Why I Am Not Going to See “The Impossible”

A new movie, that is not Les Mis, hit theatres recently and, though the subject matter is very personal to me, I won’t be going to see this one. Check out the trailer for The Impossible here:

This movie tells the story of a family who become separated from one another as they are vacationing at a luxury resort in Thailand when the 2004 Asian tsunami hit. There the similarities begin and end with my family because I too was on vacation that fateful day, though never separated from my family as we were on our way to swim with manatees in Florida. And this is also where Hollywood starts manipulating the story to attempt to get you to think, “Can you imagine if that happened to us?!!! OMG!!!” Truthfully this movie is based on the experience of a Spanish family..close culture enough, but..if Hollywood turns the Spanish family into an “English” family, well, that’s even closer. Talk about an “us-centric” perspective.

Although I am sure there is a powerful story to tell about what happened to this family that day and in the days that followed, I couldn’t bear to watch a film about the tsunami told from this perspective. Again, no disrespect to the real family that this based_on_a_true_story film is about, but I am less interested in how this disaster affected a Western white family, than I am in its impact on the people who call that part of the world their home. Hundreds of thousands of lives were lost in the 2004 tsunami and countless more had their lives forever changed. A tiny fraction of those looked like the family in The Impossible.

Almost two years after the disaster, my family and I moved to the area that was hardest hit by the tsunami and lived there for 3 years. In our time there, I never met a single person who had not lost family and or dear friends in the disaster. I met mothers who lost all of their children, their babies literally wrenched from their arms by the rushing waters, husbands who lost their wives, wives who lost their husbands, children who lost their parents, men who lost their livelihood in a matter of minutes, and friends who lost everyone they grew up with. The loss penetrated every home and every family in this region, which has become a second home to me.

Unlike the white, European family on vacation in Thailand, they didn’t get to leave the destruction behind and “go back home.” Though rebuilding has taken place and 8 years have now passed, my friends in the devastation area can never escape what happened on December 26, 2004. Everywhere and every day there are reminders. Holidays without family members, passing the many mass graves every day, wondering if the never_found bodies of their loved ones lie there, seeing where their old house once stood. There is no escaping the obliterated landscape. Its where they still live.

But Hollywood would never want to make a big screen picture about the locals who suffered that day. Westerners much prefer to see a story about people that look like them, live like them and in this case, have a way better accent than I do, Naomi Watts. Because those are the shoes we can see ourselves in, and that is how most people want to view the world, from our own perspective. We can’t really relate to what the locals went through, or how their lives were turned completely upside down and inside out on that fateful day. After all, when it comes to the movies, that wouldn’t be entertainment.

When I talked with one local about their tsunami memories 8 years in to the disaster, they said, “I remember the silence.” The city was noisy that day, as it usually is, with the sounds of motorbikes, roosters, the Muslim call to prayer, people’s voices. And then when the water came, as it approached the city, you heard yells and cries for help followed by an immediate and seemingly permanent silence. It was as if someone had switched off a light. The silence that suddenly engulfed the city was so loud. I can never forget the silence.”

The tsunami of December 26, 2004 claimed hundreds of thousands of lives in a matter of minutes, and yet a very small fraction of them actually looked like those portrayed in this movie. Here is a picture of a real person whose life was impacted by the tsunami.

KJ8P6982Would you pay $8 to see a movie about how the tsunami affected this woman? A devout Muslim woman in a third world country who likely doesn’t even have a high school education, whose husband may be a fisherman, and may not have running water in her home? Like the white family, she was profoundly affected by the disaster. And yet, 8 years on, she has lived through unimaginable loss, seen rebuilding in her province and been forced to move on with her life. And yet there are some areas of her life which no new paint, bricks and redevelopment money can ever repair, and no Hollywood movie could ever adequately capture.

I don’t mean to minimize the trauma the family in The Impossible experienced on their exotic vacation, but a movie about the tsunami from the tourist’s perspective does not interest me, especially when the main characters are a family that looks and lives like mine. What a gross misrepresentation.

What Getting Typhoid Taught Me

photoI Need to Plan Ahead
I seriously lost my ability to be punctual when I lived overseas, and try as I may, I have never been able to quite get it back to where it probably needs to be to fit in and not make people mad at me in America. At least this time the only person I hurt really was myself. So what did I not do as I prepared to go to India for 9 days in mid October? Just forget to update my outdated typhoid vaccine, that’s all. Thankfully I have friends that are doctors that generously wrote me a prescription just in time. I finished my vaccine the day we left, not a week before we left like you’re supposed to. Mistake #1.
I Need to Change My Attitude
Besides my time insensitivity, why did I put off getting my vaccine? I didn’t think it was such a big deal if I never got around to it. When you have lived in the tropics and had to eliminate the possibility of malaria, typhoid or dengue every time you had a fever, you start to see these 3 as not a big deal, because…well…they’re… so… common! “If I get it, we’ll treat it,” was my really dumb thought process. These tropical diseases actually are a very big deal…yes, they are..Maybe this was my mistake #1, because if I had the right attitude to begin with, that vaccine would have been taken in plenty of time and I wouldn’t be writing this.
I Need to Remember Where I Am
India felt so wonderfully comfortable to me the moment I arrived, like I had been there 100 times. India and my beloved Southeast Asia felt so similar in too many ways I guess. So comfortable was I, so at home did I feel, that I did some dumb things…like brushing my teeth and rinsing my mouth out with tap water, not ensuring that all the water I was drinking was bottled, and forgetting to wash that papaya we bought at the market before I peeled and cut it (Sorry, Beth..) and then eating almost the whole thing because there ain’t nothing like a fresh papaya from asia..and who knows what else. Mistake #3, 4 and 5, and maybe 6, 7 and 8.
I Appreciate Quick and Cheap Access to Prescription Medicine When I Need it
Just like in Southeast Asia, in India you can go to a pharmacy and get prescription medication without a prescription, and for pennies too. That may sound really wrong, but it can be very helpful when you are very sick. And by the way America, I have one serious ‘shame on you’ for you for your unnecessarily high prescription drug prices!! But..back to the point. When you are sick, really really sick, and you have 16 hours of air travel between you and the States, you are really grateful you can get some drugs for the ride home. The first leg of our trip home was a 9 hour flight from Mumbai to London and I never got out of my seat even once..my coach seat, I was that asleep. Thank you India!
When You are Sick, There is No Place Like Home
I live just a few miles from the University of North Carolina Hospital, one of the best in the world, so when it was time to give in and get to the ER, it was a short drive. I realize how easily I could have been hospitalized in India, or, more importantly, I could have been my former teammate who got Typhoid in Southeast Asia. He had no hospital, no IV, and no antibiotics to get him better like I did. Jason, you are my typhoid hero. When you’re sicker than you ever thought possible, some people want their Mom, I just wanted to be in the States. But thankful as I was, as I lay in my hospital bed wondering if, when, and how I would ever feel better, I also thought about all of my friends back in SE Asia, especially my former house helper and dear friend Natalie. Why do I get to be in a private room with round the clock access to top notch medical care but if she were to get typhoid she would simply have to endure the suffering in her un air conditioned tin roof home and hope she would survive with no doctor to care for her and no IV fluids to ward off her dehydration? Why do I get such preferential treatment just because of where I was born? It isn’t fair. I also thought about Adoniram and Ann Judson. They suffered many tropical diseases as they labored for years in Myanmar. They suffered in their beds with mosquitoes swarming around them, in sweltering heat, without IVs, antibiotics, cable TV, a call button, or their family. When their only hope of recovery was leaving the country to convalesce, they didn’t have to board a jet, they had to board a ship. That would not have been a good option for this easily seasick lady.They boarded that ship knowing they would likely not survive the journey. Thinking about them gave me all the perspective I needed on what comparitively speaking didn’t seem like such a bad situation after all.
In the “Avoid the Phoid” Game, I Lose
I’m not the only one who should have taken all of this a lot more seriously. We had a good friend come out to visit us while we lived in SE Asia and he too forgot to get his typhoid vaccine. But unlike me, he was a little hesitant at certain restaurants and with certain foods while he was with us. Did I mention that he is a lot smarter than I am? Since he has a great sense of humor, he confessed that he was just trying to “avoid the phoid,” which became a running joke between us. The latest score in that game is Mike 1, Hilary 0.
My Life is NOT More Valuable Than Another’s
$16,762.96. That is what it cost to treat my typhoid in America. Plus a few rupees to buy the prescription drugs I got without a prescription in India to drug me for the flights back to the States. While I am beyond grateful for health insurance and that I live 10 mins from one of the best hospitals in the world, I can’t help but think about my loved ones in Southeast Asia. My life is NOT more valuable than theirs and yet when they get typhoid, the outcome is not always the same because they don’t have the same access to medical care that I do, nor the resources to pay for it 😦 How many lives could be saved with $16,000?! Wayyy more than just one 😦
Never Google “How Does Someone Get Typhoid?”
It will just make you feel worse.

Thoughts on “Sent” From a Church Planter in South Asia

My first book (WHAT?!!), Sent: How One Ordinary Family Traded the American Dream for God’s Greater Purpose comes out in February. No big deal. (!!!!!!) My publisher, WaterBrook Press, has generously produced advanced reading copies which I have been passing out to friends over the last couple of months to generate interest in the book. (I have that old commercial “You tell two friends and they’ll tell two friends and so on and so on” running thru my head as I type this)..

Everyone has been very kind and generous with their praise, but one person’s feedback has really meant a lot to me. I honestly never set out to be a published author, though it is a super cool title to be able to claim. I simply believed I had a story to tell that could possibly be used to encourage others. I thought most people would read it and think, well, if Hilary can do it, then I definitely can too, because, well, that’s just true. I assumed that the people who would most enjoy it would be living in America, challenged and encouraged to ‘put their Yes on the table’ and follow Jesus whereever He called them to go, regardless of what that looked like. So when a seasoned church planter, a very mature and awesome young woman currently planted in South Asia, serving with her husband and raising her young children far away from the comfort and convenience in America, sent me the following, well, she made my day…

I enjoyed your book so much.  It really helped me to process a lot of what we have experienced in our time overseas.  It was encouraging to see how the Lord has called us and grown us and changed us.  And it showed me areas I really need to grow—in loving others, in embracing people and all their differences and what I perceive as weaknesses.  Here are a few themes that resonated with me—

Entrusting our children to the Lord, even allowing them to go through suffering, not being able to “fix” everything or give them a perfectly easy life, knowing that God uses difficulty for good, even in the lives of our children—this is a big lesson I am sure I’ll continue to learn as long as I’m a mom.

It reminded me of my story, of all the ways God has proven himself faithful to me, of all the ways he has been patient with me and led me step by step—makes me want to be more intentional to record all of those “spiritual markers” in my life.

It reminded me of what an amazing gift our team is to me, and the special fellowship we share.  (Yes indeed, I have met and worked alongside this team and they are awesome!) We are truly “partners in the Gospel”—and it’s a very special partnership and fellowship.  I take that for granted sometimes. 

You mentioned that Southeast Asians thought that Americans were too busy and always rushing….I just wonder how many South Asians see that in me—I need to learn to slow down and put my agenda to the side.  I have grown in this since we have come overseas, but there is still much growth to be done.

I enjoyed the stories of the people closest to you in SE Asia, your house helper, your language helper—and it makes me think about what people will say about me and my family when we leave here.  How will we have served them well?  How will we show them that Christ’s love is different?  It makes me want to be faithful to those God has very clearly put in my life. It was a good reminder that our love is different—very different than the world’s— especially the community in which we live and work.  I sometimes take that for granted, or don’t realize the impact that real love can have on people who have never experienced it before. 

And of course seeing our calling and our life here as a GIFT that should not be taken for granted.”

Amen, sister. Keep up the great work. And tell all your friends to read Sent 🙂

What have I done? (Calling revisited)

By Curt Alan, Pastor of Missions, The Summit Church, Raleigh-Durham, NC, and…Hilary’s husband

Last month, I wrote about calling – making the case for the fact that one’s calling is crystal clear in Scripture: follow Jesus. Of course, when following Jesus leads us to make radical changes and to uncomfortable places in the world (or our even own neighborhood), it isn’t unusual to have experience second thoughts.

In my current role, as I help prepare, send out, and support men and women going to the nations, I see it all the time – usually it hits a few months before they depart and again a few months after they arrive overseas. “Wait. Am I doing the right thing? What am I doing? This is a whole lot harder than I expected.”

Not surprisingly, I experienced many of the same emotions back in 2006, when our family began following Jesus on a path that took us to places we never imagined. As I disciple others, I share with them my own experience which is, in part, documented in a blog entry I wrote nearly six years ago:

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It is amazing to think how much time has now passed since we left our home culture. We’ve been in this country nearly 2 months…easily the longest any of us have been away from our home. Over the last several weeks, each of us has begun to progress through the classic stages of what is known as culture shock. At the beginning, all that was new and different was fun. In time, those differences magnified and the reality hit that there was far more that was unfamiliar than familiar.

Next came urges to retreat…then anger. The next phase is tolerance and “fitting in.” Each day seems to bring us closer to that end. Glimpses of it abound – we just have to look for them.

I have to admit that I still have my moments. Moments when I begin to ask the big question over and over – why? Why does it have to be so hard sometimes? Why did I move my family so far away from what they’ve known? Why did I trade a comfortable life for one seemingly filled with challenges? The answer, of course, remains the same as it always has. Why? Because I was called to follow Jesus. Because He led our family here.

Since we’ve been here, we’ve been under regular attack. Sickness, discouragement, loneliness, anxiety, and frustration are effective tools that satan uses to distract anyone following a call to follow Jesus. With this kind of role, we have to expect more of the same. There are strongholds here that won’t be relinquished without a fight.

Back nearly a year ago, when we were going through the process to decide whether or not we would follow the path that would lead back here, I went through many a sleepless night. How could I follow this path – the one that would take all of us so far away from the comfortable life we had constructed and bring us to such a different place? Jesus couldn’t possibly want this for me and my family…

Late one evening I was flying back from the west coast, returning from a business trip that hadn’t gone well at all. My head was spinning and my stomach was churning as I lead a double life…maintaining a career that I had so carefully constructed while pursuing a process that would take us far away from it.

As I sat in the seat headed home on the darkened plane, I read Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “The Cost of Discipleship.” I came upon some comments that he wrote as a commentary on Matthew 7: 13-14 from the sermon on the mount (“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”)

Since that evening, I’ve returned to those words many times – especially when my mind pulls in the direction of “why?”.

Bonhoeffer wrote:

But if we behold going on before step by step, we shall not go astray. But if we worry about the dangers that beset us, if we gaze at the road instead of at Him who goes before, we are already straying from the path. For He is himself the way, the narrow way and the straight gate. He, and He alone, is our journey’s end.

When we know that, we are able to proceed along the narrow way through the straight gate of the cross, and on to eternal life, and the very narrowness of the road will increase our certainty. The way which the Son of trod on earth, and the way which we too must tread as citizens of two worlds on the razor edge between this world and the kingdom of heaven, could hardly be a broad way.

The narrow way is bound to be right.

The 2 Suitcase Rule and the Backpack Goal

suitcasesCurt and I have a rule for Summit Church members going on a short term trip to visit an overseas church planter.

Ya gotta take 2 suitcases.

No whining about baggage rules and weight limits now. Most airlines will still allow 2 bags per overseas ticket up to 50 pounds. Without mentioning any names,  American Airlines, if you do incur a small baggage fee on your domestic flight, consider it your opportunity to practice Biblical generosity and simply pay it without complaining.

Why the two bag rule?… Don’t pilgrims travel light? Go minimalist? They certainly do, because just one of those bags is for you and your stuff, because the other is for the team you are going to work alongside. And that one needs to be filled right to that 50 pound weight limit too because its going to be chock full of stuff the team wants from the States. Not junk that you found when you cleaned out your pantry that you don’t want but you’re sure the people serving overseas would “because they should be grateful for anything,” but rather the entirety of their wish list, because you’re that thoughtful and awesome.

In the months leading up to your going, you will have emailed the team on the ground and asked, “What can we bring you from the States?” That question will have been posed to everyone on the team. And then your job will have been to pass along their wish lists to your small group, their small group, or anyone else you can involve in “blessing the missionaries” in a very western way — by doing what we do best in America — accumulating stuff!! Another way you can bless them is to provide your home address for them to pass on to their parents who may want to send a package to your home to be brought across the ocean.

I will never forget the first team that came to visit us in Southeast Asia. We had been on the ground for 6 months, living in a place where there was no mall, no Starbucks, no Target, no western anything really. (How DID we survive? After a while it was really rather easy. We just made do and learned to like what was available).

That first team had 6 people on it and all 6 brought 2 suitcases. Yes, they brought us SIX SUITCASES worth of cereal, pancake syrup, tennis shoes, Old Navy pants, cooking spray, brown sugar, chocolate chips, shampoo that wasn’t Pantene or Dove, toothpaste that didn’t have formaldehyde in it, ibuprofen, and other first world comforts that we couldn’t find in our city. I have never oohed and aahed so much as I did that day over things that we all take for granted because they are so readily available. It truly made our hearts sing to have western comforts brought all the way to the other side of the world for us. Even more so, it was so encouraging to us to hear about all the different people back home who had spent time gathering alllllllllll of those things for us. It felt like one big hug from our church back home. We felt very loved. So Curt and I want all of the Summit people serving overseas to feel that same kind of materialistic western American love, cuz it feels great when you are very far away from your familiar.

And for those of you who are realllllllly hard core, and want to take being like Jesus to a whole ‘nother level, you can take 2 suitcases and a backpack on your next short term trip. That backpack is what will hold your stuff, leaving you with two suitcases to bring stuff to the team.. Some people are just cool like that. I haven’t quite pulled that one off yet, but next time I go, I am going to try.