David James, Sixteen Seasons (William Carey Library: 2011). 286 pages.
David James and his family lived in a remote village in Tajikistan for four years, quietly ministering to the people there. Sixteen Seasons is a compilation of reflective essays about those years, snapshots of life from which James draws out truths about his vocation, culture, and faith. The book does not promise to be a unified work on a single theme. Rather, it allows us to witness various aspects of life, from the mundane yet rigorous exercise of purchasing an air conditioner to being an awkward participant in a traditional Tajik wedding. In all of the essays, James does not alienate his reader by elevating his experience above those who have never left the comforts of home and culture, but rather permits us, through raw honesty and often self-effacing humor, to witness his own weakness and deficiencies in his ability to fully enter or “immerse” into this foreign culture.
Living out of one’s native culture requires a certain amount of patience and abandon. Much of the tension inherent in James’ interactions with his culture rise from Tajikistan’s own struggle to rise out of years of Soviet domination. In “A Winter’s Night,” James confesses to stashing RC cola cans in plastic bags before he tosses them into the neighborhood garbage bins (to avoid their detection) or pulling down the shades in order that he and his wife can enjoy a few minutes of “West Wing” without raising suspicions from nearby Tajiks. He admits, “It is a constant internal struggle as we sit drinking RC Cola in generated light knowing the gospel is worth infinitely more than this, but afraid of burning out and exhausted by always fighting to hide so much of who we are” (123).
This admission of weakness works to both endear us to him and helps us identify our own weaknesses in him. I live with my husband and four children in the Middle East. To be an effective witness for Christ, I find that I must make adjustments in what I wear, the plunge of the neckline (often remedied with a scarf) and the length of my skirt (only ankle-length when I am out on the street). I have accepted that in the more conservative areas, I will stand out. James alludes continuously to his struggle to both “immerse fully” into his adopted culture and at the same time draw limits as to where he and his family are willing to go. Although the book primarily deals with James’ relationships outside the home, his references to his wife, Ann, lead us to imagine that even between them, there were variances as to what each would accept. In “To Get an Uzi,” James takes his pregnant wife to a local hospital to get an ultrasound. He draws this lighthearted illustration:
Standing in line in post-Soviet Tajikistan is a lot like grabbing a rebound in basketball. Positioning is important. Have a wide stance low to the ground, be big, look big, feel big. Know who’s crashing in behind and anticipate their approach angle. But more than anything, standing in line is about attitude. You have to want it! You have to want it more than the rich, important guy who is about to shove his aging mother on past you because he is rich and important…I was never a good rebounder. So it was an hour before we got inside the uzi room. Fortunately, Ann, if she had played basketball, would have been a better rebounder than me. (37)
As a homeschooling mother of four living in the Middle East, I appreciate James’ honesty in struggling with entering into his host culture and still remaining separate. While my vocation, however, is mostly played out within the home through the daily teaching and training of my children, I am aware that our family is on display whenever we leave the home. We know that even the most mundane daily task can be an opportunity to reveal Christ. A trip to the grocery store, driving in the tangle of local traffic, interacting with neighbors. Do I join the gnarly game of chicken that drivers on the streets here play daily and the tendency to push ahead in queues, or can I show restraint based in biblical truths of honoring one another above myself and in sacrificial love? Whether I choose to acknowledge it or not, those around me read our family as a guidebook for Western Christianity.
James’ internal struggle between full immersion and being separate finds beautiful resolve at the close of “100% Unnatural”:
…we are supposed to feel unnatural. Not to stand outside the camp in bitterness or fear but in love to have the overflowing joy, peace and hope of the Lord be the aroma of our separateness as we look for opportunities to engage. (108)
What surprised and challenged me as I read Sixteen Seasons was James’ earnest love for the Tajik people, which recalled Paul’s sincere love for the believers in Thessaloniki when he wrote, “So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us” (1 Thessalonians 2:8). All of us have a deep need to feel loved and accepted. To deliberately break away from a culture where we have natural attachments and acceptance in exchange for a situation in which one is a perpetual outsider requires considerable sacrifice. This is the “aroma of separateness,” having died with Christ and as such, allowing the fragrance of His life to overflow from us.
Choosing to live deliberately in Christ’s joy, peace, and hope–brimming with gratitude–is what often sets us apart, yet for many of us this can be so elusive. As we are called to be an “an amazed and thankful people,” James reflects on how our dizzying pace of life whirls around us and causes us to become numb. Interestingly, for those of us who live amid prosperity and comfort, it is easy to ease into a sense of entitlement to these things. Yet in a culture where even a few hours worth of electricity are coveted and water must be boiled before using, James exhorts a better way than pining after materialistic comforts and ease. It is, simply, the way of thanksgiving. James writes: “Tajikistan’s simplicity has been a balm to my old and infirm fascination. It has revived my ability to wonder…” (64).
As a family that spends every few years in global transition, I find that I am continually attempting to create a home wherever we live. While the setting outside our home changes, the community of our family and our homeschool provide the continuity that we need. One of the benefits of raising children outside their “home culture” is the many opportunities we are given to interact with others who are different and to cultivate understand, empathy, and even relationships. Our Arabic tutor has become a dear friend to our family and has opened our hearts and minds to what once was alien and unfamiliar. We reach a world for Christ one person at a time, in relationship, which James’ narrative shows again and again.
After living for a prolonged period of time outside of your native culture, you also begin to see yourself differently. You cannot help but be changed. The essence of “otherness” which pervades each vignette in Sixteen Seasons comes to a climax in “100% Unnatural,” as he and Ann travel back to the States and find themselves disconcertingly unable to identity fully anymore with their native culture. We witness his awakening to more intimately being able to relate to our spiritual calling to be sojourners:
As followers of Christ we are all pilgrims. In Tajikistan, it is so easy for me to remember this. In America, often I struggle to recall it, with all the shiny distractions and ease with which I can fit in if I want to. (107)
I can commisserate. My children, in many ways, are growing up as “third culture kids.” We are Americans, yet with no roots in any one state, and we have made homes in four countries already, and that number will grow. Our experience, like James’, has more fully awakened in us our true identity and our true home.
Sixteen Seasons is a thoughtful read, humorous at times, painfully honest at others, and a rare look into the life of a missionary family in a land virtually unreached by the gospel. Though the experiences that James relates can be alienating to some, the truths and the lessons learned throughout can resonate deeply and broadly within any thoughtful reader.
Adrienne Shore currently lives in Jordan, with her husband and four children. She counts it a privilege to be able to homeschool her children overseas — having previously lived in Korea, Germany, and several U.S. States — and has worked to bring home educating families together in her area. Her other passions are writing, reading, painting, and playing the violin.