How are you REALLY?

A very wise mentor of mine was speaking to a packed house of care professionals. The room was filled with counselors and coaches, therapists and pastors. I knew he would be good, but I had no idea that his very first words would burn right in to my heart.

“How are you?,” he asked. Then he went on to turn his head and stare directly at me in the audience and follow up with, “How are you REALLY?”

I’ve never forgotten that seminar. The rest of his talk was amazing, but it was the first seven words out of his mouth that captured my heart. Words that have stayed with me forever.

You see, as a missionary, most of us are experts at wearing the happy face, at being stoic, and at putting on our best performance. We are accustomed to being performance driven and most of the questions that are asked of us are questions about work, about duties, and about how much success we are (or are not) having.

Most of the time, the question “how are you doing” is really asked with the motivation of finding out “what are you doing and how successful are you at doing it”? The times when people are most intent on listening to missionaries are when they are on ‘display’, when they are on home assignment and are asked to preach or speak at a dinner or be the guest speaker at a fundraising dinner. The stage is set and the script is prepared. The questions revolve around customs or food, what are the living conditions or questions about specific ministry initiatives. But the deep, “how are you REALLY” questions are not there. It is a rare and precious bird, indeed, that asks “how are you” and really means it with complete sincerity, who follows it up with the time and space to actually listen to the response.

Listening with your heart is perhaps the best gift you can give. It is a skill that must be practiced in today’s hustle bustle society. Listening requires focus. Listening is not a multi-tasking skill. You cannot be truly focused and listening with your heart if you heart and brain and ears are divided between your cell phone screen and your lunch date and your to-do list at work. The friend who asks “How are you?” and then waits to hear the answer, who looks me in the face and leans forward to hear my response, who engages in asking good questions and listens to my emotions – that is a true friend who is giving a blessing of a gift.

I have a good example from our home leave assignment this past year. Home assignment is always a whirlwind of speaking engagements and social events and trying to squeeze in way too many appointments into way too little time. It’s exhausting, honestly. One Sunday during home leave, we were asked to deliver the sermon at a local church. The time went as usual – we arrived early to do a sound check on microphones in the sanctuary and to chat with the pastor about the order of the service, then we milled about and socialized with the congregation as the pastor introduced us to folks when they arrived. At the appropriate time during the service, we were introduced and we gave the message. At the end of the service, the pastor announced that we would be available after church to stay and have a time to chat about missions and to answer any question, and all were welcomed to stay. The last hymn was sung and folks left the sanctuary. Only one woman stayed behind to talk.

My husband and the pastor’s family went to the foyer to chat while I stayed in the sanctuary and sat down to chat with the woman, Susan. I was prepared for the usual questions… what is Spain like? What is education like for your daughter? What do you miss about Texas? How many people are coming to your ministry initiatives? Etc. The usual stuff. The things I can answer in my sleep. What I didn’t expect was 45 minutes of really good questions! What blew me away was a woman who sat with me for 45 minutes and asked deep questions about really tough stuff. I hadn’t ever met this woman before, and here she was asking me honest, gut-level questions that had me digging deep for answers that I had not ever put in to words before. She leaned in and listened to my every word. A couple of her questions had my eyes filling with tears. No one had ever asked those things before, and I knew that this woman really cared about who I was and how my soul was feeling. No one, in our 9 years of being in Peru and Spain, has ever gone so deep in to my soul… and she did it in 45 minutes.

Susan honored me and blessed me beyond measure that day.marauz_good_listening-1

The next time you sit down to talk or Skype with a missionary, give them the gift of listening. With thousands of miles separating family and friends, mission partners and supporters, it’s sometimes tough to know what to say or how to listen well. Try a few of these tips:

  • Give your full attention. Put away the smart phone. Don’t get distracted by your surroundings.
  • Get a cup of coffee and settle in. Act like we’re sitting together in a café or at the kitchen table together.
  • The only agenda is to be a good listener. Try not to put the missionary in the position of being on display or being the guest speaker for your phone call.
  • Ask good open-ended questions that have depth and are not superficial. Good questions followed by good listening shows that you really care. Try a few of these:
    • What has recently made you feel loved or appreciated?
    • What has made you feel good about yourself lately?
    • In what ways or situations have you felt alone or unworthy lately?
    • How do you currently measure success? What has made you feel successful this month?
    • What about the culture in (Spain) is the most difficult for you right now?
    • What thing about your life is the most wonderful right now?
    • What has rocked your world this month?
    • What is heavy on your heart right now?
    • Who is your closest friend in (Spain) and why? What do they mean to you?
    • If you could change one thing about your schedule this week / month, what would it be?
    • Name something that you are currently struggling with / fearful of… talk about that a little bit so I know how to pray for you in that situation.
    • How are you resting / relaxing? How do you take care of yourself? Who takes care of you when you need love and attention? Who cares for you?
    • If you were by yourself and could do anything that you wanted to for one day, what would it be?
    • What are you most grateful for this week?
    • Who has been the kindest to you?
    • If you could ask God for one thing today, what would it be?

Listening is an incredible gift you can give to a missionary. To be focused and to listen with your whole heart, to give the gift of time… this is a priceless blessing.

Transparency? Or secret life?

A photo of a woman walking on a sidewalk, returning from a morning on the beach. It wasn’t a very good photo.  Not very flattering.  I’m sure she hated it when she saw it. She’s a 70 year old woman who just spent the morning sitting on a windy beach with her family.  But when it hit social media, it blew up the feeds. Breaking news. Trending.

“How could she do that? “

“I can’t believe she is on such a lavish vacation.”

“Where did she get the money?”

“This is outrageous!  She is not fit for service.  Disgraceful.”

“Must be nice to be spending Monday morning at the beach.”

All this, because she is the mayor of one of the most important cities in Europe.  Her life is under a microscope.  Her country is in economic crisis. She is very conservative and has been quick to cut budgets and refuse for government to pay big money for non-essentials.

Last month, she cut out special benefits and government spending for public officials.  She cut her own salary.  She cut her own perks.  No accepting gifts or special treatment for government officials. She put her foot down.

The media had a heyday with her one-week beach vacation. They tried to crucify her, but without the facts, and when the facts came out the story went quiet.  Crickets.  You could hear a pin drop.

You see, she shared her beach house with 8 other adult family members and several children, each family paying their share of the rent from their own pockets.  She did not take her government appointed vehicle or use a driver.  She drove down to the beach with her daughter in her daughter’s car.  She returned to the capital on a public train in a regular seat which she paid for herself.

So, this 70 year old mother and grandmother went to the beach with her family for a week of summer vacation.  Now it sounds just like any other family, doesn’t it?

This story really hit me this month.  I felt for this woman.  Life under a microscope is hard.  Living a ‘normal’ life when you have a less-than-normal job is exhausting.  Being a paid public servant is tough.  Always knowing that every move you make is judged and scrutinized, that people are always thinking that you are misappropriating funds.  People think that you are having too much fun and you should be working… no matter that it is Saturday, or Sunday, or your child’s spring break, or a national holiday… you should be working.  That’s what we pay you for.

I have had the saddest conversations with missionaries all over the world.  People who constantly grapple with what to share and what to hide from folks back home, from their supporters, from the church, from Facebook.  People who constantly fear that a photo of them having a fun outing or a picture of their dinner date with friends is going to start a whirlwind of doubt and gossipy chit chat about how they are off in another country having fun and not working and wasting good ministry money.

Last week, we had a similar conversation in our home.  Our daughter has wanted to learn to SCUBA for quite some time now.  My husband dives and both of my older sons are divers.  She wanted to learn to dive, too.  Upon looking at our budget (our personal budget), we surprised her with a SCUBA course and her certification dives.  So, on the afternoon of her first dive, as any proud parent would do, we took photos.

My husband started tapping out a message on his phone and I asked, “What are you doing?”

“Sending these pictures to the boys on Facebook.  They’ll be proud of her.”

I commented, “I’m always afraid when we do that.  What will they think?  What will others think? I don’t want it to look like we’re off having a great time and have people thinking we aren’t working, or that we are spending ministry funds on personal fun.”

“Baby, We can’t live our lives like that.  We have to share our lives. Especially with our families.  We can’t live being worried about what others think of us.  We know that we aren’t doing anything wrong,” he said.

Okay. So I popped one off to my mom (the granny) via Facebook, too.  The boys texted responses back about how cool that was and how they thought it was great.  My mom loved it and shared it with her friends.

Then, a few minutes later, my husband says, “Where did you share that photo to your mom?”

“On her wall on Facebook.”

“Oh.”  Silence.

“Why?  Didn’t you just say we needed to share our lives and not live in fear of what others think?  I did.  I shared it.  Why?”

“I didn’t share it publically.  I shared it privately in their message feed, not on their walls.”

Frustrated, again, by this dance of what we should share and what we should not.  Confused again by trying to figure out where the line is.  I want to be honest.  I want to be transparent.  I want to be authentic.  I want to be a proud mom like every other proud mom sharing pictures on Facebook.  If my daughter was taking SCUBA lessons in the USA, we wouldn’t have even had this conversation.  We wouldn’t have even thought twice about whether or not we should share a photo of her.  I watch photos of my friend’s summer vacations scrolling across my screen every day.  I watch them go to other countries, go hiking, go boating, go to the beach or to Europe, or go on cruises.  No one thinks twice about posting those photos. Fun family memories.

Yet we are slaves to that very dilemma.  When to share our fun day off?  When to share the photo of our daughter in her extra-curricular activity?  When to share our short vacation?

We are mission workers, yes.  We rely on mission funding from outside sources, yes.  But we are also real people, normal people.  We work real schedules (real crazy schedules!). We receive a salary and we put away money in to savings, like real people. We get a day off each week, like real people (actually, not like real USA people who get a weekend off from work, but like Spanish people who only get one work-free day per week).  Our contract states that we are required to take vacation time each year, which we pay for out of our own pockets.  We are bound by law to use ministry funds for ministry, nothing else, and we have to prove every cent we spend and turn in expense reports, just like real people in real jobs.  We are accountable to federal tax laws, just like everyone else.  Our personal expenses are just that, personal.  It comes from our pockets.  Groceries. Clothing. Sarah’s piano lesson each week.  A meal at a restaurant.  A Saturday morning at the beach.  All personal money.

Missionaries live very ordinary lives in extraordinary places, but sometimes that gets flipped around on them and folks back home put them under a microscope with a special lens that says, “you are living an extraordinary life in an extraordinary place under very public scrutiny”.  So they make the choice to self-protect and to go into their shell and hide their lives so as to not invoke the public judgement of their normal lives.  They choose not to share the fun day at the water park, because someone might not approve of their day off.  They choose not to show their child winning a ribbon for her sport-of-choice, because someone might think that it is a luxury that missionaries shouldn’t be able to afford.  They have quiet conversations about whether or not they should share the photos of their cultural trip to a nearby historical site, fear of rejection and judgement overtaking their excitement and joy at having this opportunity to learn new things and go special places as a family.

I felt terrible for that mayor on her family beach vacation.  I feel sad for every missionary who tells me about a wonderful weekend that they had, and then tells me how they will show me the photos later because they aren’t going to post to Facebook for fear of supporters and churches back home.  And I feel sad for MKs (missionary kids) whose parents don’t share their accomplishments like other parents do, who live in a private, self-protective world where they have to know the ‘rules’ of what gets shared and what doesn’t and with whom, and they wonder why life is such a secret.

Anyone else have any answers?  How do you live an authentic, transparent, honest life?  How do you stay real?  How do you weigh it all out and decide what you share from your lives?