On Living Cross-Culturally

Teaching in a land far away, long, long ago…

You may or may not know this about me: I lived in Japan for three years. I was a few weeks shy of my 25th birthday when I went there on an exchange-teaching program through Charles County Public Schools. I was an “Assistant English Teacher” (or AET) for the city of Koshigaya, just north of Tokyo, working primarily in the public middle schools, working with other AET’s from around the globe; we were recruited from any country where English is the first language. And even though I started that adventure 20 years ago, some of the things I learned and experienced still profoundly impact my life.

When I first arrived in Japan, everything was new and different. Learning to stay to the left instead of the right when riding the escalator or walking down the street. Adjusting to the very, very different school system there. Figuring out how to use the rice cooker in my apartment. Remembering to take off my shoes when entering – and figuring out how to do it gracefully (something I fear I never, ever mastered.) Learning how to ride the train system – and how to strategically be squished in a small space with hundreds of strangers while lurching down the track. Quickly learning that azuki bean paste looks a lot like chocolate filling at the bakery – but tastes completely different! Trying sushi for the first time. Remembering to always carry a pack of tissues with me since the train station bathrooms don’t have toilet paper – and realizing that at every train station, someone will be giving them away with advertising on them if I forgot them. (The key, however, was remembering that BEFORE using the restroom – and making sure the tissue packs I accepted were not pornographic!)

So many, many adjustments. So much to learn. Behaviors to change. Things to remember. Working hard to learn the language (something else I never mastered.) Adjusting.

Until one day, I forgot.

I forgot I was living in Japan. Life became normal again. What once was strange was now commonplace. What once was frightening was now understood (even if not accepted). What once was mysterious, awe-inspiring and magnificent (like seeing Mt. Fuji from my apartment when the wind blew away the smog) became insignificant. Life became routine.

Until it didn’t.

Every once in a while, something would happen that would throw me. It would remind me – usually harshly – that I was LIVING IN JAPAN. This was not my home. This was not my culture. I was a stranger in a strange land. Sometimes that realization was triggered by a happy occurrence. Often, it was triggered by something awful. But it always came like a bucket of cold water dumped over my head.
You may or may not know this about me: 41 years ago, I made the commitment to be a Christ-follower. I was only 4 at the time and certainly did NOT understand all the implications of what it means to say “Yes” to Jesus’ offer of eternal life. But when I was 4, I understood that I was a sinner, that Jesus died to take the punishment for my sins, and that I needed to accept that gift for myself.

As I have journeyed through this life, I have grown in my understanding of what that means and in my commitment to being a Christ-follower. I have learned many new and amazing things as I have studied God’s Word. He has shown up in my life in incredible and astonishing ways, over and over again. Providing for my needs. Bringing just the right song at just the right time. Making a verse stand out in neon as I read His Word. Answering prayer. Guiding my steps.

But I often forget.

I forget that this world is not my home. I forget that I am a stranger in a strange land. I forget that I am not living for the here and now but for eternity. I forget to “seek first the Kingdom of God and HIS righteousness”. I forget that many, many of the people around me do not have a personal relationship with God. They have not been forgiven because they have not asked. They have not seen prayers answered because they do not believe. I forget that I have one purpose and one purpose only – to glorify God. This life is not about me. My comfort. My happiness. My successes. Or my failures. My struggles. My needs. This life is not about me. It is a short, temporary journey leading to an eternal home. And that is not just true about me – it is true about every person I meet. Their lives, like mine, are “flowers quickly fading”. And their lives, like mine, are short, temporary journeys that will end in an eternal destination – life with God forever or life separated from Him. My sole purpose in life is to be a gigantic, glowing, flashing sign that says, “God loves you. He wants to be your friend. I know because He says so in His Word, and because He is my friend – let me point the way to Him.”

When I forget all that, life gets really, really hard. And really, really complicated. When I try to live like I am in charge, like I get to call the shots, like I get to write and run the playbook, life stinks. It is always messy because we are all sinners living in a sinful, fallen world – regardless of what I am remembering. But that mess gets magnified and I seek to be glorified when I forget who I am – and Whose I am – and that this is NOT all there is. It makes me grateful for the buckets of cold water that get dumped over my head by life. Sometimes by glorious things, like standing in awe of His creation. But often by harsh things that I would rather not have to endure. But I am grateful for them, either way. Because they drive me to remember. They drive me to the arms of God. They drive me to readjust my thinking yet again.

Those buckets of cold water remind me that:
I am not home yet.
Every day I am living cross-culturally.

And they force me to ask:
Will my life show that today?!
Will I choose my way today or His?
In how I drive?
How I speak?
What I watch, listen to, read?
How I respond to those with whom I disagree?
How I spend my money? My time? My energy?
And a thousand other ways.

It was impossible for me to blend in while I was living in Japan. Large, blue-eyed blondes with curly hair stick out over there. No matter how often I forgot, it was obvious to anyone who looked at me that I was not from there, that I was living cross-culturally.

Oh, may the same be said about me today! May it be obvious to ALL who see me that I am not home yet. And may it not take buckets of cold water to remind me of that fact. I want to live remembering.

How about you?

You. Are. Loved.

You. Are. Loved.
Just the way you are.
Warts, both physical and metaphorical.
Failures of any kind.
Open wounds.
Whether you are the wounded or the wound-er.

You. Are. Loved.

You are not loved because of something you have done.
And You are not loved because of something you have not done.
You are not loved because you are lovable.
You are not loved because you are unlovable.

You. Are. Loved.

The God of the Universe is completely and utterly crazy about you.

Not just when you were a cutie-pie as a toddler.
Not just when you got a Citizenship Award in 3rd grade.
Not just when you helped that little old lady across the street.
Or when you forgave the person who hurt you.
When you turned the other cheek.
When you gave sacrificially.
When you served tirelessly.
When you picked up your spouse’s dirty undies and put them in the hamper AGAIN.

He loved you then.

But He also loved you when you hit your little brother for taking your truck.
He loved you when you threw the world’s biggest temper tantrum in the grocery store.
He loved you when you cheated on your spelling test.
And when you cheated on your taxes.
Even when you cheated on your spouse.

God. Loves. You.
You. Are. Loved.

Because, for once in your life, this love is not based on your performance – or lack thereof.
It is based in His.
His performance.
His character.
His heart.
His choice.

God loves you because of Who He is.
Because He chooses to do so.
And He refuses not to.

That kind of love is unfathomable to our human minds.
We are creatures of measurement.
Weighing with invisible scales the worthiness of the ones we love.
Or want to love.
Or should love.
Or do not love.

And it is very, very often based in performance.
Because it is based on feelings.

He brought me flowers.
I feel cherished, thought of, remembered.
I love him.

She gave me a beautiful, thoughtful gift.
I feel cherished, thought of, remembered.
I love her.

The children obeyed.
I feel relieved, grateful, happy – and loved.

God blessed me in a tangible way.
I feel remembered, grateful, happy – loved.

But when he doesn’t bring flowers and instead says something critical, I feel everything but love.
When she forgets my birthday completely, I feel hurt and unloved.
When the children disobey, I feel like a failure.
When the blessing doesn’t come in the form or timing that I perceive to be best, I feel forgotten by God, rejected.

Because my very human definition of love is wrapped up in me.
My feelings.
My perceptions.
My understanding of the situation.
My grievances.

But His is not.
He has every right to NOT love me.
After all, He created me.
Designed me.
Created good works in advance for me to accomplish.
Has blessed me in extreme ways.

And I have rejected Him time and time and time again.
He has the right to destroy a creation that does not obey, is not grateful, forgets Him completely.
He has the right to throw up His hands and say, “I am done.”

But instead He opens His arms wide and says, “I am here.
I love you no matter what you have done – or have not done.
I have seen every moment of your life from beginning to end, and I still love you.
Your best days.
Your most magnificent choices.
The days you shine for Me.
And your worst days.
Your most selfish, prideful choices.
The days you slap Me in My face.
And every day in between. I have seen them all.
But I still love you.
No matter what.
I love you because you are Mine.
I love you because I AM Love.
And I love you because I choose to love you.
Your sin breaks my heart.
Not just because I am holy and perfect.
But because I know the consequences that disobedience brings to you.
I see the end results of each choice – and it grieves my heart when you go your own way instead of Mine.
But that never, ever changes my love for you.
Because it is not based in you.
It is based in Me.”

My friend, YOU ARE LOVED.

Let that soak in.
And let it change you.
Hold your head high.
Drop the shame.
Forgive yourself.
Love yourself.

And then become a conduit of that same love for others.
Do the right things – but not so you will be loved.
Because You ARE loved.
Serve out of gratitude, not compulsion.
Give out of giddy joy in response to all you have been given, not because you have to earn His love.
Live loved.

Jesus called that the “abundant life”.
And it is the only way to have a real life.

Remember – YOU. ARE. LOVED.

What the rain brings…

Small shoots of green peeking above rich, dark earth.  This should delight my gardening heart.  And it would if they were the evidence of the bulbs I planted a few weeks ago.  But they are not.  Instead, they are the stalwart beginnings of dandelions and sorrel, steadfastly pushing their way back to the top of the earth so that they can flourish in the spring sunshine.

But I just pulled those weeds last week!

Only I didn’t.

I didn’t pull them out, roots and all.  Instead, I took my hoe to the patch of weediness, chopping them into smaller bits.  And then I covered the chopped bits with mulch and said, “Good job, gardener!”

But then came the rain.  And the weeds popping up all over again.

Because that is what rain does.  It brings to light what is truly planted just beneath the surface.  In all my vehement hoeing, I neglected to take out the roots of the weeds.  And even though I was zealous, I was not careful and absolute.  And when the rains came, they showed my labors for what they were.

How like my life!  When the sun is shining and my circumstances are all I think they should be, it is easy to disguise the true contents of my heart.  I may pretend to vehemently chop at the sin in my heart, the secret thought patterns and ideas that don’t please God with the hoe of words. I may acknowledge their existence – but I do not root them out, taking the time and doing the work of introspection, of taking every thought captive, of falling on my face before God in true repentance.  I don’t pull the weeds.  And when the rains of negative circumstances fall, out they pop.  The word I would “never” use spews out at the driver who cut me off.  The repeating refrain of worry creeps out when an unexpected bill comes in the mail.  The siren song of self-pity sings to me as I compare myself to that other girl and find myself lacking – or worse, better off.  The rain of my circumstances brings to light the true nature of my heart.

How much better off I would be if I had pulled those weeds in the first place!  Time in the Word, time spent in prayer, time filling my heart with things above – this is the active work of pulling weeds.

So that the next time it rains, I reap only the benefits – and not the weeds.