Meet Me In The Middle

One of the hardest things about being an American living in a developing country is the constant tug between the world you left and the world you are currently living in.  You can’t ever really shake either one.  They are simultaneously slapped in front of your face and tucked inside of your heart at all times.  Living in a developing country means that we are constantly faced with need.  It’s at our gate, in our homes, along the roads we travel, called out to us from the streets we walk, forced upon us, in front of us at all times.  As Americans, we have access to money (not unlimited access by any means, but nevertheless access).  It’s no secret and it’s obnoxious when we try to pretend otherwise.  It’s not always fair, but it’s the truth about where we come from. Most of us try to help needs. Many of us give until it hurts, but it’s never enough.  We live in the “Middle”; in between two worlds which contrast themselves in a million different ways.  To Americans, we are the missionaries who are always in need and the ones who gave up so much. To many people in our host country, we are the wealthy; the glowing answers to meeting their needs and who just need to give more.

This internal tug-of-war was very apparent within me this past Christmas morning.  I sat watching my children open their Christmas gifts, with my grandmother’s coffee mug in hand.  I use that mug every day because it helps me to feel closer to that spunky and vivacious grandma of mine, who lives thousands of miles away.  We ran the AC all morning so that we could have some relief from our nasty enemy-guest, hot season, who makes her unwelcomed and overstayed visit every November through April/May.  I felt so thankful for a home and for AC and for my grandma’s mug.  As I looked at our beautiful, glistening tree and the many gifts under it, I thought about how much more we have than most of our neighbors. There it was. That familiar puncture to the heart.  I thought about the children who go through our trash.  I thought about the lady who had just knocked on our door begging for money.  I thought about the many parents desperately looking for funds to pay their children’s school fees this time of year. I thought about those who heard their children’s cries the night before as they went to bed hungry. I felt guilt run over me as I watched my children’s joy.  As much as I tried, I couldn’t completely enjoy the moment.

I hadn’t taken another sip from my coffee when both my mind and heart switched to my other side, my American-born and raised side.  I looked at that same tree and it seemed so small, so embarrassing.  It is actually kind of a pathetic tree.  You know, one of those trees that people put on a table or in their children’s rooms.  I scanned the gifts and thought about how sad our little display looked in comparison to people back in America.  I wiped sweat off of my forehead (because one AC unit can only cover our hot season enemy-guest so much) and felt jealous about the sweaters and boots and the cozy blanketed family movie nights I had seen on social media, I thought about the hot chocolate and marshmallows while cozying up to the fireplace, those darn Starbucks selfies that people take with adorable outfits and silky shiny hair, the fun Santa visits to the mall and then I allowed myself to go there…I thought about the large family gatherings, with everyone assembled together laughing. Together…and probably perfectly not too cold and not too hot.

I thought about taking a picture and posting it.  I didn’t want to.  I didn’t want to document our Christmas morning for either one of my two worlds to either pity or envy.  The tortured thoughts and emotional tug-of-war that our two completely different worlds bring together are an even more unwelcomed guest than hot season.  But nevertheless, like hot season, they come…and they come often and they are relentless.

Last week I threw out some old notebooks and broken toys. I typically give almost everything away, but these were in very rough condition *shame-induced caveat. We know that all trash here will be picked through by neighbors, workers, or anyone else who passes by.  It’s something that you learn to live with.  It’s also the reason why I wait years to travel back to America with luggage of old underwear, so I can throw them away there.  I know, I know…you’re asking yourself “why don’t you just burn them?”.  Great idea.  We had that idea too.  There Aaron was, burning some old underwear, (me watching from inside) when a couple of gracious guys saw the fire going and came to help. They can never un-see what they saw that day; our crispy burning panties. And I can never un-see them see what they saw.  We all learned our lesson.  Travel back with the old unmentionables.  Throw them away at your parent’s house.  You are welcome for all the weird thoughts and feelings that accompanied that last anecdote.  Anyway, last week while purging, I accidentally threw away one of my daughter’s private notebooks. We then left for the afternoon and when we returned we saw a group of children filling their little dresses and pockets with items from our trash.  We also saw some of them reading the notebooks.  My heart broke as the little ones scattered in embarrassment, grabbing what they could while on the move.  We got in the house and I saw the wounded eyes of my child as she too felt sad for them but also felt the familiar sting of violation when watching strangers laugh and read her private writings.

In these moments, is my heart large enough to find pity on either end?  Do I dismiss the pain of my daughter because “at least she’s not digging through trash”?  How can I tend to her hurting heart without asking her to shove it away because “at least she doesn’t live like them”?  How can I comfort her when I, myself, struggle comforting my own pain, which always feels so insignificant?  How can we live among poverty, real and heartbreaking poverty, facing it every day, and still permit ourselves to acknowledge our own hurt?

How can I live in a world where I spend more money on cheese than some families do on their entire month’s food budget?  Can I find joy and thank God when my children rejoice in the mozzarella on their pizza on Friday nights?

So, living here in the “middle”, I have learned to live with heaviness.  All of us here in the “middle” learn to live a little bit heavy at all times, swallowing a million thoughts and emotions that enter our brains because it’s just too hard to process and articulate it all.

All of us who live in this “middle” are in a battle which is constantly fluctuating between abundance and need. You learn to cry with those in need and rejoice with those in abundance and find yourself living in both at times.  You learn to live without giving yourself too much permission to process or compare where you are currently falling in between those two extremes.

Those of us in the middle carry a pervasive struggle in our hearts.  You can’t really articulate it because it’s a kind of schizophrenic leap between guilt and jealousy, gratitude and shame, pitying others and pitying yourself, anger and sorrow, generosity and greed, a bleeding heart and a shocking coldness due to compassion fatigue.  It is a fight and we get tired of living in it often.  We want to enjoy moments and people and things, but it isn’t that simple anymore.  Our highs and delights are tempered, and your pains and sorrows often feel unworthy.

Most people didn’t come to the mission field with a desire to make a better life for themselves.  Many of us sold our homes, our vehicles, gave up good careers, solid future plans, access to great healthcare, and prepared our hearts to enter into a more difficult life. What we didn’t prepare for was leaving the States with our great sense of loss and sacrifice and then arriving in our host country as the wealthy.  Even the donated computers we type our newsletters on set us apart from most.  Our homes or vehicles or bicycles or our favorite-missionary-shoes-of-all-times- the Tevas or Birkenstocks, still feel strange and less than what we had back home; but they are rare luxuries here.  Even those missionaries who live in the village inside of mud huts with no running water carry health insurance cards that could save their children’s lives, and most are one phone call away from being able to return to the States if there was great danger.  It is not fair.  We are always going be different.  Though I’ve fought this mental battle for years, I don’t believe that the answer is living guilt-ridden, nor pretending we are poor (people see past that, sorry!), nor is it giving away every single thing we own.

That’s the funny thing about contentment, right?  We don’t get to choose what we are called to be content with.  We have to be content with what God has given.  In Philippians, Paul talks about this kind of contentment.  He says that he had to learn how to be content in every situation; how to be in need and how to have plenty, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.  Paul tells us that it is Christ who gives him the strength to do that.  And it’s Christ who gives us strength, whether in need or in plenty, to live the same.

God sees our struggle living in the “middle” of plenty and little and He enters into our pain.  He doesn’t categorize it or label certain needs or particular feelings as worthier of His time than others.  He is a good Father and as good fathers do, rather than comparing His children or manipulating them to be more like “______”, he meets us where we are and cares for our hearts.  He carries our burdens.  He tells us to lay them at His feet. He cares for the hungry and oppressed and he comforts his children, even the rich.  His love is not extended differently because of financial standing.  God looks at the heart despite circumstances.  If we are in need, He calls us to be content and trust Him for our daily bread.  If we are in excess, we are called to be generous and trust Him with our money, not hoarding or gathering treasures for ourselves on earth, and to be, yes, content.  There is always someone who will have less and always someone who will have more. Comparing will either build pride within us or place us into a pit of despair.

So, I don’t have this battle won, but I think the answer is learning to live well within the “middle” rather than fighting it. Those of us who live in the “middle” aren’t comfortable on either side anymore, but that is exactly where God has placed us.  So, we continue to feel the discomfort, the pain, help the hurting, cry with and sacrifice for those in need, fight for contentment in our own need.  When we are there on that side of our “middle ground”, in those moments, we need to be all there and not looking to the other side.  Let’s not compare or justify or defend or run or allow guilt to overrun.  Enter into pain and allow ourselves to hurt with those who are hurting, weep with those who are weeping and find contentment in loss and in need or in abundance.

Alternatively, when we are tempted to sink into sorrow at seeing yet another friend buy a home and build their American dream (while we are just trying to figure out how to stop our perpetual rat problems and live with cockroaches the size of our hand, spiders the size of our heads and snakes the size of our oldest children) acknowledge that pain as well.  We can’t stay in it nor should we dwell on it but acknowledging that it is real gives us permission to identify the temptation and take it to our Father.  For He cares.  On this side of our “middle” we must find contentment in having less but loving those who have more.

Let’s have the courage to face either side of our strange “middle” and then faith to give it to our Father.  I think we will find peace there.  We will be at peace, because though we are wildly out of control and insanely tugged from both of our realties, our Father is in control and He is good.  Like Job, who lived faithfully in both plenty and in painful loss, may our heart’s position here in the “middle” be “Naked I came from my mother’s womb  and naked shall I return. The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away.  Blessed be the name of the Lord.” If we can rest in that then our souls will find peace and contentment in our shaky and fluctuating “middle” ground.

  1. Stephanie, thank you for giving in yet another way….by opening your soul and allowing us to see into your heart and mind and, although distant and inexperienced by us, we get a new way of thinking and comprehending bits of your reality. This can then be used by Father to awaken a new awareness in us of just how great our earthly blessings are, of how selfishly we view them, and then prompts a re-evaluation of how Father would have us share them. And it also enriches and informs our prayers for all of you. Although many of us have or will live in other kinds of “middles”, you sharing your middle with us shows us the truth that there are times when that is exactly where God wants us: right smack dab in an uncomfortable or even painful “middle”. Thank you for staying in your middle, for graphically describing it for us, and thereby giving us hope that we can rest in His grace and glorify Him, wherever Father places us. Love you, girl!💓

    1. Thank you for sharing your heart and journey with us. We love you and pray for you often! Your friendship is one of our family’s greatest gifts on earth! With All Our Love, Scott for the entire O’Malley family.

  2. I can so identify with everything that you wrote. Thank you for sharing and putting words to how i feel so often. Blessings to you and your family!

  3. So, so true! I’m going to be processing this for a while… I’ve been on both sides of this and it is hard! I love your thoughts on contentment and on walking with others through what they are facing!

  4. Thank you for this. My husband and I have been on the field 3 years and I find this a constant struggle. Your encouragement through Scripture blessed my heart and sent me to my Father in prayer. Thank you!

  5. Thank you, Steph for sharing your heart and your insight into your/our world. God has certainly blessed you with a beautiful gift of writing and expressing to others what your lives look like on the mission field and how we can be in prayer for your families. I love and appreciate you more than words can express.

  6. Thank you for articulating what we have experienced for 24 years. We founded and administrate an orphanage
    for girls. We have 7 children; 1 at home with us, one with his family working with us and 5 in the U.S. We also have 16 grandchildren most who are in the U.S. as well. The tension between the 2 world is very difficult. He give Grace but we also feel the pain.

  7. Today Jesus has whispered, “Here’s a soul sister.” into my aching heart. Thank you so much for opening your heart and soul to an invisible world of strangers. I look forward to meeting you in eternity and sharing our stories. We have raised our 4 children in a remote village in Africa. We too have tried to burn trash, only to be horrified by the results. (The most vivid was children grabbing dirty disposable diapers out of the flames and dancing around yelling “I won!”) We have tried to find a balance between the world we left behind and the world outside our door, and found ourselves off kilter, upside down, dizzy, and more unbalanced than before. Thank you for the beautiful expression of the struggle, the beautiful challenge to never give up striving for contentment, and the beautiful reminder that our Lord is with us in the struggle.

  8. I am super glad that Susie Hohn linked your blog. It is so right on with the awfulness of life in the Middle. Though we live on the rich side (I teach at Western Seminary in Portland, OR), I also teach and live regularly on the developing side so my heart is pulled to the slums of Manila where we lived for 3 years way back when. or East Congo or North Uganda or Anglphile Cameroon or . . . well you know. Prayers for your gracious heart

  9. Thank you for your frankness. I’m not a missionary in a third world country, but God’s hands at a school in the states. I understand more fully your struggle and feel more compelled to pray for our missionaries more regularly. Thank you!

  10. Poignantly and accurately articulated. There are many layers to living in ‘the middle’, and each day fluctuates. We need to extend grace to ourselves in navigating this terrain…and continue to walk in pace with the Spirit, and lean on Him.

  11. Thank you.
    I am a brazilian living in France.
    I was not rich but some (lots of) facilities are far from me… since we said yes to God’s plan and we are living this overseas life… for 16 years now.
    Our struggles are not the same in the form… but are the same in their meaning.
    Even post pictures are hard… you are right. What will them tell? To whom? Inspire ? Pity? Envie? Jalousy?
    Pics never tell everything. They bring So different feelings according by the one who seed them… from where they are… Comparaison.

    Anyway. Thank you for your words.

    Somehow, I felt … « you are not alone Elisa »…

  12. I really appreciated reading this and finding your blog. I’ve just been browsing with my coffee this morning. We’ve been in West Africa for 4 years now and I literally thought about the Christmas tree, the trash (there was a lot more if it due to our girls being home from school!) and our cheese, always the cheese, over the last week. I also did some snooping to try and find you on instagram but couldn’t. Are you there? Blessings from this side of Africa!

  13. Well said. There are many middles in life whether it be of a physical of spiritual nature. The one most challenging for me is spiritual. The wisdom is the stretching out of our arm to serve and at the same time with the other arm protecting the immedient souls the Father in Heaven has placed us in our care. Thank goodness He gives out wisdom to whomever asks. He sure is a very good Dad! Blessings!

  14. I am so glad to read this! My dear friend whose family moved to the mission field from the US this spring shared it in their mission support FB group. I’d love to share my response to her with you as we Thank you so much for taking time to write this and help us understand.
    [To my friend],I am so glad that she wrote this blog post, and that you found it and read it, and also shared it with us. I am so glad to have read it to understand what emotional place and also financial position, dilemmas and tug of war of feelings, etc… that you all live with.

    It was so beautiful how she included the passage about Paul and contentment… And then it hit me like a ton of beautiful, heart wrenching bricks – how Jesus was the first to live in the middle. That is exactly what he did…He knew everything that was behind at his home and he knew how much he was lacking to give that up, but how it was at his beck and call with just a word if he should summon it. And being with all the people that have not come from that same place and knew nothing of it like he did, but all so depraved and wanting his charity and miracles to rescue them.

    I hope you all are comforted that it is not those still pursuing the American dream that send you, but the Kingdom of God that sends you— those in heaven and those of us here who have gotten to be part of that — but the Kingdom of God is your heritage and …the originator of your mission.

    Maybe the middle is the Kingdom of God…

    Blessed are you who are living in the middle like the Lord did!!

  15. I am by no means in the middle but I do feel the tug of what I have and what my refugee friends have here in America. I have. They have lost and must rebuild. Oh the guilt I feel at times.

  16. Beautifully written. You encapsulated so many of the emotions I have felt in words that I haven’t the gift to write. Blessings to you and yours.
    Here’s to living in the middle…

  17. I read this and cried and shared it on facebook because it feels like you read my diary. Then my grandmother read it and cried and shared it too because she’s a huge empath. THANK YOU!

  18. Thank you for so succinctly articulating this ache and pain! It never gets easier. I remember some of my guiltiest “oops”: poignant is the memory when our security review indicated we all needed to stock 3 months of food supply (an obscenely wealthy guilt when I stop to think of it!) in case of emergencies or embargos against our country. Shopping takes on a whole new level of chore here – so four of us decided to go together downtown to shop and make it a bit fun. We went to the bulk stores … which actually doesn’t mean discount – the prices are the same, it just means that we can pick up a plastic wrapped flat of tuna tins instead of picking up multiples one by one (yup – and the lazy guilt … a flat of food!). We had fun laughing and giggling our way through the stores together. Yet, when we drove home, my house was the first stop and I will never forget the look on my househelp and guard’s faces when they saw more food in this truck than they have seen in the shacks where they shop! Though I eat through and replenish always, it is a heart struggle to stock food in my house in case of emergency … a struggle to go each month downtown to buy food and the embarassement of wealth I arrive home with!
    On the flip side, my first home assignment I joined a Bible study and one day sat in a large home and listened to all the women talking about contentment … all the while looking around and thinking about how what I shipped to Africa would fit in their front door vestibule. That was heart heavy too.
    I love how you bring it back to contentment – to be content in what I have in the face of all the poverty and pain daily surrounding me. I will be reflecting on this for a long time!

  19. Thank you for this. I have a son on the mission field, but my seeing the middle began for me in elementary school, I guess because I was an early and voracious reader. We should all see ourselves in the middle, because there are richer and poorer people, no matter who we are. Once we see it that way, it feels uncomfortable, and it always will feel that way.

  20. Well said! I’ve been living in a central African country for six years, and I feel the constant pull of those two worlds! Take my house for example. When I look at it through the eyes of the locals, it is a palace: three bedrooms, two bathrooms, kitchen, living room and dining room, electricity, running water, electric fans.

    But when I look at it through my “Western” eyes, I see it differently: the cracks in the aging cement, the spiders in the corners, the dust that never quite goes away, the limited electrical capacity, the lack of air conditioning, the constant battle with hungry mice and termites.

    But you have stated it so well: “That’s the funny thing about contentment, right? We don’t get to choose what we are called to be content with. We have to be content with what God has given…. Those of us who live in the “middle” aren’t comfortable on either side anymore, but that is exactly where God has placed us.”

  21. Thank you for articulating this so well! I have lived and struggled and wrestled with this reality for 16 years, and while I often come to this same conclusion, but it is such a constant reality … and good to know I’m not ridiculous in constantly wrestling in the middle!

  22. I’m a 4th generation missionary married to a 2nd gen. We (and our kids) have now wrestled with these issues for more than a century on three continents and a few islands. Physical possessions, comforts and safety are blessings and curses, and we cannot always live in and focus on the spiritual realm–our primary task. Jesus didn’t. Thank you, Steph, for expressing what our family has experienced and discussed for a very long time. We long for Home, when this will all be behind us.

  23. That was a masterpiece! I could feel your heart in every line. Jeri you are doing Kingdom business and what you are doing has eternal consequences. Prayers for you as you continue the journey the Lord has you on in “the middle ground.” Love you little sister

  24. Cheers to everyone who heed the call to live in the middle, to those before us and to those after us! Awesome piece, thank you.

  25. Wow. I sure can relate to this. I lived and worked in rural South America as well as in East Africa. I was keenly aware of being stuck in the middle, as you call it, and wrote about that in both my memoirs. But my heart breaks, now, when I realize how clueless I was in recognizing the depths of some people’s extreme poverty. I could have done so much more for them! I wish I could go back and do it over.

  26. Good word! After serving in South Pacific for ten years, living in the middle isn’t any easier. Thanks for your encouragement ❤️

  27. Thank you for opening my eyes even more to extreme missionary struggles. Helps get me back on track. There is a mild version of it even here in the states. We retired for health reasons from working at a Bible Camp and our oldest son and family has just been called to go to Norway with Wyam. We expected to be broke but God did some interresting ways to take care of us. I was starting to get that embarrassed feeling it is a comfortable home but old double wides are not respected by some. We could pull in a fancy new triplewide and make payments,,,,or help support our son and missionaries we know need our help. Thank you for helping me get my attitude back in balance.

  28. Indeed, thank you for sharing so openly. There are many types of “middles.” The one I’m getting a tiny taste of is helping the addict, while seeing pain caused. Hearing the gossip, calling a stop to it, knowing it is out of hurt and fear. Also knowing it will cause the one who caused so much pain a roadblock to getting and staying clean. Trust is required on both sides and has been broken on “both” sides. Those who did the hurting. Those who wouldn’t help. Those who helped in their own strength, failing to understand that helping that way is hurting, and those who walked with Jesus not knowing the outcome possibly ever and feeling the sense of loss that causes one to question. On the other side of hurt and beginning of recovery are the bridges – the “middle.” The “middle” is difficult and I don’t know the full weight, but I think your words bring light to much that cannot be fully shared with our limited language. Indeed, it is heavy.

  29. I can so identify with this and kind of chuckled at the part about waiting to get back to the States to discard old undergaments. In my case it would be Canada but I so wish I had waited to toss mine! We recently moved to a smaller house in a safer neighbourhood. Unlike our last neighbourhood, this one is closed circuit. In our former place I was used to people going through our garbage. I honeslty wasn’t prepared for it here, and was rather shocked and albeit embarassed to one day go outside the gate of my house to find some of my discarded undwear laying outside of the bin!

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