Cross-Cultural Skiing

My family arrived in the States for a six-month furlough in December. We eagerly awaited the “winter” weather, as my two boys barely have any memories of snow. But the winter weather seemed unpredictable and disappointing. 

One day, I was talking with my dad about cross-country skiing. He loves skiing and has a whole collection of skis in our basement that he can use whenever the weather in Virginia allows. My nine-year-old son piped up, “Are you going to go cross-cultural skiing?” 

I laughed. Apparently, my son really is a TCK. He is more familiar with the term “cross-cultural” than he is with the term “cross-country.” So I explained to him what his grandpa was actually talking about.

But the term my son used has stayed with me. We are, indeed, cross-cultural skiing.

Before furlough, we talked as a family about what we were looking forward to: Christmas presents, snow, grandparents (in that order). We talked about what was scary: a new school, different foods, leaving friends behind (“Will my friends forget me?” my son asked). Months of thought, preparation, and planning went into getting on the airplane to leave Indonesia.

But each time we furlough, I am surprised at what I forgot to anticipate— for myself and for my children.

This time around, before even landing in America, I realized my sons were not used to dry weather. Airplanes have dry air, as do winter months. My children, however, are accustomed to the humid air of tropical Indonesia. Licking his lips, over and over again, my eldest son’s face became red and painful. 

Don’t lick your lips! I explained. But he is from the tropics. This air is an unfamiliar dry. My youngest son’s skin also became dry and itchy. “I don’t want that slimy stuff,” he screams as I run after him with lotion.

How do we help our children when the air itself is different from what we are used to? How do we help our families navigate switching between cultures on this journey of cross-cultural skiing?

Some parts of this life are beautiful. My children are bilingual and can switch between languages with ease. “Hi, my name is Luke. I’m bilingual,” my seven-year-old son says when he introduces himself. But on furlough, we must work hard to make sure Indonesian is not forgotten. We scroll through Netflix movies and shows to find only what is available in Indonesian. We switch our bedtime story routine to reading in Bahasa Indonesian (we use the free app Let’s Read Asia to access hundreds of books).  

Sometimes this feels like a sacrifice, as the public library has an abundance of books in English that I would love to read. But I remember returning to the field after the last furlough; it took over a year for our son to start speaking smoothly in Indonesian again. We are working harder this time to help him remember, to keep him from forgetting.

I love how my children view life in America with excitement and wonder. They see things with new eyes, helping me also to enjoy the small things: squirrels, cardinals, blue jays, and blossoming daffodils provide backyard entertainment. 

Other parts of this life are brutal. All the goodbyes in Indonesia, not knowing what things will be like when we return six months from now. Will our children’s friends remember them? Will our boys remember their friends? Will the ministry we started run smoothly without us, or will some crisis arise, plunging them into turmoil? Will there be floods, fires, deaths, or even eviction for our teammates and friends living in the slum community where we normally make our home? 

How do we embrace the comfort of life in America, while at the same time guard our hearts to return once again to the field? And how do we help our children do the same? How can we hold both the good and the hard together? How can we enjoy our time here and also prepare our children to return to where life seems a lot more difficult?

One morning in February, my boys looked out the window at six in the morning and started screaming: “It’s snowing! It’s snowing!” And, indeed, the ground was covered in about two inches of snow. They jumped up and down, shouting their excitement for everyone in the house to hear.

And as soon as it was light, we finally got to build a snowman and go sledding. My dad pulled out his cross-country skis and enjoyed skiing down the same small hill that we were sledding on. 

On perhaps his fourth trip down the hill, my dad noticed there was a log hidden under some snow. He tried to avoid hitting the log but lost his balance and took a dramatic fall. A trip to the ER revealed that he had not broken anything, though he was in pain for a few days.

This life of traveling between cultures can feel like that too. The joy and fun of reconnecting with relatives and old friends, eating food we’ve been missing, or simply wearing clothing that we don’t get to wear on the field can suddenly be replaced by feelings of grief and fear. We can feel like we have lost our bearings and might fall flat on our face. Our lips get chapped and our skin gets dry. We suddenly feel like foreigners in our own passport country.

As we struggle along on our journeys of navigating cultures, may we have grace for ourselves and for those on the journey with us – our teammates, our spouses, our children. May we have the grace to get back up when we fall down. The grace to keep trying. The grace to take risks and continue to choose to invest in relationships, to choose to love, even though goodbyes are just around the corner. May we embrace the good and the hard of this life as we go cross-cultural skiing together.

When God Surprises You With Abundance

When I first heard Christ say, “Follow me,” I was sixteen years old. I often wondered what kind of cross I would carry for choosing to follow him. I pictured myself living in a hut in a mountain village or maybe in a “barrio” similar to the slums I would drive by on my way to school. I knew that it wouldn’t be easy, that there would be loss, pain, maybe even persecution. And it’s true – it has been, at times, grueling and crushing. What I didn’t foresee then was that following Christ could also mean, at times, abundance. 

But here I am years later, living overseas and recently moved into a house that is better than anything we had hoped. Not only is the house built on two plots of land, perfect for our kids to play and explore, inside the house is spacious as well. We have a dedicated guest room with its own bathroom and a lower level that is airy and perfect to host large gatherings. We have a separate dining room to host multiple guests, and my husband is able to have an office to more effectively work from home. 

And the view, oh, the view is breathtaking. Because our house sits at the top of a hill, it overlooks a precipitous narrow valley, ringed by mountains. We can see a small town that sits on the mountain across from us, and at night, the cheery lights from the houses greet us in the distance. Secluded by a row of tall cypress trees, the house has a farmhouse feel. When you sit in the veranda that overlooks the valley, the twittering of Palestinian sunbirds with their turquoise plumage and playful flight simply delight the senses. 

For years I’d been saying I wanted to have a house that was guest-house material, a place that would be lovely and restful, a place where others could come to get away, “preferably with a gorgeous view,” I’d say. This house is all that and more (for the same rent we were paying before!). A few days after we moved, I told my husband, “I feel like my soul grew two sizes.”

But not long after, I found a nagging restlessness in my heart. I couldn’t relax into enjoying our home. We don’t know any other expats in this country with a space like ours. A voice kept whispering, “God wouldn’t be this kind to you, you don’t deserve it. Did you somehow manipulate him into giving it to you?”

When our functional theology is about what we deserve, we quickly turn to self-atonement strategies to cope with undeserved gifts. “We will steward this house well. We want it to be a blessing to others,” we say. And while this desire to be a blessing is absolutely real and good, what if that is not the primary reason why we have this house? What if our Father is this kind? What if, before we think about how we can use this home for the good of others and the kingdom, we receive this gift with both hands and simply savor the rich love of our Dad who sees us intimately? 

We are not just servants living on mission for the purposes of the King. We are his actual kids – deeply beloved, thoroughly delighted in. What if, as we are giving out to others, he wants us to taste all that He is and all that we are to him? 

As overseas workers, do we have a theology of abundance? I have been pondering this question for months. When generous friends gift us time away on what feels like an extravagant vacation, when God provides the perfect car for the needs of our family, or when God blows us away with increased monthly support that we didn’t sweat hard to raise, do we have a functional theology that allows us to relish all that grace? Without guilt, shame, or fear? 

Our theology of abundance not only allows us to receive grace, it also helps us when we are living very different lives than Adoniram and Ann Judson lived in Burma or Jim and Elisabeth Elliott among the Quechua people in Ecuador. 

“We have left it all to follow you.” Peter’s words ring in our ears. Have we? We have cars, A/C units, and grocery stores with western-like goods. We can text with our families across the oceans and within seconds, get a reply. In some ways, at times, our sacrifice seems less significant because the lack we experience is not the same. And so the abundance we enjoy in comparison to theirs makes us feel a bit like a fraud, like we are in some way second-class workers, not as “hard core” as those of old.

But their devotion to Christ is not measured by their sacrifice but by their faith in him and their day-to-day dependence on the Spirit. God is not measuring the strength of our sacrifice either. Rather, he asks whether Jesus is our only source of confidence for the life he has given — with its gifts, sorrows, and responsibilities. 

What if the abundance in our life is rich soil for growth when it is enjoyed by faith? What if this bounty in resources and capacity is a gift that enables longevity, allowing us to be stable and grounded enough to care for the overwhelming needs of those around us? What if the God who cares for us according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus delights to tend to the souls and bodies and minds of those he sends out to serve him? What if he knows how much we need to hear, “I see you?”

I hope you know I am not saying we can only feel seen in abundance. Neither am I advocating the pursuit of abundance. I know the destructive power of prosperity gospel theology and the trap it can be in ministry. I am a firm believer in the importance of a robust theology of suffering. I am, after all, a lay counselor, passionate about holistic soul care. But a robust theology of suffering is not complete without a theology of abundance. 

Our Father’s generosity is to be received gratefully, joyfully. His kindness is to be stewarded and leveraged. When we do that with Christ-confidence we are, like Mary Oliver wrote, “half crazy with the wonder of it.” We delight in the foolishness of grace that lavishes us with everything our Father is for us. Not because we have done so much in following Jesus, but because He won it all when he led ahead of us.

What’s on Your Housing Wish List?

by Jacob

“Sure it’s got no natural light, but the water supply is good, and look, you even have your own toilet!”

A potential landlady was showing us a room that was available for rent. We had just moved back to India from Australia and were getting back into our old roles doing community development in a slum. We’d deliberately chosen to live in the slum, so as to be near to our neighbours and understand their problems. We were also welcoming another housemate soon and needed more space, so we were looking for a new place to rent.

We’ve done this style of thing – living in slums – for a couple of decades, moving house many times in the process. As we’ve done so, my wife Ruby and I have developed a clear sense of what’s important in our accommodation as well as the factors on which we can compromise.

The room we were now being shown, as the landlady pointed out, had the advantage of having its very own toilet. This is not something to be taken for granted and is indeed a big selling point in a slum. Many rental places here don’t have their own toilet, renters instead needing to share between several families. That can make life pretty tough, especially in the morning ‘rush hour.’ (In one of our previous rentals, there was one toilet for 13 people!)

Independent toilet notwithstanding, for us, the lack of natural light was something on which we weren’t prepared to compromise. We’ve found over the years that having natural light is important to our emotional health. Perhaps it gives us a connection of sorts with the natural world outside the brick and concrete that characterises so many Asian cities. If we’re lucky, the natural light may also offer a glimpse of a tree or even a bird, which is helpful for our feeling of well-being and for our connection to God.

After natural light, perhaps the next most important factor on our wish-list is not being on the ground floor. Many people in south Asia actually see the ground floor as an advantage, being as it is cooler in the punishing South Asian summers. The storeys above do indeed keep the sun off the ground floor.

However, a major disadvantage of the lowest level for us is the lack of privacy. As foreigners, we tend to attract quite a bit of attention, so people will readily poke their head inside a ground floor room or have a good look through the windows just to ‘view’ us. When you like a little privacy, as I do, that’s not fun. We find that a 2nd (or 3rd) floor place offers enough disincentive (needing to walk up the steps) that it keeps the number of ‘casual observers’ down. Those upper floors are also obviously better for natural light.

After natural light and being off the ground floor, a reliable water supply and an independent toilet/bathing area are perhaps our next most important factors. While in the West we take our own water supply for granted, for millions in the developing world, it is a daily drama needing to line up at public taps and then haul the precious commodity home in buckets. In middle class neighbourhoods with multi-storey apartments, often the water pressure is not sufficient to get the water to upper levels, necessitating a pump to get the water to a storage tank on the roof. We’ve recently had such a pump installed at our place which has saved us many trips hauling water up the stairs.

Then there’s the toilet/bathing area – the feature our potential new landlady was pointing out as the big selling point of that room.  While many of our local friends share a ‘common’ toilet and bathing area with other tenants, this level of sharing is beyond most of us as foreigners, liking as we do to have access to ‘the facilities’ when we want, and allowing us to perhaps keep it a little cleaner than other users.

Finally, we consider the particular area of the neighbourhood where the potential apartment is located – preferably being away from the nosiest parts, and thus being a little more peaceful. Access to a park for extra green space is a bonus.

Interestingly, as I look at my wish-list, one factor is conspicuous by its absence – the actual rent. With most places in our poor neighbourhood being affordable to us, my not having the rent on my list is a stark reminder of the incredible privilege I have of being able to choose a place on the basis of ‘luxuries’ like light, water, and a bathing area.

After considering all of these factors, we decided not to take the ‘toilet’ room, but instead to advance several months’ rent to our current landlord to build another smaller room atop our existing one, leaving that room to our new teammate. Being top storey, the new room, while small, has great natural light, is two levels away from inquisitive eyes, and even gives us a view of some trees beyond our slum! Together with the addition of the water pump and being in a relatively quiet area, our new room actually satisfies most of our slum home wish-list!

Everyone’s context is different: some of us are in crowded slums, some in sprawling suburban settlements, some in rural areas with few facilities but lots of greenery. And within those contexts, we all have unique personalities, leading to different preferences in our accommodation. Some of us need natural light, whereas others just need a decent water supply and our own bathroom. Some need lots of connection with neighbours, whereas others need more personal space.

In whatever context you find yourself, and whatever your personality, I hope and pray your home satisfies the most important features of your wish list, and that you (and I) have the grace to accept the imperfections of our surroundings, whatever they are.


Jacob and his wife Ruby (names changed) have lived and worked in the slums of India with Servants to Asia’s Urban Poor for almost two decades. There they seek to understand the difficulties their neighbours face, partly by experiencing those difficulties themselves. Those choices have led Jacob, Ruby, and now adult son Joseph, to respond in a variety of ways – ranging from assisting neighbours to access government identity documentation, pensions and hospital care, to helping challenge an eviction for an entire slum.

Are Transient Friendships Worth My Time?

Are Transient Friendships Worth My Time?

In my 15 years on the field, the number of dear friends I have made and then said goodbye to is beyond my ability to recount. Some were genuine heart-level relationships, the kind where I could bare the depths of my soul and still feel entirely loved and unjudged. Others were such a barrel of fun that the laughs started rolling the minute we began chatting, and some friends had such depth of love for Christ that it felt highly contagious in the best way. 

But the one thing all of these friends had in common is that they left. Whether they moved to another field or returned to their home countries, my friendships with them are no longer the same because of the geographical distance between us. 

Of course, I also have left. I left my home country and the friendships I had there so I could move to Afghanistan. I transitioned to a different field in 2014, and with that transition came many goodbyes. It does not feel so drastic when I am the one leaving because there is so much newness and excitement to look forward to on the other side. But when I was the one left behind, the void felt as though I could trace its crater with my fingers. “It’s fine,” I would tell myself. “That is where God wants her, and I love that for her!” 

After saying so many goodbyes, it felt safer to hang back and observe. I would watch carefully and check in with different expat ladies in the community to see how they were doing, only to calculate whether or not they would “make it.” While they were sharing their triumphs and struggles, I was cautiously measuring them up to see if they were worth my time and energy. It’s a sad and ugly confession, but it’s true. (It’s also worth noting that my predictions have rarely been accurate.) 

My watch-and-wait strategy backfired, and I simply wound up not having close friends outside of my husband and a teammate. This lasted a couple of years because I was pretty slow to figure out that my plan had failed. In my attempt to shield myself from the pain of more goodbyes, I had effectively cut myself off from friendships. It was a lonely time. The fear of pending heartache was gnawing at the present reality of loneliness, but I felt too stuck to know which was the better existence. 

When I was finally able to articulate my dilemma, it became clear that God had made me, and indeed all of us, to live in relationship with one another while knowing that loss is inevitable. Our souls yearn for infinite comfort and familiarity, and Jesus is the only one who can meet this longing with his constant presence and unchanging nature. This change in perspective brought me into a new depth of communion with Christ, and his unchangingness became a new point of meditation and gratitude in my prayer life. 

I have since made several meaningful friendships. And, of course, some of them have moved on to other places or back to their passport countries. However, I am grateful for each one because we needed each other in those specific seasons of life. We sharpened each other, we cried together, we shared laughter and joy, sorrow and pain. My life and relationship with Jesus is far deeper and more vibrant as a result of relationship with these friends, even if we were together for only a season. 

God made us relational creatures with an intense need for human connection. In our communion with one another, we commune with Christ as well. Knowing and being known by others allows us glimpses of the Maker who put others together just as he did you and me. This is the kind of goodness that you go out of your way to behold, the sort that makes you stand in awe and gratitude. 

Making friends in adulthood is not easy, and the transience of life overseas tends to add another layer of complexity to the mix. Overseas life can bring burdens too heavy to shoulder alone, and God has given us the gift of each other for the journey.  The short-lived nature of our togetherness can be a reminder that God’s provision may look different from season to season. But the beauty of the vast family of God is that we are tied together by a love so powerful that it transcends time and distance.

Is His Burden Light?


“Lord, give me a burden for souls.”

That’s the last line of a song written by a young lady from my husband’s hometown.

It reminds me of Jesus’ words: “Come to me, all ye who are weak and heavy laden, and I will give you rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

It makes me wonder if Jesus’ burden is the same as the “burden for souls”? And if it is, is that burden light? Is it easy to carry? Or is it heavy?

Just a few houses down the road from the composer of this song lived another young lady. Fifteen years ago she and her siblings tucked a $20 bill into the cupholder in my car, along with a note saying they’d be praying for our mission in India.

That girl grew up reading mission stories – some of them ours. She later became a missionary nurse, assisting with medevac missions to otherwise unreachable mountain villages. Two weeks ago she was accompanying some very sick people during a helicopter evacuation. While the helicopter was over the ocean, a storm arose. Their GPS signal went dead.

Despite intense search efforts, she and the patients and crew are still missing. 

Is the “burden of souls” lightweight? Is it easy to carry? 

A few days after she went missing, our family went to a park to meet with a local family who is interested in knowing more about Jesus. Our children played parkour while the men discussed one of the major themes of the gospels—spiritual warfare. My husband emphasized that Satan tries to keep people away from the truth but that Jesus came to set us free from lies. 

Right about then, my daughter fell off a cement bench and broke her tibia. 

While I held her scarily-bent leg on the way to the hospital, I prayed we would arrive soon so they could give her something for the pain. It took many hours, however, for grumpy healthcare workers to give my screaming child anything.

Is the “burden of souls” lightweight? Is it easy?

My daughter, a very active child, settled into a painful, monotonous week. Thankfully, no joints were involved, so full recovery is likely. Still, she wondered if she would ever really be the same, ever be able to rock climb or swim or jump on the trampoline again. She wondered if she should just stop trying.

“I’m never going to break anything ever again,” she said. “I’ll make sure I don’t.” She talked about all the things she would stop doing so she’d never have to experience that kind of pain again. 

“You’re not going to let this stop you,” I said, kissing her forehead. “You’re going to work hard, and you’re going to be so strong. You’re going to get back on the horse.” 

“But I can’t move. I can’t do anything.”

“I know. But eventually, it will stop hurting. We’ll help carry your leg until they can put a lighter cast on it. Later, you’ll be cast-free, and you’ll work hard to get that leg strong again. And one day, this will just be a memory, and you’ll be better.”

“Okay,” she said simply, resignedly. “Can I listen to Corrie?”

My daughter loves audiobooks. One of her favorites is “The Hiding Place,” by Corrie Ten Boom. She particularly loves Corrie’s father’s kind, wise parables. Here is one:

“Father sat down on the edge of the narrow bed. “Corrie,” he began gently, “when you and I go to Amsterdam, when do I give you your ticket?”

I sniffed a few times, considering this.

“Why, just before we get on the train.”

“Exactly. And our wise Father in heaven knows when we’re going to need things, too. Don’t run out ahead of Him, Corrie. When the time comes that some of us will have to die, you will look into your heart and find the strength you need, just in time.”

I listened to this and other stories as I ran back and forth between my daughter’s bed and the kitchen and the front door (since a barrage of neighbors was visiting, bringing food and loving words). 

As I sent up another prayer for the missing missionary nurse and her family, I thought about sacrifice. We tend to celebrate the sacrifices of healthcare professionals. Somewhere in our hearts, we know that we could just as easily be the ones needing the helicopter ride. Or the ones quietly listening as the firefighters get closer and closer to where we lie stuck under the rubble from an earthquake. Or the ones with the blinding pain of a broken bone, longing for a hand to hold.

But what about those who tend to spiritual needs? What about those who are engaged in a battle that cannot be seen? Crawling through the rubble, running in the darkness, reaching out a hand even though we, too, are fragile?

These days, being a missionary is not the most popular career choice. It’s not widely celebrated or understood. It’s even derided by some.

So why do we do it, when it’s dangerous and hard and underappreciated? Why do we do it, when we may be misunderstood? When we might fail?

Maybe it’s because we know we could be the ones in need of Jesus.

Jesus never promised we wouldn’t have to bear any burdens. The truth is, life will be full of burdens and hardships and pain, whether you’re a missionary or not. Whether you’re a Christian or not. Whether you live in North America or Asia. Because life is like that. It’s unpredictable and full of potential for both good and bad.

Jesus’ burden isn’t light because it isn’t there. It’s most definitely there. It’s just different from the one you used to bear. In fact, when Jesus said, “My yoke is easy,” He actually said His yoke is chréstos. Useful, gentle, pleasant, kind. Benevolent. And when Jesus says his burden is “light,” He uses the word elaphros. Easy to carry… easy to move with.

This is Jesus’ burden: His love for mankind, His incessant seeing of individuals as people and not objects, His treating them as he’d like to be treated, His stubborn forgiveness, His healing of both body and soul, His courageous kindness. Jesus’ burden mobilizes us, gets us on our feet, and sends us. 

It does not back down because of fear. It flies in the face of the storm, and it is not stopped when one person can’t carry on.

Because we don’t carry that burden alone. We carry it with Christ.

That’s what makes it light.


In loving memory of Janelle Alder, who selflessly cared for both bodies and souls, just like her Savior.

The Beauty of Full Circle Moments

I was in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, in March 2020 when the country first began to experience pandemic-related closures. Instead of spending two weeks speaking in international schools and counselling centres and then celebrating my best friend’s 40th birthday with her, I spent a week alone in my hotel room, carefully checking the latest news in China — especially Beijing, where I had left my husband. Then the Australian government told citizens abroad to come home NOW if they didn’t have a secure place to stay. Thus began three years of limbo living.

This week brought the three-year anniversary since I left for that ill-fated business trip that wasn’t. The end of in-person speaking engagements and workshops. The end of travelling abroad for work and play. The end of living in the same country as my husband.

When that anniversary came, I was in Chiang Mai, Thailand – that’s where I sit writing this to you now.

I spent over two weeks in Phnom Penh before arriving here. I have been conducting my first in-person workshops in three years, and it is good to be back! In the past three weeks I have spoken to large groups of educators, staff, parents, and students in two international schools in two countries. I have run numerous coaching sessions with parents and family sessions with parents and children together. I have spoken to counsellors (in an international school and at an independent centre), missionaries, missionaries-in-training, and more. I have made many connections with people excited to know I’ll be back in October of this year.

And in a few days, I’ll fly down to Bangkok to attend a conference there – echoing my first stop on that trip three years ago, travelling on non-refundable tickets initially purchased for a conference cancelled due to the pandemic. I am doing now all the things I was not able to do then.

What a full-circle moment this whole month has been!

Those three years in between were not wasted years. The woman who stood in front of hundreds of people over the past three weeks did so with greater empathy, compassion, and emotional depth than the woman three years ago possessed. I have aged in many ways – and I don’t just mean the widening streaks of white above my ears!

When I talk about Unpacking Pandemic Experiences or work with a family processing their experience of being locked out of China, I do so as one who has been there in the trenches alongside them – and who is, in many ways, still there.

This has been a month of full-circle moments, of returning to do the things I couldn’t then. It has also been a time of seeing myself step into things I could not have done then. I have grown through this difficult season – and the people I serve see it.

Sometimes in life we look for opportunities to go back – to return to what was, to redeem lost time, to get opportunities back. As I reflect on the past few weeks, I have the joy of lost opportunities met at last – and with it, the realisation that moving forward is the greater joy.

I went out for Chinese noodles with two families I went to church with in Beijing. All 12 of us around the table were locked out of China due to the pandemic, unable to return to the country we called home – and our apartments full of belongings – due to circumstances out of our control. There was joy in reminiscing, but there was more joy in catching up and seeing where we’ve all landed and the new lives we’re building.

I delighted in meeting up with old friends in Phnom Penh, people I have known for many years. But I also delighted in meeting and making new friends both there and in Chiang Mai — some of whom I hope I will continue to meet with in the years to come, creating new old friends.

There can be power in nostalgia, in remembering the ways we have been loved and supported in the past. It can fuel us, reminding us that good friends can be had and that they are worth investing in now

Full-circle moments are beautiful – not because of what was, but because they show us what is.

Photo by Erlend Ekseth on Unsplash

When Will This Grief End?

Long-term grief is real. It is eight years ago this month since we had to leave our overseas home. For so long the grief has been painful, like a part of my heart was ripped out. We departed abruptly, adding to the sharp nature of our grief.

But whatever the circumstances of your grief, know that God sees you.

We all face endings and must stretch forth into beginnings. Our lives overseas are often hard-earned and yet are fragile, dependent on factors outside of our control. Grief comes in many ways, whether in the leaving or in the staying as others depart or in a million other things which meet us at every bend in the road.

So how do we ever find healing amid the grief of this journey?

Here are five truths about grief that I’ve gleaned from my ongoing season of grief over leaving an overseas home I loved. They can also be found in Chapter 3 of my book, A Million Skies.

  1. Grief is a unique journey to the person: No one’s grief is the same. Even if you are also grieving a ‘goodbye’ to your overseas home, your journey may be extraordinarily different from mine. We each have varied kinds of closure. We may have remained when others left. The pain we face, which is created by the sense of a shifting home, reminds us that anchors of community, culture, language, and even faith are no longer present. Fight the lie that you must grieve as others do. You have all the grace in the world to walk your own unique journey–to feel what you feel and know what you know.
  2. Grief is messy: This is one of the most succinct truisms I have ever heard and known related to grief. One day we can think of what we miss with soul-deep anguish at the separation. The next day may have us laughing at a funny memory. No matter who we are, the ups and downs and trying to make sense of our grief is so very messy.
  3. Grief is nuanced: Often when we think of those memories of things we loved most in our overseas home, the joy is mixed with such sorrow. We may never be present again with what we have so dearly loved. An English Camp where I worked with my missionary community for six summers had been my ‘happy place’ for nearly ten years. Then, suddenly what had been so joy-filled became, to the same degree, a thing of sorrow. And I know you have your own story, too.
  4. Grieving well means we must remain in its process: As I returned to the States, I was so overwhelmed with grief, I just wanted to binge Netflix and avoid dealing with such sadness. However, I learned that the rock-hard ball of tears wedged deep within me would not go away, and worse, might harden me if I didn’t face my grief. As we navigate the pain, we need to learn to trust God, ourselves, and others again. At the same time, we remain in hard places and what sometimes seems never-ending sorrow.
  5. Grief is never the end of the story: While grief is part and parcel of this life, it does not have final say. God invites us to co-author with him a life that can find true hope in a newness which is overwhelmingly good. If I reflect over these past eight years, I find so many precious relationships I never would have had if I hadn’t had to return to the States. I also have had countless opportunities to serve God as I have found the strength to open up my wounds, wounds intimately related to the life that was lost, and share those wounds with the world. In similar and different ways, you can find hope in the knowledge that your story is not even remotely over.

In the end what I have realized is that, though it was cut short of my hopes and expectations, every moment of my overseas life was gift. Every opportunity to love on students, to meet shop owners, to bond cross-culturally with our church or with the kids’ school communities, was an incredible privilege that few experience. Moreover, not a single moment was wasted. Just as it all was a gift from God, I can lay it at God’s feet as my gift unto his glory.

The trading of sorrow for joy happens little by little as we heal. If joy remains small in the remembering, take heart. You are not alone on the journey. Our Immanuel, God with us, lived a life of grief, of the loss of home. He bore our griefs and sorrows and offers hope as we grasp his healing hand to touch our pain. Ultimately, he promises to bring us home forever.

I leave you with grace. Yes, joy for sorrow. Healing for pain. And most of all, grace to be in the journey as you grieve monumental losses most cannot understand. You are dearly loved by God and given all you need to be right where you are.

Your friend in the journey,


photo credit

How to Stay Sane as a Single Missionary

by Natasha Lévai

It was a Sunday morning just like all the others. She smiled and greeted people like she’s done every week for the last six months. Yet, something was noticeably off.

“Are you okay?” someone asked.

“Yeah, I’m fine!” she said, slightly looking away.

“No, but really, is everything alright?”

“Yeah, yeah, totally fine,” was her determined answer.

The service was over. She waved goodbye to the families going home for lunch and closed the door behind them. Then she slowly walked back into the sanctuary. A loud silence filled the room as she looked at the empty stage. Leaning against the wall, she slid down until her knees were at her eye level. Her vision became more and more blurry until tears finally streamed down her cheeks, clearing all the lumps in her throat created by the dutiful “I’m fines.”

The reason she never told anyone what was wrong was that she believed that as a missionary she needed to be helpful, not needy. She should never display pain but rather keep it to herself and God. After all, isn’t He supposed to meet all her needs? She cried it off and determined to get busier to cope with the pain and remain strong.

Fast forward 18 months, and there she sat in the airport waiting for her one-way flight in hopes of finding answers to the debilitating depression that disqualified her from any kind of world-saving venture.

Now, fast forward six more years, and she is sitting in front of you through the words you are reading on your screen. That crying single missionary girl living in the church building was me, and here I am to share with you things I wish I knew before becoming a single missionary.


1. You Don’t Have To Do It Alone.
One big mistake I made was believing that the best way to integrate into the culture was to keep all friendships local. I thought that if you cut all communication with the outside world and immerse yourself into the life around you, you will inevitably find friends and a great community ready to embrace you as a family member. In fact, this was something we learned at the mission school in Bible college.

Was this advice wrong? Not necessarily. I am sure there are situations when the best way to integrate is to give your whole heart to the local people, but for that to happen, you need to have a community that is ready to take you in on that level. I find, however, that most of the time immersion happens gradually. It is rare for a community to embrace you the moment you step foot onto the church ground.

So my best advice is to make sure you have a support group that you can regularly check in with, chat about your experiences, and share your heart vulnerably. Then, as you grow into the local culture, you might find such friends and mentors on-site. It is better to avoid putting the responsibility of caring for your soul on the local people who don’t even know you yet!


2. Make Your Needs Known.
Apart from letting God know about your need for fellowship, you can and should let the local church know that you are thrilled to spend time with them and be invited to their homes, especially if they don’t initiate those things themselves. In my first half a year on the mission field, I was invited only two or three times to visit someone’s home. It was stinging to think of families being together for Sunday lunch as I ate my reheated frozen pizza alone in the church’s kitchen week after week after week. The people might not realize how much you need them, so ask!


3. Create Time and Space for Rest.
As a single missionary, you might often hear something like, “You have so much time to serve God! We have to take days off to care for the kids.” These kinds of statements made me feel that taking days off wouldn’t be justified for me, even though this was not the intended meaning behind them. Single or not, you need to take one or two days off a week when you can truly rest.

I made the mistake of living in the church building for the first year and a half on the mission field. It was cheap, and sometimes the members would visit the church for various reasons, which made me feel less alone. I was afraid to move out into my own space and be even lonelier. That was a big mistake.

To rest, you need a restful space. At the very least you need a bed, a well-heated (or well-cooled) room, hot water in the shower, and your own shelf to store things that nobody will go through whenever they feel like it. The church lacked those things, which slowly chipped away at my mental health. Not only that, but I also had to combine my living, working, and church spaces all in one. It was very hard to rest in such circumstances.


4. Watch For The Warning Signs.
Depression doesn’t break into our lives rapidly. Rather, it makes its way in so slowly that it almost goes unnoticed until you see it take residence in your soul. However, there are signs you can watch for.

Some of those include loss of motivation, a strong pull to indulge in addictive activities (overeating, spending hours playing computer games, binge-watching shows, endlessly scrolling through social media, etc.), losing a sense of joy and fulfillment in your relationship with the Lord, and uncontrollable outbursts of emotions.

When you notice that something is not right, do not ignore it. Share it with a trusted person and come up with a plan for how you are going to tend to those needs. Some things that tend to help me are journaling about my thoughts and feelings, taking an extra day or two off, taking a trip to visit another church or a friend to change the environment, and finding ways to take my mind off the serious matters (learning a new skill, finding a hobby, reading a book, taking a walk, going out to eat, etc.). Don’t feel ashamed about needing breaks; small symptoms can snowball quickly!

The four tips listed above are just a few practical actions to help you survive as a single missionary. It goes without saying that as we try to tend to our needs, we need to keep our eyes on the Lord who is the ultimate source of our fulfillment, rest, and joy. Yet, as you pray and seek His guidance, see what practical things He might be encouraging you to do in your situation.

Depending on where you are in the world, your strategies might look different. If there are any other fellow missionaries with you, maybe they can help in finding ways to recharge in that particular culture and environment. Remember, being a missionary is rarely a sprint. Rather, it is a marathon that requires you to go slowly and to maintain what the Lord has given you so that you can continue to serve wherever He has called you.


Natasha Lévai is currently a stay-at-home mom in Eastern Hungary where she started her missionary journey back in 2015. Now she and her husband care for orphan children at the local orphanage where they have been serving for the last few years. Her husband Krisztian works in IT, and Natasha loves sharing her cooking creations on her blog. To read more of her story, tap here.

3 Obscure Sorrows You’ll Recognize

I recently read The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows by John Koenig. It contains such gems as:

“Harke: n. a painful memory that you look back upon with unexpected fondness, even though you remember having dreaded it at the time; a tough experience that has since been overridden by the pride of having endured it, the camaraderie of those you shared it with, or the satisfaction of having a good story to tell.” (from hark back, a command spoken to hunting dogs to retrace their course so they can pick up a lost scent.”

As I read I was reminded that we are capable of such depth as humans. I was also reminded that we all experience and carry so much loss.

It got me wondering about the obscure sorrows that are unique to us. Here are three for you to read and see if you recognize yourself in them.


n. the distressing feeling when you turn to share the most perfect word for a situation and remember that those around you don’t speak that language. Sure you can say the word and they may smile at you out of kindness, but they won’t really get it.

(From miss and vocbulary and ia because I like the sound of it)


n. the sad realization that life goes on without you; it can be experienced from both side of being on and off the field; on the field and your friends start getting married, buying a house, having babies, driving minivans and your life has less and less connecting points; off the field your local friends and teammates and neighborhoods and country of love continue on.

(From creeping for slowly and fill for the hole you think cannot possibly ever be filled, but you are wrong)


n. the strong desire for people you love to know what something tastes like and it is simply impossible to recreate it because the oil is different, a spice doesn’t exist, or you have to make something you normally buy at the store. This can be experienced with local friends when you try to share a part of your “home” cooking and with friends and family when you try to share part of your “other home” cooking.

(From gastro meaning stomach and longings)

It was only after I started working on this post that I realized you’ll read this during Lent, a season of sorrows. Sorrow over our sin, not of misvocabia, creeping-fill, and gastrolongings. It is right and good to be broken over our sin and it is right and good to pause and name some of our obscure sorrows as cross-cultural workers. If you’re wanting to lament in an interactive and creative way, Global Trellis’ workshop this month will guide you in 3 creative ways to lament.

Do you recognize yourself in misvocabia, creeping-fill, and gastrolongings? What would you add to our dictionary of missionary obscure sorrows?

Contextualization Meets Burnout

by Carol Ghattas

Reading a verse is one thing; living it out is another. That is certainly the case for many of us who have read Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth and found this gem:

To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law…I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.

These words from chapter 9 encapsulate the work of contextualization for the modern Christian in cross-cultural service. Yes, the incarnation of Christ is the ultimate example, but since we’re not perfect like Christ, we tend to lean more on Paul’s words and model. Even so, we have big shoes to fill, as he seems to have had a head start with his multiple languages, passports, and education.

When moving toward cross-cultural service, we study and prepare, gaining insights from God’s Word and also from a long history of missionaries who have gone before. There is an implicit and sometimes explicit expectation that we will need to adjust how we live, speak, dress, and act in order to make inroads into the hearts and minds of those to whom we’re called. Unfortunately, in most cases, we are not told how incredibly difficult this is.

During my two years of service in Ivory Coast, West Africa, as much as I tried to dress like Ivorians, speak like Ivorians, and act like Ivorians, I could never completely fit in, because I was not Ivorian. I studied their culture but sometimes still had no clue as to why they did the things they did. Contextualization, however, can only take us so far. Not everything in a particular culture will jive with biblical teaching, and so efforts of contextualization will eventually conflict with our faith and convictions, leading us to stop at a certain action, word, or style of dress.

As we adapt and change our ways, looks, and even speech to reach others, the expectation on our side is that our efforts will open doors for the gospel. Unfortunately, the results do not always meet those expectations, and this is where contextualization meets burnout. We’ve made all the effort, with little fruit to show for it.

Burnout can also come at another point in serving others: when we lose ourselves in the contextualization process. This happens when we’ve worked so hard to conform our words and ways to another culture that we forget who we are and the end goal of our efforts in witness. The essence of contextualization is the word context. We adjust our lifestyle and witness in order to make them fit into this new reality in which we are now living.

Losing one’s self in contextualization means that we haven’t recognized the limits of the process. We’ve passed the limits where our faith and convictions should have stopped us, because we’re too eager to please and fit in. Once we’ve crossed that line, we’ve lost sight of the reason we’re living in this culture in the first place. Dangers of losing one’s self abound, because there is an enemy who is always working against us. We must always keep up our guard as we seek to be all things to all people for the sake of Christ.

Think of the child’s toy that helps them put specific shapes into their corresponding holes. Here I am, a square, now living in a society of circles. I can’t fit in until I shave off my rough edges, and that can be very painful. Yet, if it’s done remembering that at my core, I’m still that square, then I haven’t lost much and can now actually fit into two cultures. It’s when we throw away the core that burnout hits. What makes up my core? My faith and values are the rock-solid center of self. Culture and traditions come and go, but faith in Christ and the values he builds in me should never be sacrificed for the sake of fitting in.

To avoid burnout, I must always keep before me the reason I’m trying to fit in—to open doors for witness. I’m not trying to change because I love their culture or because I plan to live here the rest of my life; I’m changing and adjusting my lifestyle, words, or dress in order to build a bridge to the gospel. I want doors to open because of my efforts to be more circle-like in their eyes. The challenge in contextualization and becoming part of a culture is to make sure you understand why you’re doing what you’re doing and what is behind the meanings of words used. Never be afraid to ask questions or to make mistakes. Understanding the nuances of any culture is a long-term endeavor.

There is a point when I have to check myself and ask: “Am I still sharing the truth of the gospel in my words and actions or just trying to please people and not offend them?” When we are no longer able to answer in the affirmative, we’ve lost our way and must return to the basics in our faith and ministry.

While we make changes for the sake of conveying the gospel to others, it is important to remember that the sharing of the gospel can never be fully contextualized, as it would change its very nature. Paul started his proclamation to the Greeks in Athens by talking about their “unknown god,” but the God he revealed to them was completely different from all the gods they knew. Some who heard that day believed and wanted to hear more, while others sneered at his words. He contextualized the message enough to “fit into the hole,” but the core was still fully Jesus, and when Jesus is made known, people must make a choice.

The longer you live among another people group and adapt to their ways and language, the more you feel at home. The foreign becomes familiar, and you may now struggle to connect with your native homeland and family. It seems you can’t be fully at home in two places at once. As strangers in a strange land, we find hope in Christ Jesus our Lord. He reminds us that the only permanent home is the eternal one to come. Embracing this truth, we can handle the unintended consequences of contextualization and find balance in life and ministry.


Carol B. Ghattas has over thirty years of experience in cross-cultural ministry and has lived in five countries in the Middle East and North Africa. Now back in the United States, she maintains an active blog site, She is a writer and speaker on missions, Islam, and other topics. Her newest book, Not in Kansas Anymore: Finding Home in Cross-Cultural Service, is available through online book distributors in eBook and paperback formats. For more information or to contact Carol, visit her website:

Send Us Your Photos . . . Yes, for Real

I got several responses to my post last month, “Photographers, Can You Do Us Cross-Cultural Bloggers a Favor?” One of my favorites is “We are debating whether your plea for more photos is an actual plea for more photos or if it was written with sarcasm in mind.”

I replied, “I’ll admit I wrote the post tongue in cheek. I was wanting to point out my own tendencies in photo selection as much as anyone else’s. But on the other hand, I meant it when I said we need more and better photos, so I’m happy that people are asking how they can contribute to the cause. I think it’s great that people with photographic skills are looking for ways to use their talents and creativity for A Life Overseas, and we’re brainstorming ways to help make that happen.”

Well, our brainstorming has led to a solution—a place for storing your pics (in Flickr) where they’ll be available to authors at A Life Overseas but not accessible by others.

So consider this an unambiguous plea: If you’d like to share your photos with us, please send them to (A maximum width/height of 1000 pixels should do.) By submitting your pics, you’re giving ALO writers permission to use them, but you’ll retain your copyright, and we’ll credit you when your photos appear. If you’d like, label your pics with any important information, and make sure you’re not sending us any images that shouldn’t be posted in public spaces.

Thanks to those who’ve already sent pics our way, to those who’ve asked about next steps, to those who’ve already taken photographs inspired by my suggestions, and to those who will continue to add to the collection. Thinking about all that makes me happy.

When I wrote my post, I wanted to think I could bring smiles to some faces. Your response is bringing a much bigger smile to mine.

[photo: “The Photographer,” by Nathan Rupert, used under a Creative Commons license]

An important note from Jonathan, Elizabeth, and Marilyn

We are so glad you’re here. And we deeply hope that the community and content here at A Life Overseas has encouraged you and blessed you over the years.

Would you take a moment to prayerfully consider a one-time gift to help A Life Overseas continue providing high-quality resources to global workers? You can give a gift of any size here. Keep reading to hear how we’d love to say thank you for gifts of $50 or more.

Every week, writers and editors hone and craft and research, aiming to deliver encouragement and help to our community of Christians abroad. In fact, we publish over 100 articles per year for our global community.

Our writers have covered the funny, the mundane, and the traumatic. We have wrestled with big questions and where to find actual cheese. Our articles have helped disseminate vital research on missionary attrition, how to protect and support third culture kids, and God-honoring risk assessment in missions. We have been a leading voice in “the cross-cultural conversation.” In fact, check out some of our top eighty-five posts here.

Now, we need your help.

In order to continue serving thousands of folks all over the world every week, we need your help in meeting our annual support raising goal of $10,000. A gift of $100 would sponsor one article that reaches around the world. Of course, any gift is appreciated and will help keep us on the air.

How we’d like to say THANK YOU!
The leadership team of A Life Overseas (Marilyn Gardner, Elizabeth Trotter, and myself) would love to thank you for your gift. In fact, for gifts given during February 2023 in the amounts listed below, we would be thrilled to send you hard copies of the books listed below (for US addresses only). We’re aware that many of you do not have a US address, so in your case we will be happy to hook you up with Kindle versions.

Hats: Reflections on Life as a Wife, Mother, Homeschool Teacher, Missionary, and More, by Elizabeth Trotter

$100 (sponsors one article!)
Serving Well: Help for the Wannabe, Newbie, or Weary Cross-cultural Christian Worker, by Jonathan and Elizabeth Trotter

Both Hats and Serving Well

$200 (sponsors two articles!)
HatsServing Well, and Between Worlds, by Marilyn Gardner

How to Give
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Thank you for walking this road with us. We endeavor to keep speaking up about the things that matter to the global Church and those who serve her.

All for ONE,
Jonathan Trotter

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