This is a journal entry I wrote the other day about Christmas and the need to untangle some of the traditions that get all jumbled together. As my kids get older I feel the need to make some sense of this! If you have ideas about how your family does this I’d be curious to know in the comments.

“Christmas is here again and this year, like several years before, we’re  trying to celebrate in a way that is God-honoring and fits our family. I feel a little stress around Christmas because the culture can be so overwhelming and dominant it gets overrun. I’m referring to the Christmas story of Mary and Joseph and the birth of Jesus. These are the parts that are close to my heart and noteworthy this season. These are the things we would like to celebrate. But, like I said, if we do nothing this will completely be replaced by reindeer, Santa Claus, and presents.

I would say we do a pretty good job of keeping the focus on Jesus. We usually do advent stories everyday in December, we sing Christmas songs, and talk about all these in our home. The hard part is trying to make sense of and incorporate all the other things too, like Christmas trees, Santa Claus, and presents. And as our kids get older we simply can’t avoid these other aspects of Christmas. In years past they could mostly remain ignorant, but that isn’t possible anymore. And I don’t want ignorance to be the solution to tough cultural issues. I would rather walk through these things with them and have constructive conversations about it. So how do we work through it? As it stands Christmas is one big jumbled mess of Christmas trees, presents, angels, shepherds, baby Jesus, Santa Claus and reindeer. Is there anyway to untangle this?

Saint Nicholas was a man who loved Jesus and shared his great wealth with poor people.

I really think a little bit of knowledge of church history would help here because it hasn’t always been this way. How have Christians in different countries and in the past done this? For example, Christians have historically celebrated Saint Nicholas Day on December sixth. Saint Nicholas was a man who loved Jesus and shared his great wealth with poor people. And the tradition of him delivering toys and presents sprung up from his extreme generosity and love for the Lord. Clearly there’s a good man here and something we could celebrate and try to emulate. From him we get the tradition of gift giving, stockings over the fire and Santa Claus. So what does this have to do with the nativity story and Jesus’ birthday? Well, nothing really, except that Saint Nicholas loved Jesus and probably celebrated his birth just like every other Christian. If we could pull out just this much of it from the tradition it would help a lot. It would untangle just one piece of the mess it has all become.

I want to get Christmas right. There’s a whole lot that is praiseworthy this time of year and there is a whole lot that is confusing and hard. I want to help our kids understand what is going on and what the season is all about. And the traditions we do and do not celebrate reinforce what is important and reflect what we believe.”

It’s been an interesting day. We took our friends Tehan and Junha to the Amish store today. They are Korean, and Kim has been meeting with Junha for a little over a month now for language practice. She is new to Madison and wants to learn English. And Kim (and I) want to learn as much about Korea as we can before our adoption. So it’s a fun and beneficial relationship.

Tehan and Junha are both new to American culture. They’ve only been married a couple years and don’t have any children yet. Tehan has been in the States for a while but his English is still just so-so. And Junha recently moved here and is wanting to learn more. They have Korean friends and go to Korean church, but haven’t had an opportunity yet to be around and practice with native speakers.

We really empathize with their struggles. I remember all too well that feeling- being in a new culture, not knowing the language, immersed in the culture but still too distant from it. We felt that in Indonesia. We struggled with the language. It was exhausting to talk to people. Exhausting to be social. But we also knew that was the ONLY way to overcome it. Dive in, head first.

And so when Junha reached out via Craig’s list wanting a friend, someone who could help her navigate American culture and language, Kim responded. Kim has met with her a few times, and like I said so far it’s been very helpful. We have lots of questions about Korea and could use a translator, and Junha is super-motivated to practice her English and learn American culture.

Today’s excursion was, of all places, the Amish community north of where we live. Junha had heard of the Amish and was curious. So we met at our house, had some breakfast, and drove to the Amish grocery store, furniture shop, and bakery.

Her fascination and excitement for such simple things was really cute and refreshing. She got excited about corn fields and cows. We pointed out the small towns we passed through like Wyocena and Pardeeville. And she nearly flipped out when we passed by a couple of Amish buggies. She had a lot of questions. It felt good to be around someone who didn’t take these things for granted but found them genuinely unique and interesting.

I could tell the grocery store was a little overwhelming for them- so many aisles and items, all in English…. And on a Saturday it was quite busy. All the conversation can be overwhelming. Again, I can sympathize. The furniture store was less busy, and we introduced them to angel food cake at the bakery.

It was a really fun day. I like being on this side of the culture. All too often I find myself at odds with American culture- like I don’t fit in or belong here. But days like today remind me that yes, this is where I’m from, and no, it’s not a struggle for me to be here. Not how a foreigner feels. Not how we felt as foreigners in Indonesia. For once I could be the cultural informant. For once I could help out a visitor who needed a little help. I’m really quite happy to do it. Like I said, I remember the feeling, and I remember the people who helped us when we needed it. It’s a debt of gratitude that I am happy to pay to others who need it.

Having a “Christian” Christmas in America is challenging. By Christian Christmas I mean a Christmas that truly celebrates Christ- Jesus’ birthday, and doesn’t get confused or lost in the mess that Christmas has become.

Ever since we returned to America Kim and I are constantly thinking about culture. We think and talk about culture all the time. We talk about Tv shows we do and do not watch. We talk about what kind of schools we want our kids in and how the ‘culture’ at that place will shape their thoughts and hearts. We do things so incredibly different from most of the people around us. It’s not right or wrong. It’s just different.

And when it comes to Christmas, culture and culture clash is on the burner. I think what bothers me most about this season is that it is supposed to be religious. Christmas is supposed to be a religious holiday. But people pretend it isn’t. It gets replaced by Santa Claus, presents under the tree and ‘happy holidays’. And that bothers me. It makes me want to throw the whole thing under the rug.

My problem is that I tend to see things as either black or white. I have a hard time with gray. I’m an all-or-nothing kind of guy. So gray is hard for me. In the case of Christmas, I want to only make it about Jesus. I really don’t agree with societies interpretation and expression of this holiday so I mostly outright reject it. We don’t talk about Santa. We don’t hype up presents. Instead, we read Bible stories, every day this month. My kids made Bible-themed ornaments and hung them on the tree. We sang Christmas songs. I played guitar, Eli banged sticks, and Ana played the harmonica. I’m pretty sure we memorized Little Drummer Boy this year. I really enjoyed this simple daily celebration in the quietness of our home. The focus was on Jesus.

But I have a feeling black and white isn’t going to work when it comes to Christmas. Our pastor is preaching through Daniel, and a couple weeks ago he talked about participation, ie. how Daniel participated to a degree in the culture at large. He himself wasn’t Babylonian- he was a Jew- yet he studied their laws and customs, learned their language, wore their clothes, took on a new name. He held fast to his moral code and God’s law, but he also took on the culture around him. Daniel wasn’t black and white- he was gray.

Christmas, to me, then, is an opportunity to practice this. The culture at large celebrates this holiday differently than me. So rather than hiding from it, or pretending it doesn’t exist, I need to find ways to make sense of it. We have decided as a family not to make a big deal about Santa Claus and presents. It’s not that we’re stingy or un-imaginative. It’s just that we want to keep the focus on Jesus, and these other things are a distraction. But these things ARE a part of other peoples’ Christmas traditions. So how do we practice our tradition without negating the other? How do we participate?

I think open communication is going to be key here. It’s okay to talk about Santa Claus. He isn’t a curse word or anathema. He is somebody other people think is real. He’s a part of other peoples’ Christmas traditions. Same with presents and elf on the shelf. I think it’s how we talk about these things that will be important. I can help my kids put these things in context by explaining that all families are different. We don’t want to belittle or treat others as less spiritual than us. It’s just a choice our family makes. When my kids get asked about Santa Claus I don’t want them to be confused. I want them to know about these symbols of the holiday and be able to fit them into place.

Part of the success of this is creating a strong culture and tradition of our own- truly celebrating with the angels Jesus’ birth. But the other success will be bridging the gap between our beliefs and the rest of the world, and communicating these things to our kids.

Taken from Josh’s journal, 7.17.2016

Community. I see a pattern running through my life lately, a thread that binds the pieces together, and it all comes down to community. Kim and I just had a good talk where we really examined this core desire in our heart and how it has manifested itself especially over the last couple years. Very interesting. Let me try to explain.

I think this idea of community, or team, or partnership has become very important to us. I realize just how deep this is when I see all the many ways we have tried to create this in our life in various ways. But before I get into that I think it’s helpful and interesting to chart how this all got started- and now why we are the way we are.

I don’t want to over analyze this, but just off the top of my head I see Indonesia having a lot to do with our  desire for community. Ever since we left the mission field we’ve been striving to re-create that sense of community- that sense of team that we used to have. We were very close to our local team over there- Joshua, Natalie, Beth, Marie, Jeremy and Lindsay were like family to us. We developed a very tight bond with them because we were so like-minded and in it together. We struggled through so many of the same things with them, and were working towards a common goal.

Raising support to go overseas we also had a team of prayer partners and supporters who “came with us” in a sense. We shared newsletters with them, prayer requests and updates, and came home and spoke at their churches. It was so encouraging to go through this experience with these people back home knowing that they cared and were praying for us. We really learned the value of community through all our partners back home. We couldn’t have done it without them- our local team and our “home” (back in the States) team.

We also experienced the depth and richness of community with our Lembak friends and neighbors in our house in Bengkulu. The idea of “community” is wired into the DNA of the culture over there, and we experienced this and lived it first hand. Living in community isn’t a choice over there- it happens whether you want to or not. I suppose you could be really rude and hide out in your house all the time. But aside from taking extraordinary steps to avoid it, if you live over there in a village-like setting you’re in community. And even this was a really cool thing. Yes it was hard at times but it was really special too. We were a part of something. We were accepted and adopted by the people. They loved us and we reciprocated it. The mutual sharing, mutual responsibility and trust was really cool. People didn’t hold fast to their stuff but many things were open and shared, especially if there was a need. But anyway this idea of community and sharing openly really got a chance to be lived out and practiced while we were there. We saw it, participated in it, and were really blessed by it.

I could name other communities too (Wycliffe, Campus Crusade, etc.) but you get the point. And ever since we left Indonesia to a large degree we’ve been trying to replace or re-create that community that we lost. I think that was one of the most abrupt transitions for us on returning to the States. One day we were on a team with people we loved, engaged in similar work- and then we weren’t. One day we were in the culture, in community with our neighbors- and then we weren’t. And for about seven years we had a worldwide network of prayer partners and supporters- people we kept in touch with, shared prayer requests, and letters- and then one day they were gone. Just like that, virtually overnight all of our communities vanished, and for the first time ever in our marriage we were on our own. We were still a part of Wycliffe when we first got back, so at least we still had that. And our prayer partners didn’t dry up that quickly. Maybe I over-exaggerate a little, but certainly in one years time we did lose all that. It was rather abrupt and I see now just how important these things were and are to us in the way we’ve tried to re-create it.

To put it bluntly, we long for this fellowship again. I see this in many of the things we’ve struggled with over the last couple years. We’ve tried to get this with my family, my brothers, and sisters-in-law. We’ve tried and failed to get this through our church (and then they went and had that terrible church split). We’ve tried with our apartment neighbors. I feel like a large part of why we’re adopting is so we can be in community with other people again. Indeed [adoption] has given us an opportunity to reach out and engage with a large number of people again. We are in a sense forming a team again around ourselves by sending out adoption updates, email campaigns, fundraisers, etc. We are inviting people to join us in something big. Of course we do have other reasons for wanting to adopt but it is so nice and so refreshing to be in touch with everybody again.

But we want even more than that. We want a local team. We want to be in a local community, not just far flung partners all over the world. We’ve been talking about moving lately to Deforest and Sun Prairie and the primary motivation for this is to find a good church, and get involved, and maybe do ministry again. It has a little bit to do with my job, and it’s closer, and we like Madison and don’t really want to be in Portage- but really it’s again mostly about community. Finding a good one and getting involved, and we think we have a good chance, or a better chance, of doing that in the Madison area.

We long for community. We long to link arms with others and do great things for the Lord. We have seen that our family really is the body of Christ, and those who are like us in mission and purpose. These are the people we really want to be in community with.

It was sort of interesting to see the larger picture and to connect many of these dots together. I think community is biblical (God is in community with Himself, the trinity) and it’s a noble pursuit. We do really hope to perhaps do missions work again one day and we’re praying that God would lead us and help us find community again before we do that. We so desperately need it!

Gloriously ruined is being different. Gloriously ruined is seeing things differently. Gloriously ruined is about being changed for the better.

Kim and I are gloriously ruined, and I’m okay with that. Ever since we came home from the mission field we realize more and more that we’re different, and can’t ever go back to being who we used to be. This is a by-product of being immersed in a different culture for so long.

Reverse culture shock is measured in the amount of time you’re overseas, the amount of exposure you have to the culture, and how much things have changed back home. So really it’s a formula:

Amount of time overseas + degree of exposure + factors back home = amount of reverse culture shock

We’ve been exposed to a lot. We’ve seen alternate ways of doing things. Does that mean we’re better? No. It only means we have options, and we’re not limited to one way of thinking.

So we’re ruined. . . for the better. And it means we may never really fully fit in with America culture anymore. We’ll always have that different perspective. This different perspective is manifested in the way we talk to people, the way we respond to events, the way we view church. . . It shows up in how I treat people at work, the way I interact with my apartment neighbors, and how I feel about family. It runs deep.

It also effects my understanding of God. I’ve seen how much of a global God he is. Not that all roads lead to God, but that there is a road, a very small, narrow road that mysteriously manifests itself in the most unlikely places. That is one reason I know God is real. He shows up in the least likely places. And I’ve seen how we in America so greatly complicate the issue. We put so much doctrine and rules in front of God that we forget Jesus’ simple command. “If you love me you will obey me”. Wouldn’t it be great if we were less concerned about salvation, and more concerned about loving Jesus and being His disciple. And doing what He says? Yes, that would be nice. To me God is both simple and great at the same time.

So I confess that I’m gloriously ruined. I see things differently. May I have the courage and wisdom to apply this perspective in the right places at the right time for His glory.

“Lord, use our perspective for your benefit. May we speak the appropriate word at the right time. May we love other people in a way that you want us to. May we not be encumbered by the status quo, or the limitations of our culture, to do the right thing. May we be your followers in the simplest possible ways. Thank you Lord for what you’ve done with our life. You’re not finished yet. We trust you. Amen.”

I’ve noticed a subtle but interesting change in me since I’ve returned home from living overseas. I’ve noticed that whenever I meet somebody new for the first time I always ask them where they are from. “Where are you from?”. I catch myself asking this question a real lot these days and I don’t think I used to do this. I don’t think ‘normal’ people ask this when they first meet somebody. I suppose questions like ‘where do you work?’ or ‘what do you do?’ might come first. But to me establishing where somebody is from gives me more information than anything else.

I think traveling around the world has really influenced my perspective about people. I have been lucky enough to travel and meet people all over the world. And it’s really interesting, and almost funny, how location does play a factor in who we are and how we act. Americans behave and think SO MUCH DIFFERENTLY than Asians. Likewise, Thai people act and think differently than Indonesians.

When you meet such a wide variety of people it’s helpful to establish geographical location first. That at least starts to give you a bearing on who they are. Location gives you clues as to their upbringing, their religious beliefs, and their cultural influences. From person to person these things can be slightly different. But within a geographic region you start to see a pattern. Similarities emerge. And then you cross borders and you really start to notice how similar the people really are. Especially when compared to another group. So pegging someone’s location has been an important skill while living overseas. It’s the minimum first step in knowing someone.

The only problem is that the question doesn’t quite work as well in Portage, Wisconsin. It doesn’t carry as much weight or information. When I ask someone here where they are from they say Madison, or Baraboo, or Sauk City, all cities in Wisconsin and not terribly different from each other. But sometimes a person is from out of state, or a large city. I’ve found that even here in America, location can be important. We have culture here too, and cultural distinctiveness. So I still think it’s a valid and helpful question. People really are influenced by where they live, and where they were raised. We act more or less in accordance with the rules our culture outlines for us. It may be subtle, we may not admit to it, but it’s there. So really my question is all about culture. I still think of people in terms of ‘people groups’, even here in America. Even in my little hometown.

What about me? Where am I from? Well, I could tell you Portage, Wisconsin. But right now I’m craving Chinese noodles and a coconut on the beach, so what does that say about me? I like to think my perspective has been enlarged. I might not be able to jump in on the latest local gossip, but man do I know how to navigate an international airport. I guess I enjoy the best of both worlds and try to fit in whenever possible. That’s me.

Still. That’s the one word I’d use to describe living in America so far. Still, no movement, and quiet. Like living in a picture hung on the wall. There’s detail and depth. Color and shadows. All around me I see manicured lawns, perfect sidewalks, brightly colored houses. Fences and sidewalks. Blue skies. Perfect. A beautiful scene to behold, but very little movement. It’s almost like it exists in slow motion. . . or even no motion at all. But then a bird will fly by. The wind rustles the leaves in a tree. A car drives by. And then I realize I’m not in a picture anymore. I’m in the real world. This place that looks like a painting is actually real! And here I am, living inside it. How did I get here again?

I haven’t experienced peace and quiet like this in many years. I almost forgot what it sounded like. To be so quiet you can hear the creak in the walls- or pick out a sound in a room on the opposite side of the house. I forgot my ear could do that. My eyes too are taking in new sites. A rich tapestry of design and color. My eyes can’t quite make sense of it all. Everywhere I look is something beautiful and clean, perfect and quiet. How can this be? Does this place even exist? Or am I living in a perpetual picture?

I’m a stranger in a strange and beautiful land. It’s home, but somehow far more picturesque than I ever remembered. I think I’ll stay for awhile.

I’ve found that sometimes it’s helpful to think of America as a ‘foreign country’ when dealing with reverse culture shock. It’s helpful to think of it this way when I notice things, or feel stressed out or confused, because you tend to give a little more grace and forgiveness if it’s ‘foreign’.

When we first moved overseas we expected things to be different. We expected to have culture shock and to be confused. And so when we were it was only natural. And it was easy to pinpoint our stress. Just look around. Everything was foreign and new! The people, the sites, the sounds, smells, traffic, animals, hustle and bustle, language, etc. We expected things to be different, and it was.

You experience many of the same feelings and emotions, confusion, anger, bewilderment, etc. as normal culture shock, only you can’t quite pinpoint the source of your stress.

But reverse culture shock isn’t that easy. The hardest part about reverse culture shock is that you don’t expect it! You experience many of the same feelings and emotions, confusion, anger, bewilderment, etc. as normal culture shock, only you can’t quite pinpoint the source of your stress.  Everything ‘looks’ and ‘feels’ normal, predictable, as it should, but for some reason you’re stressed out and you can’t explain it. That’s reverse culture shock. And it sneaks up on you. It doesn’t hit you in the face like traveling to another country where the changes and differences are obvious. But reverse culture shock is subtle and elusive. Everything looks normal, but why doesn’t anybody act or behave the way I expect them to?!

So for me, when going through reverse culture shock it’s sometimes helpful to treat this like I’m visiting a foreign country and not my passport country. That way I expect it to be different. I allow it to be different. This is me. And this is America. We’re different. And that’s okay. Don’t take it personally.

Here we are at the Jakarta international terminal waiting for our first long flight to Tokyo. It’s always a fun and interesting little cultural study to hang out at an international airport. You always see such a wide diversity of people, languages, and clothing styles And it’s so fun to see the way people react and respond to Eli, who is almost a year and a half now. He’s such a little cutie and people from all over the world look at him, smile, wave, make a funny face, whatever. It’s amazing how fast and effective a smile can be. Even from someone who looks so different than me, wearing clothing I would never wear (think Indian Punjabi style with turban), a smile does the job. When someone catches sight of our cute baby all perceived differences melt away and all that’s left is just one human being enjoying another. At the end of the day we’re all just human beings who cross paths from time to time. A smile can cross borders and communicate in an instant. This is what I learned at the international terminal today.

Kim and I had an awesome time in Bali. And really, this was one on the longest times we’ve been able to spend there- three weeks. It was an extended trip because we wanted to be there for Christmas, and then HAD to be there for an organizational retreat. So it made more financial sense to stay until our retreat was over as opposed to flying back home.

It’s always a little surreal to come back to our home in BK after such an elegant and comparatively luxurious vacation on another island. As I’ve mentioned in numerous blog posts, it always feels like we step into a completely different world when we travel. Our life gets upgraded, and it feels strange. We’re not used to people making us breakfast in the morning. Or waking up to a beautiful sunrise over a beautiful rice field our villa window. Everything is manicured and cared about. We’re not used to that. Where we live it’s very ‘wild’. We have garbage and rubbish in our lawn. Goats and chickens roam our yard, oftentimes coming in the house. The other day I had to scare off a hen and six chicks who were in our house eating the cat food. Yes, pretty different. I’m not complaining. We chose this house and this lifestyle. And it has it’s benefits too. But when we travel and experience a different side of life we can feel the difference. Who are we really? Are we the rich elite who can afford expensive villas and fancy food? Or are we one of the locals, trying to fit into a very simple and primitive lifestyle? When the time calls for it we can do both.

Here are a few pictures from our few weeks away. The first one is from our villa during the first week:

This is the view from the villa, out our front porch window. We had this private swimming pool all to ourselves for the week. Tropical paradise indeed!

The rice terraces of Ubud, Bali. Green and beautiful- all the way down the mountain.

Kim, Eli, and me enjoying the sites in Bali.