After college, we spent most of our first dozen years overseas tackling what would sound like some massive struggles.
Serving a village without electricity, three hours from the nearest health care.
Teaching in the world’s most polluted city.
Co-directing a pilot microfinance project.
Learning three new languages.
Having two kids.
Moving 18 times in 10 years.
Now back in the United States, though, we’ve got to admit the biggest struggles we face in life aren’t in these pictures of extremity.
We’ve run into new struggles—big ones—right here in the good ol’ middle-class U.S. of A., in the land of plenty, where it’s so easy to get sucked into the status quo. We’re trying to follow this wild Jesus fellow, using insights from our friends overseas, but this doesn’t come easy while lugging the baggage of a house, job, kids and closets full of stuff.
Over the past two years in this struggle, we’ve written a book: This Ordinary Adventure: Settling Down Without Settling. The book isn’t even out yet, but we keep on wrestling with living well here in the U.S. That’s what we’ll be chewing on in this column for the coming months.
Here are the huge little battles we’re trying to fight here and how years overseas gave us some perspective to tackle them.
1. Seeing human beings.
Before “incarnational ministry” was a thing, we lived for a year in a Nicaraguan village without safe drinking water, electricity, phones, insurance or the support of a U.S. organization. We ate deer head soup (“Want an antler?”), held still-pulsating castrated pig testicles and taught village children about Joshua and Jericho by marching around and yelling.
While the slimy deer brains on our tongues raised a certain challenge, getting to know Nicaraguan friends came easily. Life there was organized around seeing people. Life here in the U.S. is not. Here, we orient ourselves toward accomplishing tasks, and we economize on love. Millard Fuller, the founder of Habitat for Humanity, once said, “The most important person is the one in front of you.” In today’s communication landscape, it takes intentionality to know people’s names, hear their stories, connect more than once a year and even have people in front of you at all. (If only I could get off of RELEVANTmagazine.com …!)
2. Living below our means.
We lived that first year in Nicaragua on less than $4,000, including two round-trip air tickets, 40 Bibles and other gifts and a small library. Our belongings fit in two suitcases, and our monthly trips to town for ice cream felt like heaven.
We now own carpeting, three couches, two newish cars, a lawnmower, a snowblower and bicycles. As soon as we think we’ve got enough, we find ourselves saying, “You know what would be nice to get …?” Enough is really hard.
3. Giving away.
Two enormous sacks of raw, organic, shade-grown coffee traveled back to the U.S. with us. We printed up fliers educating people about the economics facing coffee growers in an era when few knew about fair trade coffee, even in tree-hugging, justice-loving Madison, Wisconsin.
Even if we manage to live simply, we’re told the prudent thing to do is build bigger barns and keep it for later. Instead, we’re supposed to store up treasures in heaven and invest in the Kingdom. That means shopping for products that give dignity to their producers and pulling out the checkbook and scratching some checks. Our daughter, Phoebe, decided to buy Christmas presents of malaria meds for other kids out of the World Vision catalog and then set up a little store to raise more money for the cause. She forced us to ask: Are we being that generous?
4. Thinking eternally.
After Nicaragua, we spent two years in Lanzhou, China, the most polluted city in the world at the time. We taught ESL to future teachers and got to have conversations like, “So, Jesus isn’t the American man in the red suit who brings presents at Christmas?”
Knowing we would probably interact with these college students for just a year gave us a constant reminder every conversation counts. Now settled down into routines, it’s easy to push off important conversations for someday when it feels easy. That easy moment to speak truth rarely comes.
After China, we worked in South Africa as co-directors of a pilot microfinance project and then as seminary teachers. We beat across southern Africa on a motorcycle, marveling at baobobs, crime and hospitality. We joined in indigenous churches and wept alongside Zulu sisters and brothers. By the time we hit the big 3-0, we had checked off dozens of the ridiculous big dreams we’d thought up in our late teens and early 20s. Adventure became ordinary for us, and we liked it that way.
And then we moved back to the U.S. and it all flipped. Adam found a job leading communications for InterVarsity. Chrissy started a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Wisconsin. Phoebe and Zeke (our kids) entered public schools. We even bought a house. Mortgages are not conducive to joyous risk. The middle-class motto says keep your head down, keep working, fix up the house, maintain the yard, save money, be safe, minimize risk, be sensible … GAH!
We need to ask, “What if we … ?” a lot more.
6. Dating your spouse.
No big secret here. If all you talk about is bills, diapers, report cards, work frustrations, insurance and yard work, you’re probably going to end up having an affair. Go have fun. And be in love.
7. Conquering parenting terror.
We took our daughter to China when she was two months old, and we moved to South Africa when the kids were 3 and 1. Parenting is hard if you let it be. It can also be a delicious, fascinating, life-giving ride. These kids were surprises to us (that’s a long story that RELEVANT published back in November 2007).
Our kids are now entering second and fourth grade, and they’ve only just arrived at the point where they’ve lived as much of their lives in the U.S. as overseas. We didn’t let them slow us down, and they learn alongside us. Recently Zeke asked us what a Twinkie is and Phoebe asked what a Frito is. We count that as evidence we’re doing some things right.
8. Noticing little things.
Birdsong. The smell of cut grass. A breeze. A surprise phone call from a friend. A good night’s sleep. A bike ride. A perfectly grilled vegetable kabob. Clear sinuses. A song you like on the radio. A hug.
It’s the stuff that makes up Chicken Soup for the Embarrassingly Sentimental Soul, but noticing (and naming) this kind of stuff keeps you from becoming a grump.
9. Sticking with a church—even when it’s kind of messed up.
We’ve returned a few times to volunteer with a long-established Christian community. There we joined in hosting refugees, visiting people on death row and living simply with people who shared many common values. Few people get to live in such intentional communities. And those who do soon discover community is hard.
We go to a church now that is full of sinful people who sometimes do embarrassing things, make mistakes and disagree. We’ve yet to find a church that isn’t like this.
But we’re committed anyway, as the church is the primary way for God’s people to gather, worship and work in the world. So get in and stay in.