I love the Olympics

Today is the opening ceremony for the Olympics and to say that I love the Olympics might be an understatement.

I love, love, love the Olympics! This year COVID will be an unwanted influence and will make for a unique experience; but I’m still excited and you can guess what I’ll be doing for the next two weeks.

Like many of you, I’ve been both inside and outside of my passport country during the Olympics. We’ve gotten to experience how different cultures and countries both cover, experience, and celebrate them. Even ignore them.

One particularly painful taxi ride in Beijing comes to mind. I was stuck in traffic and the taxi driver was listening to an Olympic summary show on the radio.

Announcer: This is the national anthem when So-and-so won the gold for such-and-such event.

The national anthem was played. It was inspiring and fun to relive that moment.

Announcer: This is the national anthem when THIS famous athlete won the gold for this other event.

The national anthem was played. It was inspiring and but less fun to relive that moment. Why is the traffic not moving?!

Announcer: This is the national anthem when So-and-so won the gold for yet another event.

The national anthem was played. And I realized that I was going to be trapped, listening to the national anthem on repeat until Jesus came back or the traffic finally started moving.

Anyone else discover that are different sports than the ones you thought were key sports in the Olympics? Hours of badminton and pingpong . . . to say nothing of every single moment of diving being telecast. I’m all for diving, but hours and hours and hours and hours? No thank you. Where’s the track and field? Where’s the swimming or gymnastics?

You might think these experiences have dampened my enthusiasm. You, my dear friend, would be wrong. I understand that the Olympics are flawed. That in many ways they mirror what is wrong with our world and the inequity many experience daily.

But the Olympics are also a foretaste of heaven.

—The many flags and countries.

—The athletes and teams who get to showcase their talents and hard work.

—The inspiring stories and humanizing of the athletes and the obstacles they’ve faced.

—The inspiring of what I could do with my own body. (As a young child I distributed trashcans around the family room and “hurdled.” Every single Olympics I come away marveling at how God has made the human body. Amazing, amazing, amazing.)

—The taste of different cultures.

—Let’s not forget the playing of the national anthems. Though annoying on repeat in a taxi cab, they reflect an athlete playing for something greater than just him or herself. As the atheles stand on the podium and watch the three flags flutter, the athletes look up to a flag that represents more than just them.

—The surprises! The heartbreak of those who thought they’d win and didn’t. Those who experienced injury or illness at such an inopportune time. And the lesser known athletes who succeed far beyond their wildest dreams.

To my fellow Olympian Lovers, I raise my metaphorical glass to you and say, “To the next two weeks and to the many countries we love! May God remind the world how very much He loves it.”

Let the games begin! Thank you Tokyo for all you have overcome to bring us together.

P.S. For years I have contemplated what sports will be like in heaven. (I told you, I really love sports!) So I’ll d thinking about this also during the Olympics. What sport would you loved to see in a perfectly redeemed form?

I am a Foreign Weirdo

by Julie Jean Francis

Editor’s Note:  Last year I had the privilege of reading Julie’s new book, Bowing Low: Rejecting the Idols Around Us to Worship the Living God. She consistently made me think about cultural issues through a biblical lens. I thought I had already begun that process, but Julie took my hand and led me even deeper into it. As she demonstrates in the book, the potential for idolatry is truly everywhere in modern society. The excerpt below discusses expatriate living more broadly, but in reality if we give up our idols to worship the one true God, we will be “foreign weirdos” anywhere we go.  ~Elizabeth Trotter

Being an alien and stranger is no fun. Ask me about it. Everywhere we go, people stare at us. They grab at us to touch our skin and hair. They unashamedly point and stare at us in public. They sometimes treat us like royalty, bestowing on us white privilege exceptions, treats, and favors. Other times we are treated with disdain and suspicion, like scientific specimens or exotic animals at a zoo to be examined and prodded.

They ask to take pictures of us since seeing aliens is admittedly an unusual, noteworthy experience. I sometimes think the attention we get is because of our (many) cute kids. But the other day I was in the grocery store alone and it happened. Assuming I didn’t speak the local language (which I do), a young woman and man came up to me motioning awkwardly with their hands that they wanted a picture with me. I hardly go anywhere without at least one kid with me, so I was so surprised it took me a while to figure out what was happening.

Then, I realized what I should have already known– I am an alien and stranger here. People like to document and share their alien encounters. They wanted a picture with me. Who knows if they may ever see an extraterrestrial again?

I stood still, and they took my picture right there in the diaper aisle. Then, I shocked them again by speaking to them in the local language, politely answering their questions–- where did I come from? How long have I lived here? What work do I do? Do I have a family?

The only thing weirder than seeing an alien is seeing an alien who speaks your language and lives among you.

Some of our alien experiences are more pleasant than others. Sometimes, complete strangers somehow get pictures of our kids and then use those pictures as their profile photo on Facebook (that really happened). Sometimes, people are really rude and pushy and don’t take no for an answer when we tell them that we don’t want our picture taken, or that our kids don’t want to be poked, pinched, or held by complete strangers. Sometimes, people whom we have no memory of meeting know exactly where we live, how many kids we have, and where my husband works.

Being an alien stranger is difficult.

It’s impossible to have privacy as an alien and stranger or to keep anything a secret. Everything you do, everything you buy, every mannerism, every interaction is recorded in the memory of the community like the odd, unusual, noteworthy, rarity that it is. People remember their extraterrestrial experiences. It’s hard to constantly be the weirdo that people remember.

I’m in most ways the opposite of “normal” here.

It’s not that I haven’t tried to be. I understand contextualization. I’ve studied crossing borders and becoming all things to all men, that I might win some.

I have worked hard to learn the language. I can read the difficult script (even if my writing is admittedly terrible). I can carry on a conversation, and I get my meaning across despite my many mistakes.

I wear local clothes most of the time. I can wrap the skirt like the locals, wear the typical shoes, and take them off at the right times. I know what is modest here and what isn’t. I wear real gold earrings because any respectable woman does.

I buy my food from the market. I have even learned to cook the local way, and I eat rice (almost) as much as local people do.

I have come to understand, respect, and even uphold a lot of local ideals and beliefs. Things that upset me about the culture when I first entered it now make sense in ways that are hard for me to explain to fellow Americans.

I know about the seasonal calendar. About religious festivals and customs. I can sense the change of seasons and even feel the hope and excitement in the air when religious holidays are near.

Our house is typical. Our furnishings are modest and simple. Besides the ridiculous number of toys and books our kids have, we could almost pass for locals.

So why am I still so opposite? Why didn’t the “veil” between us lower quicker? Why aren’t my best efforts at practicing “incarnational ministry” paying off and producing fast fruit?

No matter what I do, how I live, how I speak or dress— will it ever be “enough?” Is all the effort even worth it? Will I always be a foreign weirdo?

I remind myself that God always intended His people to be called out and set apart. Noah, perhaps, is the very first example of a truly called out person, living in a wicked time, but remaining true to the God who was instructing him down a strange path. He was faithful despite his culture and despite the absurdity of God’s call on his life.

Abraham, the father of our faith, is called out and asked to move to a place he didn’t know, to trust God and do what God said despite the uncertainty. He was both called out from his culture and from his family, leaving his parents and most of his extended relatives behind. He was called to live in tents, traveling around, being a nomad for God.

Being called out means hearing the voice of God interrupting your life. God’s voice usually interrupts your life’s plans and gives you a new set of directives to follow. And the plans usually sound crazy to most of the people around you.

God calls Moses from a burning bush and changes his life’s course. Later God calls His people out of Egypt asking them to trust Him to lead them to a Promised Land. They are repeatedly told to be holy, be set apart, to not assimilate to the idol-worshipping nations around them. They are called to be holy because God is holy, and they are God’s people.

God always reminds them that He didn’t call them because they are better than everyone else, but because He had mercy on them. Because He is loving and merciful. Not because they did anything at all to earn His favor. They are called out to follow His voice, to move their tents when He moves and to stay when He stays. They worship God using a tent “Tabernacle” in the desert, with no permanent place to worship God. Through all this, God teaches them that He will go with them.

So I am content to be an alien and a stranger here. I am a foreign weirdo who may never fit in completely. But I am confident in my calling, and I trust that God is with me wherever I go. There are differences between me and the people I serve – so many differences – but I believe God will use those differences to build His Kingdom and show the world the great love of Christ, a love that has no bounds and no ethnic affiliation.

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Julie Jean Francis is the author of Bowing Low: Rejecting the Idols Around Us to Worship the Living God. She has lived as an alien and stranger in Southeast Asia since 2012 among a large, unreached people group (less than 1% Christian) with her only teammate and husband of 14 years. Together they raise their many Third Culture Kids. She likes drinking tea, ministering to children, and talking about loneliness, the power of the Word, and the faithfulness of God in hard times. You can find her online here.

Please Pray for My Alex, and I’ll Pray for Yours: When Our Children Don’t Believe

by Anonymous

Will you pray for my Alex?

That’s not my child’s real name, but that doesn’t matter. It also doesn’t matter whether Alex is my daughter or son. What matters is that Alex has decided not to follow Jesus.

It shouldn’t really matter that Alex is an MK, either, but it does to us, Alex’s mom and dad. I know that a parent is a parent and a child is a child, but when we went overseas to take the gospel to the lost, we didn’t plan on losing one of our own.

While Alex was growing up, we were trying to help the people in our new country taste and see that the Lord is good, but somewhere along the way the taste our Alex ended up with was bitter or, at best, bland.

Were we too strict as parents? Were we too lax? Did we spend too much time working with others at the expense of our child? Did our move and ministry overseas have anything to do with Alex’s choice?

There’s a voice inside me that can easily quote the verse “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” I’ve learned how to explain that verse away, but that doesn’t make it go away. When I open up Proverbs, there it is.

Another voice says, Now you know what it feels like to have a child leave the family faith, and there are days when wrestling with Alex’s lack of a foundation shakes my own.

We hear others say that their greatest joy is that all their children are faithful believers, and we want that joy, too. Sometimes we feel so alone.

But I know we’re not.

I know that some of you, too, have an Alex. I’ve read your hesitant emails and listened to your hushed words.

You grieve, as we do, but you haven’t given up.

So we pray for our Alexes to hear God, in whatever way he chooses to speak, we pray for them to return to his eager embrace, and we pray for them to be given the time to do so.

We love them and want them to know the blessings of Christ, in this life and the life to come.

We pray and we hope, even when we’re hoping against hope.

Please pray for my Alex. I’ll pray for yours.

Missionaries 2.0: How to Thrive in a Second Mission Post

by Abigail Follows

“Here we go again, God,” I prayed. “Please guide us!”

I took a deep breath and pulled my children towards the security check. After seven years in India and a one-year break stateside, God had successfully changed my desires—again. We would be in North Africa in just a few hours. I only prayed our kids would love our new home.

Are you considering re-launching as a missionary? Here are a few of the things that helped us adjust to our second place of service.

 

BEFORE LAUNCHING

1. Evaluate your first call.
What did you do well, in ministry and in your family and personal life? What didn’t work? What do you want to change this time? Now you are the seasoned missionaries giving the new missionaries (also you) advice. Lean on your experience for insight into how to approach your new call.

We knew we wanted to have better boundaries and take more breaks as a family. We also knew we wanted to get set up in a home right away, rather than hop around from place to place.

 

2. Prepare Yourself.
“I thought the birth of my second baby would be easy,” a friend of mine once told me. “Been there, done that, right? But every labor is different, and I ended up not ready. Make sure you prepare for your second one!” I was glad I took her advice when my son was born just two hours after the first contraction! Later, I remembered my friend’s advice again as my family prepared to re-launch. 

Read, attend training, pray, talk to other missionaries… take the time to equip yourself and your family for a new adventure.

 

3. Nurture Important Connections.
You’ve probably heard of the concept of building a RAFT written about by Dave Pollock and Ruth Van Reken in the book Third Culture Kids. RAFT stands for Reconciliation, Affirmation, Farewell, Think Destination. Take the time to heal, nurture, and appreciate relationships, both in your first host country and your home country. 

Beyond building a RAFT, I printed a sign that said, “Home is Wherever I’m With You.” Then I printed a stack of photos of friends and families from India and the USA. I wanted our children to celebrate all the places they’d lived and the people they’d loved. I wanted them to have a sense of our family history. 

 

AFTER LAUNCHING

1. Embrace the Newness
You may feel less nervous or wonder-eyed than you did during your first launch. That’s a good thing! It can help make adjusting easier. But don’t let it temper your curiosity and excitement. Taste exotic foods, get outside your comfort zone, laugh at your language blunders.

This was especially important for us since we launched with school-aged kids. They needed us to be excited with them, to discover our new host country alongside them. And their excitement (and sometimes confusion) helped us get into the new experience, too.

 

2. Don’t Avoid Comparisons.
This might sound counterintuitive. Shouldn’t missionaries suspend judgement? Shouldn’t we avoid telling people that our ways are superior? But this suggestion isn’t about which culture is better. It’s about the similarities and differences between cultures. It’s about harnessing previous cultural experience to give you context for understanding another worldview.

Although Indian and North African cultures have major differences, our knowledge about Indian culture actually helped us navigate North African culture. We found we had a larger general cultural knowledge bank to consult when things confused us. This made us more patient and flexible.

For example, we already had experience in a place where time is a much more flexible commodity than in our home culture. So, when it turned out to be flexible in our second host culture, we understood. It wasn’t a stressful adjustment.

So, compare the new culture with your wider knowledge bank. Let your prior knowledge help you ask more informed questions. Stay curious and enjoy the learning journey!

 

3. Pray. Adjust. Repeat.
As I mentioned, you’ll probably want to do some things differently this time around. Maybe you had no personal boundaries during your first term of service. Or maybe you stayed in your comfort zone too much. Whatever it is, make changes, but be wary of the tendency to overreact.

During our first few months in Africa, we reacted to our previous “almost no boundaries the entire time” attitude by living a comparatively solitary existence. Then we woke up and realized that people are still the point of missions.

Balance is not a destination. It’s a way of journeying. It’s a willingness to constantly evaluate and adjust the way you live. And for the missionary, it’s centered on prayer, because God has a much better perspective on us and our ministries than we do.

 

4. Don’t Forget Your First Love.
Whether you loved your first host country or experienced trauma there (or like us, both), you may find yourself resistant to replacing your first experience with a new one. That’s okay! 

For me, this manifested itself in language learning. My husband Joshua, who is super friendly and driven, is always up for a new language. 

I tend to be more introverted. So my ability to speak Hindi represented sweat, blood, tears, and a whole lot of time spent outside my comfort zone. It was also the only avenue for me to maintain important relationships in India. When my new language started trying to kick the old one out of my brain, I stopped trying to learn.

If you find yourself resistant to the new language, be reassured that it’s normal. And don’t panic.

When I eventually embraced learning my third language, I found that speaking and hearing Hindi a couple of times a month was enough to keep me from completely forgetting it—even if my Indian friends did tease me when I mixed up vocab.

 

Final Thoughts
After nearly three years in our second host country, I have no regrets about taking a second call. While we still made plenty of mistakes, our prior experience helped us to do things a little better this time around. And the faith God built in us during our first call helped us to trust Him more this time, too. 

And God answered our prayer–He helped our children to bond with our new country of service. It took time and some problem-solving, but we eventually found a sustainable balance.

Have you taken a second call? Are you thinking of taking a second call? Do you have any tips, or questions? Leave a comment below!

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Abigail Follows has lived on three continents and listened to the life stories of friends in three languages. She has been a cross-cultural missionary for 11 years. Abigail lives wherever God leads with her husband, two children, and cat, Protagonist. She recently released Hidden Song of the Himalayasa memoir about her family’s seven years as missionaries in India. Find out more at abigailfollows.com.

Should You Be a Missionary . . . Again?

by Abigail Follows

“I never want to be a missionary again! Amen.” I closed my prayer journal and smiled with satisfaction. It felt good to be honest with God.

Don’t get me wrong. I had beautiful memories from the seven years my family and I spent as missionaries in the mountains of India. Camping in the Himalayas with shepherds. Surviving the births of my two kids in rural hospitals—the second time by a miracle. Watching a woman forgive for the first time in her life. It was a beautiful experience, worth every sacrifice we made to be there.

It was just that I didn’t think I had it in me to do it all again. To squeeze my thoughts into yet another worldview. To spend years learning yet another language. To love an Entire People Group on behalf of Christ—again. I was tired and out of energy. I was spent.

“You have my permission to change my heart,” I said aloud, thinking this time God would let me off the hook.

Yet just one year after we left India, we re-launched to a closed-access country in north Africa. Why do I always forget how good God is at changing hearts?

What about you? Are you a returned missionary? Do you wonder whether God is calling you back into the field? Here are some practical steps you can take to evaluate your calling and readiness to go for God—again.

 

Take your time
If you’ve just returned from mission service, consider taking a break. Get some perspective on your first call. Give yourself time to process.

Just two days after our return from India, a fellow missionary asked us to consider joining his family in Africa. However, our sending organization advised us to wait at least a year before deciding. They gave us work at the home office, and we spent several months just living a quiet, low-key life. Waiting gave us time to rest and recuperate from a very intense mission experience.

My husband, Joshua, is the kind of person who is always ready to go, like, yesterday. I, on the other hand, need to filter minor decisions through a complex network of questions about the meaning of life and the potential for unintentional death… so it can take me a while to be ready for new things.

But my husband was patient. He let me bring up the topic when I was ready, kept a good sense of humor about it, and prayed for me. So if you’re married, be patient with yourselves and with each other.

 

Set a Date and Tell God
Setting a date takes the pressure off you and puts things back in God’s hands. Whether He answers by a dream, impression, open doors, or something else, He will make things clear!

After a good break, Joshua and I chose a “Decision Day” and told God He’d have to do any heart-changing by that deadline.

And He did. For us, He sent a life-changing dream, plus the heart re-filling that we both needed. In just a few months, Africa became a real possibility. We began to discuss the idea in earnest.

 

Get Away
As your Decision Day approaches, take yourself (or yourselves, if you are married) somewhere quiet. Give yourself some peaceful, uninterrupted time to talk and pray. If you can, take several days. If not, schedule time to talk and pray over the course of several evenings.

A few months before our Decision Day we attended our organization’s orientation week. There we met a handful of fresh, pre-launch missionaries. They had so many questions for us. I had thought our experience would make us too tired to keep giving. What if it actually made us more mature, informed missionaries? 

We decided to fast and pray. During the fast, it dawned on us that there were almost a thousand theology students at our nearby seminary, ready to do God’s work in North America. There were five people at orientation ready to do ministry in the 10/40 window.

But were we still called?

 

Look for the Arrows
Celebrate your story, the story God has been writing all your life. What are all the little arrows in the road God has used to guide you? Do you believe He called you to be a missionary the first time? Has He released you from that calling? Has your calling shifted? Or is He still calling you to be a missionary?

After praying about it, Joshua and I agreed that we were released from our call to India, but not released from our call to reach the unreached.

But were we ready?

 

Evaluate Readiness
Take stock of the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual situation of each member of your family. Is there anything anyone still needs? If trauma or conflict was a factor in your departure from your first call, have you sought effective Christian counseling? Does anyone in the family still carry bitterness in need of some sweet, soothing forgiveness? Is everyone healthy, both spiritually and physically?

Our reason for leaving India verged into the trauma side of things. Because of that, it was super important to us to evaluate whether we had sufficiently addressed the needs of each member of our family. It felt like a miracle to look back and see just how much healing God had done in such a short amount of time. 

 

Seek Counsel
Here’s where I tell you to do as I say, not as I do. Don’t be afraid to seek counsel from Godly people in your life!

I wish Joshua and I would have asked for more prayer support during this time. I also wish we would have given our (very Godly) parents more of an opportunity to share their thoughts and feelings. Although they gave us their blessing, I think including them in our process would have made it easier for them to be at peace about our taking a second call.

 

Make a decision
When the day comes, it should be clear whether you should go, stay, or postpone the decision. Celebrate that clarity with a prayer of thanksgiving. And, if you need to take care of some things before you’re ready to make a decision, set a new Decision Day date to work towards.

Our decision was simple–we gathered the kids, knelt together, and thanked God for His calling. Then we pledged ourselves to go again, by His strength.

 

If now is not the time…
Hudson Taylor, 
the example of self-sacrifice and incarnational Christian service, took a five-year break from China because of health concerns. Those five years in English must have felt. Like. So. Long. Like forever.

But when Taylor re-launched to China in 1866, he brought with him the first missionaries of China Inland Missions.

If you have to wait, wait with patience and faith. If the answer is no, and God has released you from your overseas calling, know that He will use you wherever He has put you. Be content to be a part of His plans. They’re awesome plans, no matter where they take place.

 

If God is calling you to go again…
Go with God, my friend! And watch for another article with tips for adjusting to a second host country.

Dig deeper into the discernment process with these questions: Missionaries20ConversationStarters.

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Abigail Follows has lived on three continents and listened to the life stories of friends in three languages. She has been a cross-cultural missionary for 11 years. Abigail lives wherever God leads with her husband, two children, and cat, Protagonist. She recently released Hidden Song of the Himalayas, a memoir about her family’s seven years as missionaries in India. Find out more at abigailfollows.com.

Permission to Prioritize Your Birth Abroad

by Chandler Gilow

Birth is important. It’s one of the most human experiences, shared by women and families in every culture on earth. It is both universal and highly personal. The experience is also completely unique, no matter how many births you have. Birth is life changing every time, and your experience, whether good or bad, will impact your life for years to come. 

As a labor and delivery nurse, I have seen a few key components that set up families to navigate this season well no matter the outcome: planning, education, advocacy, and support. If moms and dads set aside the time to research their options, learn about the birth process, and gameplan for potential outcomes, they can advocate with confidence in almost any situation. Likewise, families who are intentional about lining up the support they need can better handle deviations from their plans. 

This transitional season always brings stress, albeit happy stress, into the family unit as you make decisions about your healthcare team and parenting. However, these potential stressors can be compounded for those living abroad.  

A lot of my expat friends had a baby in their first 3 years abroad, and from what I’ve gathered, this is a pretty common story. In the first 3 years you are still transitioning to your new culture, learning a new language, healthcare system, and community. Not to mention potentially helping older TCKs adjust, working with visa restrictions, possibly relocating for birth, and don’t forget ALL the paperwork.  

This season was meant to be filled with joy and excited anticipation, not overwhelming stress. The great news is that it can be fun and wonderful if you allow yourself to invest the time and energy.  

When we found out we were expecting our second baby, we were about a year into language learning in the Middle East. We were excited and overwhelmed all at the same time. Our first birth in the U.S had not gone as planned. The calm birth I’d hoped for ended in an emergency cesarean with a long healing time. 

We had not prepared well. I thought that because I was a nurse I could get by with halfheartedly focusing on a childbirth education class. In the end we had a beautiful little girl, but also some residual trauma. I decided for my second that I would unapologetically devote my time to preparing mentally, spiritually, and emotionally. All the hours of research, preparation, and relocation to a city to get the birth team I needed, ended in a very healing VBAC abroad. All that time was worth it to me because we came back healthier than before the birth.  

Since then, I have talked to so many families who feel guilt for investing time and resources into preparing for their birth. They feel like they are taking time away from language learning, ministry, or their job. They struggle to justify spending money on classes or a doula because they raise money and do not feel like they can make a case to supporters. I have also seen families with older children approach birth abroad without thinking through the nuances that could impact their experience.  

The truth is, birth abroad is amazing and beautiful, and it can be a great way to connect with your local culture. However, it also comes with a lot of nuance that needs to be considered. Every family is different and needs to be respected. They need to prioritize different decisions in their pregnancy/birth/postpartum experience to thrive.

You may need to hire a doula, pay for a birth class, change healthcare providers, travel to another city/country to get a level of healthcare you feel comfortable with. It could mean not feeling guilty reading birth books at night instead of running though your language flashcards one more time, taking time away from your typical day to interview multiple care providers, or paying a little extra to get a private postpartum room. 

Whatever you choose to prioritize should not be done with guilt or seen as an indulgence. It should be seen as an investment to keep your family resilient and to increase longevity on the field. After all, there are no do-overs in birth. I would much rather see families thrive through this season with adequate education, resources, and community instead of simply thriving or needing healing postpartum.  

 ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ 

Chandler is a wife, mom of two, RN, and Lactation Specialist who started The Global Birth Coach after seeing a hole in expat care during her birth abroad. She is now stateside with her family while her husband finishes his PhD. She is passionate about empowering families to thrive in the perinatal period. You can find her @theglobalbirthcoach on Facebook, Instagram, and PinterestThe Expat Birth Podcast is a podcast devoted to sharing birth stories from abroad. It is released monthly on all major platforms. Contact her through her website or email: info@theglobalbirthcoach.com. 

 

When Doors Close

by Carol Ghattas

“You have ten days to leave the country.” I was shocked. There I stood, pregnant with our first child, excited about the future, and this government official was bringing it all to an end. What had we done? “You’re a risk to national security,” he said. Though I should have held my tongue, the words came quickly out of my mouth in Arabic: “I’m five months pregnant! How am I a risk to national security?” Unlike me, my husband, Raouf, didn’t argue. He knew it would do no good and could even make our situation worse. He thanked the man, and we left his office.

Heading straight to the home of our colleagues, we hugged, cried, and prayed, knowing the days ahead would be crazy and uncertain. We had so much to do to quickly bring closure to our two years in this precious land. While Raouf spent hours doing paperwork and arranging transportation for our belongings, I packed and poured my heart out to the Lord.

I wish I could tell you this would be our only move in twenty years of overseas service, but it wasn’t. I’ve experienced a lot of closed doors and can tell you this for certain: when one door closes, another opens. Knowing that fact does not remove the pain of the closure, but it does remind me of who’s in charge and helps me to accept the change of course.

Sometimes doors close before you can get into a country. Though our original appointment was to Lebanon, doors were closed to Americans at the time. We would live and serve in two other countries before we eventually arrived there, due to being kicked out of Syria. In my mind, I should have been excited that we were finally going to get to move in, but my heart was torn. I had fallen in love with another place and people; I wasn’t ready to leave yet, but we did—we had no other choice.

We crossed the border with our cat and my hormones raging. It was a place still recovering from years of civil war. Chaos ruled. Families who had been protecting mission property were displaced because of our arrival. No one seemed to want us there. What was God thinking?

As I wallowed in my grief, in a land I now saw as a place of exile, the Lord spoke to me out of Jeremiah 29. “‘I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future.’” This was the land in which I was to “build houses, settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters…” God was showing me that even when he leads us to a hard place, we are to live. 

So, that’s what I did. Our four years in Lebanon were a season for me—the season of having babies and pouring into them. I had not one but two sons in that country, and when I look back, I realize the healthcare in my land of exile was so much better than the land of harvest. My husband had ministry opportunities there that allowed him to touch believers from across the region. We still had struggles, but we determined to put our hand to the plow of good deeds and harvest and not look back.

Then it happened—I settled. I became comfortable in Lebanon and thought we’d live there for the rest of our careers. We were preparing to move into an area of the country to better serve the majority, as soon as we returned from a short furlough. However, just weeks before we were to leave, our own organizational leadership asked us to move. What!? How could they? 

They had good reasons, but I didn’t want to hear them. I stayed home and packed for an actual move to an unknown land, while my husband made a survey trip to one of the possible places we could go. While he was away, I came across a magazine about that land—it revealed there was no established church. That did it for me. We were needed there. God’s hand was in this. My husband returned and asked me what God had been saying before he shared about what he had seen. What I heard, he confirmed. We moved again. One door closed, another opened.

The 2020 COVID-19 pandemic has probably closed doors for many of you in recent months. That door may have been just a wall of separation between you and the people you love, or it may have left you stuck either in your home country or a place you simply went on vacation. Sudden change is hard and can shake our faith until we realize that the shut door hasn’t separated us from the God who guides our steps. 

Our biggest hurdle in facing some changes is coming to terms with the fact that we had no say in the matter. It’s a matter of control. When Scripture tells us to number our days, it doesn’t mean everything that happens in our lives should be neatly laid out in our daily planners. Rather, it means that He alone knows the number of our days; my job is to give each one to him, no matter what it brings.

When 2020 began, I wrote a prayer in my journal. It was full of expectation and hope at all God was doing in my life. I was looking forward to increased speaking engagements and upcoming books I’d write. Then, just like you experienced, everything that was good and hopeful stopped. But because I had thirty years of closed doors behind me, I recognized this for what it was—an opportunity to stop and see what God was doing.

While I had my own struggles during the pandemic, it also gave me the margin I needed for God to speak and work in my life. I was able to pivot and see that I had more time to write than ever before, since I work full-time as a librarian. Other activities were taken away, so my evenings were freer and quieter. I was able to work hard and actually finish a book on, of all things—closed doors. God has a sense of humor too.

When doors closed during my time overseas, I wasn’t always so willing to go through the next one, but God, in his patience, didn’t let that prevent me from seeing what he was doing in this new place and how he wanted me to join him there. 

I don’t know where you are today. Maybe you’re standing in front of a closed door and don’t know what to do next, or you’ve been pushed through another and are floundering with loss of purpose. It’s also possible that you recognize a door needs to be closed, because this season in your life is changing. Wherever you are, remember that the One who led you through this first door continues to be by your side and even goes before you through each door ahead. 

Rest in the knowledge that he has the big picture in view and only asks your obedience for the next good thing he opens before you. 

Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, “This is the way; walk in it.”  Isaiah 31:21

~~~~~~~~~

Carol B. Ghattas has over thirty years of experience in cross-cultural ministry and has lived in five countries in the Middle East and North Africa. Now back in the United States, she maintains an active blog site, lifeinexile.net. She is a writer and speaker on missions, Islam, and other topics. Her newest book, When Doors Close: Changing Course in Missions Without Losing Your Way, is now available through online book distributors. For more information or to contact Carol, visit her website: lifeinexile.net.

What if you used these “7 Household Rules?”

I preached on Sunday about “What does it mean to be the family of God?” In preparation I studied about how family language is used in the Bible; I also pondered how family language forms us. The idea of being siblings (plural) is used more than 150 times and the singular form of a sibling (often “brother”) is used more than 120 times in the New Testament.

I’ve been wondering how it would form me, form us if we really, really, really thought of each other as siblings. If my default way of thinking of you, working with you, and interreacting with you was that of a sibling. 

If I saw you as my sister and my brother and I saw myself as your sister.

In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul tells his readers and listeners that the are “also members of his [God’s] household,built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone.”

Just think, we are members of the same household.

As I worked on my sermon I made a list of rules from the household I grew up in to help ground myself in this idea of “rules”:

1. “No hitting your sisters;” and as we got older I’m embarrassed to share that our parents had to institute “no hitting the driver of the car” for safe sibling driving. 

2. “Take a ‘no thank you’ serving of food.” (Being normal children, we did not love everything that Mom cooked; but out of respect for Mom we could not refuse to try something she had worked hard to make. “No thank you servings” were small, but they fostered less fussing because we knew the deal.)

3. “Write thank you notes for gifts.”

4. “When you hear your dad whistle, come home or see what he wants.” 

5. “Dinner as a family is important.”

These are good and reasonable rules, yes? They formed our family and created bonds and norms for interacting.

I got to thinking, what if we—this household of cross-cultural workers—had our own set of household rules? What might they be? How would it form us if we read them regularly? If they were tucked in a Bible, hung on the fridge, or placed in the bathroom?

So, I wrote seven household rules for us.

In this Cross-Cultural Workers’ “Household”
aka Team/Ministry/Big-Wide-Internet-World:

1. We are siblings. You are my sister. You are my brother. I am your sister/brother.

(We are not competitors. We are not strangers. We are not indifferent to each other. We are family.)

2. All have something to contribute and we do not rank contributions.

(What you do is not more or less valuable than what I do. And vice versa, what you do is not more or less valuable than what I do. What you do matters. What I do matters.)

3. We will speak kindly of and to each other (and hopefully in many languages, wink!)

(We do not have to agree and we can have lively discussions on important subjects, but we will “use our words” kindly.)

4. We will act out of love — love for God, love for cultural variety, love for each other.

(We will not act out of fear. Our words and actions will be fueled by love and curiosity, not fear or suspicion.)

5. We will confront each other in love.

(We will not turn a blind eye or “hope that things will get better” or wait for something to explode. When we know something is off, or questionable, or just plain wrong, out of love for everyone in this household, we will address it).

6. We will hope for the best for each other.

(Your “success” or open door does not diminish me, my hopes, or what I want to do.)

7. We are siblings. You are my sister. You are my brother. I am your sister/brother.

(This is where the household of God begins and ends: in relationship, in remembering who we are, in remembering whose we are, in thinking correctly of ourselves and others.)


Referring to us as “siblings” more than 150 times in the New Testament is no fluke. The authors were training Christ followers how to think of themselves and each other. I wonder what a difference it would make if we got back to using more family language in our conversations, correspondence, and even in our thoughts. It won’t magically change everything, but those sisters that I used to need the rule “not to hit the driver” when we were teens? They are still in my life. We are so, so, so different. If we weren’t sisters, I’m not sure they’d want to be my friend (kidding! Sort of). But because they are my sisters and we lived in the same household and operated under similar rules, our differences are far outweighed by our love and commitment for each other.

As I type this post to you, that is my fervent hope and prayer for us too—all of us who go in the name of Christ—that our differences are far outweighed by our love and commitment for each other. 

So, rooted in relationship, I don’t want to just end this post with a final sentence, but with a sisterly blessing for you, for us.

May we see each other as siblings and may we operate under these “household rules.”

Much love to you, my siblings,
Amy

P.S. Want to print out these “Household Rules?” You can 🙂

Photo by Andre Halim on Unsplash

Does Change Ever Get Easier?

As I drove around in my very new neighborhood, I recognized a few things. I was a minority ethnically. As I shared with people about where we’d come from, they couldn’t warn me enough about the change in weather we’d experience between Orlando and Chicago. (Many of our neighbors in Florida had called us ‘crazy’ for making such a change.) And I desperately missed ‘normal’.

I know this blog is about living overseas and I’ve lived that life, making a couple of those transitions. It was hard, so hard. And it is hitting tough places again as I come to this place of a thousand mile domestic transition to somewhere I have never lived. The reality is that our surrender to change costs us, and in many ways, it doesn’t get easier no matter where we are. Although, I am not learning a new language and completely new culture, in some ways, this change is harder. My kids are older and hurting in ways they didn’t when they were little. I am not as young or resilient as I was before. The sense of adventure is less, and the hard times of the past can haunt.

But, I am here, showing up afresh in the midst of great upheaval. Because no matter where we are in our lives, we can experience the solidarity of our common humanity and the nature of change. We can reach out and remember we are not alone in feeling how we feel. And together, we can remember the truth that we are deeply, truly, fully loved in all of the ups and downs of tumultuous times.

The following are some of the most basic truths to remember in the midst of change. They are not earth-shattering principles. However, maybe, just maybe if we remember them together we will make that collective jump in a stuck elevator. We can, this time, see the doors open as we all walk into a new world.

  1. Changes come and go but God never changes: As I am right in the middle of fresh change, this means more than ever. Not only am I navigating a major transition, my father–a rock to me–is gravely ill. I am also knee-deep in edits for a coming book. Often these days I struggle for that anchor. And I am led right back to the God who is the same, yesterday, today and forever. There is nothing better for the storm-tossed waters of change, than this anchor, this hope in an unchanging God.
  2. Grace must be abundant: If I were given the chance to re-do my overseas transitions, I would add lots and lots of grace. I realize in a certain sense I have been given another chance to walk a major life overhaul and I know that I know that I know I need grace like the air I breathe. Grace for me, my husband, my precious children. Grace for new colleagues, friends and neighbors who will surely disappoint me in their inability to completely meet my needs. Grace to meet each day and receive its new, sunrise-laden mercies.
  3. Kindness is the great equalizer: Amid other cultures whether in the U.S. or abroad, nothing replaces the simple kindnesses we can give to others. Patience with the logistics of living a new life and the attendant at the window who is helping us complete this never-ending task. A smile for a stranger of another race no matter how awkward it feels. A helping hand for a new neighbor even if we hoped they would be the first to reach out. The kindness of God is ever leading a broken world to repentance, a turning back to his goodness which heals.
  4. Humility is an ever-present guide: Whether we are entering another culture of have been present in our current one for many, many years, we are called to be lifelong learners. There is no substitute for humility. There is no joy-killer more potent than complaint about the way things are different in a new country, city or workplace. God has a plan to make us like himself. This buffing out, uncovering the glory, far outshines the seeming glow of perfection in our most competent, comfortable ways of doing life. And most poignantly, he is ever close to the meek and lowly of heart. We are called to learn his rhythm, his way of navigating the constant change. He knows transition like no other ever has for he experienced it all in his journey from heaven to earth and among the earth.
  5. Learn how to be yourself again: This one can be so hard for me. Right now I feel very, very white in my current context. And I can overthink all of my actions towards those of other ethnicities. I become someone stifled, and completely other. I am experiencing this in a humbling way in a great new friendship. In keeping with all of the above, I must trust an unchanging God who gives abundant grace and calls me to kindness and humility. But, the results of each interaction, and the depth of each relationship, are God’s to hold and not mine. The best I can do is live out my unique personality for his glory. In whichever situation I am in, living out the Gospel as his special beloved child, will make a beautiful way for me to simply be myself.

I hope you don’t hear me saying this is easy, without pain or somehow formulaic. Rather, I hope you hear that you are not alone in your struggles with transition. It is a part of our legacy this side of Eden. A fallen world is not a welcome place to go through many of the changes we experience. But, a good God is ever with us, upholding us and this whole vast universe. In all of the shifting ways of this life, he is calling us home to his unchanging heart for us and his plan to hold us and hold us forever.

With you in the journey,

Abigail

Why I Will Not Say “I Never Made a Sacrfice”

This was my original post on A Life Overseas in 2012 when the site launched. Today it is my last regular post. I am stepping away, pulled by my other writing, being in seminary, family, and work and I know there are fresh voices out there to hear from. It has been an honor to write in this space for so many years. Thank you for reading along and sharing your stories. I’ll still be around and you can always find me on socials and my website.

Hudson Taylor said it, David Livingstone said it. “I never made a sacrifice.” A life spent as a foreigner, away from traditional comfortsaway from family and home country, a life of talking about Jesus, in these men’s opinions was no sacrifice.

While I understand the sentiment and the faith-filled valor behind it, I respectfully disagree. What these men did with their lives in China and on the African continent is the very definition of sacrifice.

A sacrifice is a giving up of something loved, something precious in order to gain something better.

I heard a young woman working in Uganda say that her life doesn’t feel like a sacrifice. In the next sentence she talked about hardships and how some days she doesn’t know how she will get through the day. That is sacrifice. I’m not sure what people expect a sacrifice to feel like but I think it feels hard sometimes. I think it feels like not being sure you will get through the day.

Every step of obedience, every life choice, every risk taken, whether it is getting married or not, having children or not, living overseas or not…brings with it a gain and a loss. Negating the reality of the sacrifice cheapens the reward, the sense of joy, fulfillment, purpose, the God-honoring obedience.

One of the problems with saying ‘it is no sacrifice’ is that it leads people to put international workers on pedestals. Have you ever had someone say something like:

“You are so holy because you don’t care when your hair falls out from the brackish water and searing heat.”

“You are so much more spiritual because you don’t struggle when you aren’t able to attend your grandfather’s funeral.”

“I could never do what you are doing because I couldn’t send my kids to boarding school.”

No and NO! We are not all so different, we simply live in different time zones.I cry when I see handfuls of hair in the drain and when I watched my grandfather’s funeral three months later on a DVD and I weep with a physical pain in my chest over the miles between here and my kids at school. I am not more holy or spiritual or stronger than anyone, I feel the sacrifice.

And feeling the sacrifice makes the privilege, the reward, so deeply precious, so treasured, so urgently prayed for.

Livingstone said (emphasis mine),

It is emphatically no sacrifice. Say rather it is a privilege. Anxiety, sickness, suffering, or danger, now and then, with a foregoing of the common conveniences and charities of this life, may make us pause, and cause the spirit to waver, and the soul to sink; but let this only be for a moment. All these are nothing when compared with the glory which shall be revealed in and for us. I never made a sacrifice.”

Not a sacrifice, but rather a privilege.

Can this life not be both? Are sacrifice and privilege juxtaposed against one another or could they perhaps go hand in hand? It is a privilege to sacrifice.

Living with hair in the drain instead of my head, away from loved ones during a crisis and on everyday days, international borders between me and my kids, living like this is a sacrifice. It hurts, it tears, it might leave you weeping on the couch some nights, snortling into your husband’s shoulder. But it is not in vain. It is not without joy. It is not without faith. Feel the pain and the joy of it and then render everything sacrificed as rubbish and count the privilege as gain.

I will not say that I have never made a sacrifice.

I will say that I have never made a sacrifice in vain. I have never made a sacrifice that didn’t bring with it a deep, residing joy. I have never made a sacrifice without faith that there is a reward coming which will, like Livingston said, far outweigh these present sufferings.

With my eyes steady on the prize, I sacrifice. Never in vain, (almost) never without joy. Always with faith.

In what ways do you feel the sacrifice? Experience the privilege?

When the Backpack is too Heavy

Sheila Walsh tells a poignant story of her son wanting to leave home at the tender age of six. Evidently he set out with his backpack and jacket, heading toward a pond near home. She, wanting to allow freedom but aware of his young age, kept a watchful eye from a window where she could ensure safety as well as give him his independence. After a short time he was back at the door, offering no explanation other than a six-year-old going on sixteen response of “It’s good to be home!”

Later that night as she was tucking him in, she brought up the adventure and asked him about it. His response was matter of fact “I would have gone farther but my backpack was too heavy.”

As I listened to her, I was overwhelmed by the truth in a child’s simple comment.

I would have gone farther, but my backpack was too heavy.

Sheila Walsh

These days, I feel like this child. My backpack feels so heavy, the things I carry too weighty. My adult kids and their lives; friends I know who are aching from pain, some that can be spoken and other that can’t; patients and family members struggling beyond believability; worries and fear about the future and regret about the past – a backpack so heavy I can scarcely move.

It’s all mixed together with the good stuff so I’m not always sure what the good stuff is. Sort of like my kids backpacks used to be at the end of a semester, where a mashed up moldy sandwich, an apple, and crushed chips are crumbled up together in what used to be a brown lunch bag, but mixed in with this is a perfectly good juice carton and packaged granola bar. Instead of sorting through, I throw all of it away.

I’ve always thought that the primary lesson to this story was the obvious one – a heavy backpack preventing a child from the joy and distance of the journey. If I just lighten my load I would go farther, make more of an impact, be freer to serve. And to be sure, this is critically important. But dig deeper and the symbolism goes farther.

This little six-year-old knew exactly where to go to remember who he was. and where to drop off his backpack. He knew the way Home. He knew that Home was light, and love and Mom. He knew that there would be no condemnation, just warm chocolate chip cookies, cold milk and a listening heart. He knew that at home he could rest and move forward, his burden gone. He knew home was a place to be reminded of who he was.

As I think about the times I turn around because the backpack is too heavy, I hope I have the sense of a six-year-old who goes back home, and drops off his back pack. I hope I can go back to Jesus, the source and author of love, where condemnation is erased and the load is lifted, replaced with his yoke, his burden. Back to the Church, where I can be reminded of who I am, back to the Author of all that is good and holy and right.

I don’t know where in the world you are today and what things in your backpack make it too heavy. It may be transition and displacement. It may be loss of place. It may be the burden of betrayal or feeling like you’re wasting your life. It may be a struggling marriage or longing for a life partner. It may be the sorrows of your children and their needs that keep you up at night. It may be chronic illness, depression or anxiety. It may be the death of one you love.

I do know that whatever it is, home and rest are waiting. Not home the place, but Home – the person and presence of Jesus.

Clueless

by Jacqueline Scott

When we head into another culture to live among the local people, our hope is to understand them at least enough to become someone they will listen to. But the reality is that we are clueless, especially when their culture is very different from ours. It’s good to recognize that. It’s where we have to start. After all, we’re the guests in their country. When they look at us like we’re from Mars because they can’t understand a word we’re attempting to say in their language, we need to laugh at ourselves with them. That means getting over any feelings of self-importance. This was time consuming and exhausting for me. I thought I was pretty important.

In his book Cross Cultural Servanthood, Duane Elmer offers perspective on what it means to serve someone in another culture, then outlines the process of serving others cross-culturally. He suggests six steps: openness, acceptance, trust, learning, understanding, and serving. But it’s easier to rush into someone’s world, do what we think they need most, feel good about ourselves and our sacrifice, then rush home — often having done more damage than good.  So, our first years in Central Asia were largely about being close enough to people to learn about them and build trust so that our serving could be mutual and meaningful.

We shared a courtyard with a young local family. The house was small with two stories and two bedrooms.  Our four kids were in bunkbeds in one bedroom. The small yard was a God-send for our young energetic family, especially when the alternative was a playground strewn with broken glass and questionable characters. Though this yard was a combination driveway, garden, dog pen, storage, and place to dry clothes, it offered ample opportunities for our kids to play.  

One day Zoya, the young wife across the yard, was over and we talked about our kids. Happy that I was finally getting along in Russian, I asked if she thought she would have another child since they only had a little boy the same age as our youngest. She flippantly answered, “Oh, I’ve already thrown so many away.” I looked at her, hoping I misunderstood. But I knew that word. The one that was used when you throw away garbage.

It pierced me. There was no sign of conscience or concern that this practice might be wrong. In the Soviet times it was their method of birth control; they knew nothing else. In that moment I knew I was much farther away from understanding them than I even thought. I had so much to learn about the core of their beliefs.  

We would always be anomalies to them. Somehow though, it didn’t keep us from loving them or them from loving us, or from them wanting to hear why we came and what kept us there. They were so hungry for meaning, yet they were trapped in a convoluted belief system that denied God. Our neighbors had grown up in that belief system. It takes time to unravel long-entrenched falsehoods in order to see Truth. 

Too often we are clueless as to what assumptions we bring to life. We aren’t really aware of the bottom lines that we hold as self-evident, the axioms. And sometimes the people we serve aren’t aware of their assumptions, either. As one of our Soviet friends considered faith, she came to realize that she readily accepted axioms or “givens” in math.  An axiom is a basic proposition of a system that, although unproven, is used to prove the other propositions in the system. Every belief system has to start with a basic proposition. Once she accepted God as the “given,” she was free to really believe Him. And her life was lifted.

Becoming part of a different country takes you far from your old world. You are challenged and changed beyond anything you expected.  Your view of yourself and God morphs. Then, when you head back into your home culture, you feel clueless all over again. At times you even feel like a social martyr; you are always a stranger, an anomaly. You’re left out of the plans because you won’t be there, or you’re held at a distance since you’re not in on what they’re talking about. Some cross-cultural workers face this more than others. Though I love our times in our home culture, there’s an underlying feeling of “it’s not mine anymore.” So, we’re an anomaly here and an anomaly there. Where’s our home? That is a struggle for us and even more so for our kids when they navigate their passport countries. 

But I find comfort in Hebrews 11 where it actually says “God was not ashamed to be called their God” because they were looking for a heavenly city. Their hope was in a heavenly home. I find myself wrestling with this regularly. I’m working on putting my hope in a heavenly home while using my earthly home for heavenly purposes.

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

Jacqueline Scott is author of Your Life is Re-markable! She was captivated by God at age 12, became an RN, got a BS in Bible, and then a Masters in Leadership Studies. While in university she met Dan, and in 1986 they both headed to Bolivia, South America to save the world. She had four kids instead. They moved to Central Asia in 1994 in leadership with a non-profit agency. Currently credentialed as a personal and leader development coach, she works with individuals and groups in person and on-line. You can find her online at SoulFit.