In many ways, the past year has been one of the most settled in my adult life. MTW requires that couples stay in the US for at least their first year of marriage. According to the policy manual, “If there have been major life changes, MTW would like at least a year to have passed before attending a screening event so that there is a time of stability before entering the stress of making preparations for the mission field.”

And so, since returning from our respective overseas locations last February, Dean and I have been in the US. Knowing that the point of MTW’s requirement is stability, we have chosen to stay put in Central New York as much as we can and put down some roots here.

We have been blessed by the individuals and churches that support us financially, most of whom have maintained their giving, allowing us to stay put much more than if we had been under the pressure of urgent financial need.

A big part of putting down roots here has been the small house we built. We broke ground in May, and in January, we moved in. For the first time in my adult life, I’ve picked out paint colors, knowing that the walls will be whatever color we want them to be! Funny how exhilarating and overwhelming it felt. For the first time in my adult life, I’ve hung things up on the walls that had been in storage for many years—“until I have a place of my own.”

We built this house so we would have a home to return to on furloughs between our terms overseas. It is exciting to be setting up house in a place we know we will come back to again and again. Before this year, my adult years were spent living in my parents’ home, or in a place I knew I’d only be temporarily, or with a host family in West Africa. I hardly know how to be settled and rooted.

And yet, being geographically rooted can seem quick and easy compared to being relationally rooted. When one is new to any area—foreign or not—it takes time to form and develop local relationships. We have been thankful for the family and church that we have here. But beyond that, it can feel so slow and hard to make new friends. In an age when we are told that place doesn’t matter, when we can virtually “be” almost anywhere, when it is possible to spend all one’s time staying connected with people who are far away—it is tempting not to put in the hard work of forming new relationships here.

And yet, our locale matters. We desire to live locally. For this season, that means investing in this place—Cato and its environs—and developing relationships with others who live here.

That’s challenging even when we strive to do it. “Staying put” is relative! We drive a half hour away to church. In a rural area like this, we have to drive 20 minutes away for many errands. With family scattered across the country—and globe, even—travel is inevitable. Other events over the past year have required us to be absent for days or weeks at a time. We have not had more than four uninterrupted months here in the last year. Trying to settle and put down roots in the midst of that is not easy.

Not to mention the tension of settling here in the short-term while anticipating moving overseas in the not-so-distant future!

Given my fairly “nomadic” recent years, I have grown accustomed to transition, tension. Perhaps to an unhealthy degree. In fact, I find myself at times more comfortable with that than with the hard work of settling and putting down roots. I have learned a lot during this season of forced stability, of imposed grounding. It has been good for me.

There are lessons to be learned from the nomadic life, but there are also lessons to be learned from the settled life—as elusive as it may be.

Advertisements

I have always felt privileged to have a foreign missionary heritage from my parents, though it was only during my earliest childhood years. Until I was seven, my parents worked as church planters outside of Marseille, France. I have carried throughout the rest of my life a seven-year-old’s connection to those places, the culture, and the language. That connection is distant, limited in comprehension, blurred by the passage of time and multiple homes since then, but all the stronger for my child-self’s nostalgia and fondness. For a time, it was my family’s home.

In 2009, I visited the French town where we had lived. I was 22, and it was the first time I had been back since my family had left some 14 years prior. It was a rewarding, though slightly strange, experience. A dear family friend and former colleague of my parents was the one who drove me there and showed me where our old house was. We drove around the town and passed some of the memorable spots – the church, our favorite pizza place, the school. But it all seemed disjointed compared to my memory of the place. Some things were smaller. Some things were further apart. The way to get from one place to another did not correspond to the layout I’d remembered. I chalked it up to the distortion of distant memory, the way things seem when one is a child. Despite the strangeness, it was wonderful to visit as an adult this place that had been one of several homes to me and my family.

Fast forward nine years. I am now 31 and married. Dean and I had talked about visiting France, in particular the place that was one of my homes growing up. It was not a matter of “if” but “when.” We both felt the weight of importance and the joy in discovering each other’s homes. For Dean, having lived in the same house all his life until college—the house where his parents still live and where he returned as an adult, the house with which we now share property—home is a bit simpler than it is for me. It is no less meaningful and significant, though. I have grown in my understanding of and love for Dean as I visited and have now come to live in his home.

Home for me is multiple, a mosaic of different pieces. Southern France is one piece. I wanted to share it with Dean, and he wanted to discover it. And so we saved our money and planned a trip eight months into our marriage.

We flew in to where my parents are currently working as missionaries in a different part of the country. We then traveled with them to the region near Marseille. As the landscape changed, bringing into view scrubby cyprus trees, a clear blue sky, vineyards, and sunlight glittering off the distant Mediterranean, I said to Dean, “These are the scenes of my early childhood imagination.”

One day, we went with my mom to the town where we had lived. This was now the second time as an adult that I was visiting it. I did not expect the visit to be much different than when I’d visited in 2009. I was caught off guard and thrown for an emotional loop when the visit was altogether different. It was the first time I visited with the man with whom I share a mutual commitment of “till death shall divide us.” It was also the first time I visited with a member of my family—my mother, no less. These two things changed everything.

To be back in that place with Dean and see him taking it in, intuitively knowing the significance of it for me, was a deeply meaningful experience. Especially since it’s a place we may not be able to visit again, I was moved to see him soaking it in.

To be back in that place with my mom and retrace the steps we would have walked hand-in-hand when I was a child, was a profound experience. And surprisingly, I found that this time around, the town corresponded almost exactly with my childhood memories!

As I reflected on why this was, when my first visit in 2009 had not completely corresponded to my memories, it started to make sense. Places are not things that we know apart from the people and the shared memory that root us in those places. Especially if one’s knowledge of a place did not develop beyond childhood, the place is known by particular pathways in it—walking from the school to our house along the same road multiple times a day. It is known by a particular vantage point—from the sidewalk as a pedestrian rather than from a car. It is known by particular anchoring points of memory that only certain people can recount to us—“This is where Papa would set up his evangelistic book table at the outdoor market”; “This is the park where we would play and look at the goldfish.”

That’s why visiting with my mother made the town correspond with my memories. I had not known it apart from her and the rest of my family. She became the key for unlocking the pathways, the vantage point, and the anchoring points of memory. And with her, the town was almost just as I’d remembered it.

“When they’re shooting at your church, that’s revival.” This is what an Egyptian Christian pastor told us and our group of missionary candidates. We were in Clarkston, GA participating in MTW’s Readiness Evaluation.

The pastor was recounting what he’d experienced in Egypt, before coming to the US where he has ended up pastoring an Arabic-speaking church among Clarkston’s refugees. In Egypt, he and his local church experienced persecution in the form of an attack on the church while he and his family were inside. He said they were miraculously able to get out alive. He also described the effect of that period of intense persecution on him and his church. He said they experienced great spiritual growth during that time as they cried out to God and prayed like never before. That’s why he said, “When they’re shooting at your church, that’s revival.”

He went on to describe more generally what he has heard about and seen throughout the Middle East—in countries where, he said, “religion is an identity.” He shared the fact that people’s ID cards literally say what religion they were born into—either Muslim or Christian, only two options. It’s part of their legal identity. He explained that in such contexts, some who identify as Christians are nominal Christians only. When persecution comes, such “Christians” are compelled to re-evaluate whether or not they are followers of Christ.

Of course, nominal Christianity is not only found in the Middle East! Here in the US, our churches may be praying for revival. But are we praying for the kind this Egyptian pastor was talking about—the kind that comes through hardship?

I asked him what he would say to the American church from his experience. He said that in Egypt, they obviously didn’t go looking for persecution in order to have revival. He said that he believes in religious freedom and values this aspect of life in the US. However, he challenged us to think about how we are using our religious freedom in this country. Are we complacent in it? Paranoid and fearful? Or are we using our freedom to continually step further outside our comfort zone to love and serve the lost?

Earlier in our time together, the pastor had described what he has witnessed in a place that would be outside the comfort zone of many of us in the American church—Clarkston, GA. This town is a primary place of resettlement for refugees and is the most diverse square mile in the country. As a pastor of an Arabic-speaking congregation in that community, he has seen amazing things.

The persecution in the Middle East has not only had an effect on Christians and nominal Christians. The Egyptian pastor has also seen an effect on the Muslim refugees who end up in Clarkston. Wars have torn apart their countries, shaking them to the core and causing them to ask questions. On top of that, the pastor told us, they come there having been taught that Christians are bad, that we are the “Enemy #1” of Islam, and that we want to destroy them. However, when they arrive in the US, they find that many of the refugee organizations helping them are Christian. According to what this pastor has seen, all this has created an incredible opening to the gospel among Muslim refugees.

It is in response to such openings for the gospel that this pastor urged us as the American church to use our freedom to step outside our comfort zone in order to share hope with the lost.

He even said that at one point, he realized that 75% of the people attending the church he pastors were Muslim. He couldn’t help but ask some of them, “Why do you come here?” Their response? “Because we feel peace here.”

This made me stop and think: how many American churches would be characterized in this way, as places where even Muslims feel peace?

And Muslims are not simply attending the church. A handful have become Christians and were baptized. Five out of the ten people he has baptized at the church were former Muslims. And he reported they all have a similar story—“we followed Jesus,” i.e. they’d had a vision or dream of Jesus who sent them to the church or the Bible.

The pastor concluded by asking us to pray for him and his church. He shared that his experience with persecution in Egypt had caused him to be bitter and harbor hate against those who had caused it, but thanks to God’s grace, he had worked through it and forgiven. He said, though, that not all in his church have done so and are therefore not welcoming toward Muslims.

Let us pray for our Arab brothers and sisters, in our own country and overseas. And as we pray for them to love rather than hate their Muslims neighbors, let us pray that we too in the American church will love and not hate our neighbors.

IMG_0072

January: Farewells and send-offs for Kyria in West Africa

thumb_IMG_5337_1024

February: Farewells and send-offs for Dean in the Solomon Islands

thumb_IMG_5398_1024

March: Back in the US and celebrating Dean’s brother Brian’s ordination

thumb_IMG_3220_1024

April: After our wedding, in Europe for an MTW Area Retreat and meetings

thumb_IMG_4903_1024

May: Settling down in Cato, NY and enjoying the long-awaited spring on the trail behind Dean’s home during a visit from our friend Esther Meek

thumb_IMG_5706_1024

June: Dean laying the foundation for our house!

thumb_DSCN0800_1024

July: Kyria helping out with the house too and getting a much-needed break from thesis work

thumb_20180807_190417_1024

August: Meeting up with Kyria’s Wolof host brother and his family during their visit to New York

thumb_IMG_6322_1024

September: Meeting up with friends Phil and Carol Harrold, Dean’s former seminary professor and his wife, during their trip through Syracuse

thumb_IMG_6370_1024

October: Helping host a time of sharing with some local friends for fellow missionaries Mike and Kathy McKeever, raising support to be recruiters with Wycliffe Bible Translators

thumb_IMG_6420_1024

November: Visiting with Dallas friends at an open house during a trip for Kyria’s MA thesis defense

thumb_IMG_6477_1024

December: Visiting Dean’s former colleagues, Jonathan and Tess Hicks, and their family during their furlough in the US from their missionary work in the Solomon Islands

Looking back at 2018 with gratitude for God’s faithfulness and looking forward to what 2019 will bring!

 

I recently heard an analogy for Advent which gave me, especially as a language-lover, a fresh perspective on this season.

The analogy was used by Rev. Jon Yeager at Church of the Cross in Boston, where we recently attended while visiting friends. (You can hear his sermon titled “Your Redemption Is Drawing Near” by clicking here.) He compared Advent to immersion language-learning. As he pointed out, when learning a language by immersion, the idea is that you soak in it until you are living, thinking, even dreaming in the new language. This is something I can relate to!

He then explained that Advent is a time for us as the Church to immerse ourselves in the themes of this season – the longing for Jesus’ coming, the promises and prophecies announcing his first and second comings, the call to repent and seek God’s mercy in light of His judgment, the ready expectancy by which we look for His return.

In these weeks, may we soak ourselves in these truths until we are living, thinking, even dreaming in Advent.

Come quickly, Lord Jesus!

How to summarize 2 years of work and almost 200 pages in 15-20 minutes?

This was the challenge given me in my recent thesis defense at Dallas International University.

Version 2

I also had the opportunity to answer questions from fellow students, professors, and SIL staff who attended, on my research methodology, analysis, and findings.

By God’s grace, I managed to succeed in that task and am drawing to the end of this 2-year-long process. Now that the worst of the mountain is behind me and the flurry of editing my draft and preparing my defense is done, I’ve been able to pause and reflect on all that I’ve learned.

Over six years ago, I began coursework at the Graduate Institute of Applied Linguistics (now at DIU). My courses in linguistics, anthropology, literacy, and Scripture Engagement served as my pre-field training to work with SIL International in minority language work. Those courses counted toward a Master’s degree in Language & Culture Studies, if I chose to pursue that.

After my first term in West Africa, I decided I would, though only if doing so would result in something more than just a degree. In order to complete the program, I would need to take more courses, as well as either take comprehensive exams or write a thesis. I considered the thesis option and decided I wanted to do it.

My first term in West Africa had been enough for me to get a glimpse of local language literacy and Scripture engagement work. It had also been enough for me to realize the important place of research in this work, in the work of Bible translation, and in missions work in general. We must always and continually grow in our understanding of the context where we work and in the needs of the people we serve. This requires rigorous question-asking and data-collection.

Choosing to complete my degree program by conducting research and writing a thesis would allow me to gain much more than a degree. Thankfully, SIL as an organization values research and sees it as a vital aspect of the work it does around the world. Research is itself some of the work SIL does and is a way they contribute to the wider missions community.

And so, nearly two years ago, I began the thesis process with a proposal for research. I came up with a plan for studying what motivates adult local language literacy—both for those who want to learn and those who want to start programs for others to learn. I would study it in both the church context and the non-church context. I would interview both Muslims and Christians, men and women. I would choose contexts where portions of translated Scripture exist in the local language in question. I would carry out the research in the country where I’d worked. Thanks to my first term in West Africa, I had the contacts necessary for pulling off this cross-cultural research.

Now, two years later, I have written up what I learned. My thesis committee members worked hard with me to make what I’d written understandable! I owe a great deal to them, and to the many people in West Africa who made the research possible.

IMG_6437

My thesis committee members Ian Cheffy (via Zoom), Pete Unseth, Steve Walter, and I after my defense

The thesis process is nearing its completion. Ironically, now the work begins of sharing what I’ve learned and so contributing to the wider missions community. My committee members are encouraging me to pursue publishing a version of my thesis and sharing my findings in other ways as well.

And so, the work continues, and the learning does, too!

And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.” -Luke 24:27

This is the inspiration behind “Al Massira,” a discussion-based tool for evangelism among Muslims, in which Dean and I had the privilege of being trained last weekend.

IMG_6401

“Al Massira” is Arabic for “the journey,” alluding to the Emmaus road where Jesus met two disciples after his death and resurrection. It also captures the simple truth that we are all on journeys, including our Muslim friends. As our trainer put it, “Jesus met them where they were at. He explained to them the Prophets and how they pointed to him.”

The goal of Al Massira is two-fold:

  • that Christians’ hearts would be set on fire afresh – as the two disciples put it after realizing that it was Christ who had met them, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:32)
  • that participants would discover Christ the Messiah on their journeys

IMG_6403

Al Massira creators describe it as “An open place: to walk with the Prophets and meet the Messiah.” This “open place” is part of the ethos of the tool, which I personally found very compelling. It is not meant to be used without friendship, hospitality, discussion, and prayer. For all of these, trust is essential. Different viewpoints are allowed to be expressed by participants. They may respond with doubts and say that certain teachings are lies, and that is okay. The goal is dialogue, not argument. As our trainer put it, “God does not need lawyers; we are witnesses. We are to present the truth, not give a defense. We are called to respect, listen, and proclaim the truth.”

Over 13 episodes, Al Massira walks participants through a chronological overview of the main Old Testament prophets. In the stories of Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham and Sarah, Moses, and David, people and events that foreshadow the Messiah are revealed.

As our trainer led us through several of the episodes, I felt my own heart burning in me as we discussed the Old Testament “sign-posts” pointing to the Messiah. I was filled anew with awe and wonder of God’s plan of redemption, revealed piece by piece in the Scriptures, which are our faith heritage if we have been re-born into the people of God.

I also felt my heart burning with the desire that the Muslims I knew and lived with in West Africa would someday know these truths. Because Al Massira is meant to be a series of discussions, the ideal group is with participants who are curious and ask questions. I was reminded of how rare it was for me to meet West African Muslims who were curious about the Christian faith, who asked me questions about my religious practice and beliefs. Indeed, Muslims are often taught that asking questions is a sign of a bad Muslim. I often felt that my host families and friends tiptoed around the topic of faith, religious practice, and beliefs. Except for a few rare moments, they did not ask me questions and did not seem to want to know. After that being my experience for the three years I lived in West Africa, I was reminded during the Al Massira training that even an openness in Muslims to asking questions requires God’s work in their hearts. It also requires a long time to build that kind of trust. And it requires great spiritual discernment on our part to know when someone is open to asking questions. I found myself longing and praying that God would already be at work among the Muslims Dean and I will live among in the future, Lord willing.

IMG_6400

One of the other compelling features of Al Massira was the non-Western presentation of Christianity. The DVD episodes were filmed in the Middle East and in Arabic. Participants see and hear the stories of the Prophets through the experience of modern-day characters, teachers, and testimonies in each episode. Those characters, teachers, and testimonials are all of Middle Eastern or African background. These aspects highlight the non-Western, non-white context of the historic Christian faith and of many modern-day followers. This excited me as I remembered how Christianity was viewed in Muslim West Africa—as a Western (European or American), white, non-African religion.

While Dean and I may be able to use such a tool overseas someday, we also wonder what opportunities God could give us to use it here and now as we seek to journey with others toward the Messiah.

(For more information, visit https://almassira.org.)