After a Year of Reentry

The thing about culture shock is that it’s virtually inevitable but can be really subtle. Students of these psychological dynamics say, however, that reentry and reverse culture shock can often be worse for missionaries, because one assumes one’s culture of origin is already familiar and unlikely to cause much difficulty. There can also be an added dimension of guilt about leaving the work unfinished (because it never is finished), and there can be an identity crisis if “missionary” became a primary self-identifier. And on the complications pile.

Then there are the dynamics our amazing third-culture kids have experienced. That’s all its own mess (which deserves its own post). Suffice it to say our family has been experiencing transition worthy of the name as we relocated from Peru to middle Tennessee to Los Angeles.

I remember when I realized I had been in culture shock in Peru. I think, for me, training did its job. I was prepared and fairly self-aware, I tried to do the things meant to manage the experience, and I never had an overwhelming or explosive psychological crisis. But, like I said, it’s virtually inevitable. The day I realized I had been in culture shock was the first day I suddenly felt normal, about a year and a half after our move to Peru. I realized I had been in a constant state of low-level anxiety and frustration for so long that I had forgotten what if felt like to live without those pressures. When I finally felt we were home and things were like they were meant to be—because I had changed, not because Peru had changed!—I was shocked to experience contentment and peace. And to realize I had been living daily without them. Of course, in retrospect, marriage and team dynamics were far more difficult because of my state of mind.

Now, I never changed so much that I was at risk of “going native.” My gringo heart just couldn’t reconcile with many aspects of Peruvian culture. To be fair, I’m a malcontent by nature, so my culture of origin always got the same critique too. But this meant that there were many aspects of life I was very ready to leave behind when it came time for us to depart. To some extent, this made reentry easier: I had no idealized version of circumstances, either in Peru or in the US (per my general life rule: keep expectations low and you won’t be disappointed). And, contrary to many portrayals of reentry, I was not particularly overwhelmed by the experience of consumerism and excess in the US. (Technical note: I believe this may be due to a combination of (a) being in a relatively globalized city, (b) the internet allowing more continual connection with US culture than previous missionaries had, and (c) regular furloughs). I never had the experience, which has become something of a cliché in reentry literature, of standing dumfounded before the vast array of options on the toothpaste aisle. I like options. Competition and continual R&D make sense to me in a capitalistic context, regardless of whether its good. It’s excessive and weird alongside my Peruvian experience, sure, but not particularly disconcerting.

I was also really excited to get into doctoral studies—one of our primary motivations for wrapping things up in Peru—so that helped with the identity crisis issue. We had a clear direction, a next thing. Meg was eager to get back into teaching after her wonderful experiences in the Peruvian public school system. And we were, like most missionaries, tired. It was a blow to my ego to let that admission onto the scales, because I wanted to feel that I could have stayed in the field indefinitely if that had been where we sensed God’s leading. And no doubt, God would have provided in that case. But the raw truth is that I was exhausted and didn’t know where the resources would come from if I was to keep making a contribution to the church’s spiritual growth. So reentry was looking a lot like recovery by the time we boarded the plane, again making it seem like it wasn’t going to be all that difficult.

We were as prepared as we could be with an understanding of both reentry and third-culture kids. We had a generous and thoughtful support system in our sending churches. We had peace of mind, because God was at work in the church, through Peruvian leaders and new gringo Christian partners. And we were hopeful about the next adventure. But let me be honest: there was a lot of turbulence to come after that flight “home.” I was heartbroken about leaving both our church family and my life-long friends, Kyle and Larissa. I was anxious about getting into a PhD program. Meg was anxious about getting a job (though I never doubted schools would want to hire her). If I got into a program, our kids were going to live with their grandparents just long enough to make relocating really emotionally complicated in the midst of their ongoing loss of home (Peru). Meg and I were looking forward to quality time with our Stateside church family but dreading the experience of institutional church. And however committed we were to never giving up a missional lifestyle, I couldn’t shake the fear that we were going to sink inevitably into the mire of consumeristic, over-scheduled, semi-Christian Americanism.

Just over a year later, I’ve had an experience similar to my realization that I was in culture shock. I am beginning to come out of reentry, and this realization it marked by the startling sensation that I have the emotional energy to recommit to mission. Not ideologically (that’s my whole world) but practically. Shortly after I was accepted to Fuller, a mentor counseled me to get involved in ministry during my coursework. He had done a PhD and served in a church at the same time. I told him I was looking forward to focusing fully on research. His response was, “Well, maybe I have more of a heart for ministry than you do.” Don’t worry, that’s his style—and mine too—so he knows that pulling punches doesn’t serve me very well. He was just pouring salt in a wound I was trying to ignore, and sometimes that’s what being salt means, just as being light sometimes means illuminating dark corners that are meant to be hidden. My desire to focus on scholarship was not just an intention to concentrate my energy and do the very best work possible (that was how I rationalized it) but a way of coping with emotional and spiritual exhaustion. I knew (somewhat subconsciously) I didn’t have the resources to engage in ministry at all, let alone attempt to do a PhD in my characteristically all-or-nothing way while also attending to my family’s reentry experience and to the spiritual needs of other people. My mind repelled the thought of that scenario like the same poles of two magnets. The bottom line was that after six and a half years in Peru, I had found my limit emotionally and spiritually; I had not found my limit intellectually, so jumping feet first into the PhD was easy by comparison. In other words, reentry was, for me, a heap of emotional distress that kept me from dealing with the need to heal and begin down a path of new growth, which would allow me to confront some of those emotions. It’s obviously a vicious cycle.

I’m still mourning relationships marred by distance. I still cry sometimes when I hear a song like “Rivers and Roads.” I still feel guilty about abandoning people I love, which causes me to avoid contact with them, which makes me feel guiltier. We still don’t feel comfortable in institutional church. Our kids are still struggling. I still have anxiety about discovering what living for God’s mission means for our family now. And, in any event, the first couple of terms of my program have taken everything I had. But I’ve come (unexpectedly) to the point where I feel able to ask how to grow, retool, and equip for a new season of mission. They say time heals all wounds, though I doubt that very much. Still, some of mine have healed enough let me tend to others and imagine the possibility of getting back to work. I have no doubt that my life is bent toward the academy, and I don’t think I could feel a better fit than I do in my present course of studies, but I also know that my life is about participation in God’s mission. What that combination will mean is still emerging, but the point of this post is that reentry has been defined by the difficulties that plagued my capacity to explore that question. In some ways, these experiences are so personal and particular, I wonder whether they’re worth publishing, but my hope is that a bit of transparency might serve others going through reentry anyway. I certainly couldn’t have written this a year ago, so maybe the clarity of hindsight is of some value, whatever the reader’s situation.

After a Year of Reentry

A 21st-Century Parable of Reentry

As I sat in Wednesday night Bible class for the first time, and everyone began turning to the reading, I found that all my Bible apps were set to Spanish. While I changed my preferences, the conversation moved on without me, and I began scrambling to multitask mentally. It struck me that this is a parable of what is happening to my family. Our preferences are set to Peru, and it’s going to be awkward and frustrating while we’re in the room but busy looking for the settings button instead of fully engaging the conversation going on around us.

A 21st-Century Parable of Reentry

For Kyle and Larissa

After a long search, I can’t find the words. After all these years, maybe there are already enough words between us. All I know to say at this moment is that we shared a road no one else did. You said yes when no one else did. You stayed the course when no one else did. You carried the weight no one else did. The road was ours for a stretch. So now I want to mark our parting with the words we learned to sing together twenty years ago, which have sustained me so many times.

Sometimes the night was beautiful
Sometimes the sky was so far away
Sometimes it seemed to steep so close
You could touch it but your heart would break
Sometimes the morning came too soon
Sometimes the day could be so hot
There was so worth much left to do
But so much you’d already done

Oh God, You are my God
And I will ever praise you
Oh God, You are my God
And I will ever praise you
And I will seek You in the morning
And I will learn to walk in Your ways
And step by step You’ll lead me
And I will follow You all of my days

Sometimes I think of Abraham
How one star he saw had been lit from me
He was a stranger in this land
And I am that no less than he
And on this road to righteousness
Sometimes the climb can be so steep
I may falter in my steps
But never beyond Your reach

Oh God, You are my God
And I will ever praise You
Oh God, You are my God
And I will ever praise You
I will seek You in the morning
And I will learn to walk in Your ways
And step by step You’ll lead me
And I will follow You all of my days

And I will follow You all of my days
And I will follow You all of my days
And step by step You’ll lead me
And I will follow You all of my days

My friends, family, companions, and co-laborers;
For the beautiful nights, the too-soon mornings, and the hot days;
For being strangers in this land;
For the steep climb and the faltering steps;
For singing this song with me and Meg;
For all the forgiveness, love, and laughter;
For you;
I thank God.

And now:

The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.

We’ll see you soon, no doubt. But soon or late, our paths will meet at Gate 11, and we’ll remember this road we walked together, step by step.

With all my love,


For Kyle and Larissa

For Team Arequipa 2.0

We made a ten-year plan.

I don’t like leaving things unfinished. I do it all the time, though. Good intentions, resolutions, dreams, and plans. They are scattered around like rubble. Although Meg and I believe God is writing the next chapter, I have to admit that our story in Arequipa has that all-too-familiar unfinished feeling. Yet, to witness others being written into the story here reminds me that it’s not ours after all. It is, instead, the story of God’s faithfulness.

Therefore, the blessing I would speak has to start this way: “I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.” You have come to join a struggling little community of disciples, not altogether different from the one that first read those words. God began the good work here. It was not ours to start or finish.

Accordingly, you have come to worship and serve as members of our Peruvian family. For this you have been called and sent by the Spirit and the church, and I bless your every good intention, resolution, dream, and plan. “For it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” Remember this above all, at every turn. God’s faithfulness is before and beyond you. It is the meaning and power of your own work. It is the guarantee in the midst of doubt and weakness, through unfinished plans and unfulfilled intentions. Press on. Hold fast. Stand firm. Because our Lord Jesus is faithful.

God give you ears to hear and a grateful heart.

“And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

God give you courage to seek the kingdom and sow the kingdom, and nothing less, at all cost.

“And my God will fully satisfy every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.  To our God and Father be glory forever and ever. Amen.”

I love you, my friends and coworkers. God bless your hands and feet, hearts and mouths. Love the family fiercely. Love our neighbors relentlessly. Love the Lord our God with all that you are.

“The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.”

For Team Arequipa 2.0

Idiot’s Guide to the INTJ

I found out that there is help out there for those close to me.

Below is just the overview. Sections 3 and 4 are also very practical. =)

INTJ Overview

Since numerous detailed INTJ type descriptions are already available on the web, we’ll just hit the high points here:

We’re smart.
We are visionaries, strategic (and compulsive) planners, big-picture thinkers, complex problem solvers, adept decision makers, conceptualists, theorists, and pattern recognizers – in short, we are “masterminds” [insert evil mastermind laugh here].

We don’t do feelings.
We use critical thinking, reason, and logic. We have a tough time with people who make decisions based on emotions, and we can often come across as blunt and cold because we ignore the feelings of others. But on the plus side, we take criticism well since we have no feelings to hurt.

We live inside our heads.
We frequently zone out. We get lost in thought and spend much of our time inside our heads. If our immediate reality becomes boring, we will retreat into our minds, and you might have to shout our names repeatedly to get our attention so we will come out again. And no, sorry, but you can’t come into our heads with us. You wouldn’t last five minutes there. You’d be driven insane by the nonstop cacophony of overlapping voices madly free-associating from one idea to the next.

We are self-confident.
No type is more self-confident than the INTJ. We have a very keen awareness of our own knowledge and abilities, and – more importantly – of the limits of our knowledge and abilities. Consequently we can come across as arrogant sometimes. This is your problem to deal with, not ours, since it is a problem of erroneous perception (yours).

We are aloof.
Because we are somewhat detached from reality, because we are introverted (we find interacting with people to be tiring and tiresome), because we are very private, and because we are impassive, we tend to come across as rather reserved and aloof. Okay, we actually are reserved and aloof.

Idiot’s Guide to the INTJ

I Will Remember

I have learned a lot in the last six years. Most if my lessons are basics I should have already learned, but it took being sent to Peru for me to get it. Being a slow learner, I’m writing down a few of the most important to me and committing not to forget them just because we are no longer here.

I Will Remember

For Our Supporters

keep-calm-and-be-grateful-220We’re back from the wedding and the conference, and it’s time now to focus on our transition. The first thing I want to do is be grateful.

It’s a daunting task to try to mention everyone that has held up our arms along the way, from before we even had supporting churches to last week’s coffee escapade. I will probably fail to mention someone important, who will have to forgive the oversight. But I’m counting on the fact that the people I’m about to thank do not even want the spotlight. They have not served as members of Team Arequipa for recognition. In fact, there are some I will intentionally leave out, because I’m sure they want to keep their generosity between them and God.

To all, mentioned and unmentioned, we couldn’t have gone or stayed, survived or served, without you. We give thanks to God, but we recognize that you have been his hands, his provision, his sustaining words. We give thanks to God for you.

Among Many

For Tim and Janice Kirksey. When I first began to dream about foreign missions as a junior in high school, Tim told me that if I was serious about studying missions and going to the mission field, he and Janice would help make that a reality. And they did. Once we began raising funds, Tim and Janice continued to be cheerleaders, hosting our team in their home as we tried to spread the word about our plans to members of Shiloh Road church. The team was eventually privileged to be supported in part by Shiloh, and Tim volunteered to be on the newly formed support team. He and Janice have persistently loved and supported our family on furloughs and been critical supporters of CUDA.

For Tyson and Sarah Kirksey. Much as they might wish I would keep it quiet, I have to mention that eight years ago, as a young couple just starting their careers, they gave a gift that helped us afford to do fundraising (yes, it costs to drive around the country looking for supporting churches!) and, in my view, was foundational for the launch of CUDA. We’ve been good friends a long time, but sometimes people’s generosity can shock you.

For the Shultz and Fidone families. There are many at Shiloh who have been kind to us on furlough, but you went the extra mile, loving on our kids and making us feel like it really mattered we were visiting. You were refreshing for exhausted missionaries.

For the Yorks, especially Ruth, who looked after Megan in a special way.

For the whole Cedar Lane support team. You have been stellar. I won’t list everything, because it would go on a while, but we have been so thankful for everything. Much of your help to us must have seemed minor, even trivial, but it mattered so much. We could count on you, and we needed that. It was a joy to visit Tullahoma and spend time with you; it didn’t feel like more work. And that was an invaluable gift.

For Greg Muse and John Petty, who took care of our eyes and our teeth pro bono.

For Ray Eaves, who took care of the business side of support with diligence and love.

For the Hovaters, who came to Cedar Lane after we were in the field but became some of our biggest supporters anyway. It’s amazing when the preacher helps the church stay excited about what’s going on in another church in another country.

For David Mitchell. We have cherished your care and encouragement. It has been a special blessing to have a shepherd at Cedar Lane watch over us.

For David Smith, Kyle’s dad. David was many things to our team that I won’t mention here. Among them, he was easily our biggest fan. I miss his responses to my newsletter articles, his hug when we visited Shiloh, and all the virtues that made him a great elder to our mission team. I miss him, but I still get to be thankful for him.

For Bryan Tarpley, who did so much free web consulting for us. In addition to being closer than a brother.

For our family and close friends, especially those who visited us in Peru or made the extra effort to connect on furlough. We leaned your support, and you didn’t let us down.

For the CUDA board: Monty Lynn, Clara Carroll, Ileene Huffard, David Fann, and Chris Adams. They have sacrificed in a variety of ways to help us make CUDA legitimate, and they have graciously affirmed our efforts, including our failures.

For everyone who visited the field to support us instead of using us as a hostel.

For everyone who actually read the newsletter, even when they weren’t that into it.

For everyone who prayed for us.

For everyone at Shiloh and Cedar Lane who gave their money so that we could be here and take care of our families. For everyone who hosted us and cooked for us, who asked questions and spoke encouraging words. For all the members of Team Arequipa.

The Lima Team

Nuestras compatriotas. You helped us with a boatload of tramites, let us crash your houses at need, set an example in ministry, and made our yearly retreat a time of laugher and renewal. Our thanks has never seemed adequate, but you never asked for more. ¡Gracias por todo!

For Tim, Denise, and the Henderson Household

Our surrogate family in Tyler. The home we invade on furlough. For late nights of TV marathons and unending conversations and too much good food and all the comfort of a place that is home away from home. Tim is my spiritual father, and he has been our lifeline to Shiloh. He still takes care of me, knows what to ask and when, lets me be me and helps me be better than me. That is more than enough.

For Our People

From the Cedar Lane support team, Mark and Diane Adams were assigned to be our “support couple,” with the special responsibility of really keeping up with us. Soon they were just “our people.” We were already friends before we left for Peru, but our friendship has grown and deepened in the last six years. We’ve always had someone to talk to, vent to, whine to, and they have commiserated like champs. They have taken care of so many things for us Stateside, despite their busy lives. (And here I don’t want to give Mark too much credit, because Diane is a getting-things-done machine.)  I don’t think most missionaries have the privilege of such friendship among supporters, and I am so grateful.

For Bill and Holly Richardson

It has been such a privilege and a blessing to have you walk with us as missionary wannabes, as disillusioned fundraisers, as culture-shocked novices, and as struggling servants. Despite the weaknesses perhaps more evident to you than anyone else, despite the fact that had you been in our place it would have been different and better, you always helped us remember that it was enough to serve Jesus faithfully. As others throughout Latin America know, your support made a critical difference. We’re humbled by you and so deeply grateful for your friendship in the Lord.

For Our Parents

Sometimes missionaries go to the field without the support of their parents, which must be incredibly difficult. While ours naturally didn’t want to miss the grandkids growing up, mom, Steve, and Margaret blessed our decision and have supported us all the way. Our service is their legacy, and we are deeply thankful for the faithfulness we inherited.

For all of you, we are grateful.

For Our Supporters

Sprinting to the End

We bought our tickets yesterday.

While Meg has been ramping up emotionally for a while, I am postponing a lot of those feelings for nearer to our departure. But setting an official leave date was a significant moment. We will arrive in the US on January 12th, 2015. In just under five months, our family will leave home to return home.

I have a lot to work through—feelings that are at odds with what I think I’m supposed to think. Stuff related to my motives for coming to Peru in the first place, including my relationship with God, dreams, ambitions, and various factors of rather uneven spiritual value. Disappointments and lessons learned. Joys and sorrows. Just life, I guess, but it was life here. Anyway, my plan is to blog through these, hopefully regularly until our departure.

Right now, my primary thought is, “Sprint to the end.” I want to finish well. But it’s hard to know what that means. On one hand, it is remaining faithful in the everyday work despite feeling like mine is a contribution with an expiration date. My input becomes increasingly less relevant to long-term decisions. The window for unmet goals shrinks to a matter of months and feels impossible. The hope of correcting past failures withers. “Sprint to the end” in this sense is not the thought of the accomplished athlete finishing with discipline but of the guy who is still running the race after everyone else has already crossed the finish line, wondering what would be the point of the extra effort. On the other hand, it is doing well the things that this new phase requires. It’s time to do transition work again. So we’re starting on our RAFT, a device many expatriates have used to make a good exit and return. It entails:

Reconciliation (in borken relationships and unresolved conflicts)
Affirmation (of the people in our lives)
Farewells (in timely and intentional ways)
Thinking Destination (being realistic about life upon return)

This is a big part of our work now, and just coming to terms with that fact is really hard. But it’s time.

Sprinting to the End

Terminal Fit

I’m in the process of applying to PhD programs. Postgraduate programs. Terminal degree programs. I like that last one. It sounds definitive, if ominous.

It’s tricky business. Aside form all the usual hoops, there is this big hairy thing called “fit.” Do I fit with the faculty’s interests? Do my interests fit with the program’s design? Will I fit anywhere? Trying to find the right programs to apply to makes me feel like the proverbial square peg.

I’m making it hard on myself, but my research interests are what they are, and I can’t see spending the crowning years of my academic training on something else for so irksome a notion as fit. I’m interested in interdisciplinary study, you see, which means I’m rejecting the academy’s venerable tradition of specialization. I want to make hermeneutics and biblical theology and missiology talk to one another. Alas, but missiology is a rather underrepresented field in postgraduate studies, and hermeneutics isn’t really at home in any of the theological disciplines as they are usually formulated. What to do?

I’ve applied to Fuller Theological Seminary, but it’s a long wait to hear back. In the mean time, I need to explore other options. I wonder if I will find a fit or become a fit.

Terminal Fit