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After spending the last four and a half years living and working in Bangkok, Thailand, our family recently came back to the United States for a six month home assignment (furlough). My wife and I grew up here, though our kids have spent most of their lives (so far) in Thailand. For all of us, however, there have been many new or not-as-familiar-anymore aspect of life in America to get used to.
Many people have heard of culture shock, the experience of unsettledness and uncertainty when you experience a foreign culture. Fewer people, however, are familiar with reverse culture shock, the experience of unsettledness and uncertainty when you re-enter your home culture after being in a foreign culture for a long period of time. But I can verify that reverse culture shock is a real thing because our family is experiencing it. Although “shock” might be too strong of a word for it, there are certainly a lot of things to get used to again. Here’s a list of several things that I have noticed this past week about life in the United States, after having lived in Thailand for a number of years.
Dear Friends & Family,
We have been told that one of the reasons for missionaries to take home assignment is rest and refreshment. The only problem is that our family is not very good at resting.From early in the morning until bedtime, four year old Joshua is zipping around the house in a flurry of activity and non-stop chatter. Baby Caitlin tries to copy big brother. Where do they get this from? Hard to say because Mom and Dad are equally active in their own way.At the beginning of February, Karl began studies at Talbot School of Theology, part of Biola University. He is studying for a Masters of Theology (Th.M) which is one year of post-graduate work beyond the M.Div. The plan is to graduate in December 2011, after which we will return to Thailand. The purpose of doing a Th.M is twofold. First, I want to equip myself to better respond to trends and questions of theology, culture, and strategy on the mission field. Secondly, a Th.M will help prepare me to teach at both the bachelors and masters degree level in a Bible college or seminary in Thailand. Upon our return to Thailand, there is a very strong possibility that we will be based in Bangkok and I will teach church history part-time at a seminary there. At the moment though, I am feeling a bit overwhelmed by the work and am still looking for a thesis advisor. Please pray that either I can find a professor willing to supervise my thesis or it becomes clear that I should pursue a non-thesis track. I need to figure this out ASAP.
Dear Friends & Family,We praise God for a good three months in the Northeast, despite the untimely death of Karl’s father that brought us back to the U.S. two months earlier than expected. God was very good in providing us with many helpful people to supply what our family needed - clothes, supplies, manpower, babysitting, finances, conversations, fun times, and opportunities to talk about what God is doing in Thailand, and in our lives. Many thanks to those who had a part in our time in the Northeast this past fall.On Jan 10th, our family flew to Southern California where we will be living until our return to Thailand in late 2011. Coming directly from the bone chilling Northeast, it has been fantastic to walk to the park with the children in shirt sleeves. Many of our things are still in suitcases though we are quickly settling in to our new home and surroundings.
When a new missionary first gets to the mission field, it is obvious where home is. It is that place where you just left. It is the place where you grew up, went to school, got an education, discovered a church family, and formed your most important relationships.
But when you live overseas long enough, a strange transition takes place.
Your “home” country doesn’t quite feel like home anymore. When you “go home”, some of the same people and places are there, but life has moved on in your absence. When you show up for the so-called “home assignment” or “furlough,” you can not just pick up where you left off. You are a visitor. An outsider. A guest without a permanent role. Your close friends have made new close friends. Half the people in your home church only know you as a line item on a list of prayer requests. Some new technology, slang, or cultural trend has become common place… expect for you because you missed it when it first came out.
guest post by John LambertSince we have recently returned to the US from an overseas assignment, I thought I'd take a minute to share some simple yet powerful things you can do to care for returning missionaries.Here are a few of my thoughts:Be interested in their work enough to ask questionsFind a way to do something special for the wife and kidsMake sure they have a place to stay and a car to driveHelp them find opportunities to share with new peopleHighlight their return on the church's web site or in a bulletinHonor them like you would any Pastor or Church leaderOverdo it with love and encouragement
Life serving on a far away field can be tough. There usually are not only spiritual battles that have been fought but also unique cultural and emotional pressures that a family serving as workers overseas face.
Not long ago, my family and I were visiting a church and I had the chance to preach in the evening service. During the fellowship time afterwards, someone commented to my wife that she appreciated the fact that I delivered the Word to them. What she meant is that I preached the Bible in a way that fed and ministered to her. One would hope that all sermons elicit such a response, but there is an interesting background to that comment.Apparently this church has had a number of missionaries come through and preach, but not all of them delivered the Word. Instead, the sermon was more about them and their ministry, than about the Bible. Not that the Bible was absent, of course, but the focus was upon what the missionary was doing “out there” rather than feeding the congregation from the Word of God. It is not that these missionaries didn’t know how to preach either, because some of them were ordained teaching elders.
As our family thinks ahead to going back to Thailand, we’ve entered in to that weird transitionary stage that comes at the end of home assignment (furlough). We’re still here in the States, but our days are numbered. Our thinking has begun to shift.
Any missionary who has gone through this experience should be able to identify with many of following signs that home assignment is coming to a close.
You know that home assignment is over when...
Instead of buying more food, you start eating that box of food in the cupboard that you haven’t touched in monthsThe deciding factor in making new purchases is whether you can take it with you
Perhaps we should have seen it coming. For the first six weeks of our home assignment in the U.S., we had been attending worship at one of our supporting churches, and our four year old son Joshua had been participating in the preschoolers Sunday school class. But this particular week, I was preaching at another church. As we pulled into the parking lot, we explained to him that Daddy was preaching at THIS church today so we are not going to the other church.And that’s when he flipped out. Still strapped into his car booster seat, Joshua arched his back and screamed, “But I want to go to MY Sunday school!”
One of the things that I love about being on home assignment is the questions that people ask. When we are thousands of miles away on the mission field, there are some questions that people wonder about but wouldn’t email us or call us to ask. But when you see people face to face, questions come up that would otherwise remain unspoken.We were recently asked, in so many words, “Is it really cost effective to send American missionaries? It would seem to be better stewardship of God’s money to support many native workers for the same amount that it costs to send you.” The woman who asked was very concerned that she didn’t hurt us as she knows that our missionary call is very close to our heart. But it was a nagging question that she had been thinking about and she wants to be a good steward of the resources that God has given to her.
I thought I was prepared for most of the questions that would come at us as we returned to the U.S. We had been planning to start a year of home assignment in the U.S. in December but because of my father’s death we hurriedly moved it up to the beginning of October. I knew that there would be questions about how long we’d be in the area, where we are staying, and when we’d be going back.But there was one question that totally blindsided me. Some people have asked, “Are you going back to Thailand?” Are we going back to Thailand?! In my mind, the answer was obvious. “Of course we are going back to Thailand!” Why would anyone think that we are not going back?
After mentioning our up-coming home assignment (or "furlough") in our last prayer letter, we received a curious email. “I didn't know missionary work also has furlough. In our education sector in the States, furloughs are mandatory for schools due to budget cuts. Is your furlough due to a budget cut or do you just need a break?” This email reminded us that outside of missionary circles, there is some confusion about why missionaries go on home assignment. Is home assignment just a code word for a funding raising trip? Is home assignment just a big long missionary vacation? Is home assignment like a sabbatical? Do missionaries go on home assignment when they get fed up with their host culture and just need a break? There is a bit of truth in all of the above. But there is also a lot of misunderstanding. In this post, I’d like to look at some reasons that missionaries go on home assignment in hopes of creating greater understanding between missionaries and their supporters back home.