If I ever quit being a missionary (or get fired), I’m gonna go be an anthropologist. Is there a market for volunteer anthropologists with no experience, no training, and no education in the field?
Actually, I did take Anthro 101 at American River Community College, 18 years ago. So I’m kind of an expert. I didn’t even drop the class or anything, and I may have passed it. It’s hard to say. I know that I showed up most days with a thrumming hang-over and once I had to do a group project where 5 of us lay on top of each other on a table, dog-pile style, and a guy dressed like Dr. Livingston pealed us off from the top, like layers of an archeological dig, and then we each had to act like a living example from the fossil record while the dude discoursed on our discovery, significance, and hominid features. I was Australopithecus boisei. So all I had to do was grunt like an ape, and balance a Coke can on my forehead to demonstrate it’s flatness and wideness. The guy doing the talking handled the rest, telling our class about how I was thick and robust and that I made very good drink holder. I’m pretty sure we got an “A”.
So that’s why community college is a joke compared to regular college. Actually? I think we got an “A” because one of the guys in our group was secretly dating the professor. But our project was still really good. Obviously. I passed another test in that class by answering an extra-credit question about which direction bananas grow, which I only knew from reading The Far Side.
Wait, what was I talking about?
Oh yeah. The Far Side.
Anyway. I’ve learned even more anthropology junk since then. I mean, missionaries are practically anthropologists in their own right. At the very least, we dress alike. I’ll just say this; If you’re a missionary and you’re NOT studying history and culture and seeing the link between how the way things have always been done affects the way things are done now, and why that's really significant to how you relate to the people around you, you’re doing it wrong. Just so you know.
But no worries. To help you along, I’ve compiled this list of “Anthropologistical Type Things I’ve Learned in the Mission Field”:
- Don’t bother studying monkeys. I can tell you everything you need to know about them. Monkeys are assholes. There. Want to know more? Give a 2 year old a bunch of speed and a rusty shank and see what happens; Hanging out with a monkey is kind of like that, except more so. They will bite your face off to get what they want. Study apes instead. They seem way more chill (but they bite, too, so be careful).
- You can’t sum up major cultural differences with a cutesy catch-phrase. When we got here, someone told us that a good rule of thumb to help us in adjusting to the culture was to tell ourselves “It’s not wrong, it’s just different.” We appreciated this advice as we threw our TP in the garbage can, and when we learned to wash a skillet covered in bacon grease in cold water, and as we struggled to learn our way around Costa Rica, where the streets have no names. (No, like for real.There are no street names.) But, ultimately, we discovered this slogan’s two fatal flaws which are that A) Sometimes it is wrong. It’s just wrong to let children go hungry, it’s wrong to ignore injustice, it’s wrong to eat mayonnaise on french fries, it’s wrong to pretend like these things aren’t happening all over the world with a shrug of the shoulders. And B) It may not be “wrong” in the moral sense of the word, but there is often a “right way” to do something, and that way should be observed and exacted. For example: In the town where we live, there’s a bridge that is halfway washed out, as in half of the bridge is missing, and it’s been that way for more than a year. Instead of fixing the bridge, they just re-striped the road to go around the gaping hole. When we drive across this bridge, which we must do often, we say, “It’s not wrong, it’s just stupid.”
And...uummm....That’s all I’ve got so far.
But don’t worry, I’ll keep observing and reporting. And then, someday, when I’m the most famous untrained volunteer anthropologist ever, I’ll submit my findings to The Journal of Something or Other for Nerds that Like this Kind of Stuff and then I’ll be published. And it will be awesome, because it will give me enough credibility to push for a new Church movement; The Anthropological Church, Where we don’t study monkeys because they’re so predictable, but we do study people because they’re not so much, and we hope that the better we know our people, all people, any people, the better we will be able to love them, and that's what we're really all about - loving people well.
....Which, actually?, isn’t such a bad idea...
I need a nap. And I think this bears asking: What do you eat on your fries?
*this post was edited, with apologies, for snarky stereotyping. Sorry if you saw it/ sorry if you missed it.
Once, we went to the zoo and there was a python or some big-ass snake like that in the reptile house. A small crowd had gathered around its curved glass enclosure with the littlest children weaseling their way to the front to stand up on their toes and smash their fat hands and snotty faces against the cage for a better look. The people marveled, a few of them chuckled; some shook their heads in disbelief. The way they acted, I was expecting to find the snake standing upright in a limbless tuxedo, crooning Barry Manilow and smoking a cigar.
After a few minutes, the lady next to us moved off, taking with her a stroller the size of a mini-cooper, and we were able to get in close enough to see what all the excitement was about. Gotta admit, I was pretty disappointed. The huge snake was wound up in one corner of the cage, seemingly asleep, unmoving, and completely indifferent to the world at large. Just to the left, we found the object of all this attention – a fat, white rat – chomping away on the snake’s last six inches or so. I told you it was gonna be disappointing.
We watched him for a minute and I thought, “That rat is an idiot.” And I was right because everyone knows that, in the end, big snakes eat little rats and not the other way around. The whole scenario went against everything I knew to be true about reptiles and rodents, everything I’d ever been taught about them. In my heart I knew the rat was doomed to failure, and even so, part of me wanted him to win this one-sided battle. We waited there, a little too long perhaps, to see if the snake would awaken and squeeze the living daylights out of his miniature attacker, but the sleepy fellow never did move.
Instead, the prey had become the predator. And I can’t exactly say whether or not rodents experience pride, but, I swear, that little guy paused and stood straight up, looking at all of us with his beady black eyes, and python blood dripping from the corner of his mouth, as if to say, “Who’s at the top of the food chain now, bitches?!” It kinda made me want to put a little gold chain around his little gangster neck. Seemed he’d earned it.
In my estimation, me becoming a missionary makes about as much sense as a rat eating a python. It defies nature. It goes against everything I know to be true of missionaries and myself, everything I’ve ever been taught. Yet, somehow, as unlikely as it may seem, it happened. I ended up in Costa Rica, staring at the word “missionary” on my IRS forms like a glaring scarlet letter, and, much like my little friend the rat, biting off way more than I could chew.
Sometimes, failure seems inevitable.
A couple of weeks later, I was reading the paper and there was an article talking about how the snake at the zoo had died because in an unlikely turn of events it had been mauled by its meal which caused some kind of secondary infection, or something. Anyway, the snake bit the dust. And I thought, Score one for the underdog! And then I thought, you know what? Score two! Because, yeah, there are plenty of things I could be doing better, and most days I’m in over my head, but I’m still here doing this whole overseas thing even though it’s the hardest, scariest, most overwhelming thing I’ve ever done in my whole life!
I don’t celebrate that enough. I don’t enjoy it. I don’t purse my lips and cross my arms like, “Who’s a missionary now, bitches?!” Too often I act like the snake, sitting by idly letting the smallest thing take me down. Allowing the tiniest stuff to eat away at me, poisoning my own blood against me, like an infection. And I know this isn’t a perfect metaphor, and you may be inclined to ream me for implying that missionaries should harbor pride, or whatever. But all I’m really trying to say is that I want to be delighted by the place to which God has brought me. I want to be grateful. And I hope that those watching from the other side of the glass can see that God takes the mundane, the unlikely, the unlovely and redeems them in incredible ways.
Sometimes ugly sewer rats get to gobble up big scary snakes. And sometimes snarky, sarcastic, overly-skeptical chicks who don't always play by the rules get go be missionaries.
Impossible? Apparently not. Bitches.
If you’re ever in the mood to feel like a complete dumbass, you should go learn a few key words on a topic you know absolutely nothing about and then use them to start a conversation with an expert in that field. Not only will you feel like an imbecile, the person to whom you’re speaking will look at you like you’re a complete moron. I promise. Their eyes will go a little squinty and they’ll look at you like, “Um. Why did you bring this up if you can’t even follow along?”
Don’t believe me? Go ask a cardiac surgeon if he thinks glucose-insulin-potassium therapy reduces in-hospital-mortality after acute myocardial infarction. Then see how long it takes your eyes to glaze over as he talks in words you don’t understand. The good doctor will quickly tire of your inappropriate responses, at which point he’ll pretend to take an urgent call on his cell and he’ll walk away from you, the moron, with a sigh of relief.
I know this because I’ve become like an expert at starting conversations with little to no ability to actually see them through. Thank you, Spanish!
So there’s been all kinds of talk on Twitter because the pastor of an extra-super-mega-church -we’ll call him “Lick Foreign”- made a very bold statement about the awesomeness of his congregation. So, Lick Foreign says this thing and then nearly all of everyone on twitter, including me, was all “WHAT THE…?!” and then Lick Foreign removed the statement, but everybody it still talking about it.
Well, it totally reminded me of this one time, when I was at some Christian conference and I went to get a snack during the break. There were two lines, one on each side of a long stretch of tables offering muffins, and granola bars, and fruit and junk like that. The line moved along as people filled their mini paper plates with little piles of grapes and sweet and salty nut bars. But I had my eye on a muffin. One muffin. It was a chocolate chip muffin, far enough at the bottom of the pile that it could still be there by the time I made it to that end of the line. I was fixated on my muffin, praying a hedge of protection around it, when I blindly reached into a basket of fruit. I put my hand around the first thing I touched, a banana, and began to lift it toward my plate when I felt some resistance. I glanced down to see another hand at the other end of the fruit.
“Whoops - I grabbed your banana!” The words just slipped out…loudly.
Man giggles began to rise up around me as my gaze moved upward to take in the owner of the banana hand. Oh, of course, it was a priest. A real priest. like, with a little, white collar and everything.
I grabbed a priest’s banana and made an accidental double entendre out of it. Awesome. (I’m guessing there’s a special place in hell for a missionary who causes a man of the cloth to blush like a rose blooming in April… or, maybe there’s a special place in heaven. Time will tell.)
But my point is that we’re all guilty of busting out with a ridiculous statement every now and again - Just try and tell me you’ve never said something that you didn’t immediately want to hit the rewind button on. I will call you a liar to your face….or I will judge you harshly in silence. But either way, we’ll both know that you’re not being entirely honest.
So, you know what the priest did when I grabbed his banana? Nothing. He just smiled kindly and looked away. Basically, he ignored it. And even though it would have been hilarious if he had quipped, “That’s what she said” with a sly wink and a flashy grin, I would have been mortified.
When I was thinking about this story this morning, I was reminded that, sometimes, Grace keeps silent.
It sucks to say something really, really, really stupid…or arrogant…or inappropriate, only to have it rubbed in your face for the rest of your life… or for 2 days on Twitter. Ya know? Well, I do know, because I’ve said A LOT of dumb stuff. Like, once, when I unknowingly made a short-bus joke to the Mom of a kid with special needs, or another time when I made a disparaging remark about men and threesomes in front of a church elder (not even kidding), or this other time when I said something about my boss’s breath being like deadly, poison gas, only to find out that she was standing right behind me.
All of these incidents happened years ago, but I’m definitely still learning the whole if-you-say-that-out-loud-you'll-wish-someone-would-shoot-you-in-the-face-to-kill-your-embarassment thing. Perhaps Lick Foreign is still learning, too. Which is why I wish I had shown him Grace of the silent sort. The same kind of Grace I have been afforded over the years. So now I feel all kinds of bad that I twittered in response to Lick Foreign, and I just wanna say: Sorry, Lick. Next time I won’t twitter up in your business…er…. I mean, I’ll keep my fingers off your junk…er....whatever….you know what I mean.
Ok, people, confess! What's the most awkward thing you've said out loud?
Yesterday, I spot-cleaned the carpet in my middle son’s bedroom. We are, apparently, the only people in all of Latin America with carpeted bedrooms. It’s gross.
Last week, I organized my closet.
Tomorrow? I’ll probably file the one million years worth of receipts that I have shoved in a Trader Joes bag under my bed. Or maybe I’ll develop a new recipe for a high-energy protein bar, or I’ll engineer a bridge, or something else equally as unrelated to what I really ought to be doing.
I’m at it again. Procrastination is like a competitive sport to me. This time I’m procrasturbating because I decided to jump head long into a new project. It’s crazy.
El Chupacabra walks in after work and I can see him assessing the situation. He smells Pinesol in the air, sees the TV has been dusted, notices his underwear has been folded and rearranged to create an exact replica of Da Vinci’s Last Supper. “So. What’d you do today?” he asks.
What he really wants to know is how much time I put into my project. The homemade pies cooling on the window sill answer him before I can. Um...none.
*gulp* He knows me too well. He knows that the only reason I’m suddenly so interested in eradicating our home of insects and allergens is that I’ve taken on a project that has nothing to do with any of that.
This morning, he looked me in the eye, and with all the kindness and gentleness he could muster (and with a tone of voice that clearly conveyed I-have-no-desire-to-start-a-fight-with-you-but-you-need-to-hear-this) he said, “I think you might be sabotaging yourself and I don’t know why.” And then he left for work and I had to stew on it all day without being able to throw all of my clever ‘you know what I shoulda said’ retorts a back at him.
This is the difference between El Chupacabra and me. If he is going to do a project - let’s say put in new baseboards - he’ll throw a skill saw on our unmade bed and start cutting. Two hours later, we’ll have a bed full of sawdust and, as promised, all new baseboards. And I’ll be freaking out the whole time about how he’s doing it, and the mess he’s making, and why can’t he just blah, blah, blah… But, by the end of the day, the project will be done and the mess will be gone.
On the contrary, if I’m going to put in new baseboards, the first thing I’m gonna do is clean the kitchen. Then I’ll catch up on the laundry, write a novel, learn Mandarin, and bake cupcakes. Three years later, I will still be talking about putting in new baseboards.
Clearly, his way is better. So I’m gonna try it - I’m gonna just do this thing and clean up later. Here I go.
Ok....I’m currently fighting the urge to run downstairs and re-stack the Tupperware… Prayers are appreciated.
So what's your deal? How do you tackle a project?
“Can you imagine?” She kept saying that. Can you imagine…
That’s what we say when there are no other words to express our utter astonishment. Or to convey our judgment without actually saying “I would never.”
I had come across this woman and her kids at the park where we had both arrived early to beat the summer heat and exhaust our young children to tears. My younger boys were still little, barely 3 and 5 at the time. Young enough for naps, and animal crackers, and still small enough for me to laugh inappropriately, looking sideways to compose myself before disciplining them when they acted like little turd balls. As our kids played, swinging and climbing and digging for China, we struck up a conversation. And I don’t remember how it came up, but she began to tell me the most incredible story. She said it had just happened, right there in our own neighborhood, a few weeks before.
She was wringing her hands as she told me about a little boy, a toddler, who had fallen out of his second-story bedroom window. She said his mother was in her own room getting dresses after a shower and the kids were playing down the hall. There was a scuffle between the little guy and his big brother, ending with the brother giving him a shove. But the two were standing on a bed at window height and the little boy ended up falling backward against the screen, which gave way, letting him tumble freely to the driveway below. Can you imagine?
She said the older kid ran screaming to the Mom who went screaming to the baby, just knowing as she ran down the stairs that her little boy was going to be mangled, or worse. Can you even imagine? So -she continued- the Mom throws open the front door and leaps off the porch, racing toward her baby, who, to her complete and utter surprise comes walking around the back of her car, crying, but otherwise completely unharmed. The mom fell to her knees as she scooped him up because she was shaking so badly she couldn’t even stand. It was like a freaking miracle! Can you imagine? A miracle!
It turns out that the night before, the mom was bringing in the garbage cans, and because of some commotion in the house with kids and pets and dinner, or whatever, she had left the big plastic trash can sitting in the middle of the driveway, directly under that window. Her little guy had literally bounced right off the lid of the can. It saved his life! And then the lady in the park said it one last time with one hand covering her mouth and the other touching her heart, “Can you imagine?”
“No….I can’t imagine.” I told her. And I thought, “Because I don’t need to. I was there.”
She had told my story back to me, the story of my son falling out of a second story window and walking away virtually unharmed. That was my terror, my amazement, my miracle. But I didn't reveal myself as a primary player in the story because I couldn't decide if she was astonished by the insanity of it or outraged by the horrible mother that allowed it to happen.
She told the story with remarkable accuracy, leaving out only the most minor detail -which also happens to be the best part of the story- and that is that he was bare-ass naked. Can you imagine? A naked little person popping out of a second story window? I know I can only laugh about it because the outcome was so great, but that is kinda funny, right?! (Apparently, while I was in the shower my little man stripped naked, unlocked and opened his window, and picked a fight with his brother. He was a busy toddler.)
The conclusion that my new friend had drawn was that this child had been set apart by God to do something very special for the world. I looked across the park at my chubby, toe headed kid, scooping handfuls of sand laced with cat poop into his mouth, and thought ”Meh, it’s hard to say...but, yeah, maybe....” I didn’t really need my baby to have a brush with death in order to know that he was special. Nor do I particularly agree that the children who happen to survive their ordeals are the ones set apart by God for something good. But we did talk for a long time, that near stranger and I, about God and His hopes and dreams for our children...and for us.
The whole thing was just weird. Ya know?
But that’s the day I realized that our stories are so much bigger than we are. They can travel farther than we can. They can talk louder. They can touch people deeply when we’re not even in the room. And I love that.
It gave me a new appreciation for Jesus’ parables, for His knack for storytelling, and His gift for talking about everyday things in a way that makes a seemingly invisible God more tangible to regular people, like, people that have never been to seminary…or to church. I think that’s one of the things I love most about Jesus. He picked the most common things and made them extraordinary. He took the most relatable themes; agriculture, debt, justice, parenting, and the most common items; wine, figs, seeds, and…like…baking soda and stuff, and he spun them into stories that help us better understand who we are in relation to God.
And I think that’s so important to me because I know that apart from Jesus I’m just so common. But when I remember that He is part of my story, it becomes something truly extraordinary. I mean, I am the mother of the child that fell naked from a two-story window, the wife of an ex-cop/now international project manager, the child of an atheist turned Christian missionary. Can you imagine?
Yeah. Neither can I.