What we can learn from the SBC

I’m currently reading The Soul of Desire; Discovering the Neuroscience of Longing, Beauty, and Community by Curt Thompson, MD. In April I was privileged to hear him speak in person on this topic.

While the neuroscience is fascinating, what stood out was the role of beauty. And all of the ways that we humans can contribute by putting beauty into the world. Though “beauty” may seems small, putting beauty into the world truly is one of the most powerful things we can do, according to Dr. Thompson.

I’m also in the midst of edits on a book I’m writing about the fruit of the Spirit. Last week I was working on a section that very briefly mentioned the shameful past in missions involving our own complete mishandling of abuse and boarding schools. In fairness to my editor, she hasn’t served overseas and her “world” isn’t ours of cross-cultural service, so she wasn’t familiar with this part of our history. She commented to the effect asking if it was necessary to mention the abuse (I was writing about goodness and it seemed out of context).

I’ve left it in because it seems disingenuous to me to highlight goodness without acknowledging that “badness” can exist if we aren’t walking with the Holy Spirit.

This morning I read This Is the Southern Baptist Apocalypse from Christianity Today … which is the polar opposite of beauty. If you haven’t read heard about it, basically the Southern Baptists in the US kept an extensive list of pastors whom they knew were sexual abusers and did not (a) address it, (b) involve the local officials, or (c) support the victims.

Why write about beauty and abuse here? With you? For us?

Because it’s all true … beauty is powerful and unaddressed abuse is powerful. At times we Christians are shameful at the lengths we’ll go to in covering up sin and not addressing it.

As God has “beauty” and “abuse” on my radar, I’ve been mulling how every now and then we need to slow down and affirm a few of the basics. Beauty is powerful. Today let’s each seek one small way to do or say or share something that is beautiful. Abuse is also powerful and not to be tolerated. Today, if you see abuse in some form seek one small way to do something or say something or address it in some way.

You can cultivate beauty. You can! I love that cultivating beauty doesn’t mean you have to become a world-renowned artist. It can be as simple as noticing a person on the outside of a conversation and inviting them in.

Sadly, abuse can also be cultivated when we turn a blind eye, excuse, or downplay it. I believe that we are getting better at addressing abuse. But that doesn’t mean that we’ve become immune to tolerating abuse … too much abuse still exists in the world.

While this is not the most beautiful piece I’ve written, it is the beauty God has nudged me to put into the world today. What is He nudging you to put into the world?

Photo by Marc Schulte on Unsplash

Shining Your Light without Burning Out

“Raise your hands in the air as high as you can,” says the motivational speaker on the stage. Then, looking over the crowd reaching skyward, he says, “Now, reach higher,” and they comply. The lesson? You can always do more, even when you think you’ve done as much as you can.

“I’ll give it 110%,” we say.

“Leave it all on the court,” they tell us.

But pushing ourselves beyond our limits can lead to burnout. When that happens, we can’t function anymore, and that’s not a good thing. And yet, for a cross-cultural worker, being burned out can feel like a respectable reason for leaving the field. I have nothing left to give. I’m spent. I worked too hard.

When my wife and I moved back to the States, I sometimes said it was because we were burned out, and that may very well have been true. But there were other times when I felt I didn’t deserve the label. It seemed that it should be reserved for the ones who’d worked a lot harder than I had.

“It’s better to burn out than to fade away,” we sing.

According to the WHO’s International Classification of Diseases, Revision 11, “burn-out” is an “occupational phenomenon” (rather than a medical condition). It is defined as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed,” showing itself in

  • feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion,
  • increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job, and
  • reduced professional efficacy

Christina Maslach, professor emerita of psychology at UC Berkely and co-developer of the Maslach Burnout Inventory, says that while overwork is one of the factors that can lead to burnout, it’s not the only one. In fact, she identifies six mismatches between the work environment and worker that can cause job burnout. In a presentation at a DevOps Enterprise Summit three years ago, she described these as

  • demand overload,
  • lack of control,
  • insufficient reward,
  • breakdown of community,
  • absence of fairness, and
  • value conflicts

When I heard this list, I couldn’t help but think of the topics discussed in Sue Eenigenburg and Robynn Bliss’s Expectations and Burnout: Women Surviving the Great Commission. And even though Maslach is addressing a group of tech leaders, the content of her talk applies to people in other areas, including those working cross-culturally. Across all occupations, burnout, says Maslach, is like the canary in the coal mine. When the canary can’t breath, the solution isn’t to toughen up the bird but instead to find out and fix what’s wrong with the air. To put it another way, she says, prevention is a better strategy than coping.

I would encourage you to watch Maslach’s presentation, whatever your role in cross-cultural work, as leaders or followers. Some of you have a leadership position in your organization or on your team and can influence the situations of those under your authority. Some of you are your own boss. All of you have jobs that include responding to the expectations of others (agencies, sending churches, supporters, team leaders, supervisors, coworkers, and the like). Maslach’s insights are useful to us all.

Of course, serving and living overseas adds extra layers to what we call our “workplace,” and there will be some factors of cross-cultural life that are out of anyone’s control. But when we see the effects of a toxic environment, what of the six problems above can we or others solve or mitigate, working towards turning mismatches into good fits?

What can we do, though, if we’re feeling overwhelmed while waiting for (asking for, hoping for, praying for) circumstances to change? How do we foster personal health in an unhealthy environment? Several years ago, I wrote a post titled “Surviving? Thriving? How about Striving?” in which I presented another option for those who are able to survive overseas but for whom thriving seems out of reach. To suggest that we “strive,” though, might sound to some as if I’m saying we need to “try harder,” and that isn’t my intention. If I were to write that post again, I’d insert some advice from Aundi Kolber. It’s to “try softer,” which is the name of a book she’s written. For my purposes, I’d rephrase it as “strive softer.”

Kolber, a licensed professional counselor, writes that it’s not necessary for us to “white-knuckle our way through life.” Instead, we should practice “paying compassionate attention” to ourselves. She describes this as “in a sense, learning to steward for ourselves what God already believes about us—that we’re valuable and loved.”

When we are not paying attention to our inner worlds, we are susceptible to emotional burnout, exhaustion, emotional dysregulation, and chronic pain. Because our brains are shaped around what we notice, it’s important that we become better and more effective at listening—and responding—to what our minds and bodies are telling us. This is the journey of trying softer.

In Try Softer (the book’s subtitle is A Fresh Approach to Move Us out of Anxiety, Stress, and Survival Mode—and into a Life of Connection and Joy), Kolber covers a lot of ground, diving deep into such subjects as trauma response, neuroscience, attachment theory, windows of tolerance, and boundaries, helping us learn how to understand ourselves and how we came to be who we are. Then she follows that up with “new practices and rhythms,” practical suggestions to help us try softer. It’s well worth a read. Or if you’d rather just get a short overview of what Kolber has to say, you can follow this link to a 45-minute video interview she had with author and podcaster Nicole Unice.

Striving softer isn’t just for staying on the field. It’s what we should do to continue walking with and serving God, wherever we are. It’s a good way to live life.

Giving anything more than 100% can’t be done.

Leaving it all on the court means your playing days are over.

Burning out isn’t an honor you earn from maximum effort.

And as for “It’s better to burn out than to fade away,” I can think of a whole lot of other songs that are more worth singing.

(“Burn-Out an ‘Occupational Phenomenon’: International Classification of Diseases,” World Health Organization, May 28, 2019; Christina Maslach, Understanding Job Burnout, presentation at DOES19 London, July 1, 2019; Aundi Kolber, Try Softer: A Fresh Approach to Move Us out of Anxiety, Stress, and Survival Mode—and into a Life of Connection and Joy, Tyndale, 2020)

[photo: “Lights Out,” by Pulpolux !!!, used under a Creative Commons license]

It’s Time for Research-Based MK Care

by Lauren Wells

We have all heard stories of Adult TCKs who struggle. We have also seen the triumphant stories of TCKs who seem to exude the positive qualities third culture kids are known for. But what influences which end of this spectrum a TCK migrates toward? Is it the number of moves? Parenting styles? Schooling choices?

I began asking this question over a decade ago. Working on the pre-field side of MK care, I was constantly repeating the same presentation about the benefits of being a TCK to parents about to embark on a globally mobile journey. As the years went by, I kept sharing positive aspects of the TCK experience. But I began to wonder – What about those who aren’t doing well? What about the Adult TCKs I know who don’t currently seem to be benefiting from any of these supposed innate positive TCK characteristics? 

It was at this point in my life that I began to study the ins and outs of Prevention Science and analyzing what, for all children, is correlated with thriving in adulthood or not. Then I looked at the patterns of things deemed to be helpful childhood experiences and harmful childhood experiences, and I compared them to the lives of TCKs. I wrote for years about the idea of preventive care for TCKs, and I founded TCK Training on this premise: to cultivate thriving TCKs by providing preventive care. Preventive care does not mean taking away all the challenges of the TCK life, but instead, coming alongside those challenges with intentional care. The challenges themselves are not the problem, it is the way in which those challenges are walked through that determine whether they become resilience-building experiences or result in accumulating fragility. 

But what are we preventing? Anecdotally, I had some ideas. In all my books I shared my hypothesis that TCKs have higher Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) scores, experience more developmental traumas, and are more prone to toxic stress than the majority of monocultural individuals. Those who have extensively researched these in the general population have found that a high amount of exposure in any of these categories is correlated with relational, behavioral, and physical unhealth in adulthood. So we began teaching preventive care methods, such as Positive Childhood Experiences (PCES) to encourage parents to care intentionally for their children and to ultimately combat their increased risk. 

 

The Research
I knew, however, that statistical data on this concept was critical. In early 2021, TCK Training began the process of preparing to research developmental trauma in TCKs. In June 2021, we launched a carefully constructed and peer-reviewed survey for adult TCKs. The survey asked questions about ACE scores and developmental traumas, and by the closing of the survey on December 31, 2022, we had 2,377 responses. After applying exclusion criteria, we accepted 1,904 responses to be used in our data set. You can read the extensive methodology report at https://www.tcktraining.com/research/tckaces-methodology

In our initial analysis, we’ve learned that our hypothesis was correct, particularly in regard to ACE Scores. We designed the survey with questions comparable to other ACE studies, in particular the CDC-Kaiser study of 17,000 Americans. The graphs below compare ACE scores between our sample of 1,904 Adult TCKs and the CDC-Kaiser study. A particularly important statistic is the percentage who experience 4+ ACE scores. Those with scores of 4 or higher show a significant increase in mental, physical, and behavioral challenges in adulthood. Of the TCK sample, 20.4% experienced 4 or more ACEs, compared to 12.9% of the general American population.

 

How Can Parents Apply This Research to Their Daily Lives?
So what do we do with this information? Our goal for this research is to develop practical advice that parents can follow that makes it more likely that their TCKs will thrive and be able to experience the benefits of the TCK life. We believe that the TCK life is an incredible one! We also know that it does not organically yield a positive childhood experience that results in healthy adulthood. Instead, intentional care of TCKs is needed. 

The research confirmed that we need to support Missionary Kids (a subcategory of TCKs), especially regarding their emotional health. Of the ACE score categories, those pertaining to Emotional Health were the most statistically significant for MKs. 37% of missionary kids in our survey reported feeling emotionally neglected, compared to 15% of people in the CDC-Kaiser study. 40% of missionary kids reported that they were emotionally abused, compared with 11% in the CDC-Kaiser study and one-third of MKs said that they felt “unloved and not special to their parents.” 

For children to feel emotionally supported by their parents, they need to: 

  • Feel that they can express their feelings and feel heard and supported. 
  • Feel their parents “have their back.” 
  • Feel that their parents believe they are important. 
  • Feel loved and special. 
  • Feel that their parents will stand by them in difficult times/situations. 

While we believe that most parents of missionary kids are wonderful, loving parents who want to be emotionally supportive of their children, the data shows that this intention is not coming across well enough to a significant number of MKs. 

Some ways that we’ve heard it expressed are: 

“My parent’s answer to my difficult emotions is always a Bible verse when I really just need a hug and to be told that this is allowed to feel hard.”

“If my parents had to choose between me and the people they’re serving, I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t choose me.”

“My parent’s work is more important than me, because their work is reaching the lost and I already know Jesus.”

We often hear comments like these from the MKs we’re debriefing and from the Adult MKs we work with. Again, we believe that most of their parents had/have great intentions, but they simply didn’t know how to communicate this emotional support in a way that their MKs could feel. 

One simple way that we teach parents to be an emotionally safe space for their children is by avoiding “Shut Down Responses” and using “Safe Space Responses.”

All of us use “Shut Down Responses” sometimes. What we want to do is know what they are, know which we tend to use most, and try to catch ourselves when we hear that type of response coming out. Sometimes, it means catching it after the fact and then turning around, apologizing, and trying again. No one is capable of always using “Safe Space Responses” and never using a “Shut Down Response,” but awareness of these responses can help us to aim for using mostly “Safe Space Responses” most of the time. 

 

Shut Down Responses
What we say in our “Shut Down Responses” may be true; however, our response shuts the child down from continuing to feel or share their difficult emotions. Instead, we want to give responses that put out a welcome mat for them to continue to come to you when they experience difficult things. After giving “Safe Space Responses,” there may be time to narrate the truth, ask questions, give your perspective, etc., but we often jump ahead to this step, as in the examples below, instead of first being a safe space. 

Downplaying – Communicating that the event or circumstance about which they are feeling difficult emotions is really not that big of a deal. 

“We just evacuated and what you’re worried about is forgetting the single Lego piece!?”

Defending – Defending the decision that caused the grief and thus communicating, “If there’s a good reason or if I had good intentions, then you shouldn’t feel any difficult emotions.” 

“We chose this school and are spending a lot of money for you to go there because we thought it would be best for you, so you need to be more grateful.” 

Comparing – Comparing one person’s experiences to another person’s or comparing different experiences the same person went through. Both things can be worthy of difficult emotions; both people can be allowed to experience difficult emotions. There is enough compassion to go around!

“It’s not as bad for you as it is for your sister. Think about how hard this has been for her!”

“Look at the people around you without enough food to eat. What they’re going through doesn’t even compare to what you’re complaining about.” 

Correcting Correcting the facts when they’re telling you their feelings instead of compassionately ministering to the important heartfelt perception. This way of thinking assumes that “If they just had the facts right, this emotion would go away!” 

“We didn’t actually move 10 times that year, it was only 5 times.” 

“What actually happened was…” 

Again, most of these responses are not inherently bad or untrue, they are just unhelpful when trying to create an emotionally safe space for children. Instead, use “Safe Space Responses” first. 

 

Safe Space Responses
The following “Safe Space Reponses” will invite your children into emotional connection and give them the space to feel heard and supported.

Acknowledge – Acknowledge that they were brave for sharing this with you and that you are glad they came to you.

Affirm – Give affirmation that their emotions are real, valid, justifiable, etc., and that they make sense. 

Comfort/Connect – Offer a hug, time together, a conversation, kind words, their favorite meal, etc. 

Here’s an example of a safe space response: 

“Thank you so much for sharing that with me. I’m so glad you did. It makes sense that you would feel sad that you forgot your Lego piece when we left. That Lego set was really special to you, and realizing you are missing a piece must have been really upsetting. We lost a lot of things when we left, didn’t we? Would you like a hug or to play together for a few minutes?”

This concept of “Safe Spaces Responses” may seem like a simple practical application of the vast research we are doing, and yet, looking at the responses we received on our survey, it is clear that many Missionary Kids feel they didn’t have consistent emotional support. It is likely they could have benefited from some more Safe Space Responses. 

As we continue to analyze our data, we will continue to look at more practical ways that TCKs can be supported in such a way that their experience creates deeper family connection, yields many of the benefits that TCKs are praised for, and encourages thriving in adulthood.

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

Lauren Wells is the founder and CEO of TCK Training and the Unstacking Company and author of Raising Up a Generation of Healthy Third Culture Kids, The Grief Tower, and Unstacking Your Grief Tower. She is an Adult TCK who spent her teenage years in Tanzania, East Africa. She sits on the board of the TCK Care Accreditation as Vice Chair and is part of the TCK Training research team focusing on preventive care research in the TCK population.

Where Are the Men?

 

“I have to go back home and work on my seminary degree.  It’s an org requirement, and it will take me too long to complete online if I stay here. But don’t worry! Once I finish, I’ll be back.” 

Jacob* was resigned to the fact that he would be leaving the field for a while to fulfill the requirements of his sending organization. While the seminary degree in and of itself was not a bad thing, it would be the impetus of his leaving the field for good.

That’s because, about a year into his program, Jacob fell in love with Kara. They shared a deep love for Christ and making him known, but Kara was not at all interested in living outside of her home country. Nevertheless, the couple went ahead with their wedding day. Five years and two kids later, Jacob and Kara are pretty well settled into life in their home country. With Jacob having no intention of going back overseas, the team he left behind now consists of two couples and five single women.**

There’s a cheeky statistic I’ve heard that says, “About two thirds of field workers are married couples. Another third are single women, and the rest are single men.” Of course, this facetious statistic would imply that there are no single men on the field. And while we know this is not correct, most of us have noticed the conspicuous imbalance of single women to single men on the field. 

While I have yet to see a study on why there is such an imbalance of singles on the field, there are some interesting observations to be made and perhaps a few questions we should be asking to get a clearer picture of the reasons and consequences of the male shortage in overseas ministry. 

 

Why Are There So Few Men?
So, why are we not seeing more single men in full-time overseas ministry? It certainly cannot be said that there is a lack of men wanting to work in full-time ministry. Men fill most paid ministry positions in local churches, but when it comes to overseas work, single men are heavily outnumbered. Here are a few observations about this phenomenon:

1. Men are compelled (and are sometimes required) to go to seminary or grad school before they begin service in overseas ministry. Sometimes, this requires several years away from the field. The extra time spent obtaining more education can be long, burdensome, and expensive. In the midst of time spent obtaining this education, these men may find themselves with mounting student debt, in love with someone who does not share their desire to live overseas, or drawn into the world of preaching to congregations in their own country. 

2. Some men who desire to minister cross-culturally don’t want to do so until they are married. However, this “wait for a mate” time often leads to involvement with other ministries or jobs that pull their attention and passion away from living overseas. Some of these men wind up marrying women who do not share their passion or desire to minister cross-culturally. These life changes often mean a complete redirection of plans and passions.  

3. When a single man expresses his desire to minister overseas to his church leadership, these overseers tend to encourage men to stick around and “learn about ministry” by interning or leading a ministry in their local church. While the heart and intention behind this is one of love and mentorship, the experience gained in a local church in the Western Hemisphere is often entirely unhelpful for a person headed to a culture that does not even have a concept of church. 

4. Churches often want men to be married before they go overseas because it’s believed that marriage will save them from sexual temptation and pornography addiction. However, the widely-held belief that marriage will be a deterrent to sexual misconduct is not only entirely inaccurate, but also keeps church leadership from addressing an actual issue that is likely already present in most men’s lives

5. When I have put this question to men who are engaged in ministry in their home countries, many have responded with a real apprehension about fundraising. They might be willing to go overseas and work a paying job, but the thought of asking churches for support feels arduous and humiliating. I am not sure how this mindset might shift between unmarried and married men, but it seems to be a common sentiment.

 

Feeling the Strain
The imbalance of men and women serving cross-culturally has very real consequences. We don’t just stand idly by and make observations because it makes us feel smart or important. The imbalance takes a heavy toll, and many field workers are feeling the strain.

My team in particular lives in a place with a disproportionately large population of male migrant laborers. Our team is and has always been mostly female. While there will always be work for the women to do, there is a much smaller workforce to focus time and attention on a population with whom we, as women, cannot interact: men. We live in a conservative country with strong cultural taboos about mixed company, so there is rarely a situation where women speaking to these men is appropriate. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 7:32-34 that “An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs— how he can please the Lord. But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world— how he can please his wife— his interests are divided.” To put it plainly: We need a more diverse workforce because the harvest field itself is diverse. 

In addition, many ministry teams work in cultures that have oppressive and cruel attitudes toward women. Living in patriarchal societies takes a heavy toll on women. There are spaces where women are simply unwelcome, and there are areas where women know they will be ogled or sexually assaulted. However, these locations may be the only places to, say, get a car repaired or buy a ceiling fan. Within the community of Christ-followers on the field, we depend on each other for help with tasks we would ordinarily be entirely capable of doing on our own. 

Then there are the cultures that simply expect single adult men to misbehave. The expectation is that young men will stay out all night, philander, and live as wildly as possible until they tie the knot. Who will show them another way?  Where are the single men who can live a life of sacrifice, love, and purity among them? We need representation of the body of Christ in all of its diverse beauty, and that includes the unique struggles and freedoms that are inherently a part of a bachelor’s life. Jesus himself lived his life unmarried and devoted to the work of his Father. Ministry as a single man is the first example the church was given, so why would we believe that this status is less than ideal? 

 

How Can Churches Help?
Of course, the questions and observations merit answers. While I do not believe that there is anything simple about the dilemma we face, there are some ways the church can help more single men get to the field:

1. Stop expecting men to get married before they live cross-culturally. Have the difficult conversations and counseling sessions to deal with porn addiction, lust, and objectification. Do not fall for the lie that having a wife will be the fix-all for potential sexual misconduct.

2. If single men express a desire to be married before they move overseas, ask them why they feel that way. We must be willing to ask where this desire is coming from, and to explore their reasons why ministry overseas requires them to be married but ministry at “home” does not. It also bears mentioning that the pool of single women on the mission field is deep and wide. Men who want to get married may actually have a lot more opportunity to find a spouse who shares their vision once they get to the field!

3. Rather than creating years-long responsibilities as a prerequisite for life on the field, set goals and reasonable expectations for men’s personal and theological development. Like anyone headed into overseas ministry, single men need people to walk alongside them to grow in maturity and in gaining an understanding of cross-cultural ministry. But we have to be willing to allow life on the field itself be an instructor. I once heard Vinay Samuel say, “Theology should be written on the mission field.” Indeed, life and ministry on the field will likely be a far better teacher on theology, scriptural interpretation, and strategy than any seminary class.  

As churches, we should be questioning why such an enormous imbalance exists both within domestic ministry, where men hold most full-time ministry positions, and within cross-cultural ministry, where women hold most full-time ministry positions. Granted, the gender disparity is far greater domestically than it is overseas. But, with such an abundance of women in full-time cross-cultural ministry, and so precious few of them in full-time local church ministry, we have to ask: Are women just picking up the ministry positions that men don’t really want? Women have a long history of heeding the call of Christ to make him known near and far, and there have been relatively few barriers to keep them from overseas work. However, if women wish to fill ministry positions within their home countries, the opportunities tend to be limited, unpaid, or for men only.

While I’m not wanting to get into the weeds on gender roles within ministry here, I do believe that we must take a hard look at how ethnocentric our attitudes have become when it comes to women ministering domestically versus overseas. For example, the ESV Bible was translated and overseen by an exclusively male team of 95 scholars and translators. Apparently, women were not invited, so this was not a simple oversight. However, when it comes to women leading bible translation projects in languages other than English or outside the Western Hemisphere, there is scarcely a voice of dissent.  

These are issues of importance not because sexism in church is a hot button issue. They are important because Jesus said that the harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. In fulfilling the command of Christ to make disciples of all ethnicities, the workforce must be as multifaceted and diverse as the world itself is. The goal is not just to have a balanced ministry team, but to give the world — women, children, men, marrieds, singles, widows, minorities, rich, poor, and so on — a chance to hear that Jesus loves them from someone who can effectively live and communicate that truth to them. 

 

*Name changed 

**This story is not taken from one individual per se. It is a combination of many such stories that I have seen and heard from multiple cross-cultural workers. 

Searching for Home After a Global Upbringing

Editor’s Note: The following piece is an excerpt from Lisa McKay’s memoir, Love at the Speed of Email. She first shared it on A Life Overseas many years ago, back in March of 2013. But many of our readers weren’t around then, and I love this story so much that I asked her if we could bring it out of the archives and share it with everyone again. ~Elizabeth Trotter

Love At The Speed Of Email is a memoir – the story of how I met my husband while he was in Papua New Guinea working for a humanitarian organization and I was in Los Angeles working as a stress management trainer. It’s more than a love story, though. It’s a recounting of my struggle to find an answer to the question, “Where’s home?” after being raised in five different countries and then embracing a career that kept me perpetually on the move. I suspect that this struggle to define home is one that those of you who were raised as third culture kids (or who are raising global nomads yourselves) will be all too familiar with.

The section I’m sharing comes from a chapter called Airports and Bookstores. I was twenty-six years old, in Hawaii, and having the time of my life at the first creative writing workshop I’d ever attended when I realized for the first time that I might have a real problem when it came to this concept of home . . .

Borrowing inspiration from the tale of the prodigal son in the Bible, our instructors had told us to write a “coming home” story. We should, we were told, write the prodigal who was us as an adult, coming home to ourselves as a child.

“Pick the clearest recollection you have of home and use that,” they said.

Everyone else reached for a pen or a laptop. I just sat there.

I was still sitting there ten minutes later.

Eventually I went up to the front of the room, to the giant leather-bound book of synonyms that was sitting on a podium, looked up home and wrote down these words: Birthplace. Stability. Dwelling. Hearth. Hearthstone. Refuge. Shelter. Haven. Sanctum.

I went back to my seat and stared past the book of synonyms, past the palm trees standing still under a blanket of midday heat, and out into the hazy blue of an ocean that promised a horizon it never quite delivered.

The list didn’t seem to help much.

Birthplace conjured Vancouver, a city I’d visited only twice, briefly, since we’d left when I was one.

Stability then. Unlike my parents’, this was not a word that could be applied to my childhood. In stark contrast with their agrarian upbringing, I’d spent an awful lot of my time in airports.

Maybe that was it, I thought, wondering whether the sudden spark I felt at the word airport was a glimmer of inspiration or merely desperation.

There was no denying that as a child I’d thought there was a lot of fun to be had in and around airports. More than one home movie shows me and my sister, Michelle, arranging our stuffed animals and secondhand Barbies in symmetrical rows and lecturing them severely about seat belts and tray tables before offering to serve them drinks. When we were actually in airports, we spent many happy hours collecting luggage carts and returning them to the distribution stands in order to pocket the deposit. We were always very disappointed to find ourselves in those boring socialist airports with free trolleys.

In Hawaii, I was tempted to start writing my story about home but didn’t.

“Your clearest memories of home as a child cannot possibly be in an airport,” I scolded myself, still staring past my laptop and out to the white-laced toss and chop of cerulean. “Home is not a topic that deserves flippancy. Work harder. . . . What about dwellings and hearths?”

That year my parents were living in the Philippines. My brother was in Sydney. My sister was in Washington, D.C. The bed I could legitimately call mine resided in Indiana. I had lived none of these places except D.C. as a child, and they were such awkward, lonely years that the thought of going back, even in a story, made me squirm. We lived in Washington, D.C., for three and a half years before moving to Zimbabwe, and what I remember most clearly about that time is that I spent much of it reading.

I’ve been in love with reading since before I can remember. Our family photo albums are peppered with photos of me curled up with books – in huts in Bangladesh, on trains in Europe, in the backseat of our car in Zimbabwe.

I can’t remember my parents reading to us before bed, although they swear they often did – sweet tales about poky puppies and confused baby birds looking for their mothers.

“You were insatiable,” Mum said when I asked her about this once. “No matter how many times I read you a book, you always wanted more.”

“Awwww,” I said, envisioning long rainy afternoons curled up with my mother while she read to me. “You must have spent hours reading to me.”

“I did,” my mother said in a tone that let me know she fully expects me to return the favor one day. “But it was never enough. So I taped myself.”

“What?” I asked.

“I got a tape recorder,” she said. “I recorded myself reading a story – I even put these cute little chimes in there so you’d know when to turn the page. Then, sometimes, I sat you down with the tapes.”

“Nice,” I said in a way that let her know that I didn’t think this practice would get her nominated for the motherly hall of fame.

“You loved it,” she said, completely uncowed. “Plus, I needed a break every now and then. You were exhausting. You never stopped asking questions. You asked thirty-seven questions once during a half-hour episode of Lassie. I counted.”

I can’t remember any of this. My earliest memories of reading are solitary, sweaty ones. They are of lying on the cool marble floor of our house in Bangladesh, book in hand, an overhead fan gently stirring the dense heat while I chipped away at frozen applesauce in a small plastic container. But it’s when we moved from Bangladesh to the States when I was nine that my memories of books, just like childhood itself, become clearer.

Of all the moves I’ve made in my life, this was one of the most traumatic. Abruptly encountering the world of the very wealthy after two years of living cheek by jowl with the world of the very poor, I discovered that I didn’t fit readily into either world. My fourth grade classmates in Washington, D.C., had no framework for understanding where I had been for the last two years – what it was like to ride to church in a rickshaw pulled by a skinny man on a bicycle, to make a game out of pulling three-inch-long cockroaches out of the sink drain while brushing your teeth at night, or to gaze from the windows of your school bus at other children picking through the corner garbage dumps.

I, in turn, lacked the inclination to rapidly absorb and adopt the rules of this new world, a world where your grasp on preteen fashion, pop culture, and boys all mattered terribly. Possibly I could have compensated for my almost total lack of knowledge in these key areas with lashings of gregarious charm, but at nine I lacked that, too. I was not what you would call a sunny child.

So I read instead. I read desperately.

I read pretty much anything I could get my hands on. One of the few good things I could see about living in the States was the ready availability of books. Some weekends Mum and Dad would take us to the local library’s used book sale. Books were a quarter each. I had a cardboard box and carte blanche. On those Saturday mornings I was in heaven.

Like many kids, I suspect, I was drawn to stories of outsiders or children persevering against all odds in the face of hardship. I devoured all of C.S. Lewis’ stories of Narnia and adored the novels of Frances Hodgson Burnett, especially the ones featuring little girls who were raised in India before being exiled to face great hardship in Britain. But I also strayed into more adult territory. I trolled our bookshelves and the bookshelves of family friends, and those bookshelves were gold mines for stories about everything from religious persecution to murder, rape, civil war, child brides, and honor killing.

In retrospect, even at eleven I wasn’t reading largely for pleasant diversion, for fun, for the literary equivalent of eating ice cream in the middle of the day. I was extreme-reading – pushing boundaries – looking to be shocked, scared, thrilled, and taught. I was reading to try to figure out how to make sense of pain.

It is entirely possible that had we remained in Australia throughout my childhood, I would still have spent the majority of these preteen years feeling isolated and misunderstood. After all, in the midst of our mobility I never doubted my parents’ love for me or for each other, but this did not forestall an essential loneliness that was very deeply felt. I suspect that I would still have grown into someone who feels compelled to explore the juxtaposition of shadow and light, someone who is drawn to discover what lies in the dark of life and of ourselves. But I also suspect that the shocking extremes presented by life in Bangladesh and America propelled me down this path earlier, and farther, than I may naturally have ventured.

It was largely books that were my early companions on this journey. They were stories of poverty and struggle, injustice and abuse, violence and debauchery, yes. But they were also threaded through with honor and courage, sacrifice and discipline, character and hope.

Many people seem to view “real life” as the gold standard by which to interpret stories, but I don’t think that does novels justice. For me, at least, the relationship between the real and fictional worlds was reciprocal. These books named emotions, pointed to virtue and vice, and led me into a deeper understanding of things I had already witnessed and experienced myself. They also let me try on, like a child playing dress-up, experiences and notions new to me. They acted as maps, mirrors, and magnifying glasses.

In those lonely childhood years, books also provided refuge. They were havens and sanctums.

Did that make them home?

When the writing exercise ended after half an hour and we were invited to share, I’d come up with only two ideas.

Set the scene in a bookstore. Or set it in an airport.

I hadn’t written a single word.

 

The Mission of Forgiveness

It felt like it was me against the world.

I was mad at the administration of the school for whom I was volunteering for giving me so much work to do even after I had told them it couldn’t be done. I was mad at my teammates for the choices they had made about which direction the ministry should move and how I’d felt unheard in the process. I was mad at my mission board for not stepping in more and coming to our rescue when things blew up.

I was mad at my students for cheating on their midterms, mad at my neighbor for spreading false allegations about me, mad at my coworkers for their unrealistic, unfair expectations and little jabs about still not having fully adapted to the culture. I was mad at those guys who harassed me with lude comments every day when I walked across the field to work. I was mad at the farm crew for leaving so many weeds amongst the corn that had just been planted.

I was mad at my friends and even my church back home who had seemingly moved on with their lives without me. I was mad at my husband for his quick and seemingly thoughtless reply to me that morning. If I’m being honest, I was mad at the whole entire country for the flagrant corruption in both the big city offices and the small rural homes that resulted in so many needless deaths day after day.

There was no safe place where I could go for a thousand miles that did not trigger bitterness, rage, or despair. Not the school, not the home, not the farm, not even the street. After five years, it had all finally caught up with me. I felt so alone, so hopeless. I felt like I had no one to turn to because the way I saw it, every single person in my life owed me an apology and I couldn’t seem to move past that.

When I first moved here, I had to learn how to do things that had been second nature to me in my previous life. I had to learn a new way to cook, a new way to dress, a new way to talk, a new way to drive, a new way to shop, a new way to greet people, a new way to express grief, and a new way to listen. But one of the hardest things I’ve had to learn how to do all over again is forgive.

We are missionaries, and we are Christians; we know what it means to forgive. We have been theoretically doing it our whole lives. So why all of a sudden when we move abroad, do we feel like we got automatically signed up for an unrequested and unending refresher course on this particular topic?

Yes, forgiveness does look and play out differently in different cultures, and that certainly took (and is still taking) some time to get used to. And yes, trying to reconcile what you know and believe about forgiveness while living in a country or community where injustice runs absolutely rampant, can wage wars within your soul. But I believe that there is something deeper, something even more obvious that we might have forgotten. This idea of forgiveness is itself at the very core of our faith and therefore our testimony.

Whether it was in high school youth group or an official pre-field missionary training program, we’ve probably all had some experience fine-tuning the verbal versions of our testimonies. You may have also had the opportunity to take any number of amazing courses that are designed to help prepare you for sharing that testimony in cross-cultural evangelism situations. There are thousands of amazing evangelism tracts, bracelets, crusades, revivals, dramas, games, movies, books, websites, study tools, and more that do a fabulous job of helping us to tell people the story of what Jesus did for us — and for them — on the cross.

No doubt, people need to hear these testimonies alongside of the Word of God, but they also need to see it and experience it for themselves. We cannot preach the good news of Jesus Christ on our mission fields, without also living it out as He did. What more compelling way is there to live out the gospel than to practice that same radical forgiveness?

Jesus didn’t just preach forgiveness; he forgave. Jesus didn’t just speak the word of God; He lived it. He didn’t just say that He loved people; He showed them by dying an excruciatingly painful and completely unjust death on the cross. John 15:13 reminds us, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

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There are many opportunities on the mission field to hold a grudge or to build in resentment. I’m sure you already know that well enough. But the good news is that for every opportunity to plant the seed of bitterness in our hearts, we also have a chance to plant the seeds of wonder, of awe, of hope, of love in our hearts and in the hearts of others.

There is nothing that speaks to the goodness of God like the act of forgiveness. It was through His forgiveness of our sins on the cross that Jesus truly showed us what love is. For it was while we were still sinners that He died for us (Rom 5:8). What kind of love is that? It is the kind of love that leaves people in awe, the kind of love that makes them want to know more, the kind of love that we all want for ourselves but might not know how to find.

Forgiveness is our greatest form of evangelism. It is our loudest testimony to the goodness of God.

Forgiveness says that we believe God’s plans are good, even when our lives and society might seem to say otherwise. Forgiveness says that there is a power that can overcome the deepest and ugliest desires of my flesh. Forgiveness says to someone that they are worthy not because of what they’ve done, but because of who Christ is. Forgiveness says that we trust God to handle this in His way and His time. Forgiveness says that there is another way besides the prison of resentment, walls, bitterness, revenge, and rage. Forgiveness reaches across the divide and bridges the gap that is far too wide for us to cross alone. Forgiveness breaks the chains and grants freedom, and our ability to forgive, by the grace of the Spirit, is just as much our mission as any of the rest of it.

1 Peter 4:12 reminds us, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.”

In order for us live a life that magnifies and glorifies Him and speaks to the kind of forgiveness and freedom that is available through Christ, we must accept that there will constantly be things done to us and around us that will require our forgiveness. The fiery trials and tests are not merely the mosquitos and the food poisoning that plague us on darkest nights, but they are the pain and sorrows that will undoubtedly be inflicted on us by those we serve alongside and by the very people we are here striving to love. This should come as no surprise, because is that not also how it happened for Jesus our Savior? That the very people He walked beside every day and the very people He came to save were the ones who betrayed Him and nailed Him to a cross?

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Take some time and reflect. Have you experienced the same on your mission field? Are there people who have hurt and betrayed you in big ways? Or maybe for you it hasn’t been a series of major events, but rather daily offenses that may have seemed small and manageable at first but that have added up to an avalanche of resentment and bitterness? How is holding onto these offenses affecting you? Affecting your ministry? Affecting your relationships…with God, with your family, with your team, with nationals? What would it look like to forgive? What do you need to trust God with in order to forgive this person? How can you pray for this person? What is He leading you to do in this moment?

Pray and ask God to show you if there is any unforgiveness that is lingering in your heart, and ask for His grace and mercy to forgive. For it is not only your peace that depends on it, but also your testimony; not only your relationship with God that could be at stake, but also theirs.

For more resources on forgiveness, I highly recommend checking out Global Trellis’s courses on Forgiveness and the book “Choosing Forgiveness: Moving From Hurt to Hope.”

How I Fight Anxiety and Serve as a Missionary Anyway

by Abigail Follows

We were home on our first furlough when my husband, Joshua, asked me to drive. I forced a yawn to hide my dismal forebodings.

“I’m a bit tired.”

“I am, too. But it’s not far.”

“I really don’t want to.”

“But you can, Abby.”

“But I can’t!”

I drove us home, angry. Something in me knew my fear wasn’t logical. But the rest of me was sure I was going to drive my whole family into a tree, off a bridge, or into the side of a Dairy Queen.

That night Joshua and I had a heart-to-heart. That’s when I realized I had a giant bully in my life—anxiety, my own personal Goliath. I knew anxiety was keeping me from more than just driving. Fear was affecting everything in my life, including ministry in India.

Over the ten years since that day, I’ve rounded up an arsenal of “smooth stones” that help me stay brave. Here are nine tools I use to fight anxiety and serve as a missionary anyway.

 

1. Avoid Avoiding
For over a year, I avoided driving like the plague. I thought I was more emotionally stable that way. But my “safety bubble” just kept shrinking. I avoided more and more things until I didn’t even want to leave the house.

According to Emma McAdam, who produces Therapy in a Nutshell, avoidance teaches the brain to be anxious. “You think you have to keep running so that it doesn’t catch you,” she writes. [1]  “But I promise if you sit and let it catch you, you’ll find that you can handle it, and that it’s better than running all the time.”

It wasn’t until I stopped avoiding and started facing my fears that I conquered them. That meant leaving the house to drive, shop, and visit people—even when I wanted to hide.

 

2. Check Your Vitamins
Our bodies and minds are complex and connected. Stress and a lack of dietary nutrients can work together to cause anxiety.

Sarah is a nutritionist and former missionary to Chad, Africa. She found herself dealing with anxiety after returning from the field.

“It started after we came back, surprisingly,” she says. “I experienced a lot of anxiety.” Although Sarah ran a nutrition clinic in Chad, at first she didn’t connect nutritional deficiencies to her own experience. “It lasted for a couple of years,” she says. Finally, Sarah began taking a simple multivitamin. Her anxiety improved dramatically.

Stress increases the body’s need for certain nutrients. But the food supply in a country may lack key nutrients that play a part in mental health—iodine, B12, B6, Omega-3, zinc, magnesium, and vitamin D are just a few. Some countries fortify foods like cereal and bread with these and other nutrients. Some don’t. Our whole family tested low on several nutrients after about four years overseas.

Now we take multivitamins. I also take magnesium, a mineral used by the body to calm the stress response, and often found to be depleted in people facing a lot of stress.[2] Talk to your healthcare provider for help determining what supplements you might need.

 

3. Exercise
Exercise was my husband’s first suggestion for fighting fear. At first, my anxious brain was offended. But then I realized he was right—exercise works, and is one way I can practice self-care.

Exercise combats anxiety in many ways.[3] It uses both sides of the body together, which helps the brain communicate with itself. It signals to the amygdala, the part of the brain most involved in anxiety, that you have run away from The Danger. It helps the body use up and burn off stress hormones, and it increases endorphins.

But I haven’t always lived in countries where it’s safe for a woman to go for a jog. As expats, we sometimes have to get creative when weather, space, time, and safety concerns limit exercise opportunities. During the Covid pandemic, my family even used the stairs in our house as “our mountain,” and we gave ourselves a daily stair-climbing challenge.

The number one thing that helped me exercise more is realizing how much better it makes me feel. That was more motivating to me than thinking about how I look or what I “should” do.

 

4. Check Your Circadian Rhythm
Dr. Neil Nedley, MD, has done extensive research on the causes of anxiety and depression. He names an off-balance circadian rhythm as a contributor to both anxiety and depression.[4]

As missionaries, we frequently change time zones. That means we deal with more jet lag than your average person. If you find yourself happier and more alert the later it gets, you might be dealing with a circadian rhythm problem. Some people call this day-night reversal, and it can leave you feeling jumpy, gloomy, and lethargic all at the same time.

Dr. Nedley recommends exposing your eyes to bright light early in the morning, either through a “happy lamp” or light therapy glasses or with the natural morning sunlight. He also recommends avoiding all screens within 1-4 hours of bedtime, since the blue light in screens naturally signals the brain to wake up. Just avoiding screens in the evening has helped me keep my circadian rhythm in a good groove.

 

5. Evaluate Your Relationship with Technology
Take any normal human being and place them far away from friends and family in a totally new environment. Add stress.

Now offer them a way to connect with people, information, and entertainment instantly. Who wouldn’t choose to spend a lot of time on their phone or computer? The problem is, too much technology can be addictive and aggravate anxiety.[5]

Recently, my family came up with a few rules to make sure we have healthy technology boundaries. Among these are no phones before family devotion in the morning and no phones after dinner. We use alternative forms of entertainment and take one day a week as a low-tech day. These simple steps have helped us keep technology in its rightful role as a useful tool instead of a way to escape reality.

 

6. Learn Calming Techniques
Sometimes our bodies get so used to feeling anxious that they signal danger where there is none. Calming techniques are a great tool to lower acute stress—the kind of anxiety that is overwhelming you right this minute.

Calming techniques work by activating the parasympathetic system[6], which regulates the fight-or-flight response. Some techniques include observing your environment, observing the way your own body feels, doing manual tasks such as knitting or washing dishes, playing with your kids, being in nature, and journaling. You can also try “softening your eyes,” which is basically staring at nothing/zoning out.

Slow, deep breathing might seem like something too simple to help, but it’s impossible to breathe in this way and stay scared. Try breathing in for a count of eight, holding it for a count of four, and breathing out for a count of eight. You can even do this through the day when you’re not panicking as a preventative measure.

 

7. Try CBT
Nope, it’s not a supplement. CBT stands for Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.

Sometimes unhelpful thought patterns are behind anxiety. In CBT, unhelpful thoughts, or “cognitive distortions,” are purposefully challenged and replaced with truer, more helpful thoughts.

When I was first language learning, I sometimes felt paralyzed by social anxiety. Years later, I realized that I often told myself that making mistakes is horrible and that I can’t stand feeling embarrassed. These thoughts were so automatic I barely noticed them—I only noticed their emotional effects. Thinking differently can feel awkward, but after purposefully changing my thoughts, my emotions soon followed. I was able to give myself some grace and learn our host culture’s language, one mistake at a time.

A couple of helpful books for changing your thought patterns are SOS: Help for Emotions, and Telling Yourself the Truth. It can also be helpful to work with a counselor trained in CBT.

 

8. Tackle a Specific Stressor
Is there something specific that is triggering anxiety for you? Try keeping an anxiety log, where you journal a few lines every time you feel anxious. Try to record the situations surrounding the anxiety, as well as the specific anxious thoughts you are having.

Once, when I did this exercise, I realized I felt more anxious (surprise!) when my kids bickered. Now that I knew the specific problem I was facing, I made a plan to tackle it. For me, that meant reading a couple of parenting books, talking to other godly moms, praying about it, and thinking creatively about the problem. Just having a plan gave me hope and helped me feel more capable.

 

9. Be Kind To Yourself
Growth takes time. This is true in our walk with Christ, our effectiveness in ministry, and our emotional intelligence. If you want to win the fight against anxiety, expect to lose a few battles along the way. Failure isn’t a sign that you’re doomed—it’s a sign that you’re trying!

One thing that has helped me is remembering I’m not alone. Christ promises to walk with me, and His strength is made perfect in my weakness. Time and again, anxiety tells me I “just can’t do it.” Maybe I can’t, but Christ in me can! I may not even be willing to fight fear some days, but if I’m willing to be willing, Jesus can work with that.

 

Shrinking Giant
The “Goliath” of anxiety has been a recurring character in the story God is writing of my life. But by God’s grace, that Goliath is shrinking, becoming less and less powerful and important. I’ve learned how to support my body and mind, and I’m learning to trust God with my worries and feelings.

Anxiety is still a bossy bully. But I’m learning to obey Jesus, who will be with me even to the ends of the earth.

As you are ministering to others, don’t forget to let Christ give you hope, strength, and courage in your deepest need.

Even if that deepest need is the Goliath of anxiety.

 

Sources:

[1] https://therapynutshell.com/skill-5-how-avoidance-makes-it-worse/
[2] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7761127/
[3] https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/can-exercise-help-treat-anxiety-2019102418096
[4] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5103329/
[5] https://centerforanxietydisorders.com/how-much-is-too-much-technology-screen-time-and-your-mental-health/#:~:text=increasing%20screen%20time%20was%20generally,diagnosed%20with%20anxiety%20or%20depression.%E2%80%9D
[6] https://canyonvista.com/activating-parasympathetic-nervous-system/

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Abigail Follows has lived on three continents and listened to the life stories of friends in three languages. Despite struggling with anxiety, she has served with God’s help as a cross-cultural missionary since 2010. Abigail believes that courage is not the absence of fear but the willingness to face fear. She writes about what God can do through brave obedience in her book, Hidden Song of the HimalayasAbigail lives wherever God leads with her husband, two energetic children, and cat, Protagonist. You can get to know her at www.abigailfollows.com.

The “F” Word

by Julie Martinez

Freaked out. Frustrated. Fear. Failure. These are some of the F words that we have been slinging around the house lately. We have also been slinging around the F word Frittata, but that is a different story. We are in the process of transition, and it is creating moments of drama and tension. My son, who was born in Honduras and has lived in five different countries, is now returning to America to attend university and emotions are running high.

This is a boy who has grown up in airports. He can navigate any airport anywhere. From the time that he was three months old he has been flying across the world. I am afraid that when he remembers his childhood, he will tell stories of terrible airplane food and rushing through airport gates laden with carry-ons. Or will he talk about a lifetime of good-byes? Of constantly downsizing our lives to fit into two suitcases?

This is a boy who has lived an unconventional life. He knows how to barter in local markets like an Arab trader. He can hop on a motorcycle fearlessly and navigate unknown roads in third world countries. He is unique. He has been chased by elephants; he has climbed volcanoes; and he has stood where the Indian Ocean meets the Atlantic. He has seen the world and much of it on the road less traveled and all before he was 18.

So, how does he transition to the USA? How does he navigate the world of fraternities, finals, football, fast food, and other Americanisms? My son is a third culture kid, which means he is not fully American, nor has he taken on the culture of his host country. He has created a third culture—a culture unique to him. He travels to America as a hidden immigrant. As one who speaks the language and looks the part but is missing social cues and cultural meanings.

He knows this and he is fearful — fearful of failure — and is freaked out. His F word is Fear. Fear is paralyzing, sends people into tailspins. Fear is seemingly depriving him of oxygen and causing him to make questionable decisions. My F word, on the other hand, is frustration. I am frustrated because I can’t help him and truthfully, he won’t let me, which also frustrates me. He will be 18 soon and naturally wants to navigate life on his own. And the reality is, I can’t fully help him—he sees the world through a different lens than I do and he is going to have to figure it out.

Living overseas is wonderful, but there are prices to be paid, and they are paid by all. God calls us and He equips us . . . but there are aspects of this cross-cultural life that aren’t easy nor are there easy answers. I wish I could wrap up this story with a three-fold solution. There isn’t one. The only thing that I can offer is that maybe it is time for a different word. Not an F word, but a G word, and that is grace. I pray for this G word in my son’s life — that God will cover him in His grace and that God in His grace and mercy will lead him and that His grace will carry him in the hard places and through the mistakes and the hard times that are inevitable.

What about you? What carries you through your F seasons? How does grace meet you in weakness and uncertainty?

Originally published June 21, 2013

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Julie Martinez has served on the field for 25 years where she raised her two children. She has lived in Honduras, Chile, Zambia, and Cambodia. She currently works at Lee University where she is an Assistant Professor and the Director of the Intercultural Studies Program.

Something New is Being Built

by Kate

“Where is that sound coming from?” I asked my roommates as we all woke, jet-lagged, on day two in our new country. The construction had started early. We stared out our kitchen window trying to locate the sound, but all we caught glimpse of was a dry, brown field.

The next day, we awoke to the same noise and gathered in my roommate’s room to see if her window gave a better view. All we got was a different glimpse of the same field. The loud noise persisted for weeks, as did our search for the source.

There were no answers, only our silly grumblings about a noise that caused annoyance and loss of sleep. Our grumbling soon dissipated, and we accepted the new life we would be living.

It wasn’t long before I began walking my Middle Eastern neighborhood. I’ve always loved walking. Give me a path around a lake or just a sidewalk, and I’ll put on a podcast and put my feet to the pavement for as long as I can. These walks soon became daily and felt almost holy.

One day, maybe a month in, I decided to go for a stroll around my new neighborhood. As I turned the corner, I saw some old wood scattered on the sidewalk and street. Next to it was a big pile of concrete waiting to be mixed. I looked up at the house and saw men tearing down part of the side of it. It was clear they were preparing the way for something new to be built.

“Huh, that’s how I feel,” I said to myself, my eyes puffy from the tears I had just cried about missing my family and feeling unknown in this foreign land. “So this is where the noise is coming from,” I thought. It turns out that the call to prayer isn’t the only thing that can be heard at a distance in a concrete jungle; you can also hear construction.

On that day in July of 2019 when I first found the source of the noise and felt God whispering, “This is what I’m doing in you,” all I knew was what I was losing, what was being torn down.

Later as I stood on the big balcony of my rooftop apartment, despite hearing the loud noise, I thought, “This is the house I have chosen, and I love it and wouldn’t trade it for the world.” And it’s the same with this strange life I have chosen to live. I wouldn’t trade it for the world, but I hate the loss . . . and the tearing down? It’s painful.

The truth is, while trainings and courses are beneficial, they can only prepare you so much for living abroad. It’s not until you have a one-way ticket that things get real. And I guess in some ways I’ve numbed the pain of loss. It’s easier to just pass by and say, “That’s annoying,” and run off to a friend’s quiet apartment. But the reality is that noise still is there, and I know it.

I never could have imagined the pain of five friends and family dying while I was overseas, crying on my couch alone as I watch their zoom funerals. Or the loneliness that comes from someone asking how I am doing and putting on a brave face because I wonder how they’ll judge me if I answer honestly. It’s like suddenly in this new life I don’t belong anywhere. I hate watching my best friends’ kids grow up over FaceTime. I hate seeing my mom bawl and not want to let go of me as I walk through security at the airport.

I feel loss as I walk the streets of my desert city, staring at the ground so as to not stare in the eyes of men, making sure I’m wearing loose clothing and cardigans that are long enough. I miss the fun, short-sleeved Kate I can be in America, and I feel as though I am somehow more silenced than I have ever been in my life. I could never have been prepared for my body being overtaken with sickness, lying in the hospital relying on an IV and medicine to bring my body back to health. They told me before moving overseas that all of me — the good, bad, and ugly — would be exposed living abroad and guess what? They were right.

It’s almost as if, when I asked where the loud noise in my neighborhood was coming from, so too I asked God as I cried myself to sleep, “Where is this coming from? Why is this so painful? Is this even worth it?”

But maybe most impactful was the loss of comfort in how I knew and engaged with God. Small groups and worship nights? Forget it. Being completely immersed in a different culture and religion forced the loss of knowing and believing all the right answers. I even sometimes lost the belief that God was good and had my best in mind. That He was out for my joy and that His power could change my neighbors’ and friends’ hearts. As I sat with friends who are refugees, and as they told me stories through tears about the bombings and rapes they have experienced, I lost any ability to ignore evil in this world.

Just as my roommates and I complained about the noise, all I could do was fall on my face before God and cry and question — until that too, exhausted me, and it seemed easier to ignore it all.

But remember that concrete waiting to be mixed next to the wood that was torn down?

About a year after passing by that house, God answered a prayer for my friend and me to be invited into that exact home. As we sat eating dates and drinking chai, our neighbor told us that they were building an elevator onto their house for their elderly parents.

And in that moment all I could think of was, “Something new is being built.”

The loss, the grief, the pain, and the tears may always persist.

And something new is being built. The invitation to grieve the losses has also been an invitation to experience God adding new parts to me, to my friendship with Him. I would have never known what was being added unless I got up close and went into the home of our neighbor. I would never have known this story if I hadn’t asked what was happening or seen the wood on the ground.

So too it has been with my loss. The easy route is to skip the street with the construction. To hear about it, complain about it, and become numb to it.

That is one way to live.

But I’ve come to learn that I should always say yes to God’s invitation. My “no” always leads to missing out — on knowing God in deeper, life changing ways. So I have a choice.

Will I come face to face with my loss and also come face to face with God — who is deeply acquainted with all my ways and is out for my good and joy more than I can imagine? Or will I refuse to answer that invitation?

Spring came around and one day my roommates looked out our kitchen window. We saw a green field and flowers blooming.

There is loss and there is new life.

May I be faithful to accept God’s invitation into both.

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

Until she moved to the Middle East three years ago, Kate had always lived near Washington, D.C. Kate takes her faith and fun seriously and is eager to invite others into both. She can often be found sitting on a cushion on the floor drinking chai with friends, fumbling her way around town in Arabic, or learning what it means to rest well while living abroad. With a big sports history in her past, she will always say yes to shooting hoops or doing anything active outside with friends. She loves connecting with friends new and old — you can find her on Instagram at @myfriend.kate.

Aging Parents from the Field (Survey)

Last week Global Trellis shared the following post about a survey we are conducting to create resources to help you when you have aging parents and are on the field. We’re surveying those of you who have already walked this path because we want to glean from your wisdom and experiences.

Reading through the responses thus far, I’ve been reminded how heavy phase of life is. How much you love your parents and how every family path will be different. So, thank you in advance if you are able to help with the survey. For all of us, let’s pray for our brothers and sisters walking this path right now. Here’s the brief into, then you can see the questions, and take the survey. We’ll share the results!



I remember the first time I felt the angsty feeling of anticipation coming up the escalator at Denver International Airport. My long trek across the ocean, through customs, and on one last final airport train was nearly over, and I was almost to my people

Over the years, who greeted me changed as sisters may or may not be in town and nieces were born; but the one constant? My parents. It was all I could do not to shove people on the escalator as I craned my neck, hoping for a first glance.

And then one year, as I practically ran towards them, it happened: my parents looked shockingly older than the last time I’d seen them. They began to resemble my grandparents more than my mental picture of my parents. Though still in good health at the time, I had a stronger sense than I’d ever had that my parents would one day, Lord willing, be the old-old and not the young-old. What would be my role in helping them? How would I navigate it with my sisters? Would my parents be a factor in my leaving the field?

If you stay on the field long enough, you will probably wonder similar questions. Last fall, one of you contacted me asking for resources to help with aging parents. I wasn’t aware of many resources outside of anecdotal stories and the fact that when I mention the topic, it was a familiar scenario as cross-cultural workers entered middle age.

With this in mind, Global Trellis decided to tap into the collective wisdom from those who have already walked this path and conduct a survey.

This is where you come in. We need your help.

We’ll take your survey answers and use them to create a resource to help fellow cross-cultural workers. Below, I’ll share the questions on the survey. Please share with those you know who have walked this path.


Aging Parents Survey Intro

Hello friend, this survey is for those who have already walked the path (or are walking it right now) with aging parents. Several people have contacted us wanting help with this significant (and weighty) question: Do you have any resources to help with aging parents for cross-cultural workers?

Thank you for taking the time for this survey. You’ll notice that this survey is rather extensive, so as a thank you, 10 of you will be drawn for a $10 amazon gift card.

We appreciate your time and help. Amy for the Global Trellis Team

The questions:

1. Briefly share your situation with aging parents.

2. What options did you consider for you and/or your parents?

3. What additional factors were involved as you considered your options?

4. What did you do from the field to help your parents (if anything)?

5. How did other people near your parents help you or the situation?

6. What do you wish other people had done?

7. Do you have any tips for communicating and working with your siblings?

8. How did you honor your relationship while on the field? Any suggestions for doing this?

9. How did you navigate the pain around your parents aging and the shift in relationship?

10. If you’re with an organization: How did your organization help you?

11. If you’re with an organization: What do you wish your organization had done?

12. Do you know of any resources for helping with aging parents while on the field?

On behalf of the many you will help, thank you!

What Do You Share in Your Newsletters?

by Alyson Rockhold

When I first started sending newsletters to my supporters, I envisioned sharing messages of happiness and hope – the kinds of topics that would let me present a polished, pretty version of my life.

Like a social media star tilting the camera to capture the perfect pose while blocking out the heap of dirty clothes in the background, I had hoped to gloss over the messy parts of my life. Part of it was a heightened concern that I present my neighbors and host country in a positive light, but most of it was just my stubborn pride.

But God had other plans. He didn’t want me to be fake with my supporters any more than He wanted me to be fake with Him. Every time I sat down to write, words like “lonely,” “sad,” and “uncertain” kept coming out. I would start writing about teaching English and end up sharing how stupid I felt when I mixed up one letter of a Swahili word and told an old man that I was returning his underwear instead of his bottle (chupi vs. chupa).

Then I read Exodus 20:25 where God tells the Israelites, “If you make an altar of stones for me, do not build it with dressed stones, for you will defile it if you use a tool on it.” What a revelation: God wants His altar built with jagged edges and uneven surfaces. He doesn’t want imperfections glazed over: He wants them on display!

Before I could show my imperfections to my supporters, I needed to lay them before the Lord. So I brought God my sorrow and anger, without sanding off my raw edges or covering over my rough emotions. I stopped trying to pretend that I had all the answers or that my faith negated my fury. I leaned into the belief that God accepts and loves us just as we are.

Knowing that God loved and accepted me helped me feel more comfortable being real with my supporters. Of course, people are not as loving and accepting as God, but I realized that’s no reason to hide my true self from them. When I was real with other people, it gave them the courage to be real right back to me. I learned that it takes courage to be vulnerable. And it also gives others courage when we’re vulnerable with them.

I had people tell me that they felt stupid sharing their “first world problems” with me. It broke my heart that they were scared that I would judge them. But somehow sharing my weaknesses and imperfections gave them permission to share theirs with me.

When we bring our messy, imperfect lives before the Lord, He declares, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9a). What amazing news: in Christ, our weaknesses are celebrated and embraced as conduits of God’s power!

And the benefits of being real about the messy parts of our lives don’t end there. As Jacqui Jackson writes, “When we give up the facade and the filters, and the perfectly scripted posts, we welcome back intimacy with our mate, with our family, with ourselves, and with our Maker.”

So I will join with Paul in declaring that “I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me” (2 Corinthians 12:9b). And I’ll include the hard, messy parts of missions in my newsletters while also being careful that the stories I do share are mine to tell.

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

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

Take a Look Ahead (or Behind) through the Lens of Expectations

I like making lists. I like asking questions. I like making lists of questions. And that’s what I’ve done here on the topic of expectations for working cross-culturally.

We all set out on the journey abroad with high expectations. Of course we do. Without those expectations we wouldn’t begin. But based on the realities we encounter, or on the competing requirements of others, are our expectations too high? It’s not that we should lower them all, or jettison them altogether. Instead we should aim to recognize and understand them, have conversations about them, and modify them when necessary. There’s much to suss out along the way.

When contemplating the questions below, understand that the purpose is to identify what you expect—as in what you think, believe, or assume will happen, not what you hope, want, wish, would like, need, demand, pray for, desire, fear, or know (though they may overlap with your expectations). So if you read a question and want to respond with “I can’t know that,” then remember that that’s not what’s being asked for.

Inspired by the research and writing of Sue Eenigenburg, Robynn Bliss, and Andrea Sears (which I discussed last month), I can think of a number of ways for utilizing this list. The most obvious is for new candidates readying for cross-cultural work, to ask themselves these questions to consider aspects of their move that they’ve never considered before. Comparing answers with teammates, family members, agencies, and church representatives would be helpful as well—and could help head off later disappointments, misunderstandings, and conflicts before they occur.

Future workers could also share their expectations with veterans in the field, or with those who have returned from overseas. This could allow them to hear from those with experience in dealing with too high—or too low—expectations.

I could see using these in a team-building (or team-understanding) exercise, or as discussion starters for future cross-cultural workers to get to know each other. Each person could choose a few questions, or draw some from a hat, and use them as conversation starters.

For those already on the field, there is always a future ahead with many unknowns, even after many of these questions are already behind them, and thinking about the expectations they still hold could be insightful.

They could also look at these questions to think back on their past assumptions, comparing them to what actually has come to pass—or comparing them to how their expectations have changed.

They can ask themselves how disappointments have affected their well-being and their relationships with others and with God. And they can consider the effects of having not expected enough. Those could then produce lessons they could share with new workers coming after them.

And the cycle continues.

So here’s my list. Use it however you see fit. I don’t expect every question to apply to you, but I do expect that some will . . . and I hope and pray they’ll be helpful.

What are my expectations?

  1. When will I depart?
  2. What training or orientation will I go through?
  3. What kind of visa will I need?
  4. What will I need to do to get and keep a visa?
  5. What will my official role be in the country?
  6. What will the minimum financial support necessary be for me?
  7. What will my financial support level be?
  8. How long will it take to raise support?
  9. How consistent will my financial support be?
  10. What kind of response will I get from supporters for one-time or special financial requests?
  11. What financial responsibility will I have to my sending agency?
  12. How will I handle previously acquired debt?
  13. What salary (or personal-discretion funds) will I have?
  14. How much control will I have over ministry funds?
  15. What will the cost of living be?
  16. How favorable (or unfavorable) will the exchange rate be?
  17. In what kind of setting will I live (rural, urban, etc.)?
  18. What specific country, area, or city will I live in?
  19. What will be the location of my work?
  20. Will the location of my work change?
  21. What kind of housing will I have?
  22. How close will I live to my teammates?
  23. How often will I move?
  24. Will I have a housekeeper or other domestic helper?
  25. Will team members provide babysitting or other childcare?
  26. How will my home be used for ministry?
  27. What will I use for transportation?
  28. What will my standard of living be?
  29. How much will my education, preparation, training, and past experiences prepare me?
  30. How easily will I embrace the culture?
  31. How much will I fit in to the culture?
  32. How will the local people receive me?
  33. How much will culture shock/stress affect me?
  34. How long will culture shock/stress last?
  35. How easy will it be to get items I’m used to in my home culture?
  36. How will I celebrate holidays?
  37. How will I acclimate to the weather?
  38. How will I adjust to the food?
  39. What will my diet look like?
  40. What kind of food will I eat at home?
  41. How often will I eat out?
  42. How long will it take to develop relationships with local people?
  43. How close will my friendships be with nationals?
  44. Will I have a best friend, and if so, who will it be?
  45. What will my work responsibilities be?
  46. What people group will I work with?
  47. How will I partner with other teams, agencies, or workers from other denominations?
  48. How will I partner with local churches/believers?
  49. What will a new church plant look like?
  50. What role will I and my family play in a church plant?
  51. What methods will I use for outreach?
  52. What kind of work will I do?
  53. What physical needs will I work to alleviate?
  54. What will be my balance between meeting physical and spiritual needs?
  55. How will I integrate aspects of the host culture in presenting the gospel and in developing church practices?
  56. What will my typical day look like?
  57. What will my typical week look like?
  58. How long will it take to complete the projects I have planned?
  59. How will government restrictions affect my work?
  60. What will my supporters, my church, and my sending agency want me to accomplish?
  61. What will be the results of my work?
  62. How fruitful will my work be?
  63. When and to whom will I hand off my work?
  64. How will I define success?
  65. Where will I do language learning?
  66. What method will I use for language learning?
  67. How long will it take to learn the language?
  68. How many languages will I need to learn?
  69. What level of fluency will I achieve?
  70. How difficult will it be for me to learn the language?
  71. What language will I use for my work?
  72. What language will my personal worship be in?
  73. If single, will I date and pursue marriage?
  74. If I have children, how will living overseas affect them?
  75. How will my children’s faith develop?
  76. What involvement will my children have in the ministry?
  77. What kinds of relationships will my children develop?
  78. How will my children be educated?
  79. What relationship/interaction will my children have with my home culture?
  80. What will my children do after graduating from high school?
  81. How will I help my children make the transition to college if they attend?
  82. How large will my family be?
  83. How big will our team be?
  84. How will we go about adding new team members?
  85. What individual roles will different teammates have?
  86. How dependent will team members be on each other?
  87. Will the roles of married and single team members differ, and if so, how?
  88. Will male/female roles differ on my team, and if so, how?
  89. Will husband and wife roles differ on my team, and if so, how?
  90. How will team decisions be made?
  91. How will we handle team conflict?
  92. Who will oversee my work?
  93. What input will I have in agency decisions?
  94. What kind of personal boundaries/privacy will I be able to maintain?
  95. How much personal autonomy will I have?
  96. How, and how often, will I communicate with supporters?
  97. How openly will I be able to communicate with my supporters?
  98. How many will read my newsletters, prayer emails, etc.?
  99. What kind of prayer support will I have?
  100. How much communication will I get from supporters?
  101. How involved will my home church be?
  102. How often will representatives from my church and agency visit?
  103. What will happen during church/agency visits?
  104. How often will I host short-term teams?
  105. What will short-term-team trips look like (housing, projects, logistics, etc.)?
  106. What steps will I follow to make personal/family decisions?
  107. Will I be able to express any political views?
  108. How will I balance ministry/family/personal time?
  109. How many vacation days will I have?
  110. What will I do when I need to take a break, to rest, or to get away?
  111. What hobbies and personal interests will I engage in?
  112. What opportunities will I have for continuing education?
  113. Will I be able to pursue professional development?
  114. Will there be opportunities for professional advancement?
  115. How will I determine God’s will?
  116. How will God communicate with me?
  117. How often will I experience miracles?
  118. How will I practice my personal spiritual disciplines?
  119. What will my prayer life be like?
  120. How, and with whom, will I have weekly worship?
  121. How will my faith change?
  122. What will spiritual warfare look like?
  123. What risks will I face?
  124. How safe will I be?
  125. What will I, my family, and my team do if threatened with physical persecution or violence?
  126. What sacrifices will I need to make?
  127. What will be my capacity to handle change?
  128. What will be my biggest challenge?
  129. How resilient will I be?
  130. How will my and my family’s health be?
  131. What will local medical care be like?
  132. Will I travel outside the country for health needs?
  133. What member care will I receive?
  134. What self care will I practice?
  135. What will I do if I experience symptoms of depression or other mental illness?
  136. How would my team, agency, or church respond to finding out about my experiencing mental illness?
  137. Who will I be able to share with with complete openness and honesty?
  138. How will I deal with disappointment and failure?
  139. What will I do if I feel overwhelmed?
  140. How will any previous trauma affect my life abroad?
  141. How would I address moral failings in my life?
  142. How would my team, agency, or church respond to finding out about any moral failings in my life?
  143. What temptations will I face?
  144. How will I handle temptations?
  145. What kind of personal accountability will I have?
  146. What rules/practices will I have concerning alcohol and tobacco?
  147. What rules/practices will I have concerning the internet?
  148. How will my family at home respond to my being away overseas?
  149. How will my relationships with family back home be affected?
  150. How often will family from home visit?
  151. What events will happen with my family members back home while I’m away?
  152. Will I be able to travel back home for family events there, such as births, illnesses, funerals, emergencies?
  153. When and for how long will I have home service?
  154. How will reverse culture shock affect me (and my family)?
  155. What kind of send-offs and greetings will I get when traveling?
  156. What opportunities will I have to speak at supporting churches?
  157. How long will I stay abroad?
  158. What would cause me to leave the field?
  159. How will the decision be made for me to leave the field?
  160. What kind of work will I do if I leave the field?
  161. How will I fit in with my home church when I return?
  162. How long will my teammates stay?
  163. How will I prepare for retirement?
  164. How will I change while living overseas?
  165. How will things back home change while I’m away?
  166. What legacy will I leave behind?

[photo: “Mr. W. MacDougall chief Air Observer & Miss J. Grahame spotting,” from State Library of Victoria, used under a Creative Commons license]