When I was in my early teens a couple of overseas workers spent their furlough months at my church. I think they were about thirty years old. They worked with former brothel workers in India. I really respected them. One day the woman was sharing about how she was so glad to have a break and relax in her first culture (America). She said she had told God that what she really wanted was “a new dress.” She had been wearing saris (long Indian dresses/wraps) for so long, and rarely had a reason to dress up in India. She longed to buy a dress while in America. She then explained she had recently bought a dress. It was the one she was wearing – red with small white polka dots.
She began to cry.
“This is a really excessive response to a dress!” I thought judgmentally. “Of course, there are sacrifices with living overseas. Get over it! It’s not that big of a deal!” Internally, I was shaking my head in self-righteous evaluation – thinking I would never be so “shallow” and “superficial.”
And then I spent three years as an overseas worker. I learned sacrifice, selflessness, and the tire of being a foreigner to a whole new level. I learned to value the “small” things. Nearly everything was different. If I could simply find something close to Raisin Bran at the store, I’d be glowing for weeks. haha. If I could find a mop that I understood how to use, it felt like a vacation. If I could have a break from the efforts of Arabic for a day, it was like a much-needed nap. If someone sent me a simple postcard from America, I’d likely tear-up — much much more so if they sent photographs or a gift. It just felt like love from the outside, from a far off land, without checkpoints, soldiers, and my irrevocable foreignness in a monocultural small town. And it felt like I was remembered. Tucked away behind a thirty foot concrete wall on the edge of the desert, living a life entirely different from the vast majority of my friends and family, I FELT REMEMBERED. When I was trying to forget things I might miss, trying not to compare cultures, trying to rejoice despite feeling overwhelmed by change and the often oppressive environment (which I eventually learned to live ABOVE), I WAS REMEMBERED. Not only by people, but by God.
Now, I know God never lost sight of me in those three years, but I’ll be frank – there were times when I felt like it.
Well, two weeks ago I bought a dress. It was my first dress purchase since moving back to America a year ago (with the exception of the bridesmaid dress I bought for my sister’s wedding in March). I was going to my sister’s best friend’s wedding, and well, I really really wanted a new dress. In fact, I’d been praying and believing for a month for the extra money for a new dress. I have been provided for amazingly this year, but there have always been financial priorities over a dress. Well, some extra money was given to me. And I bought a dress. And when I bought it,
I began to cry.
And all of the sudden, I remembered the woman who spoke almost twenty years ago.
THE POWER OF A NEW DRESS!
I understood it. It wasn’t just something new, something fun, something fanciful. It was a breath of fresh air. It was a simple extravagance. It was a gift from a Father who loved His daughter with His whole heart. And, you know what, contrary to the poor view of God many of us have (or had), I AM WORTH A NEW DRESS!!! hahahahahaha! That revelation is worth more than the dress itself! And over the last few years, that has become a real truth in me! My own worth! And God’s abundance!
And for me, coming from three years when even if I bought a new dress – it would have to fit the local cultural modesty and such, buying a dress outside of Muslim dress code was like a deep exhale! I can be myself! Not that I wasn’t myself, in Bethlehem, per se, but there were always so many frameworks to abide by. I had to learn freedom in Christ in such a way, that external limits had no bearing on my INTERNAL FREEDOM. I always lived in Bethlehem 100% free, even when I gave up the freedom to wear sleeveless clothes and walk alone after nine pm.
Anyhow, I also realized how disgustingly judgmental I was of that overseas worker years ago – having no idea what she had given up or how much a new dress might really mean to her, for good reasons. And I missed how happy Father God was to provide a new dress for His beautiful, worthy, sweet daughter! I missed the opportunity to celebrate His goodness with her! I didn’t well understand God’s generosity. Or His love.
Well, I wore my new dress to the wedding last weekend. And it felt great. No one else knew, but I felt like it was a song of rejoicing for having survived and flourished through three years in the Middle East, particularly since it was days away from my one year anniversary back in America. It was like, “I’m back and I’m better than ever! GOD IS SO GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOD!”
Wearing that dress was a testimony to the FAITHFULNESS of God every day, every hour of three years. He brought me back flourishing. And He and I are closer than ever. The dress was like a bookmark to a secret.
Well, today marks my one year anniversary back in America. It was September 5, 2009 that I arrived back in this country after three years of living in Israel. Yowser! haha.
It has been an absolutely incredible, wonderful, RESTFUL, RESTORATIVE, beautiful, clarifying, fun, and transitional year. It’s been challenging to get accustomed to life in America again. When people talk about culture shock, the abrasive shift into a culture not one’s first culture, it’s real. And when people talk about reverse culture shock, the abrasive shift back into one’s first culture after a time away, it’s real. This happens between cultures relatively similar and cultures very dissimilar – usually in proportion to the similarity of the cultures (and the time spent overseas).
As one may guess, Middle Eastern culture and Western American culture are very very very different.
They are so different that in my initial efforts to adapt to life in Israel, and particularly Bethlehem, I felt I had to simply erase American cultural mores from my mind. There were so many changes, I whitewashed my American training. It took too long to step into someone’s house and think, “Wait, do I remove my shoes? Do I look the father in the eyes?” while filtering through my instincts to do things how I’d always done them, the American way. SO, I basically made myself forget previous norms. And I took on the norms of the culture I was in as the norms.
Besides, there were lots of things that got me in trouble if I did them the American way.
MEN: no eye contact. no handshake. often no acknowledgement whatsoever. Basically, stay away from them. haha. That’s an oversimplification, of course, but it sums it up. As a woman, particularly, a Western woman, such interactions could be taken the wrong wrong wrong way. Believe me. Don’t make me tell you stories. haha.
Being back in America: Adapting to not only interacting with men, but making eye contact (intentionally!), handshakes, hugs, and generally being at ease around them has been a curveball. Being treated as an active member of society and conversation is great, but strange to become used to again.
I have had so many awkward interactions with men this year. For the first several months I was perpetually confused by how to or not to interact. “What’s normal?” I had almost no idea. I had tried so hard to re-train myself, I’d forgotten what was typical. Thankfully, observation is a good teacher. And friends are grace-giving. Although, it’s pretty weird when all your friends are NEW friends, so the only you they know is the post-Israel one, the one perpetually trying to figure out social norms. haha. I even had one friend say to me last fall, “You know I was thinking that giving you a hug goodbye the other day was awkward and I left thinking, ‘God, why was that awkward?’ and I immediately thought, ‘Oh you spent years in the Middle East! It must be hard for you to get used to interacting with men again!'”
haha. I can’t tell you how happy I was when my friend told me that! He figured it out! I felt so relieved!!!!! Someone understood that although I looked and spoke like an American, a big chunk of me had become Arab and would probably remain Arab. And I thought, “Could you just go explain that to every man I know, so they don’t take my pauses, avoidance, and whatnot personally?” haha.
CLOTHING: no shoulders visible (and usually no upper arms either, and often no arms at all). no legs visible. no collarbone visible. always wear a “bum cover” – that means wear a long shirt or a short dress over pants so that your bum is not visible. much much less color. hair usually pulled back (especially in certain neighborhoods at certain times).
Being back in America: Sleeveless anything felt scandalous until some time in May. ha. Imagine walking around in 90 degree weather wearing a sleeveless shirt and continuously thinking, “Oh my goodness! My arms are bare! Yikes! I hope people aren’t staring. Wait?! That’s crazy! This isn’t inappropriate! This isn’t rebellious! No one thinks anything of it!” The same for anything leg baring. And you can imagine my visual shock to simply see so much skin day after day, after years of long overcoats and headscarves! Oh, and THE COLORS!!!! How it makes my freedom-loving, self-expression-loving heart SING to see people wearing lots of color! And in unique ways! I could launch into “The Star Spangled Banner” simply by observing the fashion in the grocery store! LET FREEDOM RING! hahahahahahaha!
HOSPITALITY: Arabs are specialists in hospitality. It is normal to go to a house for “tea” and not leave until you have had tea, “juice”, water, wafer cookies, fresh fruit, and eventually coffee. All of these things come progressively so “tea” easily becomes three hours. The women serve, and sometimes the kids. You visit and you feel waited upon, served, tended to. You feel honored.
Being Back in America: I can walk in a friend’s kitchen while she heats water for tea. I’m presented with a stack of tea boxes and I make my selection. “Do you want milk? It’s in the fridge, on the door rack.” “Do you want honey? Here.” When you are used to being sequestered to the living area with formality, opening someone’s fridge can feel like an invasion of privacy. ha. Honestly, I like that measure of openness in American culture, but I definitely learned a lot of the fine art of hosting people by living in the Middle East.
SPEECH (maybe better termed “bluntness”): “Don’t ever wear your hair like that again. It doesn’t look good.” I still remember the shock on my face when a male Palestinian friend told me that one day while a bunch of friends were exiting a coffee shop. I laughed. And I felt a smudge offended (good practice in not getting offended). Such comments were normative – particularly when directed toward women. There was often the sense that women were communal property and people (mainly men) could direct, command, and correct them as much as they wanted. Women are thought to bear the family shame. If the women look badly, act badly, or someone starts a rumor of them doing something unbecoming, the whole family is shamed. So, even strangers may feel open to critique you, as they feel they are doing you a service. “You look horrible today.” “You shouldn’t talk to that person.” “Don’t go to that area.” “You wear too many colors. People will think the wrong thing about you.” “You need to stop laughing so much. We don’t do that.”
Being back in America: haha. Well, I’m glad people don’t insult me like that here. However, I do think Americans ought to be better at bold, loving confrontation. Sometimes Americans don’t want to step on toes and they are so overly committed to an idea of personal “freedom” they don’t dare say when someone’s “freedom” is actually hurting those around them. That’s a bit funny for me to be accustomed to. Sometimes, I think, “Say what you mean, already!” haha. Palestinians have a phrase that comes with a hand-motion. Basically, something comes out your mouth and goes all around your head before it goes in your ear. The motion is like pulling something out of your mouth with your hand, weaving your hand in a circle around your head, and then placing the thing in your ear. A very circuitous trip, indeed.
CELPHONES: Palestinians usually have at least two. (This is because of the set-up of companies. They are not by contract, and it’s cheaper to call people in the same company. So, for example, CelCom has a 052 prefix, and therefore, people put all 052 phone numbers in that phone. All their other friends will be in a different phone, according to the prefix/service provider). I had to mention this. It’s not uncommon to see a Palestinian with three phones strapped onto his belt, or with one phone on each ear!
Being back in America: Americans usually have one, but they treat it like a newborn baby, looking at it every 10 seconds. I am trying to resist this re-culturization.
GUNSHOTS: It’s true. This is a category. In the West Bank, pretty much anything and everything is celebrated with gunshots: weddings, engagements, and prisoner releases. Every week, gunshots would ring out like fireworks across the night sky.
Being Back in America: There is nothing celebratory about them. Point Blank. (pun intended)
DRIVING: I only had a car for about 3 months out of three years in Israel, but even in taxis you get a very thrilling, spatially-defying experience. In the West Bank there are basically no laws, particularly when it comes to driving. In fact, the seatbelt law was only applied to the driver in 2009. It’s still normal to stuff 9 people in a 4 passenger car. I’ve done it.
Being back in America: I think I have unintentionally broken a number of driving laws. And I do miss putting 9 people in a 4 passenger car. Life just isn’t the same.
That about sums it up: life just isn’t the same. I miss Israel. I miss the Wild, Wild West Bank. And I love America more than I ever have. There is a freedom in this nation that is truly powerful, revolutionary, and unique the world over. It’s been a zany year of transitioning back into American culture, but it has been painted and glossed in love and cherishing for this beautiful nation I call home; and its people. I am blessed beyond any unit of measure.
My friend Mel, whose two daughters I babysat for a year and a half in Jerusalem; and whose third daughter I was privileged to witness the birth of in December 2008, recently told me of her five year old daughter Brynn’s latest love measurements. Mel wrote, “Brynn will spontaneously burst into a song, or raise her hands and say,
‘Oh, there is so much love right now–here Mom, have two.’
Have two? Apparently to her, love is quantified in numbers!”
That’s how I feel in blessing, in love, and in abundance.
I don’t know what the units are, but I DEFINITELY HAVE TWO!!!!!!
As I reflect on the year back, I’ve gained so much respect and passion for overseas workers the world over. Part of my motivation in writing this post is to reveal more of my own experience and therein empower believers to love and understand overseas workers better. A lot of the church has a really inaccurate, romanticized, bizarre idea of an overseas worker’s life. And they show little real heart investment in those who are really stepping out giving their lives for the nations. Overseas workers are family just as much as the couple who sits next to you every Sunday in church. It is time for a REVOLUTION in GOING AND SENDING: a complete transformation in how the church sends people overseas, how they financially support them, encourage them, welcome them back etc. Nearly everything needs to change. And it’s going to. And I’m going to be a part of that! I love overseas workers like CRAZY and I want them to BE ALL THEY ARE MEANT TO BE! I want to see them flourishing: spiritually, emotionally, relationally, financially, and physically. I want to see them cared for in such a way that people really look forward to being overseas workers, to knowing them, and to hosting them. I want overseas workers to be the celebrated friends full of stories of MIRACLES in the nations! I want kids to grow up with real overseas workers as their heroes! With a burning love for the nations and those sent to the nations! And I want it to be easier to GO – not a catapult into a distant land almost never to be heard from again, but SENT, commissioned, well-prepared, and honored in their going, ministering, and coming.
I am grateful, TWO grateful. Not just ONE grateful for the years I spent in Israel. They were grueling. They were blissful. There were moments when I wanted to quit. There were moments when I never wanted to quit. There were moments when I just wanted to go to Target. There were moments when I loved going to the “grocery” store, the produce stand, and the butcher just to get the things for an evening meal. There were moments when I was so frustrated that I didn’t have a car. There were moments when I was so glad I was able to learn the planning, perseverance, and community of a carless life. There were moments when a dinner out in Jerusalem felt like a resort vacation. There were moments when I longed to sit on someone’s unclean floor and eat rice and chicken with my hands.
There were moments when I felt God might have forgotten my name.
And there were moments when I learned one more of His, and in it I found my own.
In a lot of ways, I think God hid me in Bethlehem so I could be found.
One Palestinian prophet called me out in a crowd at a church last year and gave me a lengthy prophecy, part of what he said to me was, “The Lord says that He brought you to this land to show you He is your caring God.”
Yes. I see that now. And I have a new dress to remind me.
Here’s to a year back in America! And three extraordinary years in Israel! And all the adventures to come!!!
Here here!!! I’ll raise a glass of tea
<God, you are AWESOME!!!!! I will tell of your wonders all my days! And thanks for the dress!>