Monday, August 31, 2009

A Question of Faith.

It's official. I now attend a church in where people put their hands up in the air.

That's a big deal for us, believe me, lifelong Lutherans that we are. It's a "praise and worship church", what I would call non-denominational or "conservative" in the States, the kind of church I would be very unlikely to attend because I don't believe churches should be in the business of telling me who to vote for or what to vote on. Among other things. But that's where I am now, in large part because the political stuff is not an issue when everyone comes from someplace else. When you go to church, it's about God.

We chose the church because it's very close to where we live. The other two churches (one a Lutheran/Methodist type and the other a big non-denom) are both in the city, about a 30 minute drive. That means most of the activities for youth are also in the city. And that means we have to drive then, too. Plus, I feel very strongly about working, going to school, and worshipping as much as possible all in the same community. This church has a fantastic teen program that we are profoundly grateful for. The kids enjoy the structure of Sunday School more than the way they've attended before. All the people live in our community and in compounds near us and the kids for the most part go to the schools in the area as well.

But...(isn't there always a "but"? there is for me, anyway)

First of all, it's a praise and worship service. Meaning that that's what you do. Praise God. There isn't a liturgy so most of the service involves singing contemporary Christian songs and praying, maybe hearing some Bible passages and then a message at the end. And sometimes, well, it just seems to go on. And on. The songs are selected and repeated at key points to invoke specific emotional responses. You are supposed to be praising God and drawing closer to Him and thanking Him and knowing He is the source of everything. It's just sometimes it gets boring. There. I said it. Repeating a line of a song 10-12 times doesn't seem to be drawing me closer. It does, however, allow me some time to think about what's for lunch.

I love the liturgy. For every person that says they feel like they are reciting antiquated words that don't mean anything (or my friend who said it felt like she was in a courtroom), I feel such a sense of peace. Reciting a creed or a prayer in unison brings a sense of community, of connecting to churches in time past. I do reflect on what the words say, and what they mean to me. I love contemporary Christian music but on CHRISTMAS EVE we sang contemporary Christian songs. NO CAROLS. I love the seasons of the church and look forward to the different songs and messages that that time brings. No Lent or Advent anymore.

Several years ago our church did a survey, similar to a personality or learning styles survey, about the type of church worshipper you are. No surprise that I fell on the opposite end of the praise church setup.

But...I can get used to all that. Really. You can't afford to be choosy about a lot of things when you live overseas and that includes your church.

But...what if the thought often occurs to me that, given the same time frame the pastor had to put together a message, I could do just as well? Because I think I could. That says nothing about any talent I may have and a whole lot about the depth and organization of the message (which, in these churches is also constructed differently than in a Lutheran church, but organization and development are applicable to most types of communication). The church's motto is "Great friends, inspiring music, helpful teaching." Doesn't that seem a little...soft? Flat? Ummm...not particularly connected to faith? The church does have a pretty clearly defined statement of's just not reflected in the tagline.

Fear not. I won't ever come knocking on your door to slip you a few tracts. I won't ask you if you've been born again, or where you're going to be when the last trumpet sounds. That's not my style. But I'm not ashamed of my faith. I want my church to proclaim what it stands for clearly and confidently. I want a message that will challenge what I've been doing and thinking and remind me where to set my eyes and feet in the coming week. I need to be reminded and reassured of God's promises. Am I lazy because I want to stay at a church that is convenient even if the message and service aren't really meeting my needs? Should I truck into town (adding over an hour of just commuting time) knowing that I won't participate in things because I'm not going to drive in any other time of the week? Is this just me being too picky and negative and I need to work on my attitude because 250 people seem to be all about this church on Sundays and why is it that I'm not? It's not just the style of worship--that I can work with. I just don't think the church really has a clear confident image of itself (hence the motto) and I'm not getting what I need when I go, so I end up feeling flat and a bit like an imposter there. And to be very fair...I don't know that that's how others feel. So many people around me seem to be getting what they need.

Is it just me? And if so, what should I do?

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Immigration, Integration, or ?

My friend Kristi picked up her family of 4 last Christmas (on a 6 week notice) and moved them from California to Beijing. Last week she found out that she will be packing up her 4 children and moving them back to California for Christmas. Her husband, a fantastic father and spouse, will continue to travel the world as a condition of his job. My friend Calandria has just left with her 4 children for Spain for a life overseas. According to a recent survey, over 4 million Americans live and work abroad.

It's interesting the reasons people are not living in their home countries. Some are moved around like chess pieces by their corporations. Others take up jobs they could have in their own countries and take advantage of the travel and diverse opportunities. Some serve their countries. Some are dissatisfied with the politics or the values of their home countries. Some have just fallen in love with another place. Some bounce from country to country; others resettle and their children (and grandchildren) have a new place that is "home" for them.

We all assimilate differently, too. In Tanzania, where so many people were doing development and missionary work, work that required them to be able to work closely with and understand the local people, home leaves are given every 2-3 years. My embassy friends are required to return to the United States for a year every 3-4 years (and most return back to the States for the summers). For those people that serve and represent the United States, keeping them closely connected to the US is important. Some have married people and live within both cultures. Others, like us, live and work more disconnected from traditional lifestyles. Some are angry and hostile about where they are. Others jump in and live life and experience as much as they can before they have to leave.

Sometimes I read snarky things about living in expat "bubbles". People turn up their noses at those who bring hundreds of pounds of stuff back when they visit home. Some sneer at the ability to get Pop Tarts or Hidden Valley Ranch dressing through the PX. This one is so picky about the food her, they say. Or, that one has lived here for 4 years and can't speak a lick of the language. Some comments come from people who have not lived abroad. Others have lived abroad and seem to feel that there is a certain model that should be followed.
Do you know what a PopTart can do for a person's mental health and emotional well-being when they've been dropped into a county knowing no one and understanding nothing, discovering that electricity is available only from midnight until 6 am, and realizing that if you want furniture in an empty house you will have to find a man by the side of the road and somehow communicate to him that you want a chair made? I do. But I digress.

My friends Kristi and Karen and Jessica and all those women who married into this life...they have developed an amazing set of skills. They are able to marshall the energy and strength and faith to move their families, often at the drop of a hat. They don't have careers for the most part (if they wanted to). They land whever it is, get settled, start the kids in school, address whatever separation or loss or transition issues, join the PTA, lead worship, teach Sunday School, learn the language, and navigate their way around a new town. And in a couple years, they're going to do it again. And again. I have definitely met some people that are resentful and angry at their situation--I've even met people who could leave but stay, and are so hateful and mean about the culture and country they're living in. But for the most part, the women I've met are not enduring or surviving...they're thriving. I think about moving to Tanzania and then Beijing--both times decisions that we planned for together, both times when the path laid before us was made straight and clear. It was hard. Hard in so many ways. To have to do it over and over at times that are not under my control...I just don't know. I'm in awe of these women. And so when I read things about how corporate or other government wives don't live "in" the culture or country, I think...maybe it's because they've so damn much else to do. Except that they do. Have a lot to do AND live in the culture. Unless of course that means living in a hut with no water or plumbing. But if it means learning about the art and music, about learning enough Chinese in 6 months to be able to speak to their ayi, about being able to find any market in town...then they're doing just fine.

Who's to say whether any of us is doing the business of living the "right" way or not? Don't we all follow the path the best way we know how with what we're given?

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Hi Ho, Hi Ho, It's Off to School I Go!

Well, whatever this says about the Hillman family, this is our back to school photo. And it's not the "now you can look silly" picture. They are agreeable, stunned, and apparently itchy or something to be heading back to the classroom. They've survived the first 2 days.

This year I am profoundly grateful that we are not new. I remember very clearly the overwhelming sense of being overwhelmed. Of worrying about the kids, about whether I could do this job, about Mark and his job, about the shipments that were coming, about the jet lag and sleeplessness and exhaustion that comes with adjusting to a completely new way of life. Again.
There's no doubt--settling into Beijing was much harder, I think, than settling into Arusha. I still haven't worked out why, though--the landing here was so much easier in theory--we had jobs in an established school, we had lots of people around to help us, we had so many more modern conveniences...but last year was so so so so hard. We have friends from Arusha who have just landed in Dhaka, Bangladesh to teach and I hear myself in every one of her Facebook posts.

It was great to see the kids roll into school with their friends, laughing and chatting. Since 20% of the school is new every year, I saw plenty of worried, nervous, lost faces and remembered how we looked. Ava was the most worried because she didn't have a friend in her class from last year. She has a great teacher and will make friends quickly. Her best friend left at the end of last year and her other best friend will leave at the end of this year. It's hard to say goodbye.

Noah is off to a great start with his teacher, too. He's had tough luck with teachers who haven't been a great fit, but this year looks very positive. He can't wait to play football (and wants to go a soccer camp in Spain in October) and is looking forward to the saxophone instead of the cello. He also makes friends very easily and lost a very good friend at the end of the year as well. He's definitely not looking forward to things like math and writing...but we're hopeful that this will be a confidence-building year.

Cameron is still on the schedule for his movie. He'll have to miss school to work, but we don't know when because they are behind schedule. He is taking biology, Asian Studies, theatre, band, English, Algebra, Phy. Ed., and Chinese this term. The homework is 2-3 hours per night, including weekends. He is looking forward to concert band and jazz band, but decided not to audition for the fall play in order to try out for rugby. He really enjoyed playing in Tanzania, and this is his one chance to join the team where most of the kids are also pretty new to the sport. He has good friends, loves being involved in church, and is such a strong student, although his time management skills may be challenged this year!

Life is as good as it gets in a gigantic polluted city! We had a fantastic summer--too short, as always--and are already looking forward to next summer!