Away from Home for Christmas


My least favorite Christmas carol? “I’ll be home for Christmas. You can count on me. . . . I’ll be home for Christmas if only in my heart.” If you really are away from home at Christmas, the song makes you want to cry—which is no help at all.

As a missionary I’ve been away from my parents and extended family for all but about 8 years since 1980. We’ve been totally away from our family, even our own children for about 12 years. Separation from family is part of being a missionary. How can Christmas be special when you are separated from those you love the most?

When we had daughters at home, we followed many simple traditions that made the season special. I asked my daughters for help in writing this blog, and I realize that, for us, crafts was the biggest part of the fun. We cut out snowflakes, decorated cut-out cookies, decorated the house and the tree. Special ornaments and music added to the fun.

As a missionary, you might be prepared to leave your parents and live in some far-off country. It may be harder to actually have your own children leave you. So how can you keep the joy in your Christmas when you are away from home and family?

My daughter Lisa nailed the answer to the wall.

“I think a big part of what made it (separation from family) okay for us,” she writes, “was that you chose to be happy at Christmas time (and serve others) whether or not we were able to visit family that year or not. I think Lori and I have both inherited that attitude. Also, Christmas is a family holiday because we’ve made it that way. But it is certainly in keeping with the real meaning of the holiday to be apart because of where you serve Him (or to use being apart as a chance to reach to others.)”

Choose to be happy at Christmastime.

Wow! That made me think. She was right. We chose to make Christmas fun as well as meaningful, but there were years when being happy at Christmas was a definite choice.

Lisa spent her first Christmas in the Intensive Care Nursery as a ten-week-premature baby. I spent that Christmas in the adult Intensive Care Unit. That Christmas Day was scary and horrible, but I choose to remember the fun Christmas activities that came earlier in the month. God brought us through that time to full health and strength.

Our most difficult Christmas was probably the year we closed our ministry in Taiwan. We came back to the States the week of Christmas. Broken-hearted for our ministry, we bought a few last minute presents and built graham cracker houses at Grandma’s. That Christmas we definitely had to choose to make the Christmas as happy as we could.

Lisa came to our home in New Zealand her freshman year of college in 1997. She also shared Christmas with us three other times. She spent many Christmases apart from family. How did she cope as a young adult?

“Other favorite things include going caroling, singing in choirs, sending and receiving cards,” she writes. “I look forward to hearing recordings of Handel’s Messiah each Christmas. I try to reflect on the Christmas story and perhaps write a little reflection for myself. I send cards to people who have blessed me that year. I get involved at my church. When I do all that stuff, it’s hard to find time to be lonely at Christmas. (This was true even in my single days.) I like to think back to the various places I have spent Christmas and who I’ve spent them with. I appreciated the hospitality of others, several of whom were also MK’s before me. I like the years I’ve been hosted by other family members or friends, but I think I enjoy even more thinking about years I’ve been the hostess.”

Lisa finished college single and remained single for a number of years. During these years she reached out to international students or lonely people with simple holiday dinners or invitations. She continues to do this as a married woman.

Jesus was away from home on His first Christmas too.

Jesus left His home in heaven where he was worshiped and adored to begin the live of a servant on earth. He gave up so much to provide salvation for us. If serving him takes us far from home, is that too much for Him to ask? I would never want my desire to be close to family to keep me from serving Him. His birth is certainly the main reason for Christmas. But I think he is also pleased when we use the occasion to build family memories and enjoy the many good gifts He gives us.

Maybe you are far from your family for Christmas. Maybe the season brings back bad memories. Maybe some other reason makes the season difficult. You can still choose to make it a happy time. And making good choices is an important key to living the Christian life.


The Other Side of the Hardships of Missions


You’ve seen the blogs that tell about the secret hardships of missionaries. We leave our families behind. We miss weddings, birthdays, funerals, and other occasions. While there are a thousand different missionary situations, some missionaries face physical danger, health risks, culture shocks, difficult languages, persecution, and great difficulties that pertain to their field. These things are all true, but there’s another side of missions that these blogs don’t cover. Perhaps few missionaries  share these things.

  • Many people who aren’t missionaries also live far from home.

While some Americans live within close range of most of their families, many are spread all over America, or even overseas. People in the military are often far from family for extended periods of time.  Other people relocate for career or simply preference, and they may not see their families every holiday either. Foreign missions usually takes us farther from family than most others situations, but we certainly aren’t the only ones who experience this separation.

  • We have the advantage of internet and social networking that previous generations of missionaries never dreamed of.

Snail mail cards and letters are almost a thing of the past. We can call, Skype, or email to keep in touch with our families. Internet brings a world of information to gadgets we can access anywhere. Even at the end of the world (I’m close to that in Invercargill, New Zealand) as long as we have internet, we can keep track of what’s happening everywhere. When slow broadband incites huge irritation, we have to realize we have so much more communication capability than we had even twenty years ago.

  • In most missionary families, dad, mom, and kids live together in fairly healthy relationships.

We forget how rich we are. Everywhere you look, even in churches, are broken marriages and dysfunctional families. In missionary families, most often the kids above a certain age are all Christians. Most missionary families eat most of their meals together. Sometimes the children are home-schooled and spend much more time with family than an average child. It’s easy to compare our lot to ideal church families in the States, but we fail to realize our families have so much better family relationships that many others.

  • We enjoy many advantages that missionary pioneers never had.

Some living situations are much harder than others, but overall we have much easier situations than missionary pioneers. Often we live in very comfortable homes, live normal lifestyles, and eat healthy diets. We may not have as much “stuff” as the average American, but do we need it?

  • We have the prayer support of many churches and individuals.

Few home church pastors enjoy the prayer support of the average missionary. The nature of missionary work (speaking in churches, raising support, and sending prayer letters) invites prayer support. We can even email updates to get quick prayer for urgent occasions. That’s a great benefit.

  • Many times our children are able to be very involved in ministry.

When we first moved to New Zealand we had two teenage girls who became very involved in our church. One or both of them taught a kids’ class, led a puppet team, sang in choir, and engaged with the adults as well as the rest of the teens. Our family spent a lot of time at church, but as my husband and I led the youth group and Discovery Club, we spent time with our own kids and their friends. At the same time, we were serving the Lord and building our church. Our daughters were able to be much more involved in ministry than they would have been had they belonged to a big youth group in the States.

  • Furlough time usually allows us to spend extended time with our families back home.

Yes, we often have busy schedules and travel extensively, but we can schedule family visits as part of our furlough schedule. Many working families would have to take vacation time and perhaps lose pay to do this.

  • We experience the blessing of Matthew 19:29.

Jesus said to his disciples, “Everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or lands, for My name’s sake, shall receive a hundredfold, and inherit eternal life.” (NKJV)

As missionaries, our highest motivation for service should be pleasing the Lord, not the reward we get for it. At the same time, however, Jesus does offer blessing for those who leave all to follow Him.

Even here and now, missionaries who have left their homes are invited into hundreds of homes as they visit churches. They become family to other missionaries on their field, national believers on the field, and churches who pray for them and support them. Beyond this visible benefit in the here and now, God promises his reward throughout eternity.

With all these blessings, how can missionaries feel sorry for themselves?

The problem is comparison.

Comparison usually gets us into trouble. It’s easy to lose our contentment when we compare ourselves to people back home or other missionaries who seem to have it easier than we do. If, however, we compare ourselves to others who, for a myriad of reasons, have life harder than we do, we see that we are truly blessed.

I recognize that missionaries bear genuine hardships. But I don’t find it especially helpful to focus on these hardships. I try to shift my focus to positive benefits I receive from being a missionary. How can I do this?

Let’s look at one of the hardest situations a missionary faces.

When I left home back in 1980, I got on the plane with my husband and ten-month-old daughter, and waved goodbye to my parents, knowing I wouldn’t see them again for four years. I would travel to this new country (Taiwan)  I’d never seen, learn a language I’d never spoken, and start a whole new life. Finally we had our support and we’d begin this whole new adventure.

Where were my mom and dad at this point? They were back at the airport, blinking away tears, waving through the airport windows. They had wished us well and rejoiced that the Lord was taking us to our new place of ministry. In short, they were making it easy for us to leave. Wow. What a gift!

Eighteen years later we were standing at the airport, sending our daughter off to Bible college. This time we were the parents who were left behind, praying, worrying, wondering about the daughter who would only come home to New Zealand once in those four years. (Though we would visit her on furlough.) A year and a half later we were standing at the airport with our other daughter who was packed and ready to leave home. Watching our daughters leave us was harder than leaving our own parents, but I had learned from my parents. Bidding them goodbye at the airport, we hid our tears, wished them well, and rejoiced that the Lord was leading them down a new path. We were trying to make it easy for them to leave, as our parents had done for us.

Now we could have dwelled on the hardship of being separated from our daughters just out of high school. Even now, more than fifteen years later, tears run down my face as I write this. But we choose, when faced with the many goodbyes in our lives, to make them quick and clean. We don’t drag them out for weeks. When it’s time to go we give the hugs, say goodbye, get on the plane and leave.

When my daughters left home, what did I focus on?

  • We were in God’s will and our daughters were following his will too.
  • We needed to look for ways to support our daughters in their new living situation. Phone calls, emails, prayers, birthday and Christmas packages all helped. Packages were expensive to send, but our supporting churches sometimes sent packages to our girls in college. (I was never more thankful to our churches for the gifts and help given than when they sent packages to our daughters in college.)
  • While I would have loved seeing our daughters more often, the empty nest did give me more time to serve more in our church ministry as well as my writing ministry.
  • Our daughters were learning to trust God and find his path for them in a new way when they were farther from home.
  • Serving God, though sometimes difficult, is a privilege. I can’t claim we’ve seen astounding visible results for our efforts, but I feel that we’ve done what God put before us. Yes, we’ve seen some people saved, but I like to think God is working through us in ways we will never know this side of heaven. God has blessed us by giving us a ministry in which we can get close to people, encourage them and help them.
  • Would I seriously want to be living in an easier, more comfortable position outside of his will? Would I want my family to keep me from the path God has for me? The safest place for my family, and me as well, is in the center of God’s will. It is the place of blessing for us. I could ask for no less.

Giving Your Kids a Positive MK Experience

Kanate Chainapong

In past months we’ve talked about giving MK’s an appreciation for their host country (mission field) and their home country (where their parents come from.)  Here are some other things you can do to give them a positive MK experience.

1. Emphasize the positive parts of missionary life.

Face it. Sometimes missionaries feel like a round peg in a square hole. In many mission fields the missionary family may look very different from the nationals and have a very different lifestyle. Differences in language and culture may make it difficult to build really close relationships with nationals. Then they return to their home country and find they don’t fit in real well there either. They have changed. They see things differently than they did before.

But missionary life also has advantages. You may get to travel far more than the average person from your home country. You may get to eat exotic dishes and taste weird fruit that few people in your home country even know exist. How can you capture and emphasize the advantages of your life?

When my girls were little I began to realize that, over their growing up years, they would be able to visit some cool places. I made each of my daughters a “Neat Places I Have Been” book. I used about a page for each year, and put a photo of each major places they went. Furlough years took several pages. This was one book that they could take to college or show to their spouses in years to come. It emphasized travel, one of the advantages of being an MK.

You could do the same thing with a shadow box or a collection of some kind. What physical object can you put in their hands that makes them say, “Wow! I’m blessed to be an MK.”

2. When possible, give your kids an enjoyable part in your ministry.

We moved to New Zealand during our daughters’ high school years. Here they were able to have a vital part in our ministry. Lisa was only here for six months, but she immediately stepped into choir and some teaching opportunities. Lori lived here two years. She took over our puppet ministry and kept it going while she was here. Our daughters naturally attracted teens to our ministry. I was so pleased that they could have the chance to really take part in ministry and enjoy it before they left home.

Even small children can help pass out hymnals or greet people and make other kids feel welcome. Kids who play an enjoyable part in their parents’ ministry are less likely to resent being MK’s when they become adults.

Your particular field may present challenges for engaging your children and building memorable times as a family. Pray about it. Work at it. Somewhere in the context of your ministry there will be some fun things that you can do as a family or that your child can participate in individually that will give him great childhood memories and make him glad that he’s an MK.

What activities or ideas have you found in your place of ministry to emphasize the positive aspects of being an MK?

3. Encourage your kids to develop unique skills that are available to them because they are MK’s.

Arrange for ways to learn the language of the host country even if they move overseas at an older age. Give them opportunities to use the language and point out what a valuable skill that is.

Help them develop ministries on the field that translate into ministry skills in their home country. Use them to help teach children’s church or VBS when they are on furlough.

Encourage them to write about their life as an MK and direct them to writing contests or ways to use their writing.

Teach them to use the art of friendship as a ministry wherever you go.

This doesn’t mean that you should push your MK’s into uncomfortable situations, but look for ways to encourage your kids to develop their own interests in ways that will make them glad for the advantages they have for growing up in a missionary home.

What unique ways have you found to give your MK a positive missionary experience?

How to Help Your MK’s Keep in Touch with their Home Country

Girl holding the Planet Earth

In 1980 we carried a baby onto a plane bound for the mission field of Taiwan. We didn’t plan to return to the States for four years. That baby and another one yet to be born would grow up in Taiwan, but we had to look past that. Someday they would want to return to the States for college. Unless the Lord called them to be missionaries in Taiwan or some other Chinese country, they would have to fit into American culture. Actually, no matter what they did as adults, they would need to be able to fit into American culture on furloughs. Even in foreign countries they would likely have American friends they would need to understand. Little did we know then that the Lord would lead us away from Taiwan during their high school years and move us to a very different country of New Zealand.

Last month’s blog talked about adapting to the culture of the host country, but we were aware that our kids also needed to be able to interact in their home country. They wouldn’t be able to keep up with all the latest TV commercials which, for some reason, form such a strong part of American culture.  But we needed to help them understand American culture as well as the cultures of their host countries.

1. Give your kids a regional identity.

“Where are you from?” Generally MK’s hate this question.  They hardly know where to begin to answer. If they say they are from some foreign country, other kids may disconnect because they can’t relate, or even feel your kids are showing off.

People don’t mean that to be a trick question. They are just looking for connections. Giving your kids a regional identity with some part of your home country will give your kids more connections. It gives them a group to belong to. Face it, in their home country, almost no one will be from the country they grew up in.

We realized that Americans have, not just a national identity, but a regional one. Art and I grew up in Montana and Colorado. That American sub-culture is different from the South or California or the Northeast. Our kids needed a regional identity too.

In Montana, our furlough home, people hunt, fish, climb mountains, and chop wood. None of these activities seemed very important in Taiwan, but our girls needed to know what it meant to “come from Montana.” We did take our kids hiking. On furlough we sent our kids to Bible camp in Montana. We tried to give our kids a taste of the farm and the mountains. Furlough gave them the opportunity to meet our friends and their kids. We never succeeded in making them avid campers, but we tried to give them enough activities in those places to at least give them some sort of regional identity.

2. Avoid disposable friendships.

“Friendships are disposable.” I remember thinking this as a teen. My dad was a church planter, and because of some special circumstances in his ministry at that time, I moved at least once a year during high school. One year I went to three schools the first month. I finished up the year at the school I liked the least. I didn’t fit in and finally decided that I didn’t have to make friends there. I just had to get through the school year. In time I revised that a bit, but you can see how friendships seemed disposable.

Many MK’s visit a different church every Sunday during furloughs. Even if they are friendly, many American teens aren’t prepared to make friendships that quickly. Short term friendships can be valuable too. Sometimes short term friendships come back around as you get older.

Help your kids to understand that life is enriched by many kinds of friendships. Help them to keep in contact with some of their friends. Email and Facebook makes that easier than it was in years past.

Kids can also benefit from friendships with adults. They can extend their family with “aunts and uncles” who are co-workers on the field or take a special interest them in their home country. We had some adults that worked hard to stay connected with our kids. My daughter Lori writes, “Whether the relationships MK’s make are with kids or adults, In the States of on the field, these meaningful relationships can easily last a lifetime if they keep in touch.

Make the effort to help your kids build relationships with people in your supporting churches so that when they leave home they will realize they have friends in their home country who care about them.

3. Visit well-known national places while you are on furlough.

You have to travel anyway. Go the extra mile to see historical places, see national parks, or do fun activities. Research ahead of time so your kids will understand the significance of where you are going. One thing you kids may not get overseas is the significance of being a citizen of your home country. They may never be as patriotic as the average citizen, but they do need to gain some understanding of why a citizen feels proud of his country.

Years ago most Americans felt a strong pride for their country, many feeling it was the best in the world. Sometimes today they have the opposite problem. Politics and problems have stolen their pride to the point they aren’t even respectful of government leaders.

Missionary parents need to give their kids pride in and respect for both their host country and their home country. They need to help them see the good and deal with the bad realistically.

4. Choose books and DVD’s that will help your kids understand the culture of their home country in a good way.

Helping your kids become comfortable in two cultures may be a big task, but it is well worth it. It will help them reach adulthood with a positive attitude about their MK experience.

Jordan Axtell is a fictional missionary kid in my two most recent books. In Broken Windows Jordan comes to terms with some of the issues M.K.’s face. He is especially haunted by the fact that his parents have been faithful missionaries, but seen little fruit for their labor. Broken Windows is currently free for Kindle through Tuesday, June 14. This weekend I launched Deja Who?, Book 2 in the same series. In that book, Jordan finds himself especially suited for a ministry to international students because he grew up in Taiwan.

You can find Broken Windows here.

You can find Deja Who? here.

Teaching your MK’s to Appreciate Their Host Country

All united in the world

Most missionary parents want two things very badly. They want to serve the Lord completely and passionately in the place to which he has called them. And they want to give their children a rich childhood that will prepare them for adult life and make them happy that they could grow up on the mission field. Often the mission field is quite different from their home country. Parents have to make some tough choices.

When we raised our girls in Taiwan, we had high goals. We wanted them to learn Chinese well, become close friends with Chinese kids, and adapt completely to the Chinese culture. We also wanted them to have a great command of English and fit in well in America. In the beginning we wanted them to be equally proficient in both cultures.

Before long, however, we realized that few MK’s in Taiwan fit really well in both American and Chinese cultures. Some MK’s went to Chinese school and had Chinese playmates, but couldn’t talk to their grandparents when they returned to the States. Others lived in the American segment of Taiwan and seemed really well-adjusted in American society but cared little about Chinese people. Like many missionaries, we had to balance ministry needs with the personal needs of our family.

We expected to spend the rest of our lives in ministry in Taiwan, at least until retirement. But we knew God might not call our daughters back to Taiwan as missionaries. They had to be able to function well in America as well. If they chose to be involved in Chinese ministry as adults, we wanted it to be a choice, not something they did simply because they didn’t fit into American life.

How can you teach your kids to appreciate their host country without losing the identity of their home country?

  1. Have a positive attitude toward your host country.

There will be times when life in your host country will seem totally illogical, backward, and ridiculous. You may fight your own battles with contentment on the mission field, but make sure you model a positive attitude to your kids.

Talk about the cultural differences with your kids. Voice positives and negatives of both your home country and your host country. Let them voice their problems but help them to see the positive side of the culture and the people. Resentment is contagious.

  1. Set reasonable expectations for adaptation to the new country.

The Brazil MK’s we met on furlough were so annoying! They spoke Portuguese as fluently as English and played a big part in their parents’ ministry. Our kids were smart, so what was wrong with us as parents?

We had to realize that our situation was different from theirs. Our daughters spoke English at home, heard Taiwanese at church, and took Mandarin lessons at their English school. Chinese is more difficult for Americans to learn than Portuguese. We had slower growing churches and our kids didn’t know Christian Chinese kids. They didn’t belong to a Chinese youth group. We had to quit comparing our ministry expectations with those of missionaries from other fields and make decisions that were right for our kids.

We needed to give our kids good experiences in both cultures. Our kids did play some with Chinese kids. They grew up in Chinese neighborhoods and churches. They took their turns eating strange Chinese foods with chopsticks to please Chinese friends. But ultimately their closest friends were ones who spoke English and shared a similar culture. In our situation, they were able to have close friendships with other MK’s.

It’s easy to get into the trap of comparing your kids to other MK’s, as if all MK’s are alike and all mission fields are alike. Look at the different situations MK’s live in. Home schooling, boarding schools, national schools, MK schools. Dripping hot climates and freezing cold ones. English speaking countries, easy-to-learn second languages, difficult languages with strange alphabets. Deeply religious cultures, very immoral ones, voodoo followers, primitive tribes, wealthy cultures with high expectations. Cultures that emphasize group mentality or individualists. Friendly and emotional or standoffish and reserved. To that you add the countless varieties of missionary kids and their unique personalities.

If you are raising MK’s in your home, ask the Lord to give you a good balance that embraces both your host culture and your home culture. Instead of competing with other missionary parents for how well your kids know the language or how adapted they are to culture of the host country, determine what works best for your family and ministry. Your kids will face enough pressure to return to the mission field simply because they have been raised there. Give them an example of finding the Lord’s will for your life and being content with that.

  1. Take advantage of unique opportunities on your field.

My grandson’s other grandma was making him a picture book about family life and animals and asked me if I wanted to contribute. She and the other grandpa had been to Yellowstone the past summer and had pictures of grizzly bears and buffalo. “Great!” I thought. “How am I going to compete with grizzly bears and buffalo?” We had changed our missionary ministry to New Zealand, an exceptionally tame country. I would be pushed to find anything more exciting about our life than the ostrich at the zoo.  On further reflection, however, I remembered my picture holding a koala bear in Australia, petting a pink dolphin in Singapore, and sitting on an elephant’s knee in Thailand!

Sometimes we feel we’re missing out as missionaries, but if think about it, we have often travelled to some amazing places “on our way” to normal ministry.

All families need to have fun together. Instead of thinking about the things you miss in your home country, relish the differences in your host country. Maybe you can go to the beach on Christmas day or snow ski to school. Raise a pet monkey. Fish or hunt. Ride an elephant. Climb the Great Wall. Snorkel the Great Barrier Reef. Visit Machu Picchu. Ride a double decker bus. Visit a castle. Go on Safari.

Crafts and sporting activities often give us chances to experience local culture. I learned to do elaborate Chinese paper cuttings and origami in Taiwan. Lisa still enjoys some of these Chinese crafts. Your field may give you great opportunity to participate in soccer, rugby, or cricket. You may be able to watch unique musical instruments being played or become acquainted with a musical scale different than the Western one.

Of course, your child can also enjoy crafts and sports and music on the mission field that are similar to that of your host country. You don’t have to only pursue those activities that are different from your host country.  But whatever you do, give your children good memories that them make  proud to be MK’s. Part of that is helping them to appreciate their host country.

Here are two of my fiction books that show kids who learn to adapt to a new culture. Peanut Butter Friends in a Chop Suey World shows Amy Kramer who moves with her missionary family to Taiwan. Two Sides to Everything shows Josh McKay moving from big city USA to rural New Zealand. Broken Windows features an adult who grew up on the mission field and ponders the significance of his experience.

Coming soon: I’ll talk about more ways to make your missionary experience positive for your children.