When Re-Entry is Hard

by Lauren Neal

No one can prepare you for re-entry, not even your closest friends and family who have walked alongside of you through this season. Neither can a countless number of books and podcasts nor accumulated hours spent in therapy. Oh, or copious amounts of Cabernet Sauvignon and rum (Barbancourt to be precise).

Re-entry, often disguised as the word “transition” (but dear Lord, if you ever catch me using the t-word just slap me across the face), is like re-birth. But this time, you’re not a screaming, crying infant; you’re a screaming, crying adult, and you come out of the womb with the expectation to walk and talk, and spell out your 5-year-plan to the acquaintance you run into at the grocery store, not out of interest, but out of obligation. Except you’re tongue-tied and heart broken and wondering how to choose from the umpteen flavors and brands of ice cream that will actually remain frozen in the trunk of your car on your ride home.

Home.

That’s a funny word now. Well, no. It’s not really funny at all. It’s actually rather frustrating and confusing and debilitating because the aisle, where you’ve just experienced this uncomfortable encounter, feels foreign in spite of its familiarity. Former normalities just don’t feel normal anymore. I personally envision home as this imaginary place where I could somehow supernaturally pull Haiti’s coastline up to the border of Cincinnati, along with all the other places that have claimed the people I love, and squish together my two houses and merge together my two lives and live happily ever after, together. But alas, that seems like a rather lofty task and unfortunately, Ohio’s geographic coordinates might prove to make that an unfeasible reality.

So now, I’m stuck holding a basket full of overpriced luxury food items in a grocery store smack dab in the middle of the Midwest, trying to muster up the strength to tell said acquaintance that I, in fact, have no plan. Yep, you read that right. Zero plan. Talk about an utter disappointment. (If you’re reading this and realize we’ve had one of these encounters, don’t worry—it’s not you, it’s definitely me).

After recovering from my conversation, I get in my car and turn the key in the ignition, and drive back to my residency in a mere three minutes, all without hitting any potholes or laying on my horn five times or receiving the middle finger accompanied by a slew of profane Creole expletives. Then, I park and I climb the stairs of my apartment only to feel the rush of the air conditioner as I open the front door, a reminder that Haiti is so far away. Finally, to ease that hole in my heart, I reach for the ice cream pint, a trusted emotional remedy, and eat it straight out of the carton because, come on, ice cream fixes everything (at least momentarily).

Dessert aside, it’s been a whole year and a half since I returned from Haiti, and yet I still feel caught in the phase of re-entry, filled with a million questions.

Who am I?

What is my purpose now?

Does anyone even care about me anymore?

Why don’t people ask?

Do they even know how hard this is?

Will I be stuck in Cincinnati forever?

Will I ever live in Haiti again?

When will I get over this?

You know how when you come back into the United States after being abroad and you go through customs, there are those TSA security guys who do one final check of your passport, like a just-in-case precautionary measure? They typically ask you where you’ve been and why you’ve been there. And after they’ve confirmed that the photo and information on the passport is, in fact, you, they’ll close your little book of adventure stamps, your pass to international freedom, and hand it back to you as they proclaim, “Welcome home.” Two simple words, yet unparalleled gravity.

Welcome home.

While I lived abroad, this expression delighted me. It was exhilarating like I’d just accomplished something genuinely extraordinary. But on December 20, 2017, this once uplifting gesture felt numbingly defeating. Soul-crushing. An audible end of an era. Welcome home. Home? Where is home now? Little did I know then, as I held back tears in the international quarters of the Atlanta airport, that it was only the first of many comments to come that would provoke feelings of failure.

No one can prepare you for re-entry. No one can prepare you for when you’ll feel the emotions or why you’ll feel them. (Thank God my computer monitor is large enough at work to shield those moments of vulnerability.)

There’s no formula. No step-by-step guide. No “Re-Entry for Dummies.” No 5 Ways to Conquer your Re-Entry for Ultimate Success articles or webinars (is it just me or is there a list for everything now?).

The intensity of a purpose-filled life was so real. The thrill. The excitement. The notion that every day was new. Don’t get me wrong. Even now, in Cincinnati, Ohio, every single day has purpose, and I’m such an advocate that every twist and turn, every choice and every missed opportunity, is woven into chapters to form our individual journeys and collective stories, each uniquely whole.

But it’s just different now, and in a way I struggle to articulate. There are high-highs and lower-lows. As an introvert, I often choose to hermit myself because sometimes I feel like my presence can be a burden. They don’t want to hear about Haiti again, right? Bless my sweet friends who put up with my tireless venting.

Many days, I feel like I’m aimlessly treading into an unknown abyss, like I’m moving forward but with no real direction. The precision of my former “calling” has now all but dissipated entirely, and I feel like I’m piecing together a puzzle with no resolve.

I miss my life as I dwell on the memories and scroll through social media. I forget about the stuff that ultimately led to my burnout and romanticize the good and wonder, was it really that hard? Though I know in my heart that yes, it really was that hard.

Now, even after a year and a half, I spend my short commute to work vocalizing my need for a grateful heart, praying that God would help me to get through another day, that I might find contentment right where I am, hoping his hand will guide me as I piece together this complex puzzle.

Throughout this season, I’ve, no doubt, experienced significant, life-giving healing and restoration thanks to a community of people who have carried me when my feet could not support the weight of my body. But it doesn’t discount those moments of pain and struggle and grief. Sometimes, the guilt and the deep wounds I harbor inside unexpectedly surface to remind me that perhaps this process will last a lifetime.

Sometimes, I go to happy hour and I shop online and I eat ice cream out of the pint and I enjoy my life.

Sometimes, I wallow in self-pity and I feel overwhelmingly discouraged and I cry and I loathe my life.

Yet, in spite of all of that, God is sovereign. And I choose to trust that his purpose always prevails even when my hope grows dim and my faith is distant.

It’s okay to feel all these things at once and it’s okay not have everything figured out. It’s okay to trudge through the barren wasteland. And when you’re tired, it’s okay to stop and to sit and rest. And then, it’s also okay to fall flat on your face and sob uncontrollably. But, on the other hand, it’s okay to be happy and to feel proud of your progress, to relish in the small victories and to forget about the pain. After a long season in the desert, it’s okay to feel rehydrated and refreshed. And finally, it’s okay to question and doubt and feel angry about former theologies and beliefs you once had, the same ones that even led to your second home in the first place.

My friend, wherever it is you find yourself, let me shout it from the rooftops: It. Is. Okay.

And next time you’re in the grocery store and you have one of these awkward run-in’s, give yourself a little extra grace. Whether it’s been a week, a month, a year, or ten years, you have the permission to feel exactly what you are feeling. The departure from your second home doesn’t devalue or diminish your love and affection for it. It just makes the separation that much more difficult.

Most importantly, don’t be afraid to reach out when you need to, to share the feelings weighing on your heart, and to confide in those who have loved you along the way. They may not may understand all the pieces of your story, but they’ll remind you that you’re not alone. Because after all, we’re in this together.

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

Lauren Neal is a writer, a photographer, and a recovering missionary. Though her heart is in Haiti, her feet are planted in Cincinnati, Ohio, where she’s learning to pick up the pieces of a new life. An introvert, she enjoys spending time with her family and close friends. And of course, on occasion, she indulges in her favorite, Graeter’s mint chocolate chip ice cream. You can find her online at www.laurenneal.com and on Instagram.

Newsletter Code Words

Before moving overseas, I read newsletters of cross cultural workers and thought something along the lines of, Well, that’s interesting. Now that I live overseas, I realize newsletters are filled with code words. Or rather, ordinary words that take on a bit of ‘extra’ when used in the context of living overseas.

For example: It’s been a year of transitions and adjustments. Is actually a neat and tidy way of saying: I’ve spent the last 12 months living out of a suitcase and making a ton of mistakes everywhere I go.

Ahh, now we understand what’s actually going on.

There are many, many more. In the interest of moving past the that’s interesting thoughts that may accompany newsletter reading, this post is devoted to decoding a few of our common words and phrases.

Code: Visa application process
Meaning: We’ve quit our jobs, given away our belongings, raised support, and are ready to go, but if this paperwork is denied all our plans are totally stuffed.

Code: Health issues
Meaning: This mainly means diarrhea.

Code: Prayerfully consider partnering with us.
Meaning: We really need people pray for us and donate money every month and are pretty sure if you just asked Jesus, he’d tell you to do it.
Note: No? It’s just me then.

Code: Rainy season
Meaning: Thank God for relief from raging tropical heat, but now there is mud everywhere and my laundry won’t dry.

Code: Graduating language school
Meaning: HALLELUJAH WE’VE BEEN SET FREE!!!
Note: For some of us, language school is also known as “Language She’ol”. Yes, as in the dark and lonely realm of the dead.

Code: It’s been a difficult term
Meaning: We are so completely stressed out and yelling at each other all the time and quite frankly surprised to still be here.
Note: Respond to this newsletter and ask how you can help.

Code: Tired
Meaning: Utter exhaustion
Note: Gift this person a vacation.

Code: Multi-cultural team
Meaning: We’re all from different countries and the Dutch are rude, the Germans are inflexible, the Americans are too sensitive, and the Australians are very, well… Australian. Plus, it’s hard to tell jokes everyone understands.

Code: Thank you for praying!!!
Meaning: Don’t forget us. We might die if you don’t pray.
Note: Ok, I exaggerated…or did I?

Code: We could not be here without you.
Meaning: We could not be here without you.
Note: Maybe it sounds a bit cheesy, but it’s totally the truth. So is this…

Thank you. You have no idea how much your faithful encouragement and support means to us. We thank God for you.  

When Did This Place Become Home?

by Beth

If I am completely honest, I think I spent our first two years in Central Asia longing to go home to our home country (or even to the USA where we had lived for a short while). I would pray: Your will God but deep down I was hoping that His will was that we wouldn’t be here long.

Now that we have lived here for a while, something has changed. I’m not sure what it is. I still have days of high culture stress and I still get frustrated with my poor mastery of the language, but something inside of me has shifted.

My husband visited our landlords who live two doors from us, to pay rent and the conversation they had went something like this:

Landlord: How long have you been living in our house now?

My husband: More than five years.

Landlord: Really? I thought it was only three and a half years! We’ve learnt how to trust each other.

My husband: We so appreciate that we’ve been able to stay so long. Friends of ours have had to move three times in the time we’ve lived in your house because each time their landlords needed the home for themselves or relatives to live in.

Landlords: Yes, that won’t happen with us (they live with their daughter)Although when our grandson gets married, he will need a house (their grandson is ten years old now!). But actually, when he gets married then he and his wife can just move in with your family and his wife will be your kelen  (daughter-in-law who does all the housework and cooking in this culture)!

My husband and I laughed when he told me about this exchange, but there really is a sweetness in all of it. Our landlords are content with us living in their house and they can see us being here for a lot longer. For our family this house is our home. When did that happen? When did this house filled with furniture I didn’t choose (and never would!) – this house painted with whitewash and sparkling, beaded Central Asian style curtains hanging in the windows – start feeling like home?

I was watching my son play in his under 12 basketball game and one boy completely missed a pass. A friend sitting next to me said: “These boys have many years playing together to get this right. By the time they’re in high school they would have been playing basketball with each other for so long that they won’t miss a pass like that.” And in that moment the longing for my son to be able to continue playing basketball for this school was so strong that it felt like an ache and I found myself silently praying: “Lord, please can we stay till our kids finish school here?”

When did this place become home? When did it happen that instead of longing to leave, I have a longing NOT to leave?

We often quote from Jeremiah 29:11: “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘Plans to prosper and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future’” (NIV). This life in Central Asia is very different from the plans I had hoped for, but despite this, my family is not being harmed and God is using it to prosper us. This is so different from what I ever imagined home to be, but it is good because it’s what God has given us; we are part of God’s story.

Once again, I find myself kneeling before God and praying: “Your will God, however long you want us to serve here.” But now, deep down I’m hoping that it will be His will that we stay for many more years. I know that being here is temporary, we are still strangers in a foreign land reliant on visas and the kindness of a foreign government and reliant on the support we receive each month. But ultimately, we’re fully reliant on God, He brought us here and He will keep us here until He calls us elsewhere.

Originally published at OM.

Read Beth’s companion piece here.

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

Beth is from the global South, and she loves the ocean and cold Christmas dinner on a hot day around the pool. She is married to an adventurer, and they have three wonderfully unique children.

The cure for my contempt (and yours too)

There’s so much contempt in the world.

Do you sense it? I hear it crashing through our walls in Cambodia as our neighbors fight and scream at each other. I see it in the taxi driver in Prague as he grips the steering wheel hard, honking and yelling at those who’ve deeply offended him. I smell its stench on Twitter.

And I sense it in me.

“Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

We must remember the mercy of God. Our families, churches, and ministries all need us to remember the overwhelming and beautiful mercy of God. Mercy is a mysterious thing, softening us to others and their stories, while also hardening us to the unavoidable and incontrovertible troubles of cross-cultural life and ministry.

And so we need – I need – to remember the mercy of God. The simple Jesus Prayer (above) and the simple song (below) are helping me deeply; perhaps they will help you too.

I will kneel in the dust
At the foot of the cross,
Where mercy paid for me.
Where the wrath I deserve,
It is gone, it has passed.
Your blood has hidden me.

What a tragedy if we cross sea and mountain, stone and water, and forget the mercy of God.

When missionaries forget mercy, we risk becoming arrogant jerks, convinced of our moral, educational, theological, and organizational superiority. A Cambodian friend of mine recently expressed her frustrations; “Missionaries always think they know everything about everything!” This happens just as easily on the theologically conservative side as the theologically liberal one.

We become the religious elite, thanking God that we’re not like the heathens. We don’t say it like that, of course, but the attitude can creep in; we’ve all seen church-planting folks who were anything but kind. We’ve all seen NGO folks who were just mean. Somewhere along the line they lost “the wonder of his mercy” and it shows.

May I never lose the wonder,
Oh, the wonder of Your mercy.
May I sing Your hallelujah.
Hallelujah, Amen.

If forgetting mercy doesn’t make us arrogant, it could make us depressed instead.

We can get stuck in our lostness, convinced we’re failures who will never measure up to God or our supporters and senders. The sad ones need the mercy of God too, to show that it never depended on us anyway, that there’s nothing to earn, nothing to prove, just a merciful God who is full of love and whose compassionate face is turned towards us.

Mercy, mercy,
As endless as the sea.
I’ll sing Your hallelujah
For all eternity.

Mercy prepares us for worship, which in turn fuels missions. Feeling the weight of his mercy naturally leads to a cry of Hallelujah!

Mercy means we don’t get stuck in our lostness or theirs. Mercy reorients us from us to him, and he is beautiful. Mercy reorients us from them (the arrogant, rude, terrible people around us) to him, and he is glorious.

So may you remember mercy this day, and may that remembrance keep you from both arrogance and despondency. May a deep awareness of the mercy of God stir up in you a shout of hallelujah. And may that shout echo across seas and over stones, revealing to all peoples the Hope of the Nations.

~ Jonathan

 

7 Questions to Ask During Your First 7 Days on the Field

by Natalie Arauco

I did it!

I remember the adrenaline burning through my veins four years ago. I had made it through missions training. I had asked and received 100% support from different churches and families. I had bought my one-way ticket, stuffed my two suitcases to 48 and 49 pounds exactly and had said goodbye to my friends and family.  Then I flew by myself to a different country and all the pumping adrenaline froze into confusion and doubt.

So now what?

Even though I had already been to Guatemala several times before and could stumble through the language, my first official days on the mission field were filled with questions.

 

1. How do I get there?

No. Literally. How?

Do I need to walk? Is there a bus? Two buses? Do I take a taxi? Tuk tuk? Uber? Drive? Combine any of the above options?

Navigating in a foreign country is no easy feat. Just going to the local market and getting out without becoming hopelessly lost is enough for me to buy a cold coke in celebration. Asking for directions, from just anybody, can be a mistake as they point in any given direction and shrug. Praise the Lord for Google Maps and Waze.

 

2. How much did you say?

50 quetzales for a hamburger. 10 for a tuk tuk. Am I paying too much or too little? Are they trying to rip off a foreigner or is it a good price? Am I allowed to haggle here or no?

Prices can change drastically. From the main city to the cliché tourist town to the little village in the mountains, everyone has a different idea of what is expensive and what is affordable. It took me a long time of being quiet and listening to my local friends to learn the prices when they asked versus when I asked with my dead giveaway accent. Even now I still ask a trusted friend what the price should be for something before going out and buying.

 

3. What did you say?

Nuances. Idioms. Figures of speech. Deciphering the garbled speech at a drive through or reacting to rushed words spoken in a panic.

My language training could not cover every meaning of every word. What does it mean when they call me a battery? When they refer to me as a type of deli meat? What does it mean when someone is ready for the tiger? When they say I had stuck out my paw? And that was just Spanish. I live in an indigenous community where the native dialect is mixed in their everyday speech.  How do I begin to conquer another language when the first still gives me headaches? The answer: patience and patient friends.

 

4. What food is that?

Not to be rude. It’s delicious. But… what is it?

So many different flavors. A variety of new fruits and vegetables with no translation. What is it? How do you eat it? Do you peel it first? Eat all of it? Eat part? With your hands? With a spoon?

I felt like I was a child again. Asking so many questions. No, I didn’t know that you ate chicken with your hands. I didn’t realize that beef was a luxury. How many tortillas does an average person have with each meal? What spice is that? Oregano? Wow, I’d only seen it in labeled jars. But even in the midst of confusion, the amazing flavors that passed my tongue often brought my questions to a halt as I savored each bite.

 

5. What do I do?

Okay. I’m here. So now what?

Do I focus on my job at the public school or on my ministries in the local church?  Do I start studying the local dialect or start a Bible study? Do I dive into new opportunities or hang back a bit and observe? Do I give my point of view every time the locals look to me for an opinion? My pastors back home couldn’t give me the answers. The local leaders couldn’t give me the answers. Even other missionaries couldn’t give me the answers. I was on my own to act and receive grace from those around me as I let God guide my steps.

 

6. How do I do it?

Sure, I knew what I needed to do. How to accomplish it was a completely different mountain.

Help! My first year as a teacher is spent in a foreign school system. What do I do? How do I help the ministries in the local church without overpowering them with my foreign hero-complex?  How do I balance learning to survive a new culture and making friends at the same time? How do I invest here and keep connections with those back home? How can I do it all and avoid burn out?

And the most important question: how can I do it all and keep Christ the priority? My daily devotions were filled with lots of questions and pleading with God all while searching for answers in his Word. And He would answer.

 

7. Is this worth it all?

I had sacrificed life as a normal college student to prepare to go to missions. I had forfeited ‘success’ and an ‘easy life’. I had said goodbye to my friends and family. Given up air conditioning. Central heating. Wifi. Anonymity. Now, just a week on the mission field, the burning question seeped into my thoughts. Will it be worth it?

But as I made friends who loved me despite my bungling attempts at speech, as I got to know my students and fell in love with each one. As the members of the church accepted me as a flawed human like them. And as God gave me a heart for this country despite its traffic issues and strange social norms, the answer I found was a resounding YES.

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

Natalie Arauco serves in a small, mountainous village of Guatemala. She teaches English every day at the village school all while sharing the love of Jesus with her 12-17 year old students. Natalie also works alongside the local church with their community outreach and discipleship ministries. Natalie writes about culture, missions, and her adventures in her blog: Natalie in Guatemala.

Too Much Member Care—Can There Be Such a Thing?

It’s a question I’m reluctant to ask, because I’m a strong proponent of more effort and resources devoted to caring for cross-cultural workers. But here it is: Can there be too much member care?

To help with the answer, I’ll dip once more into the deep well of data from ReMAP and ReMAP II, studies conducted by the World Evangelical Fellowship/World Evangelical Alliance. And more specifically, I’ll consult the analysis of those results by Detlef Blöcher and Jonathan Lewis, who first asked the question more than twenty years ago. The pair examine the effects of member care on attrition in Too Valuable to Lose: Exploring the Causes and Cures of Missionary Attrition, and Blöcher addresses the issue in Worth Keeping: Global Perspectives on Best Practice in Missionary Retention.

Cutting to the chase, here is what they found: An increase in time and money devoted to missionary care, as a proportion of a sending organization’s total resources, tracks with a decrease in “preventable” attrition. That’s true, though, only until a tipping point is reached. Above that percentage, more care actually correlates with more workers leaving the field. While the first finding seems obvious to me, I have to say that the second one doesn’t align with my general assumptions and seems to fly in the face of my advocacy for more and more member care. But I can’t ignore information just because it doesn’t easily fit my personal views.

This requires a closer look, so here are more details: The first ReMAP study, published in 1997, looked at the overall area of “field care and support,” made up of ten items (field leadership, pastoral care, job description, on-the-job training, annual leave, regular field visits, provision for children, team structure, letters or phone calls, and conferences). When considering agencies with 26-200 members (the group giving the “most reliable results”), the study found “a clear and positive relationship” between the percentage of an agency’s overall time and money spent on these kinds of care and lower rates of attrition. But once the percentage reaches 6%, preventable attrition begins to rise. 

Ten years later, ReMAP II asked agencies (in both ReMAP studies, the term agencies also includes individual churches that send out missionaries on their own) to estimate the percentage of their total time devoted to “pastoral” or “member” care. Its findings reinforce those of ReMAP I. When considering potentially preventable causes of attrition for agencies from “Old Sending Countries,” a drop-off in retention occurs when the proportion of member-care staff hours climbs above 10%.

How are we to interpret these results? Following are some questions to consider, gleaned from thoughts presented in Blöcher’s writing:

  • Does too much attention paid to looking for missionary difficulties create something of a self-fulfilling prophecy?
  • Could member care interfere with missionaries’ development of resilience and produce attitudes of self-centeredness and entitlement?
  • If an organization is known for its strong member care, might it attract struggling candidates?
  • Could an agency be inclined to accept applicants with obvious issues, assuming that its extensive member care will take care of them after they go abroad?
  • Do professional counselors sometimes too quickly encourage workers to leave the field?
  • When large amounts of  money and time are spent on member care, does that hurt the organization by pulling resources from other priorities?

All of these are interesting questions. Some make more sense to me than others, but I can’t discount any of them out of hand. Having said that, here are a few ideas to add, to help in the discussion.

As we’ve talked about before at A Life Overseas, when surveys are conducted concerning the missions experience, it matters who is queried, as we can expect variations between responses from agency leaders and from field workers. The ReMAP studies consulted agencies, coming up with the results referenced above. But two years ago, when Andrea Sears surveyed former missionaries about their reasons for leaving the field, one of their highest-rated factors was “lack of missionary care.” I wonder if some of this disconnect comes from how we define the terms. “Member care,” “missionary care,” “pastoral care,” “personal care,” “personal support,” and “field care and support” may mean different things to different people. It’s quite possible that agency representatives could be offering what they consider member care while those on the receiving end don’t see it as such. It’s also possible that care may be distributed unevenly or that it’s not adequately reaching those who need it most.

Along the same lines, the giver of the care makes a difference, too. As an example, while an agency leader may make a field visit with the plan to minister to a worker’s spiritual and emotional health, the worker may not feel safe enough, given authority structures, to share openly. Thus, the missionary may interpret the visit in a much different way than the visitor does.

There’s also the factor that not all member care is created equal. As Blöcher points out, the ReMAP surveys could only look at quantity of member care, not quality. Here’s one aspect of this: When extra member care is added, can it become diluted? For instance, if all personnel were tasked with giving 25% of their time to member care, would it really translate into a 25% increase in actual care? Or might it become, in practice, neglected, as in “everyone’s job is no one’s job”?

How do third-party member-care givers fit into this equation? If a cross-cultural worker receives member care above and beyond what is supplied by the agencies—from dedicated member-care organizations and professionals, supporting churches, or informal sources—could that contribute to an even-higher rate of attrition? Or could it be that those outside the agency can provide more of the kind of care that missionaries are desiring? Or is care directly from the agency necessary for the missionaries to see that they are valued by their organizations?

Another issue involving member care from outside the sending organization is that those caregivers may not have the same commitment to retention or length of service that the sending group has. Therefore, they may be quicker to support workers in making the decision to leave. For some, this may lead to a premature exit. But it can also allow for the kind of necessary leaving that is best for all involved. Blöcher acknowledges the need for this type of attrition.

To me, one of the strongest explanations for the connection between excessive member care and higher retention is the recognition of how an increase in member care affects other services offered. For most organizations, allocating dollars and hours is something of a zero-sum game, so adding to one area necessitates subtracting from another. But as Blöcher states, member care should not be considered a replacement for other important components. In fact, he reports that

mission agencies with very intensive [member care] programs gave a significantly lower rating in organisational issues like: Mission statement, Clear goals, Missionaries’ pre-field training (especially in Missiology), Effective orientation of new missionaries in the place of service, Language study, Supervision, Effective administrative support, Sustained and adequate financial support, and Maintenance of spiritual life.

When member care is emphasized, what might be neglected?

We also need to consider that for some organizations, the cause and effect could be reversed, meaning that a high rate of attrition (or in anticipation of such) could be what brings about an extreme commitment to member care. In those cases, the increased care would come as a response to workers leaving the field, and it might take some time for the new and greater devotion to member care to have a positive effect. It’s also possible that, in some cases, the increased proportion of time and money going towards member care is not the result of growth in the number of member-care personnel but rather comes from a decrease in other categories of workers.

The type of member care invested in is also an important factor. When ReMAP II compared preventative care (“strengthening of the missionaries’ personality and spiritual life”) to crisis response and restoration, retention was shown to decrease when too much attention was paid to one over the other. In one subgroup of Old Sending Countries, the best proportion for lowering preventable attrition was 40% preventative care to 60% crisis intervention, while a snapshot of New Sending Country data put the best mix of the two at around half and half.

And if we return to the components making up ReMAP I’s field care and support (listed above), we see that the data show that the presence of all but two of these items correlate with an increase in the preventable attrition rate. Only regular letters or phone calls showed “a clear positive effect,” and on-the-job training showed a “marginal” positive effect. This led Blöcher and Lewis to conclude that

good communication with the missionary may be the single most significant support item in helping lower preventable attrition. It is not likely that the rest of the items in and of themselves actually increase attrition, yet agencies with low attrition rates have invested less into these benefits. This means that support on the field in itself will not keep people in service, unless it has been preceded by careful candidate screening as well as pre-field training and possible other factors.

So what do we do with this information . . . and speculation? First, we shouldn’t forget the correlation between too little member care and higher rates of attrition. But we also can’t ignore the data as member care increases.

Member care is a good thing. Can there be too much of a good thing? Yes. But agencies will need to understand the whys in order to formulate their priorities and policies in this area. And for cross-cultural workers, I would caution against avoiding help for fear that it will do more harm than good. Those who are struggling often tend to be embarrassed by their needs, thinking that they’re at fault and don’t deserve extra attention. Instead, they believe it’s up to them to try harder on their own. This is difficult to figure out when you’re at your weakest and most vulnerable. That’s when it is all the more necessary to have someone skilled, someone trustworthy, someone who can provide empathy and honest feedback to help you see things clearly.

Member care certainly isn’t a cure-all. It has its limitations and, quite possibly, its undesirable effects if relied on too heavily. The solution to problems faced by cross-cultural workers can’t be member care period. It needs to be member care and.

When it comes to member care, what is the best balance, the correct rhythm? That’s something definitely worth looking for.

(Detlef Blöcher and Jonathan Lewis, Too Valuable to Lose: Exploring the Causes and Cures of Missionary Attrition, William Taylor, ed., William Carey, 1997; Blöcher, “What ReMAP I Said, Did, and Achieved,” Worth Keeping: Global Perspectives on Best Practice in Missionary Retention, Rob Hay, et al, eds., William Carey, 2007; Blöcher, in “Member Care,” Worth Keeping: Global Perspectives on Best Practice in Missionary Retention;   Katie Rowe, “Closer to the Truth about Current Missionary Attrition: An Initial Analysis of Results,” A Life Overseas, April 16, 2018)

[photo: “Coffee Beans Falling into a Cup,” by Bryon Lippincott, used under a Creative Commons license]

What Kind of Legacy Will We Leave Behind?

by Beth

We planted a walnut tree in our garden in Central Asia.

As we sat in its meager shade (it’s still a small tree) my husband smiled and said: “Just think, one day our grandchildren will be able to climb this tree and enjoy a view over the whole city!” For a few moments I enjoyed the thought of a huge leafy tree with my grandchildren climbing it and then reality hit. Why did we plant a walnut tree? Our grandchildren will probably never come here for a visit to see it, never mind live in this house!

Why are we investing time and money here when it’s all temporary anyway? Who knows how long we will be allowed to continue living here? And yet God commanded the exiles living in Babylon to plant gardens and seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which He carried them into exile (Jeremiah 29:4-7).

When we first left to come to Central Asia, we packed up five suitcases to take with us and then built a shed in my parent’s garden—making sure that it was rain and insect proof—and we stored the rest of our lives in big plastic tubs in that shed. During our second home assignment we once again went through all our precious possessions which were literally being damaged by moth and rust and decided that it would be better for these things to be used rather than grow old waiting in boxes for us to need them someday. What followed were some of the most painful days of my life as we gave away the special gifts we had received at our wedding: our Canadian oak coffee table and so many other treasures that held worth because of the memories stored within them.

Getting rid of our possessions back home and planting trees and living life here has had me mulling over the question: “When we leave Central Asia, what will we leave behind?” We certainly won’t leave behind a shed filled with stuff in somebody’s garden, but what other treasures will we leave?

I love hearing from the local people here about the workers that have gone before us who have now returned to their passport countries. I hear stories like: “She taught me to quilt” or “She gave me this recipe” or “She taught me how to set a table for foreigners” and, of course, the best stories begin: “She taught me about Jesus.” These are the things those who have gone before us have left behind.

What will be left of us after we leave Central Asia? Hopefully there will be people here whose lives have been changed or at least have been affected from having known us and from knowing the One we’ve pointed them to.

And there will be a walnut tree growing in a garden on the outskirts of the city.

Originally published at OM.

Read Beth’s companion piece here.

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Beth is from the global South, and she loves the ocean and cold Christmas dinner on a hot day around the pool. She is married to an adventurer, and they have three wonderfully unique children.

9 Ways MKs Can Navigate Their Grief

by Michèle Phoenix

Someone asked me, recently, why there is such an emphasis on grief and loss in my speaking on MK topics. The answer is simple: they are highly influential emotions experienced by a majority of MKs. A young man named Muki, who recently transitioned back to his passport country, articulated it best:

I’ve lost my home, my security, my church, my friends, my job, my relationships… It continues to haunt me that I will never see the places that I roamed in the same light again, nor will I breathe the air as someone who is planted there. I lost myself in the convoluted mission of leaving. There is no way to express how lost I feel, and I don’t think anything can change that. No amount of crying or talking will heal my soul. I feel like grief has become my love language.

I’ve already written about the effect of grief on the lives and outlook of MKs (see here) and on their relationships (see here). But this article is not a recipe for avoiding grief. Much as I would love to be able to offer cure, I probably wouldn’t even if I could—because it is in the roiling center of grief that understanding and growth reside.

So this article is not about circumventing the lostness that often walks hand in hand with the treasure of a multi-cultural existence. It’s about managing the shadows we carry within us, so we can remain functional and connected while slowly disentangling the roots and rewards of our grief.

 

A note for non-MKs:
Those who repatriate to their “home” country aren’t just moving from one state or province to another. They aren’t just losing a measurable number of people, places and “sacred objects.” It’s the intangibles that exacerbate their grief and intensify their response to it. Missionaries’ Kids who are enduring transition have lost the languages, sounds, aromas, events, values, security, familiarity and belonging that have been their life—an integral part of who they are and how the view the world. When they leave their heart-home, it feels as if they’re surrendering their identity too.

Moving back is more than a transition for many MKs—it’s a foundational dislocation and reinvention that can take years to define and process.

 

A note for MKs:
We’re too often in a hurry to put the Hard behind us so we can get to those more “acceptable” stages of grief, praising God for the healing and using what we’ve endured to help others.

Here’s the problem: if we slingshot our way over grief or find strategies to get through it fast, we don’t actually process it—we merely shove it deeper, allowing its power to intensify and its control over our outlook, self-assessment and relationships to increase.

When we understand our losses and their impact on our lives—through the process of discerning what they are, how they shape our view of God and self, and how they can lead us both to greater strength and dependence—only then can something beneficial and beautiful come from the bitter pill of the goodbyes inherent to the life of an MK.

 

1. Redefine your relationship with grief.
There’s a tendency among us to see it as a weakness, a shameful lack of faith. We tell ourselves we should be able to bounce back and embody resilience.

The truth is that what we’ve left behind is monumental. And our feeling of lostness, as Muki put it, is a haunting thing. Yes, grief can feel debilitating, but it is also the measure of our love for the distant world—the intimate home—we’ve lost. Not only is it okay for it to hurt, but it is necessary for it to hurt.

 

2. Let your grief breathe.
Give it the time and space it needs to reach a natural ebb. Pain is not our enemy. It points us to the tender spot that needs our attention and grace. It exists for a purpose, and any attempt to suppress it will only cause more harm in the future.

When I meet with adult MKs who are still struggling to figure out their lives, we never fail to uncover some measure of unresolved grief. They thought they were being expedient, in their youth, when they decided to ignore it or live above it. This allowed them to function and move on more easily, but it also left the darkness of their loss anchored to their life’s perspective.

Grief is not reduced by our attempts at stuffing it. It only builds under the surface as we neglect it, then erupts more violently when it finally finds release. If we let it breathe, we give ourselves the chance to heal.

 

3. Don’t stuff it, shelve it.
As important as it is to make sense of our grief, it would be detrimental to our health (and our deadlines, social engagements, job…) to be constantly processing it. In order to function in the real world, we might be tempted to “put a lid on it”—to tamp down the emotions, screw the lid on tight and make believe there’s nothing there to think about. I assure you that nothing good comes from that approach.

What I do advocate is learning to “put it on the shelf.” Picture a transparent jar, its lid just resting lightly on top of it, sitting safely on a shelf within my range of vision. It’s still there. I can see it. I can hear its whisper. I’m still aware that I need to pay attention to it. But it’s out of the way for now, within reach when I need to go back to the healing process.

Shelving grief isn’t denying it, it’s managing how much and when it gets our attention. Resilience comes from returning to it again and again until it has been fathomed and restored.

Note: there may be moments when something triggers an overflow that cannot be “shelved” and needs to be addressed immediately. That can sometimes be part of the grief journey too.

 

4. Speak about it to someone who cares and hears you.
This is another reason why learning to manage the processing is important. We need to be careful in choosing people to process along with us. If we don’t learn to shelve the grief, we’ll look to the first person who enters our life to be that voice of compassion and support.

It’s wiser and safer to wait until we’re sure of the person we’re inviting into our sadness. That person needs to be someone we respect, who has proven himself/herself trustworthy and who has demonstrated wisdom and compassion.

There’s nothing wrong with communicating on this topic with someone from our past, and modern technology certainly makes that easy. But that person can’t be the only sounding board we have. There’s something beneficial about speaking to someone who lives in our here-and-now too.

Consider professional help as well. Counseling can be something of a taboo subject in missionary circles. We’ve got God and we’ve got that vaunted “MK resilience”—we don’t need an outsider’s help, right?

Here’s the thing: grief is powerful, murky and unpredictable. A person engulfed in the tides and turbulence of dark, raging water may not be able to extricate him/herself without the help of another person whose feet are firmly planted on the sturdiness of the dock, able to throw in a life-saving buoy.

That’s who counselors are. They may not fully understand what we bring to the situation, but they’re solid, they’re clear-minded, they’re eager to help, and they’re equipped with tools we may need to overcome.

 

5. Explore who God is.
Study God’s heart as revealed in his Word and through those he sends into your life. Remind yourself of his promises—they’re not limited by time or place. They were true in your old world and they’ll hold true in your new one.

God is still present. He is still speaking to you—though it might be hard to hear him above the roar of your coping mechanisms. His promise to fight for you and comfort you still stands. Look back over the road you’ve traveled and see the way he has been faithful, then remind yourself that he has not changed, though your circumstances have.

If you’re like me, there will be a tendency, in your darkest moments of grief, to blame God for what caused it. “If you hadn’t called my parents…” “If you had provided what we needed to stay overseas…” Blaming God for the hard stuff makes him into your tormentor—and it’s impossible to seek comfort from the same being we also accuse of everything that harmed us.

There will be time to understand his role in our circumstances when the crisis is passed, but when we’re coping with overwhelming loss, his presence is the most powerful aid we can reach for. He is not ashamed of our sadness—he experienced it too.

Though there is comfort in activity, friendships, rest and accomplishment, there is nothing and no one who comforts, understands and heals grief more deeply than Christ.

 

6. Remember who you are.
It’s so easy to feel that we’ve lost our identity, that all that’s left of us is the bruised remnant of who we used to be—before loss, before transition, before the desertland of being unknown.

You are still capable. You are still lovable. You are still valuable. You’re just figuring out how to be all those things in a new context, without the geographical markers, relational buffers and defining anchors of your past.

It’s important to carve out some time and energy to remind yourself of those things that are significant to you, to reacquaint yourself with what thrills and fulfills you, to connect yourself again with the traits and passions that define you.

 

7. Find healthy ways of relieving the emotions.
There is nothing wrong with engaging in activities that distract us. In fact, there’s true resilience in those minutes and hours of “distance” from the grief. Do what you enjoy to inject a bit of light into the darkness of your losses: join an intramural team, cook, write, play video games, Skype with friends, go to the movies.

Just make sure these are temporary measures. It’s easy to escape into the coping mechanisms so deeply and often that we stop really participating in the life going on around us.

One more thing: move. Exercise releases chemicals in the brain that counteract the grip of sadness. I know it won’t be the first impulse, for some of us, to get up and go for a walk or head to the gym, but if you can force yourself to add some movement to your life, you’ll feel the benefits of it.

 

8. Look for reasons to be grateful.
Making of gratitude an intentional practice can be life-altering. And it can be as simple as jotting down three things we’re thankful for at the end of every day.

The hard stuff will always be at the tip of our brains—it’s just the way we’re wired—but the good stuff will take some focus to identify and acknowledge.

Choosing gratitude is not a magic bullet, but it’s a practice that pays off in a shifted perspective, determined optimism and emotional balance.

 

9. Persist.
There will be days when the effort of pushing forward through the grief will feel like too much, when it will seem easier to press that lid down over the emotions or to lock the door, crawl into bed and close your eyes on the “hard” that’s sapping your strength. There will be times when just making conversation will feel like too much effort.

Please believe me—it will get better. As someone who has survived the kind of loss, grief and pain that left me feeling crippled, I can assure you that healing is possible and real.

As you pay attention to what’s hard—as you give your grief the space and care it requires while still investing in the tomorrow you’re building—you’ll find a sort of balance returning. You’ll find the memories more sweet than bitter and the future more welcoming than frightening.

You’ll discover that though you lost a universe, you didn’t lose yourself, and the God who promised to walk with you, to love you through the changes and uphold you through the challenges, is still working to bring beauty from the ashes of your past.

Grief is not a comfortable phase. It feels like the aching reminder of a “homeness” and wholeness we fear we’ll never know again. And it is more than a dark ravine we just need to get over. There is richness and growth in acknowledging and understanding it—the opportunity to learn who we are and who God is as we explore its source and find healing.

Originally published here.

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Raised in France by a Canadian father and an American mother, Michèle is a mentor, writer and speaker with a heart for MKs. She taught for 20 years at Black Forest Academy (Germany) before launching her own ministry advocating for TCKs. She now travels globally to consult and teach on topics related to this unique people group. She loves good conversations, French pastries, mischievous students and Marvel movies.

Thank You For Hosting My Niece

Dear ALOS family, I wrote the following letter two years ago. I have another letter I want to write, but it will make more sense if we read and dissect this letter this month and next month I’ll write the follow-up. No surprise, I have many thoughts to share. HA, but instead of rushing to share them, they will make more sense if we revisit this first letter and discuss it in the comments. Next one will build on these thoughts. I’m thinking of you and praying for you . . . and grateful for your investment in what you might find annoying! With blessing, Amy

Dear Missionary who hosts summer teams,

I write this letter to you with egg on my face. Many moons ago I spent a summer in China teaching English for six weeks to English teachers from around Anhui Province. Because it was “long enough to form meaningful relationships,” I maintained an interiorly superior attitude that many one- or two-week summer trips were a waste of time.

At least for us on the field. After I quit my job, packed two suitcases, and moved to China, I was now one of you. My belief that week-long trips were meaningful and useful for those who went on them, but not us, only solidified. I wasn’t like “them,” I really got to know the culture. I didn’t just swoop in and out. I “made a real difference” (even now I roll my eyes at myself. Pride is so ugly). I’d join in the discussion about whether short trips were worth all the time, money, and effort that went into them. Was any real difference being made?

Oh knowing everything can be such a burden, can’t it?

Those questions? They are good questions. They should be asked. We should wrestle with them. But what God has shown me this summer is that the boundary lines of my understanding are significantly smaller than I believe them to be.

Put another way? I think I know more than I do.

And maybe you do too.

If you host summer teams, this is a huge thank you card to you. If I could hire a sky writer? I would. I would fly over you and write, “Thank you! You have no idea what a difference you have made.” Well, maybe all I would actually write in the sky is “Thank You!” But what I mean is, “You have no idea what a difference you have made.”

I have nieces that range in age from 9 to 16. The older ones are starting to go on summer trips. Their church begins the process with trips in town, and then the next summer trips within the US, and then international trips.

I have watched how their church takes months to prepare the participants. How they are intentional about serving instead of having “cool experiences.” How they are joining in the Great Commission.

This was our first summer as a family to have a girl go on an international trip. (Side note, if it has not happened in your family yet, it is a little weird when you are suddenly not the one going on that trip. When you are not the one sharing stories and prayer requests.)

I know, because I’ve been in your shoes, how much work it is to prepare for a team to come in. Even a team who is doing work you desperately need done. There are moments you wonder if it is worth it. There are moments you are sure it is not.

What you might not see, what I had not seen before, was all of the preparation. The preparation of supplies for parties and clubs. The preparation of their hearts. The cultural information they are learning. The ways that those who are coming to you truly want to serve. They want to help you with your calling. They want to work.

What I also had never seen before is that, especially for teen and college kids, you are not just getting one person, you are getting a herd of people. You only saw my niece, but her parents, aunts, grandma, friends, and especially her three younger sisters are now invested in your ministry.

She came home changed.

She knows your name, dear missionary. She has shared the stories you told. Our family now agonizes that children in your village have permanent brain damage because Tylenol isn’t available when they get a fever. The children that she spent a week feeding, playing with, and singing to? We know their names. A place on the globe, the place that is dear to you, is now dear to us.

I understand that this letter is still rather focused on the difference this trip made for her. It is rather “sent one” focused.

I guess what I am trying to say, is thank you. Thank you for opening your hearts to her. For sharing your story for the umpteenth time. For putting up with teens who refused to eat the food you worked so hard to provide, eating instead another granola bar (not my niece, but she shared stories of her teammates too!).

Before this summer, I only saw these trips through the lens of how much work they were for me on the field. What I didn’t grasp was how, like the loaves and fishes Jesus used to feed the masses, summer trips can feed the Great Commission. They can feed God’s heart for his people. They feed future generations of missions. That one week will ripple out through the years in ways you and I can’t imagine.

You might not remember my niece’s name because you will see several trips this summer. She’s a quiet girl. She’s the one who will hold the disabled four-year-old for hours and sing to them. She’s the one who now sees the value of learning the language because the quiet cook on your property? She wishes she could have talked to her.

She came home changed by the poverty she saw. She returned and the word she used more than another other to describe the people she served? Joy. She saw how God is not White and American and Well-educated. When the cook started to sing How Great Thou Art in your language and my niece sang it in English? She will carry that for the rest of her days.

The extra hours these trips cost you? The foolish questions the participants ask? The food they won’t eat? It is worth it. God took the diamond of summer trips and tilted it so I saw more of its beauty than I have before.

Thank you for hosting my niece.

Her loving aunt,

Amy

P.S. I still have opinions about short term trips. But they are a bit fuzzier than before. My overwhelming sense that I really knew what was the right way to “do missions” has been, um, challenged. Love will do that, won’t it? Slow me down enough to keep me really asking the questions and not just spouting off the same answers I have for years. I’m sorry if this letter is a bit all over the place. I’ve reworked it and reworked it. But I feel all over the place, so how can my words not be as well?

Expatriate, Immigrant, Racist?

I’ve always assumed I’m an expatriate (this is not an ex-patriot or an ex-pat or an ex-patriate). A few years ago an article called this into question, and the conversation is ongoing. The Guardian published Why are white people expats when the rest of us are immigrants? I regularly hear from people concerned that I call myself an expatriate. I needed to dig into this.

Is the word ‘expatriate’ racist? Have white people appropriated it and are non-white people limited in their ability to claim it? There are two levels (at least) to this discussion: definitional and experiential.

According to Meriam-Webster:

  • the word Expatriate is a verb or an adjective and means someone “living in a foreign land.”
  • the word Immigrant is a noun and means “a person who comes to a country to take permanent residence.”

If we go only by these definitions above, I see one major distinction. Immigrants have an intention to stay, for the expatriates this intention isn’t mentioned and isn’t clear.

According to Google, an expat is someone residing outside their native/passport country. An immigrant is someone permanently residing outside their native country.

This idea of permanence is significant both in how it relates to the new country and the old country. An expatriate tends to engage less in the host country and maintains a stronger tie to the old country. An immigrant might feel a greater sense of loss toward the old country and a greater sense of responsibility and intention in engaging in the host country. Kind of like renting versus owning. An expat is a renter, an immigrant is an owner.

That is the dictionary discussion and by definition, I’m an expatirate. What about our experiences?

The most diverse place I know well is the protestant church I attend. There are people from Uganda, Madagascar, Ethiopia, Kenya, Egypt, Congo, Nigeria, Senegal, Burundi, America, England, Switzerland, Korea, France, Germany… I think of all of us as expatriates. Some have lived here for decades, some for weeks. I never thought of any of us, regardless of skin color or economic or social class, as immigrants. We are here for work and we are expatriates.

Because none of us intends to stay forever.

We might stay here a long time. We might even die here, though that isn’t our intention. But we maintain residency and passports and voting rights and tax-paying responsibilities, etc. in our home countries which are not this one. To me, that is an expatriate. We’re here but we’re also slightly not here. We’re renters.

An immigrant is someone who comes, possibly against their will or preference, like a refugee, and goes all in. They will stay in this new country. They might go back but that isn’t in the plan as far as they know it. They invest in a different way, a more personal way, weaving themselves into the fabric of the new country and letting it weave itself into them. They are owners.

But that is just my experience and in different parts of the world, this is very different. Hana Omar commented on my FB page that in Europe there seems to be a strong class and racial component to which term is used. And, there are related words, much more racially charged, like migrant worker, a person who is actually an expat. Or in other places the term Foreign Domestic Workers is used for people who are also technically expatriates.

Both expatriate and immigrant are beautiful words and should be worn with pride by those to whom they belong. Expats are (generally) curious and open and passionate about two worlds. They are bridge people who can take the best of two places and cultures and blend them or use them to sharpen each other. Immigrants are (generally) curious and open and passionate about two worlds. They are also bridge people who can take the best of two places and cultures and blend them or use them to sharpen each other.

But the terms matter, they aren’t conveying the same thing. For example, expatriates have the struggle of doing the splits, of keeping a toe in two countries and the longer they live abroad, the further apart the two countries become, the deeper they must sink into the split. This hurts. And immigrants have the struggle of grief, they have left behind a place they knew and instinctively understood and are straining to fit into a place that doesn’t inherently recognize them. This also hurts. We have something in common but we are not the same.

What do I conclude? Three things. One, I am an expatriate, not an immigrant. Two, I can’t assume by looking at someone that they are an expatriate or an immigrant. I have to talk to them and hear their story. Listen, ask questions, hear where they came from and where they are going and don’t jump to conclusions. Three, the ability to use and choose this term is evidence of my privilege and not all expatriates have that ability, being labeled what others perceive them as, often solely on account of skin color. This is deeply problematic.

I’d love to hear your thoughts. Expatriate or immigrant?

What would you suggest as a new term?

An Open Letter to My Younger Missionary Mom Self

Dear One,

I want to reach my arms across time and gently caress your shoulders. I’ll lift your head to look in my eyes and say, ‘these shoulders were not meant to carry the weight of the world.’ The hands of the God who treasures you were. You feel responsible for everything and everyone. You feel the pressure to feed and clothe and keep smiles on all your people. And yes, it seems it’s up to you to keep them all alive. You want to be the perfect wife—supporting your husband in every way, while somehow finding time to enter the ministry. At any moment, if you let go of all you do as the barometer, the anchor, of the home, you are sure it will fall apart. But, dear one, the aching heart of God is longing for you to let go, because He has something beautiful for you. He has JOY for you. Yet you cannot receive that joy when you are carrying so much else. So, come weary one and take the easy yoke and light burden Jesus is offering with those wide-open arms.

It’s hard to believe, but nothing you do is insignificant. In those months right after you arrive, when you are trying to acclimate, learn the language, become re-acquainted with public transportation, settle in AND you are pregnant, you are incredibly significant. And a few months later, when the baby comes, and you can’t do much of anything but take care of this little life, you are so significant. You don’t need to be worrying about learning the language, driving, discipling, or cooking. You just need to be with your baby and your other children, and yes, your hubby too. Let your family cocoon for a while. I promise you will gain the strength needed to tackle anything that comes—one thing at a time. Your every breath is truly significant. So take some deep ones and enjoy the simple things.

I know. You are a missionary in another culture, so you want to immerse fully. This is important. But it’s okay to lean on the Ex-pat community. Dig deep into life-giving relationships there. Pray and ask the Lord for just what you need as you acclimate to life. He will show you. Trust yourself. If it’s in you to learn the language, you will. Don’t worry that relationships with English speakers will keep you from this. They are likely on the same journey, and you can encourage one another. Just be free to find the relationships you need. You are building for a lifetime, not a year or two where you try to cram in all your learning. So, give yourself tons of grace as you take it all one step at a time.

Gather morsels of wisdom wherever you can. Learn from everyone about everything in life. Interview them. Keep a journal of notes so you don’t forget. Sometimes people don’t remember what it’s like to be new. Don’t let this discourage you. Seek out a mentor and, when you find one, don’t let her go. If at first you struggle to find someone, know that many have been there. Pray and don’t lose heart. She will be found and has much to teach you. She’s got big things for you, like when she wanted to quit and how she worked through this. And she knows little things too–like how when you travel you can never have enough of those flimsy grocery store bags which you never want unless you are on the road. Your life is about the big and the little things. And God has made you to learn from others.

You are the quintessential seed-planter. You are sowing unto a great harvest, one day. That day may not be until Heaven, so don’t grow weary in doing well. As you build relationships with nationals, enjoy the smiles of the flower lady while you learn how to understand ‘your children are adorable.’ And you can reply, ‘thank you so much.’ When you ask the butcher ‘how is your family?’ after you have mastered ‘one pound of ground beef, please,’ this is seed-planting. Then you ride the bus as a family and you befriend the student who gave up her seat for your kids–this is a significant thing. And your kids? Every moment holds the weight of glory. Each time you sit down on the hardwood floor to play Legos or Polly Pockets is the thing which cannot be taken away from you. And the bedtime stories? Priceless. The tiny prayers and the tender holds all form an embrace of security which will grow your children strong.

It can be so hard to connect with the Lord. Life is full and there’s so much to do and learn. But you must find a favorite spot to get away and be with God. Look for a café, or park bench, or fountain, or walking path. Schedule time to go and be away with Jesus. It can all get so confusing. You’ve worked so hard to get to your overseas home. So, of course, you need to do the missionary work of settling in, and developing ministry through church and home. But the full truth is God is more concerned with you, your heart, than anything you will ever do for Him. He has led you halfway around the world to bring you Home. Home to His heart. The God of the Universe is full-on pursuing you. So, don’t let the overwhelming busyness and awkwardness of your missionary life distract you from what’s most important. Please dear one, I don’t say this to condemn you, but to invite you to the luxurious gift of time in His presence. I promise you won’t regret it.

Let go of your fears. God has you in His hands. He is the author of your story and the stories of everyone in your family. You can send your mind into an anxiety-laced swirl thinking about what could happen. Just say ‘no’ to this. You may do it a thousand times a day, but the answer is always the same. Come what may, you will be an overcomer. And dear one, please know, if your great fear of not being able to make it, and for some reason having to return home, comes true, it is ok. Yes, it is ok. Because your life is a golden thread of redemption. There is nothing which could happen that He won’t make completely new and cause to shine brighter and brighter until the full light of day. This is the God He is and the One you want your life to glorify, no matter what.

In the end I want to pour out my heart to you, because you are simply amazing. You have no idea how exquisitely beautiful, truly capable, utterly courageous and fully powerful you are. You doubt yourself, your worth, so much. It breaks my heart and God’s heart. Receive the love which gave up all its heavenly grandeur to become low and so bring you high to where He now reigns. He has placed His life in you. You shine forth His beauty and it is glorious. You are glorious, a wonder who has laid down her life to follow Him. He sees every bit of who you are and declares it gorgeous. You are precious in His eyes and honored and He loves you. He longs to wrap you in the tenderest of embraces. Let Him, dear one.

All my love,

Your Older Self

Even Jesus had a boat.

“Ok, this is what life is like there. You can’t change all the stuff happening around you. So what can you change to help you continue living there?” asked my counselor friend.

I just finished unloading a story about breaking up a racially motivated street fight and chasing my knife wielding friend down the street begging him not to stab anyone. Life was intense and for several years we’d simply been tumbling from one crisis right into the next. I developed a constant twitch in my left eye, would startle at loud noises or if someone came up unexpectedly behind me, and generally lived in a state of high alert. I could not shut off the adrenaline.

No amount of conviction and resolve to stay overseas would save me from the mental, emotional, and health breakdown I was heading for. We needed change, and fast.

Until that conversation, it hadn’t dawned on me that there were things I could change. Wasn’t this just how mission life goes? If I can’t hack it, should I really be here? This is really stupid thinking.

These days we are spending more and taking more breaks than I initially thought we would need. Like everything else, how to live well also needed reframing when we moved overseas.

As the reframing of living well began to take place, doubts and unease were constant. Before coming overseas I filled my mind with stories of missionaries who faced unfathomable suffering and counted it as nothing in the face of what Jesus had done for them. Who was I to ask for relief? Wouldn’t God ultimately work everything together for his good? Wasn’t the sacrifice worth it? Anyway, when I wrote publicly the stories of what we faced I was only ever encouraged to press on. You’re so inspiring! God is using you! Keep your eyes on Christ!

One evening I came to Mark 3:9 in my bible reading:

And he told his disciples to have a boat ready for him because of the crowd, lest they crush him…

In the margin of my bible I wrote, “Sometimes even Jesus needed to set boundaries in ministry. He had a boat! What do I need?”

Many people told me, “Jesus retreated to the mountain to pray.” as if all I really needed was a better quality quiet time. But up to that point, no amount bible reading and prayer changed the physical signs of stress in my body. How could it? I needed a boat, just like Jesus did. I needed a real, physical place where I could be protected from a very real, physical crushing.

My boat turned out to be a motorbike. Just as Jesus stepped into the boat to continue ministering without being crushed by the crowds, buying a motorbike allowed me to move through and around town without harassment.

 In the years since, we’ve made other changes as well. The stress in our surroundings remains at just the same high level, but we’ve moored other boats along the way. Well placed respites to protect us from being crushed.

The streets are still just as crazy as ever. Only a couple of days ago I pulled my son and daughter close to avoid getting caught in a fight between a mentally ill man stealing breakfast from a cart and the scissors armed cook jabbing at his head. “Come on, let’s go.” I said to the kids and we quickly got on the motorbike and rode away.

This is what a well-placed boat will do. It doesn’t change the difficulties of what we may encounter, but a good boat does keep us from being crushed- in this case a crushing likely from being followed, grabbed, and harassed by a mentally ill man who at some point would probably attempt to steal my bag as well.  

We are not wimps. We are not frivolous with money. We’re in this thing for the long haul. We want to stay and stay well. We just need a boat to do it.

a cross-cultural conversation