Five Lessons Learned from Living Overseas

For six months our family lived in the South Pacific, specifically, the island country of Fiji. We were there serving on behalf of FamilyLife as volunteers with the Methodist Church of Fiji, to help them strengthen their marriage and family training initiative.

fiji map from google maps

Ok – I know what you’re thinking. “Fiji? Really? Wow – what a sacrifice there buddy.” Hey you know what? You’re partly right. I wouldn’t call it a “sacrifice.” It was more of an adventure. Life there is so different from the US – and moving an entire family half way around the world certainly has challenges.

We learned a few things about the world and about ourselves that I’m going to share in this post. But first, a little bit about Fiji to set the stage.

FIJI

Fiji is south of the equator and just across the date line. It’s about an eleven hour flight from LA, and three hours on to Sydney. We moved there during their winter season, so the temperature was pretty mild, though very humid. Most days were mid 70s with 90+% humidity. In fact, one morning, Julie said, “It feels drier than yesterday.” The day before it was 98% humidity. She checked and, sure enough, it had plummeted to 87%.

Fiji is comprised of about 330 islands, of those about 100 are inhabited. About 800,000 people live in Fiji, half of which live on the main Island, and half of those live in the capital city of Suva, where we lived. Suva is also largest and most influential city of twenty or so island nations in the South Pacific (excluding Australia & New Zealand). Thus many Pacific Islanders come there for business and education (a large university is also centered in Suva).

80% of Fijians identify as Christian. 60% of those attend a Methodist Church. Christianity has an influential cultural role as well that goes back to the days of Methodist missionaries coming and turning them away from cannibalism in the 1870s.

It’s a fascinating place with so much to offer – the islands, the culture, and the incredibly friendly people. And not just southern-USA-bless-your-heart kind of friendly, but a friendliness that seeps out from every pore of the culture, it’s just a natural and genuine expression of who they are.

FRONT OF THE POSTCARD

When most people think of Fiji, they likely think of a water bottle, but also the postcard pictures. The luscious beaches. The tropical paradise setting. The coral reefs and snorkeling. The five-star resorts on remote islands. Castaway was filmed there. The tribal culture.

kids at island
If we looked the other direction you could see where Castaway was filmed.
sunset
Sunrise near the swim team practice pool.
warrior guys
No worries. We felt safe.

Now, all of those photos are true. It really is an amazing place. These islands exist. The people are amazing. It’s a paradise in many ways. In fact, here’s a picture from the back porch of the house where we lived.

back porch 1

Here you can see the ocean. Something like 90% of Fijians live within sight of the ocean. You can see downtown Suva here. You can see the coastline. You can just barely see Beqa Island off in the distance if you squint real hard. That’s the island famous for the firewalkers, which they still do today. It was an amazing view that we loved seeing many days (when the clouds and rain parted).

But, as we heard another missionary couple say, “There’s another side to the postcard.”

THE OTHER SIDE OF THE POSTCARD

If I we were to zoom in closer on this view, you’d start to see some imperfections.

back porch 2

There are no beaches in this photo. It’s more of a port town. We’re about 45minutes from a beach you’d want to play on (which still isn’t bad). And though the bay looks amazing from the photo, there are ships wrecked all over the harbor. One friend said, as we were out for an afternoon cruise on his boat, that there were twenty-six ships sunk in the harbor. I pointed out one and said, “how long has that been there?” he said, “oh wait… that’s number twenty-seven.”

You can also see the beautifully terraced hillside just below us. Want to guess why it’s terraced? It’s a former landfill. In fact, some of our neighbors who grew up there said they used to get made fun of at school for being from the “stinky neighborhood.” No worries though – it was all closed up and no smell when we arrived.

Below us, neighbors often burned trash – plastic bottles. Lovely smell. And since we didn’t have A/C, our windows stayed open (no screens) for the local mosquito colony to come and go as they please. Our first night there, I counted 70 bites on my legs the next morning.

Then there were the stray dogs. In fact. A typical day for us was all about the dogs. At our door. On the street. Shopping. Under the cars. And barking all night.

Now I hope our Fijian friends don’t think we’re complaining – because we had an AMAZING time there – (and you laughed with us about these things too…) just trying to help set the stage for our American friends who haven’t been there.

The point being, There’s another side to the postcard.

Ok, side note: Isn’t this true of almost anything in life? I mean, I do my best to put forward ‘the postcard’ version of my life. Yet there’s another side to it. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve known a couple who look like they had everything together – like they are just perfect. And then you hear they’re getting divorced, seemingly out of the blue. There’s another side to the postcard.

This is true of the family situation in Fiji as well (thus the reason we were invited there). Fiji is famous for the people being incredibly friendly. And man is this ever true. You get off the plane and they’re singing you a welcome song at 6AM with guitars and ukuleles and huge smiles. Where else does that happen? (Spoiler Alert: not in Los Angeles,  Brisbane, or Little Rock.)

But there’s another side to the postcard.

My first visit to Fiji, back in 2011, I went out to dinner late one night with the couple hosting us. We were walking back to our hotel. It was dark – but we felt safe – always have in Fiji. As we approached the front gate, we paused to chat a bit. There was a couple standing next to us talking. All of the sudden the husband, a big hulking rugby player looking Fiji guy, slaps his wife across the face so hard that she crumbles in a pile next to us. The American guy I was with starts arguing with the husband and I thought they were going to go to blows. I start backing up thinking, “I don’t want to end up in a Fiji prison” (especially not the one we drove past). But the security guard came out and calmed everything down. We ask him to call the police to report domestic violence. He says, “We don’t do that here.”

There’s another side to the postcard.

And we’re no different. We all put our best foot forward as much as we can, but there’s stuff in there we don’t like and don’t want anyone else to know. And we get really good at hiding it.

The Five Lessons

Before leaving for Fiji, one of the elders at our church in Arkansas mentioned how their family had memorized some verses in Colossians during a recent vacation. We took that idea and focused on one verse a month while we were there.

So I’m going to share some lessons we learned through the lens of Colossians 3:12-17. There are a number of key words in this passage that coincide well with our experiences and lessons learned overseas. I won’t unpack all of these verses in this post, but I’ll highlight FIVE Lessons we drew from these verses that apply to our time in Fiji.

#1 – IDENTITY MATTERS

There were a number of moments that first month where I really wrestled with questions like, “Why are we here? Will we make a difference? Does this really matter?” It started to weigh heavy on me. But Colossians 3:12 was our theme verse for the month. It says, “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.” And we kept coming back to this verse over and over again. As we did, one thing that stood out was the truth of who we are in Christ. “God’s Chosen ones. Holy and Beloved.” Who you are in Christ matters so much more than what you accomplish, more than your activity, more than your successes.

Americans tend to be defined by what they do. You tend to learn someone’s occupation before anything else, and are more likely to remember they were a  Doctor/Lawyer/Minister/Mother/Student than you are to remember their name. You know what I often learned about someone in Fiji before their occupation? Where they were from. What island or village their family hailed from. It might even be some remote place they’d never seen. But it defined who they are more than individual accomplishments. It determined the way they interacted with others. Pecking orders. Friendships. Rivalries in good fun. I watched guys bond in an instant when they learned they were from the same island, the way you would if you met someone from your hometown when you were least expecting it.

Can I rest in where I’m from? In who I am? Could I rest in where God had me? I could. Because what was the alternative? To run back? To bail out? No. I had to abide fully in the moment.

That meant applying the rest of the verse.

“Put on… Compassionate Hearts. Kindness. Humility. Meekness. Patience.” We needed all of these things with one another. With the culture. With our co-workers. To daily dwell on these attributes set my heart in the right direction. I learned to be fully present.

Identity matters.

#2 PEACE

There were two words that really stood out to us in verse 15 of Colossians 3. The first was the word “peace,” (the second was “thankfulness” – which is point #3). Part of verse 15 says, “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts.” A better translation of “let it rule,” would be more along the lines of “it must rule.” It’s a command, not a request of preference.

Man did we ever learn this one. But it wasn’t as hard as you would think. Because the culture was bent toward peace.

One afternoon I was asked to speak to a group of fellow ministers. I was really excited about this. The group seemed eager to hear what I had to share (the topic was fundraising), but we were running behind. No worries. We could still make it on time. Then the taxi driver decides to go through town instead of around town (the normal route) and we get stuck. Man I was mad. What was he thinking? What’s the deal? But I kept it inside – didn’t say anything. We show up about 15 minutes late. I was so embarrassed. How could I show my face? But when we walk in the door, they had just broke for lunch. So it was still another hour before I spoke. That kind of thing happened so often – it became the norm. Now you can let that kind of thing drive you crazy. Or you can adjust. And turn toward peace.

Americans tend to be control freaks. Money and modern conveniences allow for some measure of this. But control is an illusion. Things don’t always go according to plan. So ask, “What is God doing through this? How is he going to use this for His good?”

In 2010 I stepped out on the driveway of the house we were renting. I was headed out to the office. But it took me a second to realize my truck wasn’t there. Just an empty spot. I knew immediately it had been stolen for a second time. But I actually smiled and thought, “What’s God going to do through this?” We were broke at the time. We lost a fair amount of money on our house in Phoenix (bought high in 2007 and sold low in 2008 – I don’t recommend it). We were in a season of fund raising for serving in ministry. Things were tight. I had no idea what we were going to do.

But God provided a loaner car for six months through a family at our church. Then we were given a car from a friend in Kentucky, then given a car from another friend in Little Rock when that one wore out. This car had been given to that friend from a family from our church. Then when that was nearing the end, another friend in Little Rock gave us a car. Each time we’ve been given a car, we’ve been able to give one away. We’ve given three cars away (four if you include the truck… ahem). As far as I know, all are still being driven. I love to give, but when we started in ministry I just assumed we’d have less to give. But how many people do you know that have been able to give away four cars? (ok, three.) I never could have dreamed of that.

What is God going to do when things don’t go according to plan?

When we showed up in Fiji we started out speaking at their annual student conference. Amazing experience. Students on FIRE for Christ. It was so much fun.

Then we started in on the main project we came to Fiji for. We spent time evaluating the program and making recommendations for how to best implement them. And it became clear that the organization we were tasked to work with were not ready to launch. And so it felt like we weren’t being used. We weren’t doing as much direct ministry as we thought we would be doing in that setting. But other doors kept opening. To speak in other settings. To meet with Cru staff. To teach at weekly meetings. Speak on manhood/womanhood. To teach a seminary course for the Cru staff there. And in some ways I think this will be a more effective, more lasting ministry because we were investing heavily in the leadership – those folks who are remaining behind. We forged some great friendships and learned quite a bit from them as well.

takalana bay
One student snapped a photo of us on a weekend outing (JI was swimming).
ibs class
Cru staff after taking a class on how to study the Bible. They’re smiling because of how great the class was. Or because it was over.

But the key to this was Peace. Patience. Peace in the midst of the uncertainty.

#3 GRATITUDE – Third point is gratitude. Thankfulness. That word shows up three times in this section, v15, v.16, and v.17. I think Paul, the author of Colossians, was trying to make a point. We all need more gratitude. And Fiji is a great place to learn this.

The people in Fiji have to be some of the happiest – joy filled people I have ever met. No matter where you went you heard the high pitched laugh that was so distinctive. You saw people encouraging one another and building one another up. It was such an encouraging place.

There was one stretch where it rained 37 days in a row. Our thankfulness meter was plummeting. I started hiding Julie’s passport (just kidding… sort of). One afternoon I look out, and there’s a group of people playing volleyball. Right in the middle of the street. With no net. A couple of kids. Moms. And it’s pouring outside. No raincoats. No boots. No umbrellas. Just in their normal clothes. And they’re laughing on top of it.

It is sometimes easy to focus on what we don’t have. But I remember thinking one day: We didn’t come here for it to be glamorous. And you know what? It really isn’t that bad. We live in a modern city. With restaurants and internet and access to technology and two movie theaters. There’s regular electricity and water. Cars. A safe neighborhood. Most everyone speaks English. And they like us and want us there. So much to be grateful for!

Compare this to a friend who lived in the bush in Africa 10 years. They didn’t speak the language when they showed up. Had to build his own house. Where they lived, people only shook hands and touched produce in the market with right hand. Because the left hand was reserved for personal hygiene if you know what I mean. I had been to Africa a couple of times and thought I could relate to what his life was like. Oh man I had to email him and apologize.

Most times in life I’ve gotten derailed because of a lack of gratitude. What can I be grateful for in the moment? We’ll likely never have the kind of time together as a family we had in Fiji. Ever. So make the most of every moment. You can always find something to be grateful for. Whoever you are in conflict with. What’s one thing you can be grateful for? Move toward gratitude.

#4 God’s word and the careful teaching of it MATTERS. It REALLY does.

There are a variety of different church experiences in Fiji. There’s the traditional, very solemn, very methodical type of service. Lots of standing and repeating. Lots of yelling during the sermon.

There’s the newer style non-denominational – a little more upbeat – a little more emphasis on the Holy Spirit and prayer and missions (in both of the above, I promise, no joke, almost every one of these services, a dog wandered in like he owned the place. No one batted an eye.)

dog in photo
Random dog invading our group photo. No worries.

There’s also the Australian import – the video feed of super hip pastors and professional bands.

So many different experiences of church. Yet one thing we saw in common among Christians in Fiji was a love of God’s word and hunger for resources that would help them tell others about what a difference Christ has made in their life.

Because they knew that the Bible matters. And “accurately handling the word of truth” as Colossians 3:16 says, MATTERS. It matters immensely.

People were hungry for Christ-centered, biblically rooted resources they could use to do ministry. So we started putting things in their hands. And when they had them, they flourished.

rocko
Rocko had the firmest grip you’ve ever felt. Notice I’m keeping my hands clear of his.

ROCKO took Stepping Up (a 10-week video series on what the Bible says about manhood) and put it in the hands of some prisoners. His hope is to show them that there’s another way forward. They can find true manhood in an eternal standard and use their strength for good, not evil.

EDWIN and LILIANA took Preparing for Marriage and started infusing that into the lives of young couples in their home group, teaching them what it means to have a marriage rooted in Christ, not just in their own happiness.

A PASTOR’S COLLEGE took Homebuilders and experienced what it was like to use that material to teach your people how to self-feed – to teach them to learn from one another and not just wait on insights from on high from the pastors. And you could see them come alive with excitement.

SAVE & BUI took Passport2Purity and lead the six youth living in their home through it. They all accepted Christ and have a vision for what it means to live a life of purity.

 

#5 – PEOPLE ARE ALWAYS WATCHING

VERSE 17: I love verse 17 of Colossians 3 which says, “Whatever you do, in word or deed, do all to the glory of God.”

Community is so important in Fiji. I think that is partly due to the size of the country. It’s a small place compared to the US – even the main island, the largest, is only the size of Connecticut. It’s hard to get around. You can’t get very far away from your family and friends. Imagine if 90% of the people you knew lived between your city and another one two hours away. Or somewhere in between. You can’t really feel what it’s like till you’ve spent time there, but it definitely shapes the way people relate to one another.

As a result, people are watching. They are always watching. Everywhere we went, someone knew us. Countless times I’d be standing in line and the person next to me would say, “Hello John.” I didn’t even seem before then. Yet it might have been someone I just left a meeting with.

Near the end of our time there Julie was visiting with one of our neighbors who began to list off, in great detail, all the people who had visited our home over the last six months. She knew all of them and was related to many of them.

It’s interesting how different life is there. I can’t recall meeting a person from Fiji who lived alone. On our street, you could never really tell how many people lived in a home – there were so many coming and going. And most every home was multi-generational. Grandma, mom and dad, uncle, cousins. It wasn’t uncommon for a couple, for the first couple of years after marriage, to move in with one of their parents. And they might even be there through the first few years of kids. Everyone threw in together and helped out.

Yet from our porch at our home in the U.S.A., I can see 5 homes where only one person lives (or did recently).

I shared this with a Fijian neighbor, about an older woman living alone in our neighborhood, and this person said, “What’s wrong with her children? Do they not love her?” Ha! I could see how this person would think that. Yet in the U.S. I think most people see it as a badge of pride to be able to live alone deep into their later years. We all tend to admire the resiliency and independence of that person.

I’m not saying one is right and one is wrong – it’s just two very different ways of living.

So many times people would just show up and we would sit and talk for hours. But life back in America rarely allows for that. We hurried more in our first week back home than in the entire six months we lived in Fiji. And I hate the rush. I really do. Because hurry kills the soul. It forces you to focus on the immediate and be frustrated by the little things. And I’ve rarely heard from God when I’ve been in a hurry. Maybe this doesn’t happen to you. Maybe it’s just me. But I suspect we’re all a little sick with hurry. Sometimes you can’t see it till you’ve stepped away.

American culture is very isolated, and sick with hurry. But we need one another. We desperately need one another. And community only happens with time. And community happens in places where people are watching. And that’s overall a good thing.

IN SUMMARY

How would I wrap up everything we experienced there? I’m not sure it’s possible. But one word keeps coming to mind that I think this passage is all about.

God is sovereign. He is in control. He can be trusted completely.

You don’t have to move to Fiji for six months to experience that. Everyone has something hanging over your head that you’re not sure if God will show up for.

  • Maybe it’s a huge project at work. You don’t know how it’s going to get done.
  • Maybe you’re not sure how you’re going to keep it going with your spouse. You’re not sure how to voice what’s hurting deep down inside.
  • Maybe you’re about to give up on a family member. Your brother has pushed you too far. Or that child seems beyond reach.
  • Maybe it’s trusting your parents when you don’t want to. When you don’t understand their decisions.
  • Or maybe you’re older and need to trust your adult children to help care for you.
  • Maybe you’re not sure how you’re going to make all the bills this month.

God is Sovereign. He will meet you. And here’s what he wants for you. Trust him today. Trust him in the moment. The enemy loves to steal your joy in the moment with worry for the future. All you can do is enjoy what you have right now.

As much as we were looking forward to the return home, there were no guarantees we would make it back from Fiji. One little infection and it could all be over. Maybe the plane goes down. Or a bus careens into a canyon. There are a million ways to die in Fiji, or anywhere. From my bedroom window, I watched a group of men drag the lifeless body of an 8-year-old little girl from underneath a taxi while the mother watched, screaming. Just a moment before they were hand-in-hand, waiting to cross the street.

No guarantees.

I drove past a graveyard every day and it seemed to call out “Hey buddy. Don’t forget. Don’t get arrogant. You’ll be here too. One day. Just like everyone else. Just like that eight year old little girl. Don’t forget.” So make the most of today.

This was the big take-away. Be present in every moment. Enjoy every moment. Make the most of it, whatever it is. You’ll never get that moment back – so don’t waste it worrying or complaining. I’m embarrassed to admit this is true, but I mostly ruined a trip our family took one weekend to a beautiful resort island. I was in hyper-critical mode and complaining about so many things. I repeat, I was on a gorgeous island. In Fiji. With my family. And I was complaining. Now that is sick. But hey that was one weekend. And none of us are perfect. I don’t want that to happen again though. Not in Fiji, not in Little Rock, not anywhere. Make the most of every moment!

 

 

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