A little over a year ago, our family up and moved to Malawi. As we’ve hit this one year mark, we’ve had a number of people ask, “So, a year in huh? What all have you learned?” To which I always want to respond, “Learned? Ha! All that I’ve learned is how much I don’t know!” But that’s not the whole truth. I’ve learned a few things. And as much as I’d hate to dole out a bunch of unsolicited advice and nuggets of wisdom based on a mere 13 months living abroad, EHHH. What’s the use of accidentally swallowing a cockroach if you’re not going to use it as a teaching point. Which leads me to number one…
Always leave your water bottle covered. If you happen to forget, check the contents of said water bottle. On that note, perhaps you should also check the contents of your shoes before sliding them onto your barefeet. Or your sheets before you slip in at night. All of these things. They’re all very good ideas. Just trust me on this one.
Get. Out. Of. Your. Gate. Or your apartment door. Or your backyard. Expat life can be exhausting, and choosing to step outside of the familiarity of your living room can quickly lose appeal. Do it anyway. It’s hard to put down roots if you’re limiting your soil to that which is directly under your own two feet. Your new home is going to feel a whole heck of a lot more like your new HOME if you know the names and stories of those people who you daily pass on the streets or staircases.
Go deep with your national friends. Show up to their homes for no other reason than to just hang out. Swing your doors open wide to them. Call them. WhatsApp them ridiculous GIFs. Pray for them. Pray WITH them. Remember that people who are being viewed as projects can see right through that mess. Just love people really, really well.
Also. Go deep with your fellow expat friends. Don’t let the transient nature of expat life scare you away from investing. The coming and the going is hard, but relationship is always, always worth it.
Take vacation. Be intentional about Sabbath. Don’t be afraid to TELL PEOPLE THAT YOU ARE RESTING. Let’s stop perpetuating the lie that busyness = holiness and that “professional Christians” (oh my goshhh) are above enjoying a day at the beach. Sometimes the most Christ-like thing we can do is to unplug and step away. Don’t let people tell you otherwise.
Okay a hypothetical here. Ahem. Say you’re going to learn a new language. With your spouse. And you’re both REAL COMPETITIVE. Maybe think twice about that. Then think a few more times. I AM JUST SAYING.
Be a learner. Quick tip: you’re gonna land in your new country and know nothing. Even if you feel like you’re a globe trotting rockstar- even if you FEEL like you’ve got this- lemme just shoot straight with you for a second. You’re wrong. Learn to shut up and listen. A lot. Find trusted national friends and ask lots of questions. TONS of them. And listen- really listen- to the answers.
On that note… Just a friendly reminder that Christianity is not an American religion, nor do American pastors and teachers and authors hold in their hands the lone key to solid theology. One of the most humbling moments for me this past year came when I was sitting in church on a random Sunday. As I listened to our pastor, I remember the distinct feeling of surprise at how much I was learning. At how clearly he was preaching the gospel. I came home that day humiliated and ashamed as I saw my surprise for what it was- namely, a notion I picked up along the way that American Christians had a corner on the market of Christianity. That we were the only ones who really “got it” and that everyone else was just a few steps behind. It makes me cringe to type this even now, but I can’t help but believe I’m not alone in this.
Don’t be a hero. Pack stuff that makes you feel “home-y.” Bring that cute dress, that stack of books, your favorite blanket, your Christmas tree. If you have the option of bringing stuff from the States, GET AFTER IT. None of that weird “gotta be a martyr and can’t have anything nice if I’m a missionary” stuff, y’all. Now, don’t go and be all extra about it. Be sensible. But if your favorite coffee mug and throw pillows make you feel like a saner human at the end of a long day navigating traffic patterns that make no logical sense whatsoever, for the love. Bring the dang mug.
Err on the side of laughter. Daily life here in Malawi can be so ridiculous that I would’ve gone crazy ten times over if I hadn’t learned to laugh about it all. There are ten thousand mundane annoyances on the daily. Sometimes I cry. Fine. But mostly I laugh. The days I laugh are so much better.
Take time every so often to sit back and soak in the good of this new life you now live. Which I know may sound just SO Pollyannaish. Especially when the week’s been particularly rough. But even in those hard weeks- maybe ESPECIALLY in those hard weeks- force yourself to name the good in that moment. That day. My first few months here in Malawi, I disciplined myself to write these things down every single day. Some days, my words were flowery and Jesus-y and shouted “hey look at this starry eyed new kid who is a bit too oblivious to know any better!” Other days? “Today, I drove and didn’t die.” Sometimes we just gotta fake it till we make it, people.
Finally, embrace your limitations and weaknesses. I’m a Type A Enneagram 1 perfectionist. To say that I don’t like weakness is such an understatement that my perfectionist self bucks against even saying it in the first place. I’m pretty sure my first words were, “I do it myself.” Even my Chichewa teacher this year gave me the nickname “gonthi” which translates to “stubborn” which is just so precious. And yet. I quickly realized that the only way I was possibly going to thrive would be if I could just up and own my many, many weaknesses and shortcomings. I couldn’t drive. I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t find ingredients to make edible meals. For the longest time, I couldn’t even sleep. And so, I started to ask for help. “Hey, show me.” “Teach me.” “Help me.” For maybe the first time ever, I had to rely entirely on the community around me and was left with no choice but to lean HARD into God’s strength to carry me, knowing full-well that I’d sink otherwise. My mantra this past year was something our pastor back in the States says often. “If dependence is the objective, weakness is an advantage.” And you know what? Over and over again, it was true. The beauty of being so dependent is that it leaves your eyes wide open in expectation as you wait on the only One who can truly meet your needs. It gives you a chance to see that, actually, this story and this life isn’t about us and our awesome abilities. So, yes, embrace your weaknesses. You really don’t got this, and it’s not about you anyway. So, be encouraged. Keep your eyes open. Watch as God provides in the most unexpected ways. And have a ridiculously awesome…. or perhaps just ridiculous…. first year.
It’s been a year. And then some, but still. A year since we packed up our lives in America to replant ourselves in a country and culture and general life rhythm so vastly different than anything we had ever before known. It’s been such a whirlwind that, honestly, I think I’m still processing it all and probably will be for the rest of my days. WE MOVED OUR FAMILY OF FIVE TO AFRICA, PEOPLE. I could (maybe should?) probably sit in a therapist’s chair for ages to rehash all that this has entailed.
But as we slowly emerge from the whirlwind of the past year, only a little worse for the wear and FOR SURE no longer able to stay up past 9pm (trust me when I say there ain’t no tired like Africa tired), I can honestly report back that year one was better than I ever imagined. Maybe it’s because I had entered into the year with super low expectations. We had known enough missionaries and heard enough stories to know that the first year can be ROUGH, and so we girded our loins and prepared for the worst. I don’t know. I also don’t know what it says about me that I feel almost guilty to “admit” that I legit love. it. here. I love the culture. (Most days.) I love the laughs and cheers I get when I speak (and often slaughter) the language. I love the sun and tropical climate. I love my friends and the ease of relationship here and the vibrancy of the Malawian church. I love watching my kids flex and adapt to life here as their worldview becomes so beautifully global and rich. Gosh I’m such a fan.
Here’s the thing. We missionary types love our war stories. We read those compelling biographies of grass-hut-dwellers and famous martyrs with wide eyes and may inadvertently start believing that the more we suffer, the better the missionary. But y’all, it’s not just war stories out here on the field. Let’s take a hot second to celebrate the good. The Allison fam? We’re doing just fine. In fact, we kind of love it here.
THAT SAID. I gotta be REAL real with you guys. This past year did indeed feel like a battle of epic proportions at times. Because as soon we landed in Malawi, we looked around and realized that we no longer knew how to do, oh you know, ANYTHING here in our new context. Our new home. Where we now lived. With three small humans we were still in charge of despite our general life cluelessness. We felt real dumb for a REAL long time while we fought to relearn how to drive, cook, plug things into sockets, and speak a language that requires our tongues move in ways that they’ve never moved before. We fought harder in our marriage than we ever have before. And we threw a few not-so-pretty tantrums about the deep losses we felt in leaving behind a community of people with whom we had so much shared history.
I know, I know. I’m
contradicting myself in every way. “It’s
not all a war story!” “It was a total
war story!” “I love it here!” “It’s so hard here!” But that’s just the thing. I think we church people sometimes feel the
need to tie everything up in tidy little sensical bows punctuated by the pithy
Christian-y things we’re supposed to say.
But what if the truest thing we can say after the year we just lived is, “DUDE THAT WAS SO CRAZY.”
Speaking of crazy. There was this one experience this past year that will be forever seared in my mind. I was sitting in a freezing, sterile MRI room in South Africa just a few months ago watching my baby girl’s brain be scanned. Quick medical lesson: kid brains don’t typically get scanned unless there are scary, bad things doctors are looking for. And so, as I sat and waited and worried about all the things I know about brains and pediatrics, I had this moment of utter loneliness. The realization that I was in a country away from my immediate family and an ocean away from everyone else who really KNEW US and the feeling of being truly, completely alone—it all hit me at once and hit me hard. I sat there for some very long moments and just as abruptly as those thoughts had overcome my mind, an even truer Truth overcame those thoughts: that God was with me. And maybe this sounds like one of those pithy Christian-y things of which I just spoke a few sentences ago. But in that moment and in that hospital room, I felt completely overwhelmed by it all in a new, unexpected, almost-strangely-close way.
The reality is that I don’t have a neat and tidy bow to wrap around the package that was Year #1. Mine is pretty janky and stained in that Malawi-mud-orange hue that I’ve come to know so, so well. But what’s inside- all of the good and all of the hard and all of the mundane-in-between that the bulk of our days seemed to consist of- it all reminds me of the God who is with us and who has been with us. When we didn’t perceive Him. AND when His presence was almost bizarrely real. On the days culture was fun and endearing and on the days we (okay, IT WAS ME) claimed the million stupid roundabouts in our city would be the literal, imminent death of me.
So, here’s to Year #1. It was the best of times and it was the worst of times. Incidentally, as I wrapped this post up, my phone buzzed with a WhatsApp notification:
“Mukufuna ndikupempherereni chani?”
A middle of the day text from my dearest Malawian friend
asking, “How can I be praying for you?”
Give me the janky bows on the tattered packages any day. Because this? THIS Y’ALL. I’m telling you. Best. Of. Times.
2019, you were so cray. 2020, I’m sure you will be too. Bring it.
Well. One thing’s for certain: your twelfth year of life will go down as one of the more eventful years of your life thus far. One year ago today, we were all still reeling from our move to Malawi just a week and change earlier. We didn’t know what the year would look like. We didn’t know how you guys would adjust. You didn’t have one single friend here, and it was only your second day of school in Africa for crying out loud. I remember wandering around every last grocery store here scoping out ingredients to carry out your only two birthday requests: stromboli and dirt cake. I didn’t know how to cook here, but I’LL TELL YOU WHAT. Nothing’s gonna put fire under the tail of a culture-shocked mama like a desire to make her equally-culture-shocked son’s first birthday overseas special. And it was. Ish.
But this year, Carson. THIS YEAR. As you spend the afternoon with your crew of ride-or-die buddies… as you eat the dirt cake that’s not drenched in the tears of your mother who just couldn’t figure out how in the ever loving world TO COOK IN AFRICA (okay, maybe a bit dramatic but JUST A BIT)… as you go about your day with so much more of a sense of belonging than a sense of “where the heck AM I?”… I think we can all agree that we have way more to celebrate than just a birthday.
Moving to Malawi, you- of all the kids- worried me the most. Everyone warned us that an international move for a kid your age could be touch and go. Some insinuated that it was irresponsible. However you- of all the kids- have also come to surprise me the most through it all. Because I’ve watched you thrive. And, yes, I’ve also watched you have bad days and sometimes talk back to teachers and annoy the mess out of your sisters… BUT HELLO MIDDLE SCHOOL. Some things span all cultures. But mostly? You’ve run with it. Your friendships are strong. Your passions run deep. And your faith is growing in all kinds of ways.
You’ve been super consistent in naming school as your favorite part of living here in Malawi which is zero surprise to me. It’s given you a soft place to land and a whole slew of other kinda-awkward middle school boys to wander around and talk about Minecraft with. When not talking about, thinking about, reading about, watching apparently SO VERY FUNNY YouTube videos about video games, you can be found doing dangerous stunts on your bike. Or (dangerously) climbing things you probably shouldn’t climb. Or playing with your Rubik’s Cube or Legos to give your poor mother a break from all of the danger and fear.
Hands down, my favorite thing about you these days are your prayers. They are tender and raw and shout of a growing understanding of the faithfulness of your God. Because you have seen some things this year. You’ve walked through some hard. And some really awesome. And everything in between. And all of this- every bit of the good and bad- has given you a newfound ability to see and to KNOW that Jesus stays the same. His goodness is not limited to the good days, and his love for you does not hang on our area code. If you take anything away from this past year, Carson, I pray that you’d remember that He’s got your back. He is for you. And this. does. not. change.
It’s a privilege to be your mom, Carson. Oh yeah. And sorry again for saying you “stunk like a middle school boy” yesterday. Come to find out, it wasn’t you. It was the goats outside. See? Africa’s tricky for me sometimes too.
Oh Mary Grace. You’re ten. WHAT. Last week, you informed me that “double the digits means double the fun,” and if that’s even halfway true, I’m bracing myself now. Because the past decade has been a TRIP with you, my girl. And double THAT?? Game on.
This past year has been a doozy for you. As a kid who likes to have a firm, controlled grip on life (solidarity, girl, solidarity), our move to Malawi sent you for a bit of a tailspin. AND STILL. I have seen you get up and keep going. Even when it’s hard. Even when you’re tired of having your azungu skin pinched or your blonde hair touched. Even when you’d do literally anything for a stroll through Target (oh my gosh yes). You’ve been brave. You’ve been strong. And you’ve been honest about your feelings when you’ve felt none of those things. Good gracious, MG, am I proud of you.
That honesty thing is one of the the things I love the most about you. (And sometimes one of the things that makes us concurrently cringe the most.) But truly. To be so secure in who you are and in what you believe is a gift. You’re straightforward, confident, and steady in your beliefs. Just a few weeks ago, you came home incensed about a rule that you deemed unfair at school. You paced. You spoke your mind at the rate of a million miles an hour. You planned to arrange a meeting with the school headmistress to discuss said rule. In your mind, justice and rightness WOULD PREVAIL so help you God. Incidentally, the meeting with the headmistress was not necessary after all, as you convinced your teacher the next day to find a workaround to your very lofty problem. (Namely, your permission to swing sticks around on the playground as wands. I don’t know. I’M STAYING OUT OF IT.) You returned home quite pleased that day with the fact that “justice” had prevailed, your “case” had been won, and your voice had been heard. Loud and clear. Emphasis on the loud.
I pray that this boldness never, ever dies out. Be humble. Be teachable. Remember that no one person can be right all the time. But keep using that voice of yours. Don’t let anyone silence you. Don’t let anyone try to extinguish that fiery spirit because it’s those spirits that get stuff done in this world. And there’s a lot of good to be done.
Speaking of passion. Other loves in your life this year: Harry Potter, Minecraft, ninjas, field hockey, and Indian cuisine. This obsession with Indian food has been a new phenomenon ever since we landed in Malawi, but the amount of tikka masala and naan you manage to stuff into that tiny body of yours never ceases to confound me. You also love a good glass bottled Fanta, as any TCK living in Africa should. And you really, really love your siblings which makes my heart swell with more joy than I sometimes know how to handle. You three are the absolute best together.
Your favorite color is black. Your favorite movies are “violent movies like Pirates of the Caribbean” (your words, not mine). Your favorite subjects are art and math. You would live in running shorts and flip flops if you could. And, a decade later, your beloved baby doll “Deluga” remains your most prized possession.
Mary Grace, being your mom is such a crazy fun adventure. Now, please note. “Such a fun adventure” does not necessarily mean that I always know what the heck I’m doing. I DON’T. But I do know how to point you to Jesus, and so that’s what I’m gonna keep doing. In all of your plans and schemes and daring feats in life… in all of your grand ideas and pursuits of justice and rightness… just keep your eyes on Him. Keep running hard. Keep speaking up. You’re going to do great things, sweet girl, I just know it.
Happy 10th birthday, Mary Grace! Here’s to a new decade with new adventures, new causes to take to the headmistress, and lots and lots more tikka masala. I love you so so much.
It was an ordinary night at the Allison house. And by ordinary, I mean loud and rowdy. Voices belting out at completely unacceptable decibels and body appendages flailing around in some semblance of a wrestling match. Eventually, I heard the crash. And the silence. And the “ohhhh… mom’s going to be SO MAD.”
I walked over to see the wreckage and the four sheepish members of my family who were now waiting for my reaction to my precious, now-shattered fresh-off-the-crate home decor. I looked at that Pottery Barn bird thing that my mom bought me a few years back for Christmas and that picture frame and that candle, and I had one option and one option only. I cried. “I can’t replace any of this here!” I lamented. “Are you telling me these managed to survive a boat trip across the flippin’ globe, and they can’t survive my living room for a few weeks?? Can’t I just have a FEW NICE THINGS from America?” I went on. Sometimes you can’t anticipate the straw that’ll break the camel’s back. That day? It was the dumb bird.
It’s funny. I don’t even like birds. I blame Alfred Hitchcock and that ridiculous movie of his that forever scarred me in middle school. And still, I chose to crate this bird all the way from North Carolina. For years, it sat on those pretty built-in bookshelves in Wake Forest as it stared in on our perfectly “normal” life in our pretty house in our suburban neighborhood. I never thought twice about our little bird-statue-friend, and I’m fairly certain that my decision to crate him was an afterthought. But all of a sudden, on that fateful night here in Malawi, that afterthought of a bird statue was suddenly A Really Big Deal.
All of a sudden, for better or for worse, that bird represented my ties back to America. There was just something about this mass-produced Pottery Barn accessory that granted me a sense of home. And now, those pieces that were scattered across my living room floor confirmed what we all knew anyway: things were different now.
What followed that evening could either be described as sacrificial love OR the desperation of the husband of a couldn’t-decide-whether-she-was-sad-or-mad wife. Whatever the motivation, it didn’t matter. Matt dropped everything he was doing in that moment to carefully gather up every last piece and painstakingly superglue and restore what he could. It was touch and go for a while but, all things considered, his labor of love proved worth it. And is now sitting back on our mantle in all of its cracked and broken glory.
Now, when I collapse onto our couches after another long day and glance up to our mantle, I feel like giving a head nod of understanding to that bird. Because a few years ago, we were both doing JUST FINE. Minding our own business. Comfortable. Living a relatively neat and tidy existence. But then, this whole process of uprooting and refiguring out life in a new place with new people and new everything- it has a way of stripping away pieces of us. Pieces of us have been broken. And sometimes we don’t even recognize what’s been broken until we look at the remnants we’ve left behind.
But then, God steps in and does that thing he always does as our Redeemer and Restorer. Do we feel like we’ve had so much stripped away in this season? Over the course of the past few years? Good gracious, yes. And it’s hurt. A lot. But just as my affection for Matt grew as he carefully glued my bird back together that night, it’s straight up impossible not to feel an ever-swelling appreciation and love for our God who’s faithfully cared for US in this season of being broken, stripped, and remade again.
So, as an almost nine-month-in update, let’s just imagine you could hop on over to Lilongwe to hang out in our living room. Cup of coffee in hand. Shrieks of wild kids in the background. If you were one of those people who once filled our living room back in the States, I bet you’d sit back and reflect on the strange mixture of familiarity and complete foreignness. And then, right as you start thinking “huh. same but different…”, I’d direct you to our mantle. And I’d turn the bird around to reveal his gaping holes and carefully glued-up imperfections.
And then, then, I’d proceed to tell you a story about this heart of mine that’s also been stripped and remade. And about this life of ours that feels the same but different. But mostly, I’d scoot a little closer and I’d look you in the eyes and I’d tell you of the faithfulness and kindness of the One who’s been holding us through every single second of it all. And the One for whom we’d do it all over again and again and again in a heartbeat.
The beauty of being broken and put back together again is that if you just open up your eyes and lean in a little, you’re granted this crazy opportunity of an up-close and personal glimpse of the character and ways of your Restorer. So, yeah. Maybe we might look a little different nine months in. Maybe we’ve seen some things, heard some things, learned some things, and UN-learned some other things that have wrecked us. But if being wrecked means having the chance to lean in and lock eyes with the One who has promised to make all things new again both here in Malawi and all across this great big globe? I’m in.
A few days ago, I was able to spend some time with a team of college students from my church back in the States. They’re here in Africa for the summer, and as I heard their passion and fervor spill into their speech and prayers that night, I walked away with a deep sense of excitement for the future as well as a nagging sense of nostalgia.
Nostalgia because it was the summer after my junior year in college that I flew off to Kenya, all starry-eyed and ready to save the world. Thankfully, the college students our church sends out today are far better equipped and more realistic than I probably was, but some things don’t change in the decade-and-a-half (ohmygosh) since I was in their shoes. Things like those all-consuming questions that start reverberating throughout the course of a summer like this. Questions to the tune of “But what should I study? Where should I live after graduation? What does God even want me to do with my life?”
Sadly (or, probably, thankfully) I am but a mere mortal and (shocker) do not have all the answers to their deepest questions in life, but it’s also my mere mortal-ness that has allowed me to struggle big and wrestle hard over a lot of these very questions throughout the years. I am intimately acquainted with seasons of grasping, searching, and crying out for purpose and direction. I know what it’s like to feel aimless and out of control. We know- oh man do we know– what it’s like to be in an extended season of waiting. And we have learned a thing or two over time.
So, from one fellow struggler, sojourner, and Jesus-follower to another, I have just a few words of advice for all of you students out there loving and serving the nations this summer and who are trying to discern what’s next:
To those who might feel like God wants you to go into ministry or move overseas, mark it down and tell somebody. So many of you are doing the short-term mission trip thing this summer, and I love that. I, for one, am a product of short-term trips and an example of how God can use these to call people to long-term overseas ministry, and I know some of you are sensing that same call. I ALSO happen to know quite well how tempting it is to stuff that call, pack it away, and think you’ll deal with it another time.
Don’t. Write it down. Tell someone. Because here’s what’s gonna happen: you’re going to go back to your school, and you’re going to get back to your studies and ordinary life, and you’re going to be tempted to forget about all you saw and learned this summer. And when memories resurface and that call you so clearly feel right now creeps into your thoughts, it’s going to be tempting to think, “Naw, that’s crazy, man.” Because here’s what I’ve learned: we humans are forgetful people. We need accountability. We need reminders- both of who we are called to be and who God has already said He is. If you’re anything like me, you’re going to need your people to point your darting eyes back to Truth. Over and over again. Pick those people now.
Going and waiting are not mutually exclusive. A solid fifteen years elapsed between the point Matt and I first felt called to move overseas and us actually going. If you’re wondering, that feels like a REAL LONG TIME PEOPLE. But you want to know what went down in that period of time? A heck of a lot of life. A lot of learning. A lot of preparation. I think it’s awesome when fresh college grads head out on the mission field, and I hope so many more do so. But us? Our hardheads apparently needed some time. And that’s okay.
If you and all of your passion find your best-laid plans of moving overseas coming to a screeching halt, don’t despair. I know that sometimes a “wait” feels a whole lot like a “no,” but hear me on this: when God tells you to wait, it can be one of the greatest acts of mercy you’ll ever experience. Had Matt and I moved to Africa as 22 year old newlyweds, we would’ve sunk. No doubt. We needed to live and learn and prepare. We needed seminary and job experience and life. That long fifteen year season of waiting for us was undeniably God’s kindness to us. So, to those in seasons of preparation, waiting, or maybe even feeling as if you’re “wasting time,” I get it. Persevere. Be faithful to the work He has for you right now. And trust that no one is more invested in His gospel moving forward than God Himself.
Some of you will be called to stay. As you go about your summer in who-knows-where across the globe, some of you- a lot of you even- will feel further affirmed in your calling to stay. Maybe to church plant stateside. Maybe to teach or heal or to kill it in the business sector. Listen: that’s good work too. We Christians have a long history of erecting a false divide between the secular and the sacred, and it’s just straight-up bogus. Don’t buy into the myth that “church work” is somehow elevated above “secular work.” Because anyone who’s going to peddle that lie to you clearly doesn’t understand that we are all called to make much of Jesus wherever we go.
Our pastor often reminds us, “Whatever you are good at, do it well for the glory of God, and do it somewhere strategic for the mission of God.” The nations need more Jesus-followers to bring the message of life and hope, absolutely. But you know where else you might feel called to go that’s also strategic? That public middle school down the street. Or that law firm in the big metropolis. Or maybe that apartment complex on the other side of town. Those of us who go need some of you to stay. But even if you stay, you’re still living a “sent” life. We’re all in this thing together, my friends.
Maybe don’t take yourself so seriously. I used to think that I could completely screw up (or miss altogether) God’s will for my life. Like if I made one wrong decision, all humanity was heading to Hades. In case you’re wondering, that’s kind of a lot of pressure to put on oneself, but I’m fairly certain I’m not alone in this.
You guys, I know we’re raised to believe we’re snowflakes and all, but here’s the thing: we’re not all that important after all. I’ve come to the realization that we don’t actually have the power to ruin God’s will with a single decision. His will is that every nation, tribe, and tongue will gather around the throne, and we already have the sure promise that this indeed will happen. And so, we pray and we seek wise counsel and we go to God’s Word as we make big decisions. And then we decide, resting in the knowledge that God is wiser than our best decisions and powerful enough to redeem our worst decisions. So, exhale and let some of that pressure roll off your back. The salvation of the world does not rest on your shoulders. God is the one who saves; we just get to be part of the story.
Dear college students, sometimes I envy you with all of your zeal and wide open opportunities, but then I reflect and recall that, actually, my college years were also REALLY DANG HARD sometimes. Some of the hardest in my life actually. There are so many expectations. So many decisions that legit decide the course of your future. It can feel crushing at times, I know. I remember. But the Church is rooting for you. We’ve got your backs. And I, for one, am praying for you. But even better? You have the very presence of God going with you. So, whether it’s to Chapel Hill, North Carolina or Lilongwe, Malawi (I MEAN NO PRESSURE), you go and get after it. You are sent.
Nearly six months ago, our exhausted yet wide-eyed family landed in Lilongwe full of anticipation and hesitation and all of the feelings in between. And just about six months in? Yep. Still all the feelings.
At times, I can become swept up and overwhelmed in all that has shifted under our feet in the past year. Our routines and rhythms, our jobs, our level of autonomy, our comfort levels in navigating the city, our personal space. I recognize so little from our former lives that it’s disorienting at times. But then, I find myself glancing around, seeking out those little things that have remained relatively untouched.
We’re still working with the same personalities, fighting the same fights (typically the Brushing Of The Hair battle or the HelpmeJesus Can’t I Go Ten Seconds Without Being Touched battle), and dancing to the same songs in our same almost-nightly dance parties. We’re using that same Target birthday banner we’ve used since our babies were babies, and those very babies are still enamored with the same YouTubers playing the same video game that they could STILL BE PLAYING THEMSELVES. Oh my gosh. As I said, some things just haven’t changed.
It’s this intersection of new and old that we’re feeling our way through right now. The in-between season of having completely uprooted everything and still not feeling firmly planted where we are. I know it will come. It always has. But there’s also an increased awareness of our status of sojourners here on this earth. Sojourners don’t find their identities in their location or the roots they’ve put down. Rather, sojourners have their eyes locked in on their final destination.
And yet, as we sojourn- as we pass through this broken/beautiful life living in this broken/beautiful(!!!) country- we do so with gratitude for all He has done and continues to do.
Like these kids who have pushed through the hard and have embraced their new lives here in Malawi with such bravery and strength that I could just about weep. That said, we’re not all rainbows and unicorns up in here, my friends. There have been plenty of moments of wailing and missing Target and Amazon Prime. There have been Sabbaths that have felt ANYTHING BUT restful and Sabbath-y as we all-but-dragged three children into yet another long Chichewa service. There have been murky waters to wade on the path to new friendships.
But there’s also been such joy. Elizabeth has made seventy thousand friends, showed off her insane speed and athletic prowess at last week’s field day, and has really leaned into and owned her identity as an African since being here. “Mom,” she said the other day. “I know I’m American, but I was BORN in Congo. So, ya know. I think I’m just mostly African mkay?” Alright, Elizabeth! You keep working that out, girl. We’re here for it. As of late, she has also become completely enamored with cooking and has learned how to fry chicken from our sweet house helper. There are some moments in life in which nature beats out nurture. Like riiiiight here. Because her love of cooking (and speed and dance moves) FO SHO didn’t come from me and Matt.
Then, there’s Mary Grace. Anyone who has known her since, oh, infancy knows full-well that this kid holds zero back. We all know exactly where she stands on every issue at every moment, and so it was no surprise to us when she recently mentioned that she was “working through the stages of culture shock” and is “mostly out of the ‘hate it’ phase.” So there’s that. Major bonus points to her teachers at training last year and even more bonus points to our nine year old who is able to (loudly) (very frequently) (with passion and fervor) express her feelings. When she hasn’t been busy navigating the stages of culture shock, Mary Grace has been spending her days playing school soccer, playing school ultimate frisbee, and playing the school recorder (omg). She lives most of her life outside, channeling her inner ninja (again, not everything has changed with the move) and building an elaborate “house” of sticks, stones, and spare tires in our backyard. She killed it academically this year and is the latest Allison to become completely obsessed with all things Harry Potter. Also. She’s come up with nicknames for half a dozen boys in her grade which is mostly endearing and slightly concerning. Because, Mary Grace.
And Carson. A few weeks ago, we sat around the dinner table sharing the highs and lows of the past few months. “SCHOOL!” he yelled. “My definite highlight has been school!” Seriously though. After a super-brief taste of quasi-homeschooling this fall, three cheers from all three kids and a bunch more from me for not having to have ME has a teacher anymore. Moving here, I was all kinds of nervous about coming with a tween-aged kid. Because seriously. Close your eyes and remember your awkward, insecure self in the middle schoolish years. And then? Pick that awkward you up and plop yourself into a new country mid-school-year with different cultures and foods and everything and try to sort THAT out. I KNOW. But sweet goodness, he’s kicked tail with the transition and has grown and matured so much in the recent months. As a true creature of habit and lover of routine and sameness, Carson has had to push himself to attempt the new and to try the foreign, and he HAS. Sometimes, I catch a quick word in Chichewa that he’ll quietly utter to our guard or I’ll watch as he tentatively starts swaying along in our dance-loving church and I’ll smile knowing that these small moments are actually giant for him and that, actually, I think he’ll be just fine after all.
Finally, me and Matt. We’re hitting our stride. Most days at least. We’re finally settling into routines, figuring out how to be together so. dang. much., and learning how this life will possibly carry on without our beloved neighborhood taco truck. We’re still grinding away at language and continue to see slow and steady progress. That said, we still have plenty of ridiculous moments while attempting to make use of our newfound-ish knowledge of Chichewa. Listen, it’s not MY fault that the words for “nurse” and “virgin” sound similar. Suffice it to say, I have misrepresented myself… and my career… on more than one occasion. Whoops.
Our biggest struggles right now? Identity– figuring out what that even looks like in this season and learning to be okay with the aftermath of having so much of our former identities stripped away. Also, friends. We miss them. A lot. We miss feeling known. We miss the ease of friendships that had been forged for a decade. We miss our people and our church something fierce.
But we also hold, in tandem with the pain and the loss, so much good and new. New friends. New work. All slowly developing like a Polaroid picture. Grainy. Shadow-y. But the new reality is slowly peeking through, and it too is good. Different. But good.
And just like that, I will close my six-months-in missionary blog update humming “shake it like a polaroid picture” a la OutKast which confirms what I’ve been trying to say this whole time. You can move us, give us new jobs, and make us drive on the left hand side of the road, but there are just some things- like our good God and good music- that aren’t gonna change. And glory hallelujah for that.
I think it’s time we had a little chat. You’ve been going to church for a while now. Since, well, birth. You’ve heard the gospel clearly articulated. You’ve earned your Awana badges. You’ve sung WAY COOLER songs than the Psalty the Singing Songbook gems I was raised on. You’ve been around the evangelical church block a time or two in your relatively short lives, and I’m grateful.
But as thankful as I am for the solid, Christ-exalting churches that we’ve been a part of over the years, it’s come to my attention that maybe we’re missing the mark in one particular arena. We do a great job teaching you Bible stories. We push hard to get those “memory verses” in you. We talk to you about quiet times. We talk about true love waiting. We talk and we talk and we talk. But as I’ve watched the news and listened to the voices and followed the social media (ohmygosh, the social media) over the past months, I’ve wondered if we’ve actually spent so much time and energy talking and teaching you how to be “good little boys and girls” who don’t wear this and don’t say that and don’t sleep around and don’t don’t don’t that we forgot how we DO treat one another. I think we’ve forgotten to teach you to be brothers and sisters and co-laborers.
So, kids, as we strive to do better and as you grow up and dream of your future, I have some of my own hopes and dreams for you as your mom:
Let’s start with you, girls.
I’m going to waste zero time and cut to the most crucial piece of advice I could possibly offer here and then work back from there. Because I know it may feel out of place, but trust me- you get this one right and so much will follow:
Girls, study God’s word. Read it. Learn it. Historically, so many of the theological heavy lifters have been men, leading countless women to position themselves in the shadows- with a cursory, anemic understanding of Scripture- assuming that they simply couldn’t understand what the seminary trained theologians could. FALSE. If you learn anything from me, it’s that you, my girls, are more than capable of studying Scripture for yourselves. Full stop. This is critical because the way you understand Scripture will completely shape how you view God and, in turn, His redemptive narrative and His creation.
Because you, girls, are a vital part of this narrative. A narrative that all points back to the Creator and King who deserves all of the glory and praise. But sometimes people get this confused. Sometimes people start to get tiny tastes of power and glory, and they become intoxicated. And with that power, they might start to relegate others into boxes that feel comfortable and non-threatening. That’s why you see so many strong, brilliant women within the church stuffing their God-given gifts. Because the message that’s been conveyed to them for years has sounded a lot like, “You know? You’re just a little too much.”
When those moments arise, girls, I need you to keep your eyes and heart locked in on Jesus and His infallible truth. Stay humble. Remain teachable, receiving Godly input well. But. After that. Don’t be afraid to shut the negativity out and run hard in whatever lane God calls you- whether that’s in the home, church, or marketplace- without guilt or condemnation. God gave you those gifts and passions to use for His kingdom and His glory. Get after it.
A final word of warning, girls, and this is important. Protect yourself from becoming jaded. These days, there is a lot of heated dialogue surrounding men versus women in the Church and the world at large, and rightfully so. A lot has happened, and a lot of women have been and continue to be profoundly hurt. Tragically so. But hear me: men are not the enemy. Sin is. Look around you as you grow up and notice the multitudes of men surrounding you, affirming your gifts, having your backs, and cheering you on as you run hard after what God has called you to. See the men who are tirelessly combating the lies the world may be shouting about your worth. See them, girls, because they’re your brothers, and we need them. Let’s do our part to build up this brotherhood and sisterhood within the Church.
Which brings me to a word to my son.
Son, if I could offer up one piece of advice to you, it would be this:
Remember the brotherhood and sisterhood. Remember your family.
No, I’m not talking about your biological family here. I’m talking about all of the people- male and female, black and brown and white- that you’ll come across in work, play, and worship throughout your days. Because the sad truth is that some Jesus-following guys just get… weird… around girls with time. Don’t be the weird guy. Girls don’t have cooties and they certainly don’t need to be feared; it is indeed possible to work alongside them, learn from them, and be led by them without lightning striking you dead.
In all seriousness, I pray that you would have eyes to see the kingdom of God as a family of brothers and sisters rather than temptresses and threats. I pray that you would be able to approach the family of God without prevailing feelings of distrust and suspicion. Oh how I pray that you would unapologetically and without hesitation stand up for those who might not be in power. That you might use your platforms, power, and privilege for good and for God’s glory. You need your sisters in the church, and they need you. Because when we work together, each with our individual gifts and in our given lanes and within the bounds of Scripture, yes- that’s how the Church is supposed to function.
And a final word to all three of you:
God has created men and women with equal value and dignity and worth. In his perfect design, He has created us with different functions and roles, but don’t you dare let anyone try to tell you that different equals inferior. If you settle on an inaccurate view of the worth and value of your brothers and sisters within the church, I fear you’re settling on a woefully incomplete view of God. And for this the Church will indeed suffer.
Because that, you guys, is what this is all about. Not about puffing out our chests with all of the power we can possibly exert. Not about the issues we champion or the camps with which we march. It’s not about our identities as strong women, faithful employees, husbands and fathers, movers/shakers/world-changers but about our identity as beloved children of the God who deserves all of the glory. Our greatest goal, therefore, is not in proving ourselves to the watching world but in professing Christ to a world who desperately needs something greater to watch.
We can do this. Let’s start small, and let’s start with us. And one by one, we can link arms with brothers and sisters ready to get on with this. There’s work to be done, and we’ve wasted enough time bickering, competing, and silencing. Are we a family or what? Okay good, I thought so. Onward.
A few nights ago, as we all gathered around the dinner table after a long day of all. the. things., I started peppering five unassuming Allisons with questions. An almost-three-months-in State of the Union, if you will. “How are you feeling? How are you doing? How are WE doing? Are we okay?”
Because, nearly three months in, I sometimes wonder, “Alright. We’re doing this thing and HOLY MOLY we’re actually okay. I mean, I think we’re okay. Oh shoot. Are we? No really, ARE WE ALRIGHT?” As if I’ve been waiting for the bottom to drop out and am shocked to see us still standing. Still liking each other. Not only surviving but thriving.
So, one by one, we went around and shared the highs and lows and good and bad.
“It’s not that different. Actually, it’s way better than I thought. It hasn’t been that hard at all.”
“I miss toy stores.”
“I love our school.”
“Sometimes church is way too long, and I think they should just speak English.”
“I’m afraid to make best friends here because I still have my best friends in America.”
“I love our yard and our dogs.”
“I miss feeling known.”
“I miss our church.”
“I miss ESPN.”
“I miss easy-to-make foods and wonder if there’s a black market here for prepackaged meals and hearty preservatives and some wholly unhealthy cheap and fast food every now and then thankyouverymuch.”
Because no really. I have flown through more tomatoes and boxes of baking powder and bags of flour (oh my gosh the flour) in the past three months of my life than probably ever. Combined. Times five. Help me Lord Jesus and please rain manna in the form of baking mixes and processed junk food down from the Heavens above AMEN.
Hands down, that’s precisely what I miss the most in living here. Ease. Everything just seems to be more difficult, less intuitive, more time consuming. It’s no one thing that floods us with daily stress but a constant drip coming from countless directions. Power’s out again? Drip. A kid’s puking and you’re not quite sure if it’s malaria or that extra piece of pizza? Drip. It’s dinner time and you just realized your chicken is rancid? Again? Drip. Drip. Drip.
Don’t get me wrong. This hasn’t come as a surprise to us. Nor are we over here languishing in sorrow and tears. No, we are loving Malawi, and the general consensus from the state of our union the other night was overwhelmingly positive. This is not just semantics, nor am I trying to appease worried grandparents. We are truly thriving. We’re thriving AND we sometimes struggle. Both/and. We’re loving life AND we’re being dripped on constantly. The kids have good days, and they have days where they announce to seemingly the entire capital city, “I JUST WANT TO GO BACK TO AMERICA AND WATCH TV AND GO TO TARGETTTTT!”
And so we keep on. We keep on marveling at the beauty of this country. We keep on plowing through language. We keep on with homework and school projects and soccer games. We keep on with the ordinary and with the awe-inspiring. We keep on slipping in the puddles created from the slow, steady drips and then we get the heck back up and go at it again.
So, just like that one kid of ours said, maybe this life here isn’t all that different after all. I think it’s easy to look at pictures of our life here in such a seemingly exotic location and think that we’re living this National Geographic-ish fairy tale of a life. That every moment here feels significant. But if our “state of the union” proved anything, it’s that this life here is just one big mashup of the extraordinary and the mundane.
Three months in. Same but different. Still fighting to remember that, whether I’m scrubbing a sink full of dishes or treating malaria in the bush, it’s all sacred. It’s all worthwhile. It’s all part of my calling. And it’s all good work.
So, keep on, my friends. My friends knee deep in diapers and sleepless nights. My friends who clock in and out of their workplace every day silently wondering, “Am I making any difference here? Does this even matter at all?” My front-and-center friends. My behind-the-scenes friends. My friends who, despite their exotic overseas Instagram pics, question if they’re adding any value at all. And my friends who see these exotic overseas Instagram pics and wonder, “What do I even have to show for my work?”
Solidarity. In the mundane and in the novel and exciting. In the questions, worries, and doubts. May we all keep doing the work that’s in front of us, trusting that any work that has been given by God is good and sacred indeed.
Even when it involves rotten chicken and entirely too much baking powder and nary a frozen meal in sight.
Eight years ago today, you were born to your sweet Congo Mama into a family that loved you more than you’ll probably ever understand.
Seven years ago today, you turned one whole year old with, quite certainly, zero fanfare or acknowledgement of the occasion in your remote Congolese orphanage.
Today, on that same continent- and a mere 1,887 km down the road (Google Maps, girl- it’s a beautiful thing)- you are turning eight. Good gracious, so much has happened. And still, that same sweetness that spilled out of you as a newly home two year old still radiates from you today. You, our girl, are a gift.
This year has held an dizzying amount of change for you. You finished first grade at the North Carolina school we all loved. You said goodbye to your house, your beloved dog, the dance studio that brought you so much joy, your extended family, your best friends, the bulk of your toys, and, essentially, all that was familiar and comfortable. And yet, in the middle of all of these brutally difficult goodbyes, I’ve watched you say hellos to so much as well. You lived your best. life. now. at our organization’s six week training. You started 2nd grade at your new school here in Malawi. You have made a slew of new friends here, AS YOU DO. You- practically dripping with glee- welcomed two new puppies into the fold of our family. And you said “hello again” to your birth continent, something that you had been looking forward to since the day we first mentioned moving here.
And still, with all of the change and tears and ups and downs- your sweet spirit has remained. You, Elizabeth, are kind and deeply compassionate. You make friends easily and love them well. However, I’m not sure anyone can ever dethrone Mary Grace as your best friend. You two are thick as thieves and have your own unique sisterly lingo and culture that no one else can seem to decode. You two could not BE any more different, but I suppose that’s why it works so well. You girls don’t know how lucky you are.
You love to read, play school with your dolls, and chase-and-be-chased by the puppies. And you cartwheel. All day, every day, to the point of nearly driving me mad. You still adore dancing, and we’re praying HARD for God to provide a dance teacher at your school next year so that you can keep it up. And fashion. Holy smokes, do you love clothes and jewelry and all (ALL) things sequin (SO MANY SEQUINS). I say “no” more often than “yes” to the makeup you’re dying to wear, and sorry but I am not even sorry.
I am so proud of you, baby girl. I pray that you would know deep in your marrow that you are loved unconditionally. Not because you’re stinkin smart. (You are.) Not because of your beauty. (Good. Gracious.) Not even because of the kindness and love you show toward others. (Always.) No, sweet girl- the reason we love you forever and always is because you are ours. And, sweet goodness, am I profoundly thankful for that.
Happy eighth birthday, Elizabeth. Dance ’till you drop, baby. And then cartwheel some more after that. Just try to keep that precious, imported Funfetti cake down, mkay?