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  • Writer's pictureSam Danforth

Trust the successes and the failures in a new culture.

Updated: Jun 8, 2023

Lichen is a symbol of hardiness, attaching to and nourishing itself from the rock.

This picture of lichen growing on a rock hangs in our living room as a reminder of a transformational moment for me as a mom, a Christ-follower, and an overseas worker. Our family had been in South Africa for about 2 years at this point. While I loved life in South Africa, I was coming off a string of events that attacked my confidence in myself and in God's goodness. My life had been turned upside down over the course of a few years and I was sinking personally, professionally, and spiritually. My human nature is to fix things by planning for every scenario and I quickly found out that you can't control anything on the south coast of KwaZulu Natal. Trust was a virtue running on fumes.

Our kids were enrolled in a South African school. I loved and appreciated so many things about the South African education system. The arts, the Zulu and Afrikaans classes starting in elementary school, the marimbas, the incredible sports programs, the neatness, the etiquette, and the respect for teachers. But I also feared what I read in news articles, namely the national pass rate and the global math and science ranks. Did this mean that my kids would not be academically equipped to launch back into life in the US if they chose to go to college? I was bewildered by assessments that looked so different from the ones I had grown to value. I feared that my kids didn't know things about world and American history that I deemed crucial and I simply couldn't keep up with tutoring these things in our spare time. They simply *had* to know about our national anthem, MLKJ's impact, the Gettysburg Address, Lady Bird Johnson's Highway Beautification Act, the 19th Amendment...

It was halfway up a hike in the parched Korannaberg mountains that I learned to trust both the successes and the failures that a new culture could offer our family. Elaina pointed at a lichen-blanketed rock and said, "Mom, do you know why lichen grows on these rocks?" She went on to explain the biological values of lichen: a wonder in creation that my own education in Iowa, Quebec, and Cameroon had not taught me. How did she know these things? Because Mrs. V, her 5th-grade teacher knew it was important for life in South Africa and for fostering inquisitive minds and she took the time to teach it.

At this hot and dusty moment in the Korannaberg mountains, God used a 5th-grader and some lichen to break through the universe of my uptight heart. He whispered,

"Trust the successes


the failures in a new culture."

My worldview was broken open and restructured on a heart level. Where the South African system "failed" my kids in American history literacy, it offered literacy of new, beautiful, and equally important concepts. My 5th-grade daughter's literacy of South African geography, arts, culture, Zulu and Afrikaans, and environmental science surpassed my own. She was making connections about living organisms on her hike while I was just admiring South Africa's breathtaking landscape. I lacked the lens and toolkit on how to interpret its beauty on a deeper level and how to flourish here. My daughter was joining the world of brilliant minds throughout history that have been shaped by the South African system. It was just different than my system. My eyes were opened to the fact that failure in one area may birth success in another. I began to learn to trust the whole package of a new environment instead of picking and choosing success only. God had my kids in the palm of his hand and he was equipping them for a life of their own. And it wasn't going to look like my life. Trust was refueled that day.

If you are struggling with how your life overseas is failing you, ask God to show you what now has space to be birthed. After all, God created every corner of the earth, including the culture and country where you now live. He is the master of helping us adapt. He creates life in the desert. You may be surprised that what you once thought crucial isn't critical to your survival in your new environment. Something gloriously new may now sprout.

“The poor and needy search for water,

but there is none;

their tongues are parched with thirst.

But I the Lord will answer them;

I, the God of Israel, will not forsake them.

I will make rivers flow on barren heights,

and springs within the valleys.

I will turn the desert into pools of water,

and the parched ground into springs.

I will put in the desert

the cedar and the acacia, the myrtle and the olive.

I will set junipers in the wasteland,

the fir and the cypress together,

20 so that people may see and know,

may consider and understand,

that the hand of the Lord has done this,

that the Holy One of Israel has created it."

Isaiah 41:17-20

Bonus: Before moving overseas, my son's dream was to catch a lizard.

I can safely say that dream was fulfilled 100 times over, this hike being one of those times. :)

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