keeping a notebook of various lessons I was learning on topics like contentment, peace, worry, fear etc... One book suggested choosing 5 things to look for as you read your Bible each day. My list continues to grow.

“ Problems don't keep us from serving God. Problems are the circumstances in which we serve God.”