Blending in vs. Fitting in

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I have learned that fitting in and blending in are not the same at all. To me, blending in is the ability to appear to belong, while fitting in is actually belonging. I can blend in sometimes, but after embarking on this cross-cultural life two years ago, I’ve discovered that fitting in is a little trickier.

When I’m in the United States, I can blend in. I speak the language perfectly, I look like I belong, and I understand the nuanced cultural communication that we often take for granted. That feels good sometimes, especially now that I live in Nicaragua where I definitely don’t blend in. I’m taller and paler than most, speak Spanish with an accent, and make silly errors that reveal that I didn’t quite understand the expectations. Like the time I showed up for what I thought was a hike in yoga pants and a T-shirt only to find that everyone else was dressed way fancier! Obviously what came to mind for me as appropriate clothing when we talked about this outing was different than what everyone else had in mind.

I don’t always fit in completely in the U.S. though. I’m now that strange person who is living her life in another country, a different choice than what’s typical for most of the people I know. There are funny little cultural shock moments when I come back, like when I washed my hands in the bathroom at the O’Hare airport and was ALARMED that the water came out hot. Other times, I see old friends and we can immediately pick up where we left off as if no time has passed and it just fits.

Although I can never blend in Nicaragua, I am starting to fit in. I have friends. I have roles and responsibilities. People have expectations of me based on who I actually am, not only based on my appearance and cultural background. I feel known. The longer I’m living here, the more I realize I’m changing. I can simultaneously both can fit in anywhere and fit in nowhere. I can slide in and out of cultures with increasing ease, but there’s always a lingering feeling of not quite hitting the mark.

That uncomfortable awkwardness of not quite fitting in is familiar for many of us, whether we live inside or outside of our home culture. Everyone faces moments like that. Maybe it’s feeling slightly out of the in-crowd at work, or walking into a party where you thought you’d know someone only to find they’re not there yet.

That awkward moment is an invitation. An invitation to move towards people, to learn something new, to be braver than you thought you were. My advice is to put the device down (it’s a crutch!), take a deep breath, and move into that awkward space. Make it your own. Smile at someone. Ask a question. That little step forward is the first step towards finding a place to fit. It is not the time to blend in! Even if you could, it won’t bring you towards belonging. God created each of us to fill a unique space in this world. Right now that unique space for me is between cultures. It comes with a side of awkwardness, but it’s starting to fit just right. Each of us has our own place to discover. Let the awkwardness be an invitation and resist the temptation to blend!

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Feels like home to me

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Hanging out in my living room

To be honest, it’s felt like home here for a while. Although there are certainly things that I miss about the USA (friends & family, MI summers, an abundance of restaurant choices, real bacon), Nicaragua, and specifically Matagalpa, has become home.

What makes a home? I’ve spent more time thinking about this now than ever before. The actual house plays a role, but I don’t think it’s the most important thing. I moved to a new house and it still feels homey, if not more so, than my previous house. But, I’ve moved past the phase of setting up a home, now my pictures are on the wall and my stuff is where I put it, which does make a difference in making it feel like home to me.

I feel comfortable in my city. I’m no longer struggling to figure out routines, how to get around, or how to do basic tasks of everyday life. I have places where I go regularly and am known. I know which streets are one-way and which are not (even the ones that aren’t marked!)

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This is the view (yes, I climbed a mountain to take this pic) of Matagalpa, the city where I live.

An important factor that makes this feel like home is the community of people that I’m surrounded by. Having friends and being known sure makes a place feel homier. I’ve also reached the tipping point where 9 times out of 10 I run into someone I know at the supermarket or walking through the park. 

Above all else, I think feeling like home has to do with settling into where God has placed me in this season. It’s a sort of spiritual contentment with where I am. It’s like a cycle – I feel certain of God’s will for this season of my life so I settle into it and, as I settle in, I feel more connected to the people and places around me, which reinforces that I’m in the right place at the right time. And the cycle goes on.

Where are you settling right now? How does that feel like home to you?

Unfinished

I’ve started a few posts that continue unfinished. They need a positive take away or quippy story to wrap up the ideas that I’ve started, but I don’t have it. I’m in the middle of a middle place.

 

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This is where I live.

 

This house both does and doesn’t feel like home. I’m both moved in and not fully settled. I know my way to certain places, but still get lost (and have turned the wrong way down a one-way at least three times that I know of…there aren’t always signs!). I’ve met people, but don’t exactly have friends. I’ve started some of my communications responsibilities, but am very much learning as I go. I can’t really plan more than a day or two in advance because there is so much that I just don’t know or can’t predict.

Transition, transition, transition. That’s what I’m in the middle of and that’s where I’ll be for a while. In the realest of real ways, I’m learning to live out Matthew 6:34 “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” I literally can only handle today’s trouble, and sometimes barely that. So here I am, unfinished story, taking care of today’s business.

How do you say…?

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These days I’ll ask just about anyone for vocabulary, from teachers and my host family to uber drivers and teenagers. Learning another language is impossible without help. I need people who will correct me, teach me new phrases, and be patient with my errors. My host family recently taught me a funny new phrase “huele pedos” (smells farts), which is someone we would call a brown-noser in English.

I came here with a pretty solid base of Spanish, but like many things in life, the more you learn, the more you realize you don’t know. There is a wide range of fluency that’s possible when learning a second language. In order to keep improving, you need humility and grit, people to help you, and plenty of time and practice.

Those same things are needed for the Christian life. Paul talked about running our race with perseverance by fixing our eyes on Jesus (Hebrews 12:1-2). I’m not much of a runner (only if a bear is chasing me), but my 17 years of Spanish language learning has certainly been a marathon. This thing called following Christ is not a sprint, my friends. We spend most of our lives somewhere between the starting line and the finish line or, in my case, the zero Spanish I knew when I enrolled in high school Spanish 1 and the ideal that I’m striving for: kicking my gringo accent and never making pronoun or subjunctive errors again.

It takes humility to learn a language, to start talking knowing that what comes out of your mouth might (probably will) be incorrect. That you might say something unintentionally funny and then not get why people are laughing. I once accidentally asked someone to throw me in the trash. To stick with it takes the willingness to keep going, to try again, and lots of time. Success comes slowly and sometimes almost imperceptibly, but suddenly we correctly use a tricky grammatical structure or tell a joke on purpose and someone actually laughs.

Sound familiar in following Jesus? We mess up. We don’t listen. We choose what’s easier instead of what He’s asking us to do. But, over and over we start again. Change comes slowly. I’m not who I was 10 years ago, 5 years ago, or even 1 year ago. A few of those things I used to stumble over I can skip over now. Little by little, by humbling ourselves and persevering, we grow. We look a little more like Christ and have a deeper relationship with Him.

Along the way, I have needed so many people to help me out. There are countless teachers and native speakers in the U.S., Spain, Mexico, and now Costa Rica who have helped me learn their language. I cannot do it alone. Following Christ isn’t meant to be done alone either. We need each other. Romans 12: 9-10 “Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor.” I love that last part. How can I outdo others in showing them honor? Let’s race to respect each other. Who can listen the most? We get to be real with each other and lift each other up.

Help is a good thing. Reach out. Call a friend. Call a counselor. Tell someone what you’re struggling with. You need people and they need you. You’re somewhere between the start and finish. You might not know where exactly you are, but God knows where you’re going.

All day, every day

Moving to another country has given me the unique opportunity to reconsider my daily habits. Everything has changed, so I have no choice but to consider how I spend my days. What new habits will I add? What will I remove? What will I adapt to fit this new culture and living situation?

I’ve recently been reading Liturgy of the Ordinary by Tish Harrison Warren. A quote that grabbed my attention was “How I spend this ordinary day in Christ is how I will spend my Christian life.” My life is made up of small moments. I have big moments as well, but those are fewer and farther between and they are usually the culmination of many small, everyday moments. The choices that I make today impact tomorrow.

So, I can use this transitional phase of my life to reexamine what I do each day. I am imperfectly working through this process with a lot of grace. Is my phone the first thing I reach for in the morning? When, how, and where will I spend time with God today? How much Netflix will I watch?

Some days, I crave anything familiar from my life in the States, so picking up my Kindle and reading in English is comforting. Some habits are familiar, yet different in my new surroundings. Weight training has become an important part of my life, but I couldn’t easily bring weights with me. Instead, I’m using a suspension trainer that I hang from a tree at a tiny park near my house. I’m also figuring out when I can fit those workouts in since it rains most afternoons and I have early classes.

Some new habits have naturally become a part of my daily routine since moving here. I now regularly wake up before 6:00am, whether I have to or not, thanks to early sunrises and an earlier bedtime here in Costa Rica. I’ve also had to incorporate studying and homework into my daily life. It’s been a long time! I went back into the archives of my iTunes account and pulled up my old “jazzy study” playlist from college yesterday. A new favorite custom from my life in Costa Rica is called cafecito – a coffee and snack break in the afternoon. My host mom is a great baker, so we often have banana bread or some other delicious treat with our afternoon coffee.

These are all ordinary parts of the day, but together they make up my life. The small, daily tasks are important. So, here’s to making habits, breaking habits, and adapting to life in a new context!

What about you? I’d love to hear from you! What habits are you incorporating into your daily life? What habits are you trying to ditch?

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This is the language school where I’m studying Spanish

 

Goodbyes and Hellos

wp-image-1767630430The past week has been so bittersweet. I said goodbye to many dear people in Michigan. If I were to write a book about this experience, I might title it “Crying in Airplanes: A Missionary Journey.” The truth is that I feel so confident that this is the path God has me on for this season. I’m blessed that everything I’ve dreamed of, hoped for, and worked towards is coming to pass. All of that fills me with anticipation and excitement for what’s to come. At the same time, it’s really hard to leave friends and family, knowing that it will be a while before we’ll see each other face to face again. It’s hard and wonderful and strange and beautiful to live in those two realities simultaneously.

Yesterday, I arrived in Costa Rica. I’ve met lots of new people and thanks to the generosity of a few have managed to make it to my host family’s house from the airport, walk to and from the language school, and get a Costa Rican SIM card for my phone. Orientation is this week and classes start next week. In the meantime, I’m giving myself time and grace to figure things out. I’m also going to bed early when my brain gets tired. The sun rises at 5:30 am and sets at 5:30 pm so an early bedtime and early wake-up time works out well. I can hardly believe I’m saying that. I am so not a morning person. I knew this process would change me but that’s not what I thought it would look like. I’ll have to give it a little while and see if it sticks. There are certainly many more changes to come!

A Faithful God

Let me tell you a story about God’s faithfulness. Actually, I’ll tell you two stories. One is ancient and one is mine. I’ll tell the ancient story in my own words, but you can find it in the Bible in Exodus 16. The Israelites were delivered from slavery by the miraculous power of God. He then led them into the wilderness where they were refined and transformed as a people. They needed food to survive in the wilderness and God came through for them by providing manna (a white substance that was literally food from heaven). Every morning, He provided manna on the ground and they could go out and gather it to feed their families. They couldn’t save up for the next day though because it would rot. Every single day, they had to wake up and trust that the Lord would come through again. And again. And again. He continued to provide manna every day until the Israelites left the wilderness and entered the Promised Land.

I’m experiencing God’s daily provision right now during this season of fundraising. A little over a month ago, my fundraising coach and I discovered that I would need about 1% per day in order to reach my goal by the end of August. I started to pray into that and God came through in a big way. For over a month now, God has been providing 1% of my funding each day as I go out collecting it. At first, I wasn’t 100% sure that was what He was doing so I asked Him for confirmation. That day, the amount committed was 1% of my budget to the dollar. He’s continued to faithfully move in that way since and I don’t expect Him to stop now. In fact, I’m praying that the pace accelerates. I’d like to be starting language school on August 30, which gives me 3 weeks to achieve my deployment fundraising goal. I still need 16% of my budget. I’m praying and believing that the One who started this work will be the One to finish it.

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Kalamazoo Bucket List

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One of my friends asked me recently if I have a list of things I want to do before I leave Kalamazoo. I’ve been thinking about that, but so many of the things that I love here are a part of the fabric of my life. I don’t want to have a decisive “final time” doing them, although sadly, some of those last times may have already happened. Some of my favorites include brunch at Crow’s nest, Saturday morning farmer’s market, road trips to South Haven, Radiant church services, backyard bonfires, spontaneous trips to Nick’s Gyros, walks along the river in Parchment, Art Hop, looking over the city at East Campus, and, above all, spending time with my people.

I’ve lived in Kalamazoo for 10 years now. This city and the people whose lives have crossed mine during my time here have permanently wedged themselves into my heart.

I came to Kalamazoo in 2007, a bright-eyed 21-year-old. I was fresh from a semester in Spain, which I loved for the culture and language, but during which my heart had wandered a bit from God, and from a summer where He brought me back to Him. I moved in having visited the city a total of about 4 times, including my campus visit to Western and the 2002 high school tennis state championships. I was apprehensive about my academic pursuits towards becoming a speech language pathologist but had a single-minded focus towards another goal — finding a church to plant myself in. I knew that my former church-hopping ways, moving around based on rides, friends, and a whim, needed to come to an end.

I dedicatedly visited churches in the area, trying to find the place I would commit to for (what I thought were only) two years of my life. One October Sunday, my roommates and I ventured out to Richland and sat down at Radiant Church (then called Resurrection Life Church). I knew in my spirit that this was it. It felt like home.

I jumped into the grad school life at WMU, making great friends and commiserating over our workload, stress levels, and how we had no idea what we were actually doing. In the meantime, I found myself increasingly connected to the city, loving the small town city feel. I used to walk from our Oakland Drive rental house to East Campus, looking over the city with my heart breaking for the lost.

Radiant was a big place and, at first, I would walk a few laps around the lobby after church and book it to the parking lot if I didn’t see anyone I knew within a few minutes. Soon, I made friends and got involved. The growth in my life that I can now see plainly happened almost without my noticing as I experienced the consistent watering and sunlight of being planted in a spiritual garden.

I had started grad school convinced my career path would lead to working with adults with aphasia and that I would probably move off to Chicago or somewhere equally glamorous in my eyes. Somehow, through my internship in Kalamazoo Public Schools, I changed my mind about working in the schools (I think I said “never will I ever” at some point). I will always treasure my time in KPS. Some of the most dedicated professionals and most lovely children on the planet continue on in those places. And don’t even get me started on my Young Life friends in Kalamazoo.

Now, as I prepare to leave, I have to stop to give thanks for this season of my life, for this city, and for the people who made it special. Kalamazoo is where I learned to be an adult, where I learned to be a speech therapist, and where I learned to be radiant. To all those that helped me along the journey, thank you!

When am I leaving?

I get asked this question a lot. There’s a short answer and a long answer. The short answer is that I’ll be going to Costa Rica for language school at the end of August as long as all my funding comes in by then. I thought I would share the longer answer here.

There’s a tension in the kingdom of God between the already and the not yet. They’re both simultaneously true. As a believer, I’m made new and being made new. The kingdom of God is here and the kingdom of God is coming. It doesn’t make sense in our chronological understanding of time.

I am fully funded. God has called me to this ministry and He knows exactly where every dollar is coming from. And yet, I’m still in the process of inviting people in. I only know where some of the dollars are coming from. The funding is already here and not yet here simultaneously.

Right now, the goal that I’m going for is the end of August. God is able to bring in that funding in time for me to start language school in September. If he doesn’t, I trust in the character of God. He is intimately involved in this whole process and will bring about each step in His perfect timing. In fact, He is the author of this chapter of my story.

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were young, Hebrew men that had been brought from their home in Israel to Babylon to be acculturated to the ways of the Babylonian conquerors. They were living in a culture that was not their own. The king set up a giant, golden idol and commanded everyone to bow down and worship it. These guys knew that the one true God was the only one worthy of worship and refused to bow down. The king insisted and threatened them with death in a fiery furnace if they wouldn’t do it. Their reply illustrates their profound faith in the Lord.

“King Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and He will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand. But even if He does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.” Daniel 3:16-18 NIV

They had something they were hoping for (salvation from the fiery furnace) and I have something that I’m hoping for (being fully funded in time for language school this fall). God is more than able to accomplish it! Yet, even if the thing I hope for doesn’t come in the way I expect, He is still the only one worthy of worship and honor.

The end of the story for Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego was miraculous deliverance from the fiery furnace, which brought glory to God and touched the heart of the king of Babylon. See Daniel 3 for the full story!

The end of my story isn’t clear yet. It’s still being written. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego didn’t know what would happen when they declared in faith that they were loyal to God no matter what. Neither do I. I do know that I trust Him with my life.

Beauty in breakdown

Some days are awesome and some days are really hard. Some of the very best moments are wrapped up in both. I had one of those recently. Overall, fundraising is going really well. People are so kind and generous and I love being able to share this journey with my friends and family! I hit a big fundraising milestone and celebrated! The very next day, doubt began to come into my heart about where the rest might come from. Emotion and fear came on strong. In a moment of crying out to God about why this has to be so hard, he reminded me of Mark 6:30-44. Jesus and the disciples retreated to a quiet place but the crowds found him. Jesus had compassion and told his disciples to give the crowd of 5,000+ people something to eat. They only had 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish – a seemingly impossible task! Yet, when Jesus broke the bread, there was plenty for the disciples to distribute throughout the crowds.

I was reminded that it would have been so silly for the disciples to have gotten partway through the crowd and then freaked out that there wouldn’t be enough for the rest of the people. They knew the only reason all that bread and fish was being multiplied was by the miraculous power of Jesus! Why should it be any different for me? Just as he was faithful to complete the work he started in feeding the crowds, he will be faithful to complete the work he started in providing the resources for successful ministry in Nicaragua. It’s my heart that needed adjusting. I was thinking that somehow it was me doing the miracle. It was never me, but God who was and is funding this calling.

In my low moment, God dropped truth into my heart that rearranged my perspective and strengthened my faith, making it all worthwhile. Pain and beauty. Difficulty and truth. All wrapped up into one life lived trusting the faithful God who is with me through it all.