Sunday, 14 February 2016

Supporting friends overseas: Simply be a friend!

Living and working overseas contributes to the abundance of our lives. I can write volumes on the opportunities that arise, and the benefits I see in the children's upbringing and education. Today, I write about some of the challenges which can arise - perhaps 'five things I wish people back home realised' (having recently read an article on a similar theme). There are a whole range of reasons why people choose to leave their home culture and 'settle on the far side of the sea' (Psalm 139). There are a range of relationships that an individual or a family may have with their 'home' church, perhaps depending on whether they have been 'sent' as missionaries or deployed on a specific project, or whether they are simply using their professional skills overseas. As I write, I assume some kind of relationship with a Christian community in one's country of origin, although I know this is not universal.

Some things I wish people realised:

1) Facebook does not tell the full story. I think this is important for all of us to remember (and indeed, at some point I should write a post specifically about social media). Even the most 'perfect' photograph can tell two different stories, and the way it is interpreted might depend on the perspective of the viewer. For example, right now, it is in the mid 30s, and so quite hot and sweaty. Somebody back in the UK might see glorious sunshine and feel a little envious. And whilst it is glorious, there are times when we have to walk several miles in the middle of the day, when we long for a bit of cold! That is a superficial example deliberately. But I am sure you can think of others. Additionally, people use a high level of selection bias in choosing what to post on Facebook; I am sure that applies to both those overseas and to those back 'home'. We can be lulled into a sense of thinking we know what is happening in one another's lives. But this can be so far from the truth, and Facebook alone cannot be the only means of keeping a strong relationship alive. When people start to have several hundred 'friends', can there really be a deep level of honest communication, sharing challenges and victories? Or is it something else, more superficial, having an approximate overview of significant life events and specific celebrations? How many of us are able to capture the essence of what we do day-to-day in a short status update or photo? How much can we really communicate?

2) When we send prayer letters, we are asking you to pray more specifically about things, and so share in a bit more detail about how things are here. There are times when it can be difficult to describe a situation fully in a short letter, but if you ever want to know more, please just ask! It also is incredibly encouraging when people reply to a prayer letter, even if it is a single sentence. you would be surprised at how few people do respond - and there are times when we find ourselves wondering whether anybody actually reads them. I confess, I have been there too - and its only really since being overseas and feeling a little isolated, that I take time to reply, even briefly, to the prayer letters of others.

3) Relating to the point above, it is really special to receive an email from home with news about how YOU are doing, and telling us how we can pray for YOU. There can be a tendency to put 'missionaries' onto some kind of pedestal, and think that your life is mundane. That is not true. Each of us is right where God has put us for this time, and your life and work is important to us too! I have a small number of friends who do write, and I do not think they realise what a blessing it is.

4) It can get very lonely in a new culture. Yes, we may be thriving in many ways. Yes, the work may be going well. Yes, we may be encouraged in the gospel and have had opportunities to share our faith. Yes, we may have remained healthy. We can be overflowing with thankfulness! But it can be weeks or months between having what seems to me to be a 'real' conversation with a friend. Relationships take longer to establish between cultures, and whilst you can get on well, value one another, share the same faith and many other positive things, it is not quite the same as a friend who knows you well, shares your humour, knows how to encourage you, knows what questions to ask. I find it quite tiring, often to feel guarded culturally, paying attention to different use of language and humour and seeking to understand the nuances.

I think this is why even the shortest emails can bring so much encouragement. Maybe others don't struggle with this, maybe they are more pragmatic or so deeply engrossed in their work and raising their families that there isn't time for loneliness. Certainly that can also be a challenge: I do find that between both of us working part-time, having a fairly busy travel schedule, being committed to greater involvement in church, home schooling our children who are still at the age where they need almost continual supervision, there isn't a lot of time to drink coffee, to chat, or to go out in the evenings. But that makes things like friendly emails even more valuable!

5) We are human, and face the same challenges, weariness, indecisiveness and concerns as many of you 'back home'. Just because we have followed God's calling for our family to be overseas does not mean we have become 'spiritual giants' or immune to the trials that are common to man. We have a very positive outlook (and actually believe this is something that Christians should cultivate since in every situation there is reason to give thanks), but we are in many respects the same as any other member of your church community. We need encouragement too. You might text or email a friend back home with a scripture verse, or asking how you can pray for them. You can do the same for us!

I write this because sometimes people don't realise that 'supporting' people working overseas can involve very simple things. It doesn't always have to be 'deep' or 'costly', and you may be surprised how much encouragement you can bring to a thirsty soul.