The Hidden Super-Stars of Missions

 

I coach new missionaries as they prepare to go overseas. I’ve found I can often predict how quickly they’ll be able to raise support based on one crucial factor: whether they have an advocate who will come alongside them.

What do I mean by an advocate? Let me explain.

Raising support has got to be one of the most daunting experiences in any missionary’s life. So God’s called me to India, but I need you to fork over some cash so I can do it. Sound good? Awesome. What can I put you down for?

Let’s hope it doesn’t come out exactly like that, but it’s what missionaries dread. Raising financial partners has extraordinary joys, but it also comes with dark lows. It’s incredibly intimidating. Dozens – maybe hundreds – of friends ghosting their calls, emails that don’t get replies, events where no one shows up. It can be one of the most demoralizing experiences in a person’s life.

Who can turn that whole experience around? An advocate. 

A missionary advocate is someone who enthusiastically comes alongside a missionary and says, “Let’s get that support raised!” 

The Springs in Missouri is a church that has sent out several homegrown missionaries in the past two decades. All those missionaries pointed to Ken and Tracy Coleman as vital in making that happen, so I decided I needed to talk to these super-star advocates.

Tracy told me, “When missionaries are raising support, we invite a big group to our house. We let the missionary tell their story. Then we share what donating to missions has done for us personally. We explain how God has blessed us to be part of what God is doing overseas.”

She added, “We challenge people, ‘This is what God is calling The Springs to. This missionary is a tool for that to happen. How can we get them to the mission field? How can we support them in other ways?”

Friends, this is a missionary’s dream scenario. It helps the missionary to know he’s not alone. It helps create true partnerships in missions. And it takes away all the stress of asking for funding. 

When a church is too busy or distracted to pay attention to an upcoming missionary, an advocate steps in and rattles some chains. When a missionary is overwhelmed by planning a large dinner, an advocate rallies the troops to make it happen. And when the missionary is depressed and despairing that she’s reached the end of her contacts and has no idea how she’ll raise the final 30%, that advocate is her cheerleader, praying for her and brainstorming fresh ideas.

Maybe this advocate isn’t just one person but a group of people – like a home group or Bible study group. Even better!

And once that missionary has deployed overseas (or in stateside service), that advocate keeps in touch with him. She’s the one who makes sure the rest of the church knows when there’s something big to pray for. When the missionary comes home on furlough, the advocate is the one who organizes housing and a car for the missionary to use. She prompts the missions committee to buy a few gift cards. She communicates with church leaders to find opportunities for the missionary to speak. 

I cannot overstate the power of a missionary advocate.

Maybe you have a burning passion to see the gospel go to the nations, but God has called you to stay in your home country. Besides praying and giving, what can you do? Perhaps God is calling you to be an advocate for your missionary. 

An important note from Jonathan, Elizabeth, and Marilyn

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

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

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

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

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

$50
Hats: Reflections on Life as a Wife, Mother, Homeschool Teacher, Missionary, and More, by Elizabeth Trotter

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

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Both Hats and Serving Well

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Hats, Serving Well, and Between Worlds, by Marilyn Gardner

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

All for ONE,
Jonathan Trotter

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When Reviving Doesn’t Look Like Reviving

Want to know the irony of this post?

I was sick on Sunday. Well, it started Saturday evening with purging the contents of my stomach. To be repeated at 3 a.m., 4 a.m., 5 a.m., and 8 a.m. At which point I got up and laid on the couch for the remainder of the day (except for the times I had to scare the squirrel off the bird feeder and throw up again. #Priorities.)

Monday I felt weak, but returning to the land of the living. Thoughts turned to work and of the week’s theme and of the post I wanted to write about reviving. About how God is in the business of reviving. Reviving bodies, stories, even history.

Just look at Hannah made fun of for infertility and how God met her in her sadness.

Just look at Moses who blew it when he killed the Egyptian and how God met him in the wilderness.

Just look at Mary and Martha who were so confused when Jesus didn’t show up and he not only could handle their anger and confusion, he could bring their brother back to life.

Just look at the woman who had bled for years and the ways God knew it wasn’t just her body that needed reviving, it was her spirit too.

Yes, our God is a God who revives. He brings back to life. He restores. He gives new life and energy.

Though I like to be instantly well from an illness, I was experiencing reviving.

I tend to see metaphors everywhere. There is always a lesson behind the ordinary. The common is laced with deeper meaning. Which is a lovely way to live until I wonder what God is doing in the living metaphor that is my life.

Tuesday I was the opposite of revived. I was weak, and foggy in the brain, and wondering what God wanted to show me about reviving . . . because I was either missing the lesson OR a bit off track on how He looks at reviving.

I sipped 7-up, the drink of the ill, no interest in food or energy to move.

{Maybe this is just for children of the 70s in America, but does anyone else associate 7-up or Sprite and illness? This is how I know I’m really sick: I sip 7-up.}

As I sipped, I wondered how much I have confused the way God looks at reviving with how America—my home culture—looks at prosperity. Revival looks like a graph with the line going up to the right. It might be a slow and steady incline, or it might go sharply up, but revival is always up. It’s the underdog winning. It’s the music crescendoing at the touching part of the movie. It’s the electricity being turned on at just the right moment.

Or is it?

What does revival look like when the visa doesn’t come through or the diagnosis is not good or the heat will not end, ever?

Or your children are not adjusting well. Or they are and you are not.

What does revival look like when the financial support is dwindling or the assignment that was perfect on paper is more like a nightmare in real life?

Or the husband you thought would be here . . . isn’t.

What then?

Maybe being revived can sometimes be straight and simple, like going on a walk and clearing our heads and souls, filling them up with Jesus. But maybe it can also be messy and complex, winding this way and that. Revived for the moment, on a level that doesn’t deny the reality we face but is not defined by it, and doesn’t remove the deep sadness or exhaustion.

I’m still waiting to feel better. To not wince at the smell of food. To not wander around trying to think a thought. But even in this state, Jesus has revival for me, and, you.

When have you experienced revival that might not have looked like revival?

This post originally appeared on Velvet Ashes. Thankfully this past Saturday I did not throw up :).

To the Ones Who Are Tuning Out

 

I recently hit a bit of a wall, so to speak. Maybe this wall is one for the mid-termers, the ones who have been in a place long enough to know intricately the unique beauties and breakdowns. Or maybe this wall is a seasonal one, with which many of you will resonate no matter your length of days away from your home country.

This was my wall: I could not hear another American friend describe their multi-ten-thousand-dollar kitchen renovation. I could not hear another family member talk of the fifth massive camper they have now bought. I could not hear of the extended holidays and vacations and gadgets and gear for another hobby and the cost of inflation and soaring real estate prices and all of the other American things… not anymore.

When my friends and family would start to talk about them, my brain would shut down, I would mumble “mmhmm”-type responses, and afterwards, go back to my room alone to cry. I realized that this was not the mature or godly response, but I seemed unable to change it.

Why the tears? It has taken me some time to understand, and maybe I am still processing. But, in our seventh year on this field, in this particular place, I am keenly noticing the gap between our life and the lives of most of our American friends. I am holding, deep in my body and heart, the challenges that come with these extremes. I am feeling, deeply, the many discrepancies of our lives, often pondering if we will ever fit back in, or if we would even want to.

But mostly, I am craving for these friends, for these family members, to be a witness to my life here. To acknowledge, even in the smallest way, that it is very difficult to hold a massive kitchen reno in one hand and the extreme poverty behind our fence in the other. To understand, in some basic way, that my mind is heavily with our dear friends who have been unjustly threatened with their lives for money following a car accident that was not their fault, and not on the details of your two month, snow-bird vacation for the sixth year in a row.  I crave for someone to know, to take the time to listen to my heart, to bear with me gently, in this middle, in-between place.

So much of what we bear daily is our own; so much of our lives are unseen. This is true for my own life and for the lives of my family and friends an ocean away. Do I know it is unrealistic to expect this kind of understanding from those I love on another continent? Do I realize that they are trying, in their own multifaceted ways, to connect, to share their lives and witness mine? Yes, and yes. And I can see, in my most honest moments, that I am in my own place of selfishness when I cease to listen well to the things they have to share, simply because it is hard for me to do so.

Would I perhaps make a similar choice someday, and see that even my choices now are not purely selfless? Do I recognize that my own heart struggles with the same issues that I blatantly see in others? Do I acknowledge that I am not alone in these wonderings, in these questions? Yes to all of it.

And yet. In some seasons, perhaps it is okay to put away the Pinterest pictures, to tune out a little when these types of things are shared, in the interest of protecting my heart against bitterness and my mind against pride. I am not a better person for witnessing what God has put in my life in Africa. I am no holier for holding the extremes with care. I, truly, am not that different than the ones I tune out.

In his graciousness, God has gently reminded me that he is the one to bear witness to my life. He knows. He sees my broken heart, my conflicted priorities, my judgment of others, my compassion for others. He knows, he takes the time to listen to my heart, when I take the time to share it, and he bears with me gently.

God has tenderly reminded me that his love transcends all extremes, as Romans 8:38-39 speaks to us: “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

And so when I sit back in my room and cry, I can pour out my overwhelmed, unseen heart to him. I can list the conflicted emotions and trust he will hear and hold them. I can repent of my judgement, of my hypocrisy, and receive his forgiveness. I can rest in knowing that he knows. I can rest in knowing that his love bridges the vastest of extremes.

And in time, I can be restored in Christ, in order to listen well again, in order to hold these extremes of my life tenderly and to care for those on both sides with love. Soon, I will be able to tune back in, joyfully, to rejoice with my friends and family on both sides of the ocean, and to extend the unending love of God, in this messy middle place.

Photographers, Can You Do Us Cross-Cultural Bloggers a Favor?

From a recent edition of the weekly web journal Brigada Today, I found out that there’s a photography conference, “Depth of Field,” coming up, February 7 and 8. It’s designed for pro photographers, but I’m thinking that means amateurs could learn even more from it. And it’s in New York, but the “Main Stage” and “Exposure Stage” presentations will be live streamed. (By the way, if you’re not familiar with Brigada, you might want to check it out. It’s a great place for receiving and sharing all things related to cross-cultural work.)

Why is a conference for photographers relevant to you, dear readers? Because I know some of you like to take photos, and some of you are rather good at it, too. And for those of you, I have a favor to ask. Could you help out us cross-cultural bloggers? It’s not easy finding good photos for the kind of topics that show up in our writing, and, frankly, it can end up adding a last level of stress before we hit the publish button. (Is it really what I’m looking for? Is it appropriate? Has it been used here before?!!)

Take, for instance, the picture at the top of this page. You may have noticed that it’s the same photo as the one I used for my post in July. Or you may just be thinking, “Ugh, another generic plane-wing-out-the-window shot.” Either way, it’s not ideal.

But that’s what we need, some “ideal” photos of, by, and for cross-cultural workers. You may already have your own ideas. If not, let me plant some seeds in the fertile field of your creativity. You’ll no doubt recognize some of these tried-and-true images, but I’m asking for an increase in quantity and quality: quantity, so that we don’t have to reuse the same photos again and again (see above), and quality, so that it doesn’t seem as if we’re using photos again and again (ditto). So when you read “more” below, think “more and better.”

Oh yeah, and free. Free, as in creative commons or public domain.

So more and better . . . and free.

For instance, there aren’t enough photos of world maps and globes. We need more photos of unique maps and globes, antique maps and globes, and maps and globes labeled in non-English languages.

We need more photos taken of the backs of people looking out over an ocean or a skyline or a city. We need a bigger collection of pictures, with older people and younger people, with people from a range of ethnicities, with more individuals and families and couples and groups, and with more ways to show emotions such as hope or longing or anxiety when you can’t see the subjects’ faces. (Yes, I’m asking for that creativity here.)

In general, we need a bunch of more interesting photos of people in all sorts of settings looking away from or walking away from the camera or simply with their faces hidden or out of frame. (It’s just often easier that way.)

We need more views of indistinct international cities, with non-English signage that’s been vetted for unsuitable advertisements or graffiti—cityscapes that vaguely remind us of areas in the world without identifying specific locales.

We need more photos depicting poverty, hunger, crisis, and the like, without exploiting individuals, making them no more than one-dimensional illustrations of their circumstances. (Oh, how my own past attempts have failed in this area.)

We need more photos with the people we’re serving, not just of the people we’re serving. And when we’re with them, we need to show that “we” are not always white, and “they” can be our partners, not just recipients of our help.

We need more photos that wouldn’t embarrass (or shame) the subjects if they saw themselves in the context of what we’re writing about.

We need more photos of people representing a myriad of cultures. And they need to represent those cultures in ways other than being dressed in the stereotypical garb that only outsiders think they always wear.

We need more photos of doors and windows from around the world, and people walking through doorways and looking through windows, sometimes looking through cracked or dirty windows or windows with raindrops on them.

We need more photos of paths, roads, highways, train tracks, long sets of stairs, rivers, and jet trails.

We need more photos of planes, trains, and automobiles . . . and boats.

We need more photos of sunrises and sunsets, over the ocean, over cities, over mountain ranges, and over grassy fields.

We need more photos of single trees on the horizon and single flowers growing out of the cracks in sidewalks.

We need more photos of arrows pointing in all sorts of directions.

We need variations of the two-or-more hands of differing pigments clasped in friendship.

We need more photos of praying hands, working hands, and helping hands . . . and of feet (you know, how-beautiful-on-the-mountains-are-the-feet-of-those-who-bring-good-news feet).

We need more photos of open Bibles, coffee cups, and passports, and open Bibles next to coffee cups and passports.

We need more photos of airports, airport signs, airport trollies, luggage, and seat-back trays. And we need those ever-elusive pics of the inside of a plane and the view through the window at the same time.

And jet wings, yes, we definitely need more photos of jet wings.

[photo: “Fight over Slovenia,” by (Mick Baker)rooster, used under a Creative Commons license]

How to Start Healing From Trauma: The Unseen Trauma of the Mission Field Part 3

by Shonna Ingram

In part one of this series on trauma, I explained what trauma is and what it does to us. In part two, I told you about James’s story. As we think about his story, we notice that he is not in this situation because of one big, traumatic event. Instead, it was small experiences that piled on top of each other that he wasn’t able to process (although there were some big ones in there too).

James was stuck, and he knew it. When people like James come to me for help, I don’t tell them to “just pray about it.” They’ve often heard advice like that before, and it usually isn’t helpful. Instead, I take people on a recovery journey. This journey is not linear, but rather an opportunity to reflect, create, and grow in an ongoing process. 

As I said earlier, there isn’t one single therapy or modality that will heal the layers of trauma we see in this story. On different parts of the trauma recovery journey, James will need different interventions and approaches.

 

Laying the Foundation

We start trauma healing by integrating the brain, heart, and body. To do this, we need an approach that connects mental health principles with a Biblical framework. 

We need an evidence-based approach. The first rule in mental health is to “do no harm.” To help with that, we need researched and proven tools to use throughout the healing journey. But more than that, we need compassion and people to come alongside us in our season of trauma recovery. 

Trauma recovery is not linear. Healing is more of a mending process than a single moment, and we need to think of it as a journey. Some days everything will be fine; other days we will find ourselves triggered for no reason. This is normal, and we need to create space for these ups and downs. With a story like James’s where there isn’t one big event, it’s not always clear what the traumas are. We have to be patient while we figure it out. 

Allow the Holy Spirit to work. We acknowledge that Jesus heals people’s trauma. This isn’t meant to over-spiritualize the process; even secular trauma training holds to the idea that there is something bigger than us out in the universe.

 

Steps for Healing

Before beginning the six steps outlined in this section, it’s important to make sure you are surrounded by people who will support your rebuilding process.

 

1. See where you are. 

If you think you might have experienced a traumatic event, the first step is to get out of the crisis. Think about how the Red Cross or Samaritan’s Purse meets people’s physical needs or about the first level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: water, food, and shelter. Psychological First Aid (PFA) material is a good place to start. (I also recommend the Trauma Healing Institute’s Beyond Disaster material.) 

 

2. Pay attention not only to the things you are saying but also how you are reacting to things.

In the last article I gave examples of some trauma reactions (Fight, Flight, Freeze, and Fawn). You can think through the different types of trauma you may have experienced (Acute, Chronic, Secondary, Childhood Abuse or Abandonment, Moral Injury, Survivor’s Guilt, Loss of Identity, Compound Grief) and ask whether Order, Justice, or Self Value has been lost because of what happened.

 

3. Become familiar with the stages of grief.

Understand the different stages of grief. In 1969, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross popularized the five common stages of grief. They include: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance.

 

4. Find safe places.

Find someone who will hold your emotional, relational, and situational stories. Safe places should make space for: 

  • Normalizing what is happening. For example, I told James that if I had gone through the same thing he did, I would have felt the same way. 
  • Listening without judgment. 
  • Reflecting back what you are saying. 
  • Discerning with you. This might look like them praying with and for you and bringing your feelings and emotions to Jesus.

 

5. Reach out to a professional counselor, trauma-informed mental health coach, or trauma-informed spiritual director. 

Hopefully you will have a list of vetted mental health professionals that you can reach out to if your needs go beyond what a friend or leader can provide. This is what James needed as part of his recovery from his childhood attachment issues. He went through a series of EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) appointments. 

Note: EMDR is one possibility of getting to some of the roots of trauma. Brainspotting (my training), Internal Family Systems (IFS), Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT), tapping, and Somatic Therapy (grounding and breathwork) are other methods used in trauma therapy. I have also seen healing through healing prayer sessions with a prayer minister. It depends on the season and what you are most comfortable with. Ask your therapist, coach, or spiritual director what method they use. 

 

6. Lastly, for ongoing recovery to take place, you need to get involved in a trauma-informed community.

When I was studying trauma recovery, I kept coming across the idea of small groups. A small group allows people to share their stories and see that they aren’t alone. That is why Alcoholics Anonymous and Celebrate Recovery programs are so successful. 

I saw a great need for these types of conversations in the missions community and was asked by many of my therapist friends to start something like that. So I created the Renewed Hope Approach, a year-long trauma-informed recovery group that walks people through the three stages of trauma recovery. The groups spend time sharing their pain and talking about common topics like theology of suffering, grief processing, and forgiveness. 

During the pandemic I was able to field test these groups, and I’m happy to announce that they are now open to the public. In these communities we focus on:

Stage 1: Grief, Loss, and Forgiveness (I call this stage Restore.)

Stage 2: Finding Your Renewed Purpose (I call this stage Receive.) 

Stage 3: Growing in Hope (I call this stage Rebuild.)

Each stage connects the brain, heart, and body by telling our story (brain), engaging in expressive therapies like art and prayer (heart), and engaging in body work practices like grounding and breathing exercises (body). The purpose of all these exercises is to reconnect with God, others, and ourselves. These activities, especially in combination, help facilitate our healing.  

 

Wrapping Up James’s Story 

James has come a long way since I first met him a few years ago. Most days he is in Stage 3 (Rebuild). Not every day is perfect, and there are times that he has to go back to Stage 1 (Restore) to spend some time reflecting on another loss or forgiving someone (or himself) for something that happened. But he did start a Master’s in theology and psychology and is looking to help his organization with missionary care. He processed his wounds and decided he wanted to help others, and that is the final stage of trauma recovery: helping others.

 

You are Invited

Maybe your story is as big and complex as James’s story. Or maybe you just need a place to be seen and heard or are interested in taking preventive measures. Maybe you want to process a series of losses or are wondering if you’re dealing with secondary trauma. 

Or perhaps after reading these articles, you find yourself wanting to help others in their season of trauma recovery.

You can find out when the next group or training starts on my website. I would love for you to join us.

My hope for you is that you don’t just take this information and put it on a back shelf. I hope this series will help you see more clearly what is happening within yourself and within the missions community. And I hope you learned that help is available when you need it. 

If you need help discerning your next step, my team and I are only an email or small group away, and we would love to help you on your healing journey. You can check out our groups and trainings at shonnaingram.com

 

Additional Resources

EMDR

Brainspotting

IFS Institute

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Among Missionaries 

~~~~~~~~~~

Shonna Ingram is the founder and director of the Renewed Hope Approach, a program that provides a practical approach to Post Trauma Care. She’s been in ministry for over 20 years and spent 8 years in Africa as a missionary. Shonna is a Board Certified Master Trauma-Informed Mental Health Coach specializing in career, self-development, and spiritual formation, and she has trained hundreds of people in over 30 countries to integrate mental health into a biblical framework. Her heart for people in the re-entry season led her to create her second series, Your Re-Entry Path, as a way for them to figure out their next season, whether inside or outside of vocational ministry. She is mom to 4 amazing adults.

How Trauma Shows Up on the Field: The Unseen Trauma of the Mission Field Part 2

by Shonna Ingram

This is the second article in a three-part series about the Unseen Trauma of the Mission Field. Today we will explore the way trauma shows up on the mission field.

As I mentioned in Part 1, the first place we notice trauma is in behaviors and reactions. If you do a google search on trauma reaction, you will probably find the three most common responses to trauma: fight, flight, and freeze.

Fight is usually associated with someone who can’t control their anger.

Flight is usually associated with someone who is running. 

Freeze is usually associated with someone going numb. 

However, there are other ways these reactions show up. 

Fight responses can include angry outbursts, controlling behavior, bullying, narcissistic behavior, explosive behavior.

Flight responses can include workaholism, overthinking, anxiety, panic, OCD, difficulty sitting still, perfectionism.

Freeze responses can include feeling stuck, difficulty making decisions, dissociation, isolation. 

Another way trauma can show up is called Fawning. I have especially seen this in the missions community. The fawning response can be exhibited as a people-pleasing reaction. It might also look like a lack of identity, an inability to set boundaries, a feeling of overwhelm, or codependency. 

Note: Unless you are a mental health professional, this list should not be used as a diagnosis for trauma. Instead, you can use it as a guideline to help identify what could be happening inside you. 

To see how these reactions play out, I’ll share a case study. Let me introduce you to James.*  

James grew up attending his local church. His dad worked long hours as a traveling sales person, and his mother stayed at home. He was the oldest of three siblings, the top basketball player at his local high school, and attended all the church youth group events.

However, there was a family secret. James’s mother drank a lot of alcohol. At home during a binge drinking episode, she would chase after her children with a knife threatening to kill them if they didn’t do what she said. When he was only ten years old, she would leave him in charge of his two siblings for days at a time, with no food in the pantry. Since his dad was often traveling for work, the children might go days without food. No one at church knew what was going on because at church the family acted like everything was fine.  

The summer between his sophomore and junior year was the year James finally got to go on the high school missions trip. He wasn’t particularly excited about going; he just wanted to get away from his family for a few weeks that summer. During his time in Central America, God stirred something inside him, and he felt closer to God than ever before. So he told his youth pastor that he wanted to be a missionary. This decision excited people, which gave him the validation that he so desperately needed at the time. 

But when he returned home from the missions trip, nothing really changed. In fact, for the rest of his time in high school things actually got worse. His mother stayed out for weeks and his dad was around even less. His younger brother started to get into trouble at school, and James became responsible for them.  

Let’s stop the story here. What concerns are you noticing in James’ story? Two overarching themes that I see are abuse and abandonment.

James assumed that leaving home would make these things better, and it did for a while. He attended a Christian college and started his intercultural missions training. He met the love of his life there, and together they joined an internship in West Africa. During their internship there was an unexpected political coup, and although the fighting wasn’t close, James started having panic attacks and nightmares of being beaten and left for dead. He didn’t tell anyone, though, so no one knew that he needed help. He thought leaving Africa would fix it and that everything would be ok. It did for a while.

Five years later James and his wife finished their partnership development and headed to East Asia. They lived in a town, but their ministry was in a village about four hours away. He and his wife had regular first-term stresses which included his wife giving birth to their second child. They didn’t really have anyone to talk to about what was going on, and everyone back home thought they were fine because their newsletters were full of exciting ministry opportunities. But he started getting angry over little things and started working more. He and his wife started fighting for the first time in their marriage.

After two years on the field they came to the States for a required six-month furlough. They had a two-hour administrative debrief with their agency, and they told them they were fine, just tired – although they did mention they could use a weekend away because baby number three was due in two months. 

They returned for their second term with three kids ages three and younger. Things in town were worse this time around. The police were starting to ask for bribes at the checkpoints. If James didn’t pay, he would be interrogated and possibly beaten, so he paid the bribes even though he didn’t feel right about doing so. It was the first time he feared for his family’s safety.

Then one day on the way to the local market he saw a small child being beaten. He was in total shock because he had never seen that kind of thing in his passport country. Giving bribes and watching a child almost die caused him deep guilt and shame. He started shutting down and began staying late at the office. There was a young, national secretary there who listened to him when it seemed like his wife wouldn’t. Fortunately he caught himself before that relationship turned into an emotional affair, but he became mired in even more guilt. 

James was having problems sleeping and started using alcohol as a coping mechanism. He decided that if this was missionary life, he didn’t want any part of it. He couldn’t put a finger on a moment when it all went wrong. He started crying out to God, but God was silent. Why was He allowing this to happen? He started meeting with a friend to talk about what was happening and started feeling better.

Then COVID came. They were close to the epicenter and had to evacuate the country within 24 hours, leaving behind their house church and the friends they had just started discipling after six years of being in the country. He said, “How can I just leave them there? They could all die.” 

Let’s stop the story there. What potentially traumatizing events are you seeing now?

You’re probably seeing quite a few, but I want to point out two possibilities: moral injury and survivor’s guilt.

Moral injury is usually associated with military personnel and can occur in response to acting on or witnessing behaviors that go against an individual’s values and moral beliefs. This causes a deep sense of guilt and shame or what the Trauma Healing Institute calls a “soul wound.” Moral injury showed up when James had to pay bribes and watch a child almost die from being beaten.

The second trauma James experienced is survivor’s guilt. This happens when a person has feelings of guilt because they survived a life-threatening situation when others did not. War veterans, cancer survivors, and yes, even missionaries can all experience this. For James, it was leaving behind their house church and the friends they had just started discipling after six years of being in the country.

Let’s finish the story. When COVID led the family back to the States, little did they know that they were not going to be able to return to East Asia. James felt stuck, overwhelmed, disillusioned, and totally out of control. Because of their evacuation, they couldn’t bring anything back to America, not even his wife’s grandmother’s china, and for him that was the last straw.

He got physically sick and isolated himself. The isolation left him bitter with God for allowing these bad things to happen and not protecting them, and he had no idea what to do. He said, “I thought we were going to live there forever. What do I do now, and who am I now?”

The evacuation experience led to two more potentially traumatic outcomes: cumulative grief and loss of identity

Cumulative grief “is what happens when you do not have time to process one loss before incurring another. The losses come in too rapid a succession for you, the bereaved, to heal from the initial loss.”

Identity loss involvesquestioning your sense of self or identity.” 

James knew in his head that he was supposed to suffer for the kingdom, but this was just too much. At this point, he had lost all hope. 

He didn’t know that he had experienced traumas, but he did know that he had lost his sense of Order, Justice, and Self Value.

Thankfully there are specific steps a global worker can take to process grief and heal from traumatic experiences, and thankfully James reached out for help at this point in his journey. 

The last article in this series will focus on the steps people can take toward healing.

 

*For privacy purposes, James is a composite of several clients. However, his story is representative of the types of trauma that workers on the field endure.

~~~~~~~~ 

Shonna Ingram is the founder and director of the Renewed Hope Approach, a program that provides a practical approach to Post Trauma Care. She’s been in ministry for over 20 years and spent 8 years in Africa as a missionary. Shonna is a Board Certified Master Trauma-Informed Mental Health Coach specializing in career, self-development, and spiritual formation, and she has trained hundreds of people in over 30 countries to integrate mental health into a biblical framework. Her heart for people in the re-entry season led her to create her second series, Your Re-Entry Path, as a way for them to figure out their next season, whether inside or outside of vocational ministry. She is mom to 4 amazing adults.

The Unseen Trauma of the Mission Field: What Trauma Is and What It Does

by Shonna Ingram

In 2008 my husband and I took our four children to East Africa to serve in a Bible translation project. We didn’t go overseas until our early 30s. We thought that having some life experience would give us a little bit of an advantage over those joining missions right out of college. But my second year, I still cried and highlighted the entire book Expectations and Burnout by Sue Eenigenburg and Robynn Bliss

Our time overseas had its normal ups and downs plus a few unexpected challenges. When it was time to leave the field, we felt like we left well. However, our re-entry season put me into another season of unmet and unclear expectations which included loss of financial support, physical illness, and a long list of other losses. It was during this season that I realized I was experiencing trauma responses, but I had no idea how that had happened. 

According to my understanding of trauma at the time, I hadn’t experienced trauma. So why was I experiencing trauma responses?

In college, I’d been trained in mental health, so I thought I knew something about trauma. However, back then (in the early 1990s) we weren’t taught about neuroplasticity, and I didn’t know the brain could change. I had been taught that trauma was one bad or terrifying experience that I might never recover from. I couldn’t recall anything like that ever happening to me. 

All I knew was that during my re-entry season, I felt stuck, depressed, and confused. I was in physical pain, and I had lost hope. I couldn’t put a finger on one event that had caused these trauma responses, and what’s more, I didn’t know how to get out of this situation.

My coping mechanism was to learn everything I could about the word trauma in the hope that I could understand what was going on and eventually help others avoid the pain I was going through. 

Through trauma healing training, I discovered that while it was true that trauma can be a big, terrifying, life-altering event, it also can be smaller ongoing events that topple over each other. And if we don’t have an opportunity to process these smaller events like we do the big, one-time event, it can lead to the same results in our brain, body, and heart.

Since that experience, I have coached and trained hundreds of people in mission organizations and faith-based communities about trauma. 

There is so much to share with you about trauma, especially as it pertains to the mission field, that I broke up the topic into three articles. In this article, we will talk about what trauma is and what it does. In the next article, we will look at how trauma might show up in the life of a missionary, and in the third article, we will look at some steps you can take toward healing.

 

What Trauma Is

A few years ago I led a trauma healing training and asked the participants, “When you hear the word trauma, what comes to mind?”

There were so many different answers to this one question. The answers were anywhere from what happened during a traumatic experience to how trauma affects people after the event. It was an “ah ha” moment for me because for many people there seems to be some unclarity about what trauma is. 

So I shared this definition with them:    

“Trauma results from any event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life-threatening and that has lasting negative effects on a person’s mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.”

In that discussion I focused on the idea of lasting negative effects and whether the event(s) caused them to lose their sense of either Order (the world makes sense), Justice (justice is available), or Self Value (knowing that they are a person of value), or all three.   

This means that two people can go through the same experience, and one might become traumatized while the other one doesn’t.

I also noticed that the participants were assuming that there was only one type of trauma, when there are actually different types of traumas. Some general types of trauma include:

Acute Trauma (the one people think of the most) is a one-off traumatic event, such as a car accident, natural disaster, etc. 

Complex Trauma occurs during the developmental years when there is a disruption in the child’s development. This can be seen in cases of neglect, child endangerment, or institutional care and can result in insecure attachment.

Chronic Trauma is a traumatic event over a long period of time, such as with domestic abuse or bullying.  

Secondary Trauma occurs when an individual hears about the firsthand experience of others.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is an anxiety disorder caused by very stressful, frightening, or distressing events. A person may engage in avoidant behavior, live in a state of high alert, or even relive the event. (If these symptoms last more than 30 days, a person should be evaluated by a mental health professional.) To learn more about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in cross-cultural workers, check out this Missio Nexus article

 

What Trauma Does

During this training I noticed that the participants were only looking at the behaviors of people in trauma and not what was going on inside their brain, body, and heart. But the internal response is very important because trauma disconnects and causes disintegration in our brain, body, and heart.

Trauma affects your BRAIN by changing brain chemistry levels of substances like: 

  • Serotonin (which affects appetite, sex drive, mood, and the ability to sleep)
  • Dopamine (which affects memories and your ability to concentrate) 
  • Endorphins (which reduce pain and stress) 
  • Cortisol (which affects adrenaline)
  • Neurotransmitters and receptors (Glutamate and GABA/gamma-aminobutyric acid)

Sometimes these chemicals can only be fixed with medication; however, there is mounting evidence that exercise and rest can do some of this as well. 

Trauma affects your BODY by getting stuck in your nervous system, usually in both your voluntary and involuntary responses:

  • Somatic Nervous System, which controls voluntary responses to external stimuli
  • Autonomic Nervous System, which controls involuntary responses and includes the Sympathetic (fight or flight response) and Parasympathetic (the way your body relaxes)

Trauma affects your HEART by distorting your relationship with God, others, and ourselves:

  • Trauma can become the lens through which you see everything that happens. You might start questioning the truth and what is real. 
  • It can lead people to question their faith.
  • Trauma can isolate you from others.
  • Trauma can trigger emotional self-harm (such as believing lies) or physical self-harm (such as cutting).

Is it any wonder people are unclear about this word trauma

Because of all this disintegration, you might think that trauma would be hard to heal. What I have seen and experienced is that it depends. It is true that healing from trauma is a process and that no single method or therapy works all the time and in all seasons. Sometimes people go through a six-week trauma healing class, and that’s all they need to start their healing process. On the other hand, I have also walked with people for years using different methods and approaches to help them heal from trauma. 

The important thing to remember is that there is help for healing your trauma. In the next article, we will discuss how trauma might show up on the mission field.

 

Recommended Resources:

Hand Brain model from Dr. Daniel Siegel

Expectations and Burnout: Women Surviving the Great Commission by Sue Eenigenburg and Robynn Bliss

More details on complex trauma   

PTSD article from Missio Nexus

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Shonna Ingram is the founder and director of the Renewed Hope Approach, a program that provides a practical approach to Post Trauma Care. She’s been in ministry for over 20 years and spent 8 years in Africa as a missionary. Shonna is a Board Certified Master Trauma-Informed Mental Health Coach specializing in career, self-development, and spiritual formation, and she has trained hundreds of people in over 30 countries to integrate mental health into a biblical framework. Her heart for people in the re-entry season led her to create her second series, Your Re-Entry Path, as a way for them to figure out their next season, whether inside or outside of vocational ministry. She is mom to 4 amazing adults.

Too Jaded to Believe in Miracles?

My kids and I love reading missionary stories. You know the kind. There are witchdoctors. There are dreams and visions. And there are divine appointments with so many moving parts you can hardly keep track of them all. These books recount the kind of events that only an omnipotent, omniscient God could arrange, miracles that vicariously grow my faith.

If I’m not too jaded to believe miracles still happen.

Easy to Get Jaded

It can be easy to become jaded when we pray for people to have dreams and they don’t. Or when we tell our supporters we are “seed-planting” but have no idea if that seed is falling on good soil or rocky soil, or if “seed-planting” is just a nice way to say there’s no fruit to harvest. Or when we read books and attend classes about movements, underground churches, and contextualized Bible study methods, but can’t find a single person interested in Jesus.

Do you ever find yourself asking, “Where are the dreams, God? Where are the divine appointments? Where are the miracles?” Do you ever find yourself reading one of those adventurous, miraculous missionary stories, and praying, “Could I get me some-a that, Jesus? Just a little? A crumb?”

We served in India for seven years before transitioning to our current country of service. I often wondered when something was going to happen. When things were going to get exciting like in the books I’d read. It wasn’t until we came home and I wrote about everything that had happened that I realized just how many miracles God had performed. Like Israel of old, we forget our ten plagues, our Nile river crossings, our manna.

Sometimes when you’re in those hot, barren fields, pulling out rocks or throwing seeds hither and yon, all you can think about is how nice it would be if you could just see one tiny result, one little glimmer of light from Heaven. 

One little, itty bitty seedling poking out of the dirt.

I’m sure that’s how The Jesus Teacher felt.

The Jesus Teacher 

Twenty-five years ago, an Indian man moved to a remote mountain village. The villagers called him The Jesus Teacher. Each day The Jesus Teacher put on the colorful woolen clothing common to the people around him and went to work at a local school. After school, he would sit around people’s wood stoves, sipping hot clove-and-cinnamon tea and telling them stories of Jesus.

They laughed in his face.

Believe me, in that ultra-social environment, being made fun of is a special brand of torture.

They used to ask him for his clothes, or the rupees in his pocket, or his shoes, and he would give what they asked for, and they would laugh and call him a sucker. Not one person came to Christ while The Jesus Teacher lived in that village.

I wish I could talk to him now and remind him of the day he met my friend, Darshika. She was 15 and married to a drunkard twice her age. She held two little babies in her arms. The Jesus Teacher saw her sitting in front of her house, raised his hand in blessing, and said, “God give you ashish (a blessing).” 

Darshika had been grinding her forehead to the ground for the last several months, begging Vishnu and Durga and any other god she could think of to rescue her. Then this Jesus Teacher asked God to bless her, and somehow she knew she had been blessed.

Later, Darshika asked a chain-smoking ex-Catholic tourist to tell her more. She heard a handful of stories, some apocryphal.

Fifteen years later, my family and I met her, and, with my heart pounding in my chest, I shared the gospel with her in my simplistic Hindi, and she accepted Christ. She has been faithful under both pain and persecution, nurturing herself on an audio Bible. Once, when under extreme persecution, Jesus appeared to her and gave her the peace and courage to continue living.

Now that I’ve written it all out in seven paragraphs, it’s clear this is a miracle.

But here’s the thing: My perception of this miracle developed over time.

It took several years for me to play my part in the story, and then to hear and understand the other elements of it. And there may be miraculous circumstances God arranged that I know nothing about. Why were we and Darshika in the same village at the same time? Why did I suddenly know that I should blurt out the entire gospel to a random friend in a country where we were often so careful?

Miracles take time, both to unfold, and to perceive. I am learning to be patient with my finite heart and mind. I’m learning to be patient with God, too. He has promised he is doing something. Friend, don’t stop your prayer walks, don’t stop your personal devotions, don’t stop storming the gates of hell with your prayers for people you’ve never met. God promised to do something.

You don’t have to see it for it to be happening.

In fact, it might even look like the case is lost and the issue is closed and God has said no. Like with my birthday bed covering.

The Birthday Bed Covering

Once, when we were in India, my dad sent me $30 to buy myself a birthday present. I packed my two littles into an auto-rickshaw, and we careened our way to the nearest town. I knew exactly what I wanted: an Indian bed covering. I walked into shop after closet-sized shop, where salesmen unfurled sheet after sheet of multicolored fabric. Finally, I found the perfect one. The shopkeeper said it was the last one like it and tucked it into a small fabric bag. We went home by auto-rickshaw again, but I was so concerned with making sure my kids got out of the vehicle with me that I forgot my birthday present on the seat.

The driver turned around and drove away, not hearing my shouting nor seeing my arms waving. I grasped the kids’ hands and told them we would ask Jesus, and He would bring Mommy back her birthday present.

I fully expected that man to turn his vehicle around. I mean, my faith was palpable. I knew God was going to bring my gift back to me.

But the man didn’t turn around.

“Well,” I said to the kids. “Maybe Jesus is saying no. Maybe… maybe someone else needs it more than we do.” We walked home, and I felt confused and disappointed because I knew this time I’d had the kind of faith that could move a mountain.

Several months later, a stranger knocked on our door. He held out a small fabric bag.

He said the rickshaw driver had been asking everyone he met for the last several months if they knew where to find a foreigner lady with two little kids. The gift had passed through many hands, and though it could easily have been stolen, it was presented to me, clean and crisp.

As I spread that covering over my bed, I thought back to my prayer by the road. Would I have recognized this miracle if it hadn’t taken so long? Was it possible that God had actually planned it this way, to show me beyond a shadow of a doubt that He did it? Could I have rationalized the miracle away if the driver had turned around immediately?

The Cure for Jadedness

I know nothing about plants. But I’ve planted a few seeds. And every time, seeing those tender snips of green emerge from the earth is like experiencing a miracle.

Once, during a particularly dark time in India, I dreamed about plants. In my dream, I saw a field, barren and dark under a cloudy sky. Somehow I was able to look underneath the soil, as though I were watching a screen. I saw white roots stretching into the earth like a time-lapse video.

“The roots grow first!” I said in my dream. When I woke up, I YouTubed it, and indeed, long before any leaves emerge from their tombs of dirt, roots are growing. I didn’t know that before. Because I know nothing about plants.

But God knows.

Could it be that people in your country are having the dreams you ask God to send them?

Could it be that the people you meet are divine appointments?

Could it be that the little, seemingly insignificant things God asks you to do each day, are small parts of actual miracles?

Now, it would be great if I experienced one of the above miracle stories every Friday so that I could send our supporters an exciting newsletter each week. The truth is, although we experienced many, many miracles in India, our day-to-day lives were full of mediocrity. I changed diapers and visited the wives of Hindu priests. I learned to drive stick shift in the mountains and, when I killed the car, got stared at by a bus full of neighbors. Our laundry froze in the winter and we had to dry it by the wood stove. Our kids got worms. We got worms. We tried to share Bible stories and people changed the subject. We celebrated our anniversary with balloons and a sprinkly cake because we didn’t have a babysitter. We laughed at our Hindi faux pas, we laughed at our cultural mistakes, we laughed at our kids when they said funny things about intestinal worms. 

And sometimes, some days, we saw miracles.

If I learned anything in India, it’s that I don’t have to see something for it to exist. The earth takes time to turn around to face the sun again, and all that light takes time to fill the sky with color, and it takes time for me to get up and witness it all. But even if I sleep through it, there is still a beautiful sunrise. 

Once, a friend told me how inspired she was when she read all my stories about India. This surprised me. Although our experience changed me profoundly and grew my faith, most days, I remember the frozen laundry and sprinkly cake. But that’s how we humans are. We get used to things like Red Sea crossings and manna. We get stuck in what is happening right now, on Thursday afternoon. We don’t realize that our lives, if viewed in time-lapse or written in a book, would contain so many divine appointments it would be hard to keep track of them all. 

The next time setbacks and mundane normalcy threaten to make you feel jaded, rest your heart in Jesus. He has a plan, and He can see the end from the beginning. He can even see underground, where seedlings are sending down their roots, waiting for the perfect moment to rise up and greet the sun for the first time.

Where is God in My Grief Tower?

by Lauren Wells

A wise man who looks a lot like Indiana Jones (and also happens to be my father) once said that in moments of deep grief you’re faced with a decision: either cling to God and let him be your source of comfort, or run from him and wade through the grief on your own. 

You can’t make it through the expatriate life without experiencing the touch of grief. Grief is temporarily or permanently losing something that you loved. Living a life of high mobility, constant goodbyes, and exposure to big and little traumas causes griefs to steadily stack up along the way. I’ve written a couple of books on this metaphor, which I call the Grief Tower. 

For many expatriates and their children (Third Culture Kids), grief comes in consistent stones of varying weight stacking one on top of the other. On their own, each stone might not feel very significant, but together they create a tall, wobbly tower that will eventually crash if this grief goes unprocessed. 

When my company (TCK Training) debriefs families, we go through the process of writing out the family’s Grief Tower Timeline – putting paper and pen to the big and small hard things that have happened in the family’s life. Sometimes these butcher’s paper timelines are the length of the kitchen table. Sometimes they roll through the kitchen, down the living room, and out the front door. 

As we excavate years’ worth of grief, a quiet question often fills the room. Where was God in my Grief Tower? This life I was called to has created this tower of grief – not just for me but for my children, too!

Even when we trust God’s sovereignty and believe he works all things for the good, the waves of grief still hit us hard. And when this happens, we respond both to our grief and the grief of others with whatever internal narration we’ve come to adopt. Our personal storylines tend to subconsciously ripple into an assumption that God responds the same way to our grief that we as humans do. 

When people say, “Look at the bright side,” we think the right thing to do is to stay positive. We forget that God invites lament. When people say, “He works all things out for the good,” we forget that when it doesn’t feel good in the moment, God is still there to empathize, comfort, and acknowledge that this feels so hard. When people say, “You’re so strong for how you’re handling this,” we don’t remember that God doesn’t expect us to be strong. We forget that He is strong so we don’t have to be. 

At TCK Training, we believe that TCKs should feel and know the love and goodness of God in how they’re cared for. In these raw spaces of grief we have to remember that God’s response is not to “stay positive,” “toughen up,” or “look forward” — and neither should ours be (whether to ourselves or to others). 

Instead, He invites us to lament and ask, “Why?” 

He allows us to mourn deeply and to take time to focus on the grief. 

He reminds us that we don’t need to be the strong one because he is strong for us

When we work with TCKs who turn away from God in their grief, it is most often because they have come to believe deeply that God’s responses to grief are a pep talk, a “get over it,” or an “it could be worse.” I think, perhaps, their belief comes from how they’ve been responded to, and that perhaps how they’ve been responded to comes from the subconscious beliefs held by those responding to them. 

I encourage you to ask yourself the following questions: 

How do I respond inwardly to my own grief?
Does this influence how I believe God responds to my grief?
Does that belief influence how I respond to the grief of those around me? 

May we grow in our response to grief and learn to offer the compassionate heart of God both to ourselves and those around us.

Photo by Piotr Musioł on Unsplash

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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.

Changing Seasons

My husband’s eczema causes his skin to crack and peel when the seasons change. As the weather cools and the heaters blast, his skin sheds. Then again when summer comes, the process repeats itself. Over and over, year after year, the cycle continues. 

In our five years of marriage, I’ve seen my husband react to this inevitable occurrence in two different ways. Either he plans for it, stocking up on lotion and treating his skin with extra care. Or he complains about it, picking at his imperfections and wishing that God had made him some other way. 

With an outsider’s perfect perspective, it’s easy to watch this unfold and wonder why he doesn’t just prepare for this twice-yearly event. How could it ever take him by surprise?

I pondered this as I lay in bed this morning, feeling guilty about my lack of motivation to get up and seize the day. The hustle and bustle of the holidays are over, and I feel wrung out and ready for a nap. I wish I weren’t this way. I wish I thrived on activity and was full of vim and vigor for the New Year. So I complained about it, picking at my imperfections and wishing that God had made me some other way. 

Maybe you can relate. Is there something about yourself that you wish were different? Do you crash up against your limitations and complain bitterly about their very existence? Are there certain seasons that seem to highlight those shortcomings or specific times in the calendar that are inevitably clouded with sadness? 

Perhaps it’s the anniversary of losing a loved one or the melancholy that descends around your birthday or the cyclical frustration with holiday weight gain. You find yourself caught up in a season of struggle and wonder what you did wrong to land in that place again. Then you look back over how many times you’ve fallen into that same rut and grow weary thinking about the inevitability of it all. 

If so, you’re not alone. And you might take comfort in knowing that this is not a new phenomenon. Over 400 years before Jesus, this complaint was recorded:

“Meaningless! Meaningless! Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless. What do people gain from all their labors at which they toil under the sun? Generations come and generations go… The sun rises and the sun sets… The wind blows to the south and turns to the north; round and round it goes… All streams flow into the sea, yet the sea is never full… All things are wearisome, more than one can say. The eye never has enough of seeing, nor the ear its fill of hearing. What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”

If someone posted this as their Facebook status, I’d probably just roll my eyes and think, “How dramatic!” But knowing that it’s in the Bible (Ecclesiastes 1:1-9) makes me examine it again. And the more that I read it, the more I admire how the author of Ecclesiastes holds nothing back. He even seems to sink more and more deeply into his frustrations. The subtitles in the first two chapters say it all:

Wisdom is Meaningless
Pleasures are Meaningless
Wisdom and Folly are Meaningless
Toil is Meaningless

I’m guessing the author didn’t deal with the cultural expectation that faithful people should have it all together and radiate with the joy of the Lord at all times. He seems under no compunction to tie a happy, godly bow around the terrible things that he sees or the low feelings he’s experiencing. 

When I’m in a low season, I find a lot of comfort in Ecclesiastes. Each time I read it, I remember that it’s okay to feel like this. It’s okay to complain about life, pick at life’s imperfections, and wish that God had made this life some other way. Solomon did it, why can’t I?

But then I keep reading. When I reach Chapter 3, I am so relieved to find the subtitle: A Time for Everything. The song starts playing in my head, but I politely turn down the music. I need this ancient wisdom. I long to understand it, believe it, and live it. So I read it slowly, trying to soak it in verse by verse:

There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens:

(I take a deep breath)

a time to be born and a time to die,

a time to plant and a time to uproot,

a time to kill and a time to heal,

(I take a deeper breath)

a time to tear down and a time to build,

a time to weep and a time to laugh,

a time to mourn and a time to dance,

(My shoulders start to relax)

a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,

a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,

a time to search and a time to give up,

(I begin to accept these truths)

a time to keep and a time to throw away,

a time to tear and a time to mend,

a time to be silent and a time to speak.

Then I get to verse 11 and am reminded that

God has made everything beautiful in its time. 

This ancient wisdom releases me from the pressure to rush through the low seasons in search of the high ones. They remind me that where I am, who I am, and how I feel are quite all right. And they point me to the One who is big enough to hold all of those seasons in His hands. The Unchangeable One, whose mercies are new every day. The One who is with me and for me yesterday, today, and forever. The Eternal One who makes things beautiful and gives my life meaning.

Culture shock is hard no matter what. Dear newbie, be gentle with yourself.

by Katherine Seat

Dear Friend,

I’m so excited to hear you are getting ready to leave your passport country and move to my host country. It’s great to hear about all the preparation you’ve been doing over the past few years to get to this point. Now you’re at the point where you actually have to think about what to pack!

You asked what apps were good for language learning. Sounds like you are eager to get a taste of the local language even before your formal classes start. From the way you asked, it seemed like you assumed I would know. It took me a while to realise my answer:  I used cassette tapes when I was at your stage.

My first year in our host country was difficult. Transport and medical care were constant challenges.  I spent a good portion of my first year sitting on the back of a motorbike taxi trying to direct the driver. After all those bumpy roads my back needed physiotherapy.  The drivers didn’t read maps, and the map only covered a tiny part of the city anyway. So it was up to me, my sense of direction and my brand new language skills. I was often lost and wishing public bathrooms were a thing.

But now that tuk-tuks are easier to find, I haven’t been on a motorbike taxi for years.  With internet on our phones we can see the whole city map — game changer! Combine that with ride hailing apps, and you might not need to spend so much time taking scenic routes. My back is happy there are so many smooth, sealed roads these days. So you probably won’t have the same transport troubles as I had.

Options for medical care stressed me out. I was told there was one clinic I could go to, but one doctor’s appointment cost about the same as a month’s rent. Other clinics cost only $2.50 per visit, but I was told they were only for locals. Not only had I moved to a place with more diseases and traffic accidents, but there was also reduced access to good medical care.

Things changed quickly. In my third year a new hospital opened. It was cheaper than the other good option, and better than the cheap options. Hurrah! Finally, good affordable medical care. But now more than a decade on, I consider that hospital too expensive to go to. These days I overhear expats discussing which doctor they see. I even know of several foreigners who have given birth in-country. So you probably won’t have the same fears about not being able to see a doctor as I did.

Discovering all my first-year stresses don’t exist anymore, I feel jealous. Perhaps your first year will be a walk in the park compared to mine. In fact, you can literally go for a walk in a park right near your house. One of the things I missed that first year (and in the years since) was being able to go for a walk anywhere, let alone a nice, green park with smooth paths.

However, I know changing countries remains a huge adjustment despite some practical things appearing easier. You are already hitting a few of the top stressors just by relocating. Plus, you are in a different family and work situation to me, so you will have added challenges I won’t even be aware of. And despite some of the changes making things easier, other changes make things harder.

I had thought that after all my hard work making it through that first year, I would have some advice to share. I’m frustrated to realize that I don’t have any practical tips for you, but there is something I wish I had known at the time. Well, I did know it, but I didn’t get just how true it is:

Culture shock is really hard, so go easy on yourself.

Yep, that’s all. It’s hard, go easy.

Maybe you are already well-versed in this. I know I thought I was. I remember telling myself it’s unrealistic to get those 10 things on my to-do list done. It might have seemed doable in my passport country, but now I’ll be happy if I just get one of the 10 done.  Culture shock is just so exhausting, and you don’t know how things work in your host country or what to expect.

Although I told myself that at the time, I’m only just starting to realise now, all these years later, that what I was up against was even harder than I had thought. Why did I even have a to-do list?

And while you are being kind to yourself, be kind to those of us who have been here longer.

You might hear us say “You can’t get fresh milk in-country” when clearly you can.  Or “Don’t go out after 9 pm” but then find you are expected to be at a weekly work meeting that goes past 10 pm.

We’ve spent so much time and energy learning to live here that we feel we have expertise to offer, but we don’t know everything anymore as things keeps changing.

Some of my hard won skills are now obsolete. I felt I had conquered so much, but some of those achievements aren’t useful anymore.

So be kind to yourself. It’s harder than you think: you are going through culture shock.

Thanks for your graciousness towards me, and be kind to those who have been here longer than you. We might be going through culture shock upon culture shock.

And let me know if you want to borrow the language learning cassette tapes.

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Katherine’s childhood church in Australia launched her on a trajectory to Asia. After a decade of preparation she landed in Cambodia and married a local Bible teacher. Read Katherine’s other posts at Linktree and connect with her on Instagram.