My CCW Top 40 “Playlist”

I’m not a very sophisticated musicophile. I like what I like without a lot of reasoning, don’t follow specific genres, can’t decipher a lot of lyrics (or don’t remember those I can), and don’t have targeted-enough tastes to pay for any online subscriptions. So I was recently listening to my free Beatles-ish Pandora station and the song “Nobody Told Me (There’d Be Days like These)” cued up. I thought to myself, “Now that would be a good descriptor for some of my time overseas.” And that got me thinking about what other titles could make up a top-40 “playlist” for when I was a cross-cultural worker (CCW).

After a little more thinking, here’s what I came up with. I can’t vouch for the lyrics to these songs (see “can’t decipher” and “don’t remember” above), so please show me some grace on that. Speaking of grace, my list doesn’t include any hymns or worship songs. If so, “Amazing Grace” would be on repeat throughout. Instead, I decided to go with church music’s secular cousins—twice removed—this time around.

Any titles you’d add? Maybe something a little more contemporary? As you can see, I’m kind of lacking in that area. Anyway, if you know these tunes, hum along with me.

  1. I’m Leaving on a Jet Plane
  2. Hello
  3. We’ve Only Just Begun
  4. Upside Down
  5. Tongue Tied
  6. Now I Know My ABCs
  7. All Shook Up
  8. Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood
  9. Homesick
  10. It’s Going to Take Some Time
  11. I Beg Your Pardon (I Never Promised You a Rose Garden)
  12. Don’t Stop Believin’
  13. I Will Survive
  14. With a Little Help from My Friends
  15. Stayin’ Alive
  16. Two Worlds
  17. The Same Moon
  18. On the Road Again
  19. Hello, Goodbye
  20. I’ve Been Everywhere
  21. Running on Empty
  22. Say a Little Prayer
  23. I’m a Believer
  24. Hallelujah
  25. Beautiful People
  26. Another Day in Paradise
  27. What a Wonderful World
  28. Tell It like It Is
  29. If I Were a Rich Man
  30. It’s a Small World
  31. We Don’t Need Another Hero
  32. Keeping the Faith
  33. Against All Odds
  34. Hit Me with Your Best Shot
  35. Nobody Told Me (There’d Be Days like These)
  36. I Will Survive (reprise)
  37. One Day More
  38. I’m Still Here
  39. Should I Stay or Should I go?
  40. Goodbye

[photo: “spinspinspin,” by Shannon, used under a Creative Commons license]

A Lament for the American Church (or how I’m processing my codependent relationship with the church)

I love the church, and I have loved the church for a long time.

I’ve led worship 600+ times in local congregations. I’ve preached dozens of times across several countries. I served as an overseas missionary in Southeast Asia for 8 years. I’ve been in “church work” in one capacity or another for over 20 years.

In fact, I still serve with a church planting mission organization, providing pastoral care and coaching to missionaries around the world. My day job is walking alongside of hurting people who also love (and are serving) the global church.

I still love the church, but I’ve got a problem.

Watching the American evangelical church for the last several years has been devastatingly hard. Initially, I watched as a sort of outsider, living and ministering in a developing country that had a proud and boisterous autocrat as a leader. And now since COVID led to an early repatriation in March of 2020, I’ve watched from a more comfortable spot in the rural Midwest.

Has it been devastating for you too? Have you grieved at how some elements of the American church have responded to racial issues, to politics, to the Capitol siege, to the ongoing global pandemic that’s killed over 660,000 people in our country alone? Have you lost friends and maybe even family?

During all of this, I’ve desperately wanted to change the church. I’ve shared articles and written Facebook posts trying to convince people to behave differently, to care differently, to love differently.

I’ve needed the church to behave differently so that I would be ok, so that I wouldn’t be embarrassed, or ashamed, or angry. As it turns out, that’s not very loving or healthy.

I’m beginning to realize that there’s a difference between loving the church and being enmeshed with it. There’s a difference between being grieved at her sins and being so emotionally devastated by her sins that I want to scream at people. One is healthy and vital, while the other is evidence of codependency.

 

Definitions & Caveats

Codependency is “excessive emotional or psychological reliance on a partner, typically one who requires support on account of an illness or addiction.”[1]

In unhealthy systems like this, talking about things openly and honestly can get complicated; silence is of paramount importance, and silence helps to maintain the status quo. One writer described it this way:

“One fairly common denominator seemed to be the unwritten, silent rules that usually develop in the immediate family and set the pace for relationships. These rules prohibit discussion about problems.”[2]

I have felt this. I have felt the urge to sit down, to shut up, to stay silent. But I can’t anymore.

The real-world impact of codependency is complex, but at least in part, a codependent person will seek to control the ill person (or addict) so that the codependent will remain psychologically intact.

This was me. And it’s made me bone-weary.

My identity was so wrapped up in the church that a threat to the church (even if it was from inside the church) felt like a direct threat to my core self. I don’t want to live that way anymore.

Is the American church a functioning alcoholic, drunk on power and patriarchy? Yes, some of it is. But “the church” is a pretty large entity to lump together in an accusation like that. So please hear me when I say this: there are parts of the American evangelical church that really are sick. Those parts need to be honestly assessed and truthfully addressed. But that doesn’t mean it all needs to be burned to the ground.

Eugene Peterson spoke plainly about the tensions of living in (and serving) a community of believers. It was not all rosy. But even while admitting the challenges, he wrote, “I have little time for the anti-church crowd who seem snobbish and who have little sense of the lived way of soul and Christ.”[3]

C.S. Lewis would have agreed, I think. A generation before Peterson, Lewis wrote this in a letter to a friend: “The New Testament does not envisage solitary religion. Some (like you – and me) find it more natural to approach God in solitude; but we must go to Church as well.”[4]

I can’t “do faith” on my own. I’ve gained so much from my involvement in local churches. It has been good for me, spiritually, emotionally, and even psychologically. My family has found a local body of believers in our new town in the Midwest, and we are jumping in to community and fellowship.

I am not anti-church, but I am anti-pretend, and I can’t act like things are OK in the American church.

I resonate deeply with Beattie when she writes, “[C]odependency is called a disease because it is progressive. As the people around us become sicker, we may begin to react more intensely.”[5]

Is that what’s happening to me? To us? Have we been in a codependent relationship with the church? Is this why now, as her behavior appears to become sicker and sicker, so many of us are reacting more and more intensely, getting either angrier or else just running away? I think so.

 

Churches Love Codependents

Codependents make great church members. They’re sacrificial. They’ll do anything. They’ll go anywhere. And they’ll defend the leaders and the system if they have to. They care a LOT about the church.

Many church-growth strategies look like a playbook for making people codependent. Encourage strong identification with a specific church/leader/group. Call it branding. Teach a lot about the uniqueness of this church and church culture. Create a very strong “us vs. them” motif. Emphasize teachings on authority and respecting spiritual leadership/headship. And if our “family” is ever in crisis, circle the wagons. And God forbid, but if anyone from without or within criticizes the church, take it personally, react vehemently, and DEFEND.

As it does in the world of codependency and addiction, these strategies quickly lead to a persecution complex, and American evangelicals thrive on a persecution complex.

 

Local Church, Hope of the World?

The now-disgraced pastor and author Bill Hybels used to say regularly, “The local church is the hope of the world.” I used to quote that statement regularly. But you know what? I’ve learned it’s not true. In fact, that message causes a slow but steady trend towards deep dysfunction: Hide flaws. Silence survivors. Conceal abusers (or transfer them somewhere else). Don’t let those on the outside see reality.

Codependents always protect the addict.

But protecting the reputation of the church is a fool’s errand, and it typically ends up meaning, “We need to protect the reputation of our leaders.” If the leader is leading the church that is the hope of the world, or at least the city, then we must protect him, along with the system he leads.

And if a narcissistic politician promises to protect our churches and our “Christian rights,” then we must protect him, too, and hold him above reproach. This is so wrong and harmful for our nation, but we learned it in our churches first.

To put it more bluntly, if the local church is the hope of the world, then the leader of the local church is the hope of the world too. Chuck DeGroat, clinician and pastor, writes about narcissistic church leaders. These leaders are more than happy to be seen as the hope of the world. He writes, “The grandiosity, entitlement, and absence of empathy characteristic of narcissistic personality disorder was translated into the profile of a good leader.” In these systems, “Loyalty to the narcissistic leader and the system’s perpetuation is demanded.”[6]

This is not healthy.

 

Next Steps

The last few years have revealed some of the addictions and illnesses of the evangelical church: patriarchy, white nationalism, a fervent and enduring embrace of narcissistic, abusive leaders, and a disregard for the truth.

During all of that, we were also taught to love the church. And we did.

I did.

What many of us learned, though, was that we needed to love the church as the prime thing. Nobody said it, but I think we gained more identity from our churches than we did from our Christ.

We desperately need to work on de-centering the church (and politics) and re-centering the Christ, the hope of the world. Karen Swallow Prior recently wrote about this in her article titled, “With this much rot, there’s no choice but to deconstruct.” She says,

“We must make Jesus the head of his bride again. We can no longer put the church — its name, its reputation, its money, its salaries, its staff, its programs, its numbers — before Christ himself.”[7]

Enmeshing ourselves with charismatic Christian (or political) leaders is tempting. It helps us feel like we belong and like we’re on the inside. But if our core identities hinge on our churches or our political parties, we have erred terribly.

 

The Church Called TOV

This article is not a book review. However, I believe a truthful review of Scot McKnight and Laura Barringer’s book, A Church Called TOV, would be this simple: A Church Called TOV is a textbook for walking out of religious codependency.

It’s that good.

The authors compare unhealthy, dysfunctional dynamics, with gentle, Christ-honoring pathways forward. Here are the main ideas:

Conclusion

I don’t want to love the church in a codependent way anymore. I will still love her, but I don’t want to be enmeshed with her, where her good (or bad) behavior alters my own sense of self.

I want to nurture empathy and grace. I want to put people first and tell the truth. I want to pursue justice and honor humble service. I want to grow into Christlikeness.

I will continue to be a part of my local church, but I don’t want my core identity to come from her. It can’t. I can’t be enmeshed any longer with the American evangelical complex.

The local church (even a great one) is not the hope of the world.

Jesus Christ is the hope of the world.

Amen.

Come, Lord Jesus.

 

A Lament for the Church: a prayer of letting go

The path to healing from codependency often involves an emotional detaching. That does not mean you care less for the person from whom you’re detaching. It just means you are detaching from “the agony of involvement.”[8]

This lament, patterned after the material in Mark Vroegops’ book, Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy, is my attempt not to care less, but to care healthier.

God of the Church, the one who sees the end from the beginning, hear my cry to you today. You established the heavens above and the Church below, and one day you will invite your Bride, your people, to feast with you in the New City, the golden city of God.

But here and now, O God, your Bride seems sullied. More to the point, your Bride seems to be chasing after the wind, pining away for other lovers who promise power and a seat at the table. Your people are damaging people. They have turned on the least of these, preferring instead to join in with mockers, to stand with sinners.

You will not be mocked, and you will not endure their sins forever. So do something! Stop this madness! Bring light back to our eyes. Make compassion great again! Do not stop your ear to the cry of your people. No! Listen to their fawning over false prophets, see their bowing before every lying hashtag and would-be tyrant. Open their eyes and break their hearts!

You alone know, O God, the depths of the deceit, and the depths of your love. I yield the floor, trusting that this is your case to make, and believing that you will. Your ways are too complex and masterful for me to comprehend, so I yield.

I trust you to figure this out and respond appropriately.

And I rest in your promises to forgive me too.

Amen.


[1] Oxford English Dictionary

[2] Codependent No More, by Melody Beattie

[3] As quoted in the book, A Burning in My Bones, by Winn Collier

[4] The Quotable Lewis, by Martindale and Root

[5] Codependent No More

[6] When Narcissism Comes to Church, by Chuck DeGroat

[7] https://religionnews.com/2021/08/04/with-this-much-rot-theres-no-choice-but-to-deconstruct/

[8] Codependent No More

Originally published at trotters41.com

Led by the Global South

“A typical Christian today is a non-white woman living in the global South, with lower-than-average levels of societal safety and proper health care. This represents a vastly different typical Christian than that of 100 years ago, who was likely a white, affluent European.”

(from the Center for the Study of Global Christianity)

This was the quote that jumped out at me recently when I saw a graphic called “The World as 100 Christians.” The graphic was created by The Center for the Study of Global Christianity , a research center located at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary.  

Like most infographics, the graphic is a way to help people grasp an idea and give them the desire to learn more. In my case it worked, and I began to look at something that I have known has been happening in Christianity and missions for a long time.

I’m asking you to track with me as I go back to 1982, when Oxford University Press published a landmark reference book called the World Christian Encyclopedia. Written with scrupulous detail, it was 1000 pages of detailed surveys and statistics on Christianity throughout the globe. At the time, Time magazine praised it as “a benchmark for our understanding of the true religious state of the planet.” This publication became the first of what are now three major publications released in 1982, 2001, and 2019. The 2019 edition was published after extensive updates of statistics and narratives by research staff from Gordon Conwell Seminary’s Center for the Study of Global Christianity.

Their website says this about the volume:

“From Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, the World Christian Encyclopedia includes quantitative information on every world religion and Christianity down to the denominational level.”

Significant to this discussion is the change of Christianity from being dominated by North America and Western Europe to the rise of Christianity in the Global South. As someone who grew up in a part of the world where the struggles that Christians faced were monumental, where to be a Christian meant that you faced discrimination, inequities, and potential persecution, this change is a beautiful and wonderful thing to behold.

The important thing to recognize is that white, affluent Americans and Europeans are not the main voices that should speak – or be listened to – for Christianity or for Missions today. Instead, we must recognize, listen to, and open our hearts to be led by the Global South. If we do not already realize this, it is time that we pay attention.

What does it mean to be led by the Global South? We have been given the mic for a long time. What does it look like to pass it and to not try to grab it back? Those are big questions, and I can’t do them justice. What I can do is offer some areas where we can learn from Christians in the Global South.

The Global South knows what it is to suffer. When I talk to Christians from Pakistan, Egypt, and Afghanistan, I am always humbled by their understanding of suffering, by their grace in the midst of suffering. I know little about suffering for my faith; I know little about suffering in general. I will never forget a meeting years ago with some Egyptian Christians who had converted from Islam to Christianity. When one of the students in our study abroad group asked them if they had suffered, they looked at the students in astonishment and replied with a simple, “Of course.” The simplicity and strength of the response was profound. No other words would have been as powerful. As Christians we have never been promised fame, riches, good health, healthy kids, or any of a number of things that we tend to put into our “blessed by God” buckets. What we have been promised is God’s presence no matter what happens. 

The Global South knows what it is to live without safety, security, and physical comforts. Our barely conscious quest for safety, security, and physical comforts are hallmarks of Western Christianity, and we try and build up that safety and security in every country we enter. We pack large suitcases full of things that we don’t want our kids to miss. Our chocolate chips melt as our massive shipment stands for hours in the hot sun waiting for a customs official to let them go, and our taco mix sometimes gets eaten by rats – but by God, we will fill our suitcases or die trying. And I am the first to tell you that my suitcases are full of chocolate chips and that my taco mix did indeed get eaten by rats! I love, love, love my physical comforts. There is nothing wrong with comfort per se. There is nothing wrong with loving beauty and wanting to create a home, but we must be ever conscious of our motivation behind these things. If we go overseas only to recreate the homes and lives that we left, then we’d best look in the mirror and figure out our purpose and motivation.

And then there’s the safety piece. I’m struck by how often people from the west say to me as I travel, “Be safe! Be Careful!” It’s said out of kindness and concern, but perhaps there is also a distorted sense of what safety is or should be. Rachel Pieh Jones, long a favorite writer and friend of mine, has penned the truest words I know on safety in her longform essay, “The Proper Weight of Fear.” At one point in the essay, she describes questions that she and her husband were asked before leaving for Somaliland. “The second question after weren’t you afraid was were you safe? Of course, we were safe. Of course, we were not safe. How could we know? Nothing happens until it happens. People get shot at schools in the United States, in movie theaters, office buildings. People are diagnosed with cancer. Drunk drivers hurtle down country roads. Lightning flashes, levees break, dogs bite. Safety is a Western illusion crafted into an idol and we refused to bow.”

The Global South knows what it is to live in collective community. To live in collective community is a Biblical ideal. We are called to live not for self, but out of responsibility and love for each other. This collective community isn’t about finding who you like and deciding to form a team with them. It’s about working toward relationship with the people who are in your lives. Western Christians are great at being in community with people they like, people who agree with them politically, spiritually, and materially – but when disagreement enters, we are quick to absolve ourselves of the same community we spoke so highly of. It reminds me of the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Life Together: “The person who loves their dream of community will destroy community, but the person who loves those around them will create community.” Since I was young, South Asian and Middle Eastern Christians have modeled community for me – community that doesn’t exist out of sameness, but out of love of God and neighbor.

How do we, how do I, respond to being led instead of leading? To giving up my belief in my own expertise, instead opening up to the wisdom of others?

With cultural humility – Cultural humility is a term I use all the time in my workshops. If it is true in healthcare, it is even more important and true in missions. Cultural humility gives up our right to be experts, releasing that right and being willing to be a student. In the school of suffering, safety, security, and community, I know I am not a teacher. I am a kindergartner. I know so little of any of these things. Cultural humility also emphasizes healthy self-reflection and self-critique. Not to be absorbed by self, but instead to willingly analyze and bring that analysis to God. Cultural humility also asks that we be aware of historical considerations and take them into account as we honor new leadership from the Global South. 

With a focus on partnerships – I’ll be honest – I don’t know what this looks like. Partnership brings to mind a picture of relationships, service, and commitment to a long-term goal. All of those are impossible without a commitment to cultural humility. We want to walk beside, not in front of, people. Partnerships may look different depending on if the work is focused on education, medicine, business, or church.

With grateful hearts –  What an incredible encouragement to know that so many places in the world are coming to understand the love story at the heart of the Christian faith! To grow in understanding the love of God and how this love compels and leads to new mission endeavors is a gift we have been given. What a picture of a creative God whose spirit moves in ways we can scarcely fathom! There is no better response than a heart of thanksgiving, a heart that humbly acknowledges God’s ways as higher than ours. It is with a grateful and awe-filled heart that I welcome these changes.

To be participants in God’s good work in the world is a gift. To be front row observers and called onto the stage of God’s glory being made known brings wordless humility. To step back and humbly be led by a new generation of Christians around the world – this is what it’s all about. May we stand back in awe and step forward in obedience. Amen and Amen.

Life as a Christian Business Kid

by Clarissa Choo

I grew up as a business kid living first in Singapore and South Korea and later in a closed country and the Czech Republic. I’m an adult TCK now, but first and foremost I am a child of God.

Although Singapore is my passport country, my parents were not “typical” Singaporean parents. They never expected my sister and me to achieve perfect grades. Instead, they desired that we come to know Christ as our Savior and dedicate our lives to Him.

Their initial plan to avoid the stressful education system in Singapore was to immigrate to Canada. My dad had spent a significant number of years in Canada studying higher education and interacting with the culture there. But God’s plans were different from my parents’ plans.

God re-directed our path to South Korea through my dad’s work. I was five years old at the time. The Canadian embassy eventually approved our visas, but Dad had already accepted his job contract, and we had already moved to South Korea. We stayed in South Korea, where Christ saved me when I was seven years old.

Later in my teen years I searched for Christian TCK communities and found that the majority were intended for missionary kids. At the time it seemed that Christian BKs like me were quite rare. So if you’re a missionary or a missionary kid, you might not know what the life of a Christian BK looks like.

I’ll let you in on a little “secret”: although the paths of a missionary kid and a Christian business kid may seem different, they share similarities. Because as saved children of the King, we have one common goal – reaching the unsaved with the gospel no matter which country we live in.

As a former BK, I am perceived by some people as “pampered” or a “brat,” and I’m sure some MKs view my path as a fancier and less difficult route than theirs. In terms of finances, it may seem that way because many companies paid the bulk of living expenses for expatriates.

But people’s assumptions aren’t always accurate. While my family was outside of Singapore, my dad was diagnosed with a rare, chronic auto-immune disease called CIDP. His monthly treatments for life were so expensive that there were times when we were concerned about how the bills would be cleared. But God met our needs every time. 

And here’s another “secret” of mine: I used to envy missionary kids. Many MKs I knew could stay in their host country longer than I could. They could speak two languages fluently while I lacked sufficient time to be multilingual due to another move on the horizon. Having two “homes” appeared better than having many, as I’d have to say goodbye again. And again and again … and again.

Later as an adult I went through complex PTSD, partly due to stifling my emotions without processing them properly during transitions as a young child. I’m sure many of you can relate to that.

I can talk about so many blessings though — the main ones being experiences. Some of the experiences came from attending private schools filled with international students and from immersing myself in the local culture. Other experiences came from distributing gospel tracts and witnessing individuals place their trust in Jesus. In fact, my most precious memories involve local churches and mission work.

Just like we weren’t “typical” Singaporeans, we weren’t “typical” expatriates either. What I mean by that is that when we were overseas, we weren’t heavily involved in expat communities (although we did participate a couple of times). Instead, our main communities stemmed from local churches.

One Sunday at our church in South Korea, the pastor preached about missions. While he prayed the ending prayer, my dad took my tiny hand and brought me to the stage (my mom and sister were in other ministry rooms). I watched as he knelt and dedicated his heart to support mission work. Although my family didn’t carry the title of missionary, as saved children of God we were still missionaries. Throughout my life, I’ve seen my parents support mission work in various ways, whether through finances, prayers, simple actions of servitude, or sharing the gospel.

When we were in the closed country, I felt as though I was living a “double” life due to the government’s restrictions on Christians sharing the gospel message. During the weekdays I was a uniformed student, and over the weekends I attended an illegal house church with my Sunday clothes on. My parents could have brought us to a legal church as that was seen as the “safe” option, but legal churches were prohibited from openly sharing the gospel. Thus, we attended a house church – a decision we never regretted.

My parents even opened our house on Wednesday nights for the church’s mid-week Bible studies. We stayed in a private compound, which contained many expatriates like us. One action led to another as workers from the compound came to our house on Wednesdays to hear the Word of God. Back then, I didn’t realize how dangerous that was, but we didn’t regret that decision either.

That’s because salvation is priceless, and we shouldn’t keep the gospel to ourselves. Everywhere is a mission field.

In the Czech Republic, my family spent a lot of time serving a small church. I played the piano, watched after the kids, passed snacks around, and cleaned. My family served in their own ways too. We gave gospel tracts to individuals who crossed our paths and brought one of them to the church.

God has used local churches across the globe to shape my TCK life and perspectives over time. Each time God brought us to a new country, I would wonder about the church He was leading us to and about the unsaved who would cross our paths.

Furthermore, my TCK experiences with missions in various countries instilled in me a desire to support and be involved in both overseas and local missions. And no matter the path or country God places me in, I believe He wants to use that desire to further His kingdom.

~~~~~~~~~~

Clarissa Choo is an ATCK and a former business kid. Although she has lived in four countries, Heaven is her only home. She’s the administrator of the newly launched website ministry, TCKs for Christ. The platform seeks to serve, encourage, and challenge Christian TCKs to use their gifts and live victoriously with a firm identity in Jesus Christ. You can connect with Clarissa at ClarissaChoo.com or her Instagram, @ClarissaChoowriter.

Beware the Idols of an Overseas Life

When we first move overseas, all we feel is the sacrifice. 

Homesickness punches us in the stomach; we experience a physical ache for left-behind loved ones. Our new country feels strange and overwhelming. We lose our sense of self-respect as we bumble along in communication. We mourn the loss of our identity and productivity as we try to figure out how to drive, eat, and parent in this new universe. There are times when we even hate it, and wonder what on earth brought us here.

But then, something changes.

It will likely take (many) years, but one day it dawns on us that we feel more at home in our host country than our home country. We tell jokes in a different language. We navigate the bus system with ease. We crave the local food. We no longer look forward to our furloughs or home assignments, and might even dread them. 

We’ve found a new community, and it’s possible that those relationships are stronger and deeper than anything we had back at home. The view outside our kitchen window has become familiar. Grocery shopping is mundane. We’ve figured out how to make this new life work. And we are comfortable.

And that’s exactly when we must be on our guard.

Think about it this way: when our life overseas is a sacrifice, we continually contemplate our calling. Why am I here? Is this worth it? Am I doing any good? We dig deep into dependence on God. We evaluate our motives. When life is a slog, our vision is clear: we know why we are doing this. 

But what about when life becomes comfortable? Once we’ve adapted to a new culture, we come face-to-face with the reality that this overseas life has perks. Sometimes, lots of them. 

Our lives are interesting. Fulfilling. Living as an expat means we get the benefits of two worlds: the richness, beauty, and adventure of our host country, but with all the safety nets from our home country. We get to travel to exotic places. We become exotic people.

We get to stand out–not only in our host country, but back at home too. We are respected, set apart, even put on a pedestal. 

We don’t like to admit this. We would rather stick with the “sacrifice” narrative, because it feels better. And of course, some sacrifices never disappear. But often, with enough time, the perks outweigh the sacrifices. 

Comfort is sinister because it can lull us into lying to ourselves. This new identity can be intoxicating. We laugh and say, “Living overseas is addicting!” which is kind of funny, but kind of dangerous. This fulfilling life can blind us to the truths we need to see.

Being venerated by others can steal our cultural humility–both overseas and back at home. Feeling comfortable can poke holes in our dependence on God. Our sense of calling can be overshadowed by the fact that we just really like our life. 

We might stop evaluating our effectiveness. Stop questioning our motives. We may even ignore that little voice that tells us it’s time to turn the ministry over to locals, that it’s time to move on. 

It’s very easy for the perks of living overseas to become idols. What is especially disturbing is that these idols are disguised as sacrifices–both to us and to those back at home. The missions narrative can allow us to live for ourselves while pretending that we are only about God’s kingdom. This should terrify us. 

Does this mean that it’s automatically time to leave when life overseas becomes comfortable? Does this mean that we aren’t allowed to enjoy the gifts of an overseas life? Of course not. If you are in that place, rejoice, for it took a lot of grit to get there. But also, be on your guard. Don’t lose your commitment to humility, to self-evaluation, to asking the hard questions of yourself and your ministry. Recognize the danger of comfort, look it straight in the eye, and confront it head on. If you find yourself defensive, pay attention. What’s really going on in your heart?

John Calvin famously said, “The human heart is an idol factory.” We should not be stunned to discover how quickly our hearts will take something godly and beautiful–even in missions–and turn it into our own personal idol. Let us beware.

How to Keep Living When You’re Drowning in Limbo

I packed a suitcase of thin fabrics, suitable for three weeks of tropical humidity and meetings in air-conditioned rooms. I hugged my husband goodbye, then texted him from the airport. It was early March 2020, and after a few months of restrictions in Beijing, I was looking forward to being somewhere other than our small apartment for a few weeks. The plane took off, and unbeknownst to me, I left my home in China for the last time.

18 months later I am living with my parents in my native Australia, and my husband is in our new home in his native U.S. I was able to visit him there for three months over Thanksgiving and Christmas. The rest of the time we have been living apart with no idea how long this situation will last. Last year we were waiting for things to change, and when it became clear nothing was changing, we began planning a move to the U.S. without me there in China to help. This year we’ve been working through the green card immigration process that will allow me to join him in the U.S.

That’s a lot of loss, a lot of limbo, a lot of uncertainty.

The Covid-19 pandemic, with the accompanying lockdowns, border restrictions, flight cancellations, school closures, work changes, and health crises, has created a lot of loss and limbo and uncertainty for many people – especially those of us with international lives. 

Drowning in limbo

Last year I had no idea how long I would be in Australia, when I would go home to my home and husband in China, and later whether I would go home at all. I had arrived in Canberra, the coldest part of Australia, with three weeks’ worth of tropical weather clothes – right as we went into winter. I lived in hand-me-downs from thrift stores, the local buy-nothing group, a friend, and a few things I’d left at my parents’ house because they were holey or otherwise less than optimal. It took me months to decide to buy adequate shoes and socks and underwear – because those purchases were acknowledgements that I really wasn’t going home to Beijing where I already had everything I needed.

And that is a perfect description of living in limbo. 

When you’re living in limbo, you’re in an intermediate state, and you don’t know how long it will last. You’re stuck. You can’t make decisions – you can’t even buy socks. You might have all the transition skills in the world, but it’s hard to use them when you don’t have a new place to settle into, when you’re waiting to arrive – or leave. This can be particularly hard for seasoned expats and other globally mobile individuals. We have strategies and skills, and we know how to use them. Then we end up in limbo, and our strategies and skills don’t work the way we’re used to.  

Last year, I wasn’t so much living in limbo as I was drowning in it.

This year, I’m living differently. My life is still full of uncertainty. I’m still living with my parents and unsure when I’ll see my husband again. But I’ve also found ways to keep afloat, to keep moving – to truly live in the midst of limbo. 

How to keep living in limbo

Uncertainty is a difficult state to live in. It’s hard to plan for the future when you don’t know what’s coming. It’s hard to enjoy the moment when you know it could change. Impermanence isn’t a place where you can be at ease. 

Over the past 18 months I’ve learned a lot about coping with all the unknowns and creating peace and joy in the middle of uncertainty. Here are my four best pieces of advice – things that have helped me stay afloat through a life of uncertainty while I’m stuck in limbo: 

1) Invest in small comforts

Sure, you don’t know how long you’ll be where you are. But as long as you’re there, make sure you have what you need to relax and be at peace, whatever that means for you. Living in limbo is hard enough without having anything that you find soothing and comforting. Any money you invest in those small comforts is an investment in your mental health, your peace of mind, and your ability to cope in a difficult situation. If that situation resolves quickly and you find yourself with two of your favourite comfort items, that’s okay! You can save one for a rainy day, leave it at a place you visit often, or bless someone else with it.

2) Plan small anticipations

One of the hardest things about living in limbo is not knowing when your situation will end. It’s so hard to plan ahead, to have things to look forward to in a concrete way. There’s a vague sense of, “When this is over I’ll do __________,” but it’s difficult to be more specific. Anticipation is a source of joy, and losing the ability to anticipate near future events is problematic. We need markers of time and things to look forward to. My solution: create small anticipations for yourself. Create little routines, and luxuriate in the smallest of joys. 

One way I’ve done this is by throwing myself into my favourite reality TV shows. I watch them as they air (which is several nights a week for several months here in Australia) so that I can follow along on Twitter with everyone else watching live. It was a tiny anticipation in the grand scheme of things, but watching Masterchef with hundreds of strangers on the internet became a huge part of my days and weeks! It was something I looked forward to during the day. 

3) Be present in the moment

Find activities that keep you grounded, that allow you to experience joy in the moment. Joy and pleasure that is not dependent on your situation or your circumstances, but simply is. Notice small things. Perhaps it is natural beauty – sunsets, flowers, mountains, bird calls. Perhaps it is playing with small children, immersing yourself in the wonder they see, getting caught up in the magic they make with simple things like boxes and blocks and crayons. Perhaps it is a time of rest, with a good book, a cozy blanket, and a cup of tea. For me it has been all of these and more. 

4) Lean into the experiences you couldn’t have otherwise

What do you have access to because of your time in limbo that you wouldn’t otherwise? Usually the negatives of our situations shout very loudly. Those difficulties are real, and the pain they cause is real. The grief that comes from plans laid waste is valid and needs to be acknowledged and expressed. But it’s not the whole story. What can I access in my limbo life that I couldn’t access elsewhere?

In my case, two particularly significant experiences opened to me in limbo. Choosing to lean into them has brought me incredible benefits that have helped to redeem my limbo time. First, I’ve been able to access beneficial healthcare with a doctor I’d previously only seen for annual checkups, and the positive changes to my health have been dramatic. 

My second open door has been time with my young niece and nephews. The oldest is five; the youngest is nearly 17 months – he was born about 6 weeks after I arrived. I’ve been 15 minutes down the road from him and his older brother his entire life, and usually see them several days a week. My other niece and nephew live halfway across the country. Twice I’ve been able to live with them in their house for a full month, being a part of their everyday lives in almost every way. As a long-distance family member, these are joys I never dreamed I would get to experience. 

So yes, living in limbo is awful. Uncertainty is so hard to live with. There is so much about my situation I don’t like and wouldn’t choose. And yet, there are ways to make it easier to bear. There are ways to cultivate joy in the midst of heartache. If you find yourself stuck in limbo like me, I hope you will find these ideas helpful.

Learning to be Still

by Alyson Rockhold

I have lived in four countries in the last seven years. I used to think that I was made to be a missionary because I loved the challenges of going, moving, and exploring new places.

My calling is based on God’s command in Matthew 28:19 to “Go and make disciples of all nations,” so it makes sense that I’ve gotten really good at going. The only problem is, “Go” isn’t the only command in the Bible. 

Sometimes God says, “Stay.” He instructs us to “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10). Unfortunately, I am not very good at staying.

This spiritual deficiency became very obvious last year. In March 2020, my husband and I were transferred from Zambia to Kenya. We decided to stop over in Tanzania for a 2-week vacation to visit old friends. Within a few days, Covid hit, the borders closed, and we were trapped. 

While my family worried about my safety, I was more concerned for my sanity! With no work, no social events, no electricity, and minimal entertainment, I quickly became stir crazy. Like a weightlifter who only exercised one side of her body, I was imbalanced in my ability to follow God. 

So much of my identity was wrapped up in my work. I was most satisfied when my days were full of meaningful tasks. Sitting, waiting, and being still seemed like impossible feats. Yet the borders remained closed, and I stayed stuck.

I felt useless, irritable, and on edge. So I began begging God for something to do. When it got too noisy in my head, I started writing down my thoughts.

For years, I’d kept a prayer journal with small entries here and there. Now I was filling up multiple pages a day. There was something soothing in pushing a pencil across a page: at least I was doing something!

Over time, I wrote myself into stillness. 

It’s challenging to explain how this happened, except to say that I know God was there. He taught me how to write a few words, and then pause to listen for His Voice. I slowly became more comfortable with sitting and waiting. The silence wasn’t so scary when He was there with me. 

Writing helped me lay down my addiction to going and learn to be still. God used writing to teach me that my identity had nothing to do with my productivity, no matter how fused the two concepts were in my mind.

I’d always prided myself on being a super productive Martha, but God was slowly teaching me to choose “what is better.” By God’s grace, I was no longer so “worried and upset over many things.” I was learning to sit at the Lord’s feet like in Luke 10:38-42.

Once I finally started understanding how to “Be Still,” God ordered me to “Go” once again. 

The sudden shift in energy was palpable: after 4.5 months of staying, my husband and I now had 48 hours to go. But with the borders to Kenya still closed, we weren’t able to go to our long-awaited destination. So our mission agency told us to return to the U.S. and await further instructions. 

I sat on the plane wondering: What was the point of staying if it didn’t get me where I wanted to go?

Then I re-entered noisy, chaotic America, and those lessons about silence and stillness sustained me.

When the dream of ever getting to Kenya faded, the ability to separate my identity from my productivity kept me sane.

Later I asked God what I was supposed to do in the U.S., and He turned my writing into a ministry.

In the end, staying prepared me for going: God wove the two seemingly opposite concepts together in ways I would never have asked for or imagined. And that weaving has continued over the last year of being “stuck” once again — this time back in the U.S. 

But this time, I’m not quite as obsessed with wondering when I’ll get to go again. Learning to be still and know that He is God shifted my priorities and clarified my purpose. And maybe that was the point all along.

~~~~~~~~~~~~

Alyson Rockhold has served as a medical missionary in Haiti, Tanzania, and Zambia. She recently published a 7-day devotional about learning to be still and know that He is God (Psalm 46:10). You can access it for free by clicking here. 

On Leaving Home: Embracing the Sojourner Spirit

It’s been six and a half years now since we moved back to the States from living overseas. I know many who read the articles here have been on a similar journey to us, of finding ‘normal’ back in the States.

But is there really, truly a ‘normal’ once we have invested our hearts overseas? Just this past summer I lost my father and almost twenty years ago, my mother. I know a piece of me left this world with each of them, and I will not get it back until I am with them forever.

It is similar when we grieve the ending of our time in another country. We will no longer be living amidst its beauty — mostly its people but also its culture. Whether God calls us to another country or place overseas, or we return to the States, we must acknowledge that a piece of ourselves will remain in that ‘lost home.’ It will be lost to us until we experience full healing and the new life of the new heaven and the new earth.

So what do we do with the pain of this separation? How do we deal with this cutting away, this stripping bare of a place we have so deeply loved? Amidst other things, we learn to enter this pain as we embrace our lives as sojourners.

Because of my mental illness journey, we left long before we were ready. And there was an appalling lack of closure in our relationships. The door closed to returning long-term, and a visit has not even been possible.

But even if we could go back, it wouldn’t be the same. Our beloved flat would no longer be ours. Many of our friends would be gone, and the life missed together could not be returned to us. The reality of that place no longer being our home is an aching thing, a gaping wound, and we have to embrace this truth.

This processing our grief is one which involves much grace given to ourselves, as much grace as is needed. We cry when we need to, we ache inside without stuffing the discomfort of this, we ask the ‘why’ question to our God. And we learn to live with the silence.

We are sojourners who are forever cut off from our first home–Eden. All of humanity either remains hopelessly lost to home or learns to embrace the life of a sojourner headed to our true Home. I love C.S. Lewis’ reflections of this in The Weight of Glory, available in its entirety here. He says:

“The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”

The people we have loved, the place which has been our home, reveals our longing for a perfect world which we will never leave. And if held incorrectly, our longing for this home or any home we have known can shatter our hearts, our very selves. Thus, we must learn to embrace the sojourners that we are.

There isn’t a step-by-step blueprint marked out for us. We each must learn to chart our own way, even as we reach out to other grieving sojourners — spouses, children, brothers and sisters of all kinds. In so doing, we find our way to great visions of life forever sharing in the stories of all the saints. It is the life we missed, redeemed and regained.

This embracing of a sojourning life also paves the way for the life yet before us. For my husband and myself, we have been led to uproot our comfortable, re-settled lives to join a ministry that resettles refugees, asylum seekers, and immigrants. In now choosing this life, we did not settle for a “sort-of overseas experience” since we are working with those from overseas. No. It is the pure gift of our sojourning identity. We have learned to see the imprint of our own journey as strangers in another land, and through it we welcome the strangers to the country in which we now live.

In speaking of this embracing, I know I have not arrived yet at my destination, at the perfect knowing of my forever home. As long as I draw breath here, I never will.

And neither will you. The deep pain of loss is with us until our every tear is wiped away in the arms of the Redeemer of All. Yet we enter those arms bit by bit and step by step, as we release our white knuckling of home here. And in this, we receive the light of perfect love which will overcome the darkness of our grief, every time.

Friend, I pray God breathes hope into your sojourning life right now. I am asking our God of grace to shine his face upon you and comfort you in the pain of loss from any home you have known in this world. I am listening to the quietness of an Eden, a perfection, and its promise to be fully restored. Even more, I hold onto the deeper promise that this perfection will never be lost again.

Your fellow sojourner and friend,
Abby

When Cultures Move Apart

Twice this week cultural tension came up. Okay, it happened about a zillion times, but twice that I specifically thought of you and the topic.

1. This week I reviewed feedback from my editor on a project for Global Trellis. What stood out to me is that the project is not controversial, but because it talks about parenting and couples, there are far more choices in words than one might think. This the project will be used by a global community spread around the world do we say marriage? Couples? Partners? When referring to the parents instead of saying “the husband” or “the wife” do we simply say “dad” or “mom?”

(All this for checklists! Yes, the checklists are amazing and the topic of postpartum depression on the field is important . . . but let’s also have some perspective here. It’s not an overly controversial topic; yet the amount of thought and effort that has gone into wording because of how differently cultures talk about marriage and parenting . . . though worth the time and effort, it also points to something and I want to pay attention to what it’s pointing towards.)

2. I listened to a podcast that touched on worldwide denominations navigating topics such as who can marry each other and the clash between African countries and North America and parts of Europe.

You have probably experienced something similar. Where you are living and where other people who are dear to you are living are worlds apart . . . both physically and culturally.

You might experience a gap with:

  • Friends and family members in your passport country
  • Supporters and sending churches
  • Local friends and colleagues
  • Other people in your organization
  • Fellow cross-cultural workers in your country

Just consider these different areas over the last fifty years in three countries/cultures that you love:

who can be educated
what “healthy sexuality” includes
gender and gender roles
race and race relations
what a “good” childhood looks like
who has power and authority
who can marry
the role of the government
the role of citizens
the role of the church
the interpretation of history
and the list could go on

I’ve been wondering how you and I can navigate genuine differences as people who have convictions without our convictions being at the expense of relationships. I’ve come up with three suggestions:

1. Acknowledge the tension

I like for everyone to agree with me on everything. You probably do too. This is obviously not realistic. When someone holds a different opinion or belief from yours, do you focus on the difference too much, too little, or about the right amount?

Of course there will be seasons—like an election—where your attention to the gaps in convictions or beliefs are greater. But remember the difference between feeling a gap and feeding it. Find a safe person or group to explore and process the tension you feel between your passport culture and your host culture and you on each of the areas listed above.

2. Stay curious

Can I tell you how much this is a discipline for me? Left to my own, I can “stay judgmental” or “stay sure my interpretation is the one God would agree with because clearly it is right.” I am not advocating that you become uber relativistic. Absolutes exist. Truth is real.

But I also believe that curiosity is healthy. Curious about historical events and current events that are informing your host and passport cultures. Curious where Christians are in agreement with a cultural stance, even as a stance changes. Curious about where Christians are not in agreement with a cultural stance. Curious what feels threatening to you. Curious about the tone, word choice, and values coming out of a culture. Curious about what you are willing to die for and what you are not and how that might ebb and flow over time.

3. Be wise in when and where to engage

Not all spaces are created equal. “Be wise” does not mean “say nothing.” We are talking about complex and nuanced topics. A helpful question to add enough space for your brain to kick in so you’re not just reacting is, “Would Lady Sophia say this? Or is this Lady Folly chomping at the bit?” Lady Folly wants to prove she is right even if she breaks relationships, causes hurt and confusion, and leaves a path of destruction.

Lady Sophia will consider the medium: is this a private or public Facebook group? Is this a text message? A newsletter? Is this a voice memo where the other person can hear my tone?

This past week I learned about “2D” and “3D” conversations in another podcast I listened to. A 2D conversation can be easily handled in an email or text. A 3D conversation needs a phone call, video call, or to be in-person. Most of the topics were are talking about probably need to be 3D. If you start to have a 3D conversation in a 2D space, simply say, “Hey, I think this is a 3D conversation, let’s find a time to meet.”

In cases like the checklists my editor and I are working on, having another set of eyes has been invaluable. She notices word choice or phrasing that with a small tweak keep the focus on the topic at hand.

When I close my eyes and picture the throne room in heaven with the Triune God able to see and love at one time all of the cultures He created, I have a sense of his great joy in the variety . . . even in our different convictions.

While gaps will still exist between you and those you care about, you can decrease the chance that you drift too far apart by acknowledging the tensions that do exist between you, staying curious, and being wise about when and where to engage.

Photo by Possessed Photography on Unsplash

Dear Re-entry

by Katherine

Dear Reverse Culture Shock,

I have not enjoyed spending time with you. You are a sneaky thief. Beyond that, your identity is ambiguous. You have made moving back to my passport country horrible.

I’m never sure whether I should call you Reverse Culture Shock or Re-entry. And if Re-entry, how do I spell it? People can’t agree if it’s Re-entry or Reentry.

Even though I have had many dealings with you, I still don’t know what to call you. That says something about your nature. You’re elusive, invisible. 

I wish you were more like your brother Culture Shock. Although also unpleasant, I appreciate that he is obnoxious. Like you, he steals, but in a more obvious way.

Or why can’t you be like your namesake Spacecraft Re-entry? He is loud. Everyone knows he is the most dangerous part of a space journey. Getting back into Earth’s atmosphere is a vulnerable time, and it can be disastrous if is not done carefully.

You are not obvious or loud; you hide away like an afterthought, silently stealing from me.

You stole my house, my job, my friends — lots of tangible things like that but also my skills and identity. You turned me into an incompetent invisible immigrant. On the outside, I look like a normal Australian, but I don’t know how to do anything. At least in Asia, my white skin announces that I will need help talking or eating.

You stole my ability to do things people expect me to be capable of doing. I look like everyone else, so drivers assume I will know how to cross the road. People in the supermarket expect me to be able to buy a box of breakfast cereal.

You stole my ability to do things I expect myself to be capable of doing. I’ve lived here before, so I assume I know how to do all those simple things. Like feed myself and take part in conversations. Like buy and wear shoes after wearing flip-flops for many years.

You stole my ability to be settled in like people seem to expect. “Have you settled in yet?” It sounds like a perfectly reasonable question to ask. But it sometimes sounds like, “You should feel settled now that you have been back for almost a year.”

You stole my ability to sleep as much as I need. Every little thing takes so much more effort, so I’m extra tired. But the bed is too soft, there is no hugging pillow, and it’s so cold I need to use a blanket. I even need to relearn how to sleep.

You stole my ability to have fun and relax. In a new environment, my hobbies and habits that kept me sane can’t happen. So not only do you create extra stress and work for me, but you also take away my ways to cope with stress. 

You stole my ability to understand that I’m in pain. Until I met you, I felt like I was at home, but you took that and replaced it with sadness too big see. Homelessness is the air I’m breathing, but I can’t see that air.

It feels like confusion and helplessness. 

It feels like a problem I need to fix as soon as possible. 

It feels like if I only relearn how to live in Australia, I will be able to function as a normal person.

You make those feelings so overwhelming that I can’t see what is really going on. And if I can’t understand I’m in pain, how can I start processing it? You can’t heal from something unless you know it’s there. In fact, sometimes the simple act of naming emotions is healing, but you stole even that. 

It’s going to end up pushed aside, out of sight, out of mind. Like a bacteria in the permafrost, it will end up frozen and inactive. The unnamed and unacknowledged pain could stay dormant until the next heat wave. When the permafrost melts, the bacteria can start causing destruction again. Not only did you create loss, but you also stole the ability to cope with it. 

I can’t blame you entirely – pain in general is hard to deal with. We prefer to find the silver linings and write gratitude lists. Even people in visible pain are sometimes met with, “At least it’s not as bad as it could be.” 

Perhaps it is hard to see another’s pain, especially if we haven’t processed our own. Or perhaps because it is uncomfortable to see someone in pain ,we try to sweep it away. It’s more convenient to say some “comforting words” than listen to another person scream and cry for five hours. 

So Reentry, my inability to process pain is not all your fault. But if you weren’t so invisible, there would be more chance of acknowledgment. That might not sound like much, but it actually goes a long way. In fact, you can’t get anywhere without it. 

But you stole my ability to do almost everything, including explaining to people that I don’t know how to do anything.  If only I could wear “Learners” plates everywhere so people would know. 

This letter is too short to tell you all the reasons I’m not fond of you. But I hope it gives you a glimpse of some of what you have done to me. 

This letter has no power to stop you from silently stealing from me and your other victims. But what I hope this letter can do is to bring you out of hiding. If you were visible, your victims would have more chance to give their pain space to breathe.

Painfully yours,
Katherine

~~~~~~~~~

Katherine’s childhood church in Australia launched her on a trajectory to Asia. After a decade of preparation she landed in Cambodia and married a local Bible teacher. She wrote this letter as a response to two years of re-entry and reverse culture shock in 2011 and 2012.

Regrets and Remembrances: A Prayer for Those Who Leave Home

With one plane ride the whole world as TCKs have known it can die. Every important place they’ve been, every tree climbed, pet owned, and virtually every close friend they’ve made are gone with the closing of the airplane door.
—David Pollock and Ruth Van Reken, Third Culture Kids

This closing door doesn’t just happen to Third Culture Kids. It’s also the experience of immigrants who leave behind many what-could-have-beens in their old country. Cross-cultural workers feel the door close when they leave their work and return “home.” (What other job requires you to leave the country once you’re no longer on the payroll?) International students close the door with the hopes that new opportunities will open many more. And refugees often see the door slammed and locked by soldiers carrying guns.

But while the door is closed, the mind is still open to thoughts about what was left behind. Some thoughts are joyous and life giving. Some are hurtful and life stealing. And often they come intricately, painfully intertwined, called up by a scent, a word, a sound, a flavor, a feeling or a dream. Bittersweet.

For those who find themselves on the other side of a closed door, I offer this prayer, inspired by Reinhold Niebuhr’s “Serenity Prayer“:

God, grant me the confidence to let go of the regrets that I should not hold on to,
The ability to hold on to the memories I should not let go of,
And the wisdom to separate the one from the other. Amen.

(David C. Pollock and Ruth E. Van Reken, Third Culture Kids: Growing Up among Worlds, Boston: Nicholas Brealey, 2009)

[photo: “over you,” by woodleywonderworks, used under a Creative Commons license]

(This post was originally published at ClearingCustoms.com.)

Moving Abroad Will Fix All Your Issues. . . . and Other Lies

Ahh moving abroad . . . that’ll fix it. A fresh start. A new leaf. A change of scenery.  That’s what I need to break me out of the unhealthy rhythms and dysfunctional habits I’ve been carrying with me for years. Right?

The people reading this are having at least three distinctly different reactions right now. The starry-eyed “Soon-To-Be’s” are like, “Exactly what I was thinking. Makes total sense.” The half-jaded “Been-There’s” are saying, “PFFFT.  Keep dreaming chump.” And somewhere out there someone just giggled and thought, “Yeah, not so much, but it gets better.”

I wish it were true. I really do. I wish that packing up and moving to a new place meant that you could leave your baggage at home. But you can’t . . . at least not most of the time.

(Just a side note to anyone who actually did discover that moving away fixed all of their issues . . . you should maybe not say anything just now . . . the rest of us don’t like you.)

I call it FLIGHT INFLATION (capitalized for emphasis), and it’s a reality built on two simple principles:

    • Issues can fly
    • They expand when they land

The cross-cultural life can be the great inflator of personal problems. It can also be painfully deceptive, early on. The excitement, the adventure, and the newness can serve as a great cover-up for a good long time, but rest assured . . . if it’s in there . . . it will come out.

Let’s get blunt for just a minute so there’s no mistaking what we’re talking about here:

If addiction is your thing — drugs, booze, porn, attention, name it — an international move is not a substitute for recovery. You can expect that your triggers and temptations will be stronger than ever. Even if your vice seems unavailable in your new home, addicts are masters at finding what they crave.

If your marriage is in the toilet —  You may very well need some time away with your spouse, and a trip abroad could be just what the therapist ordered . . . but LIFE abroad is NOT a break from reality to gather your thoughts and talk things out . . . it is a NEW reality altogether. It’s a reality that mixes all of your past frustrations with a whole new set of frustrations. That’s dangerous chemistry.

If you have anger issues — That’s one place in your passport country where your life can be compartmentalized. Blow up at work, and no one at church will ever know. Kick the dog, and he’ll keep it a secret. Life abroad is (and I generalize here) more community driven — less prone to personal space and segmented social spheres. Who you really are is harder to keep secret in a bubble when everyone you know is all up in your business.

Whatever your issue is — Withdrawal. Gossip. Anxiety. Depression. Control issues. Procrastination. Doubt. Shame. Laziness. Misphonia (that thing where mouth sounds make you crazy . . . what? . . . it’s a real thing . . . stop judging).

Seriously — whatever it is — life abroad doesn’t fix it.

Anonymity, isolation, lack of support, cultural stress, feeling out of control (this list goes on for a while) are all factors in the swelling of our issues abroad. Consider the fact that you are often expected to complete high stakes tasks with other anonymous, isolated, unsupported, highly stressed, out-of-control people, and FLIGHT INFLATION starts to make sense.

But this is not a doomsday post (could have fooled me, right?). So hear me out.

If you’re a starry-eyed “Soon-To-Be,” don’t freak out.

    • Everyone has issues . . . for real . . . everyone.
    • Do everything you can to address them before you go. And set up a plan to keep addressing them.
    • Don’t be naive. Going in with your eyes open sets you up to do this right.
    • Sidenote — If your issues are actually going to crush you abroad, it is MUCH better to discover that before you go.

If you’re a half-jaded “Been There,” there’s good news.

    • You’re also half unjaded. Resolve not to go the other half.
    • Say it with me: “Life abroad does not get to rob me of my _______” (marriage, sanity, sobriety, dog).
    • Become a master of seeking wisdom.
    • Sidenote — If your issues are already crushing you, finish this sentence, “It would be better for me to ______ than to lose my ________.” Then do whatever it takes.

And if you’ve been there, come through it, and learned something along the way, here are some requests for you.

    • Share your wisdom. Humbly and with great empathy. Please.
    • Don’t get cocky. Issues come back.
    • Be an advocate for people with issues. They could use someone who understands.
    • Sidenote — Consider that people are NEVER the best version of themselves in transition. Help them navigate.

 

(Originally published at thecultureblend.com.)