Dear Missions, I wish you had told me . . .

Dear Missions,

It’s been a while since we first started on this adventure together. There’ve been ups and downs just like everyone said there would be. There’s been a lot of laughter, a lot of tears. Many learning experiences and cultural faux pas. It’s been good and I’m thankful for this opportunity, but there are a few things I wish you had told me before I boarded that first plane. So I’m writing you this letter with the hope that the next person to join you will know some of these things beforehand. And that those already with you will know that they are not alone.


Rebecca and Renette

Dear missions, I wish you had told me. . .

…that the culture shock comes and goes.

The first year is full of new faces, systems, jargon and challenges. It feels like you joined a different world as you navigate learning the culture, which is actually a culture within a culture within a culture within a culture. There’s your culture, the culture of the country you are living in, the culture of the people you work with, the culture of the organisation and the missionary culture. Mix them all together and you have a bunch of people who are never sure who they are, what the right way to greet someone is and what the appropriate table manners are. You’ll think you’ve finally mastered the culture and then something new will pop up that makes you rethink everything you already learnt (or thought you’d learnt). And that’s all right. Keep going. Keep learning and embracing the culture surrounding you.

…that support raising never stops.

You will always be working on raising support — both prayer and financial. Some supporters may only be committed for the first year or for specific things. Every new person you meet is someone who can journey with you, be it by prayer or through financial giving. Never stop sharing your passion and your stories. They don’t know you have the story, so don’t wait for opportunities; create them. Learn to start the conversation. People will recognise your enthusiasm and respond to it.

…that it will always feel like more can be done.

Your eyes will be opened to many needs. Many of them, you knew existed, but you never understood to what extent. You will see the need for business training, translation, better education, finances, farming tools, Bible interpretation, job opportunities and many more. You will feel guilty when you think of how many of these things you have in excess in other parts of the world — maybe even where you’re from. You will feel guilty for not doing/teaching/sharing/speaking up more. The needs can be overwhelming, and you may find yourself in a situation where you feel like what you are doing is not enough and you can’t fathom where to start fixing all the world’s problems.

Remember to respond not to the need, but to the Father who knows all the needs in the world. God is asking you: “What is in your hand? Can you use that for My people?” Ask Him what the needs are that you should respond to. And those needs that aren’t yours to respond to? Continue praying about them.

…that debriefing is a real thing and you will soon ask for it (and if not, you should).

In an organisation focused on meeting needs, serving sacrificially and working cross culturally, you will have things that need to be processed. It will feel silly and unnecessary, but if you keep the lid closed on these subjects, the bottle will explode, and you will scare people. Relieve the pressure by regularly opening the can of worms and setting them free. Sometimes it will be a five-minute conversation on how hard it was to fall asleep with all the noise from the street below and other times it will be a two-hour conversation on the inner conflict you experienced when you saw how a team member was treated by someone.

Don’t be shy, find someone you trust and start talking.

…that people will keep asking when this gap year/wanderlust will end.

It’s sometimes hard to understand why someone chooses to work for no salary and live in a foreign country. When you are in your 20’s, people assume you’re taking a gap year; when you’re older, people think you’re just taking a break. People will come up to you, asking you when this will be over, when you will start looking for a real job, and aren’t there churches that can do the work?

Stick to that verse God gave you, that promise He made, that peace you are experiencing. This might be only for a short season, but it might also be the next 30 years of your life. Be true and honest with yourself. Keep praying about how — and where — God wants you to serve.

…that missionaries aren’t perfect.

It can feel like all missionaries pray 24/7 and know the Bible by heart. You feel like you are far behind on your Bible knowledge and that you need to extend your thirty-minute devotion to a three-hour one. Calm down, missionaries are not perfect. They make plenty of mistakes. Some might know a lot of the Bible by heart, others may use Google to find that one verse. Missionaries are human; they have seasons where they do not feel God’s presence, where they feel lost. If you want to talk about real faith struggles, start sharing your struggles. I promise you half of your colleagues have faced what you are going through and totally understand that sometimes praying is hard.

…that the goodbyes never stop (but that doesn’t mean the investing has to).

We often refer to missionaries as short term (up to a year) or long term (one year +). People are always coming and going, and that makes for a lot of introductions as well as goodbyes. It’s hard saying goodbye to people who have become like family and experienced the ups and downs of the mission field with you and are now leaving you behind as they move on. It’s hard when you’re the long termer who wants to get to know and invest in the short termer while knowing they will leave you soon. And while it may be easier to hold those who will soon leave at arm’s length, you will miss out on making a friend. Someone who might need some pouring into. Someone who might pour into you. Someone who can bring new ideas and perspective into your home and ministry. Goodbyes are hard, but so is being alone.   

…that friendships look different.

Friendship in the missions world is a weird thing. You will meet so many people that you will only know for an hour or a day or a week. If you meet someone you get along with (regardless of the age difference, nationality, background or stage of life), be intentional to connect with them and stay connected. Months may pass before you see them again but messages and emails can be exchanged that will strengthen the relationship. Don’t expect a traditional friendship, but do expect a deep one. Say yes to receiving each other’s newsletters, say yes to exchanging numbers and emails. Stay connected.

…that it’s ok to say ‘no.’

I think we want to be ‘yes’ people, filling in the gaps and helping others 24/7, but you can’t be and do everything. It’s hard saying no when you want to help or feel like it’s expected of you. It is important to know what your red flags are in order to avoid burnout. A burnt-out person can’t effectively help a team or community.

Pray about when and how to help, talk through it with your support team. Filling the gaps is admirable, but it may be that it’s taking you away from what you are really supposed to be doing.

It’s ok to say no.

…that I would acquire skills I never dreamt would be necessary.

Making popcorn on a fire. Remembering where the best chairs for sleeping are in each airport. Braiding grass necklaces. Saying how are you in five different languages. Knowing when to bow, clap, look down and/or shake hands when greeting an elder. Following a recipe while substituting 75% of the ingredients because they’re not available in your country and still have it turn out ok. These are all different skills and travel tricks you learn when joining an international missions organisation.

Write them down and keep track of every odd skill and fact you learn — they are great conversation starters!

…that my fashion sense wouldn’t improve (in fact, it got worse).

Have you seen a group of people at an airport or bus stop who look like they backpack through life? They just may be missionaries. Your missionary life will shift many of your priorities, one of them being how you view fashion. You will go from fashionable to practical (depending on which country you are serving in).

Does it wrinkle easily or need to be washed separately with special soap? Don’t buy it. Does it fit tightly, show your shoulders or your knees? Leave it behind. Does it match every colour? Buy it. Can it be worn at a meeting as well as in the village? Definitely a keeper! Can it be used as a towel, blanket, pillow and/or a skirt? Treasure it.

Your fashion priorities will change and that’s ok, but don’t expect everyone else’s priorities to change as well. Depending where you are in the world, you may feel like an outsider or a few years behind, but keep clinging on to the reason why your fashion style is different and stick to it. We should all stick together and help the world realise that practical is fashionable!

…to keep a journal.

You may not think it’s possible, but you’ll forget things. It seems unimaginable that you could possibly forget the conversation you had with a drug user if there was cocaine on his face, or the time you met the biggest chief in the country, or when you had to walk from town to the airport because you misunderstood the bus driver. New memories will unintentionally replace the old ones as time goes on. And while that is not a bad thing, you might one day wish for a better record of these days. Write down the struggles so you can look back and see how you overcame them. Write down the victories — big and small — so you can praise God for them. Write about the friendships forged over cups of tea, the new food you were barely able to swallow down, and the unexpected God encounters that left you breathless.


Originally published at OM, reprinted with permission.


Both serving with Operation Mobilisation (OM), Rebecca and Renette met while housesitting for a colleague. Over many cups of coffee, they realised that they face similar challenges and have a similar world view and should be friends. Coming from cold Canada and hot South Africa, they have enjoyed visiting six countries together and have learnt that you should always travel with chocolate, coffee and wet wipes. 

Rebecca is a photojournalist for OM International and Renette is the Marketing Services Manager for OM in Africa. 

An Interview with Sara Saunders, Author of the TCK Book “Swirly”

There have been a lot of books written about Third Culture Kids but not so many for them, especially for young TCKs. Swirly, written by adult-TCK Sara Saunders and illustrated by Matthew Pierce, helps remedy that. It’s a picture book that tells the story of a little girl, Lila, who moves with her family overseas, returns back to her family’s “home” country, and then lands at another, new, destination, all the while trying to figure out where she belongs.

Since 2012, when Swirly was published, I’ve seen it displayed at conferences and included on TCK reading lists, but it wasn’t until recently that I purchased a copy to read myself. I also shared it with my wife, and she read the last few pages to our college-age daughter, who’d grown up overseas. It brought tears to my wife’s eyes.

I wanted to hear more from Sara, so I contacted her, and she graciously agreed to answer a few questions:

First of all, where are you from? Just kidding! Better question—Where have you lived? Tell us about your cross-cultural experience as a child.

I was born in the United States, which is my passport country and both of my parents’ passport country. We moved to Nigeria when I was almost 8-years old and lived there for ten years. But I was away at boarding school in Kenya most of the time from age 14-18. My parents were missionaries for the Seventh-day Adventist Church, serving in a mission hospital. As a young adult I have also lived and studied or worked in the United States, Thailand, Mexico, Nigeria again, Kenya again, Uganda, and now Lebanon.

When did you become aware that you were a TCK—that you had more than one culture swirled up inside you?

I was aware from early childhood that being an MK made me different from the local children where I lived and also different from American children in my passport country. But I did not become aware of the term TCK and apply it to myself until I was a high school student at Maxwell Adventist Academy in Kenya. When I was a junior, a speaker came from Interaction International to explain the concept to us and encourage us in our search for a sense of identity. This was empowering for me. In fact, this is when I first heard the poem “Colors” by Whitni Thomas, which later inspired me to write Swirly.

In her wonderful poem, Whitni writes about being “blue” and growing up in a “yellow” country:

Why can’t I be both?
A place where I can be me.
A place where I can be green.
I just want to be green.

In your book, Lila is a swirl of blue and yellow and “sometimes even blends of green.” Why did you choose this metaphor—of being a combination of several distinct colors—to describe what it’s like to be a Third Culture Kid?


I appreciated Whitni’s poem a lot just as it is, but I felt like I wanted to acknowledge that the different pieces of the cultures that form a TCK’s mannerisms and values can often be traced to where they came from and don’t all melt into one solid new culture. For example, I have a hard time calling my elders by their first name after growing up among the Yoruba of Nigeria, who have respectful titles for anyone even less than a year older themselves. But it is also important to me for the whole family—father, mother, children of all ages-—to eat their meals together, at the same time and same table, which is the Anglo-American way, not the Yoruba way. I would like to recognize and celebrate the different pieces of my unique culture and where they come from.

Though it’s aimed at young children, Swirly‘s message resonates with parents and adult TCKs as well. What kinds of responses have you received from readers?

Many people have told me that it helped them to understand and affirm their children, their friends, or themselves. I have seen adult men choke up when describing how it touched them. I’m really happy to know that it has helped others to conceptualize the TCK experience and a shared TCK identity with Jesus.

I’ve seen that you’re also wanting to create books for another group of cross-cultural children—those in refugee communities. Can you tell us more about that?

I am passionate about increasing access to books that are developmentally appropriate and culturally relevant for all children in the world. Many children have zero access to children’s books in which they can see themselves represented. In fact, many have zero access to children’s books of any sort. As I write, I am in Malawi working with university students here on a project to create children’s books which are in the local language, reflect the local culture, and teach good values. Two years ago, the university where I work in Lebanon also collaborated for a project with World Vision to create storybooks for refugee children in our region. Refugee children are trying to find their identity as cross cultural kids, and often are also dealing with discrimination from their host communities and grief, hopelessness, and depression in their homes. I hope to inspire others to fill in the gaps so that these children and all other children in the world can have reading material which helps them to become successful lifelong learners through strong literacy skills and life skills.

Swirly is available from the publisher at AdventistBookCenter and from Amazon.

[photo: “Marbles,” by Peter Miller, used under a Creative Commons license]

Leaving Well: 10 Tips for Repatriating With Dignity

originally posted on The Culture Blend

It’s that time of year again.  Leaving time.

This is the time when thousands of individuals and families who have spent time living in a foreign country, will pack it up and call it a day.  If you’ve never been that person you may be surprised that there is a specific high season for leaving but if you call yourself a foreigner I probably just struck a chord.  Even if you’re staying right where you are the annual Expat Exodus is a tough time.

Click here to see why expats hate June

Here are ten tips for repatriating with dignity.

Tip #1:  Make a Plan

Seriously.  The last days of your expat experience are inevitably going to be chaotic.  Your schedule will get crammed with unexpected details and all of the things you really want to do run the risk of being pushed out.  The day you wanted to spend with your closest friends will get squeezed by your well meaning 15th closest friends who “need” to take you out to dinner.  You get stuck regretting that you missed a lost opportunity with your #1’s or feeling like an absolute jerk to your #15’s.

It all works better with a plan.  Start as early as you can.  Include appropriate time for your 15’s but reserve your best time for your 1’s.

Take an hour.  A day.  A weekend.  Write it out.  Make a spreadsheet.  Draw a picture.  Whatever works for you but make a plan.

Tip #2:  Build a RAFT

One of the simplest and most brilliant plans for transitioning well was developed by the late Dr. David Pollock.  It’s called building a RAFT (genius).  Paying attention to these four areas can mean the difference between success or failure, flopping or thriving,  great memories or horrible regrets.  Way too much for one blog post but you should Google it (Try “Pollock RAFT”).

Here’s the short version of what goes into a RAFT:

Reconciliation:  Strained or broken relationships don’t go away when you do.  Make it right.

Affirmation:  People are dense.  Don’t assume they know how much impact they have had on your life.  Say it well.

Farewell:  Different people need different goodbyes.  Think beyond people (places, pets and possessions too).

Think Destination:  Even if you’re going “home”, much has changed.  Brace yourself.  Think forward.

Tip #3:  Leave Right Now

When are you leaving?  June 6th?  15th?  21st?

Chances are you answer that question with the date on your plane ticket.  Fair enough and technically correct but if you think you are leaving when you get on the plane you’re missing something really important.

Leaving is a PROCESS — not an event.

You started leaving when you made the decision to go and you will be leaving even as you settle in to your next home.  Everything you do as you prepare for the airplane is a part of the process.  Each meal with friends, each walk around the city, each trip to the market, each bumbling foreigner mistake are all pieces of the process which is closing out your full expat experience.

You are leaving now.

Tip #4:  Give Your Best Stuff Away

What to do with the things you can’t take with you is always an issue.  Don’t be surprised when the non-leaving expats come crawling out of the woodworks to lay claim on your toaster oven or your bicycle.  Opening your home for a “rummage” sale may be a good way to sneak in some good goodbyes.  Posting pictures online or sending an email may get you a better price with less work.

Consider this though — Giving your stuff away might just be a great way to add some gusto to your goodbyes.  Giving your BFF something that you could sell for a lot of money can be a powerful expression of how much you value their friendship.  It’s not about price.  It’s about value.  Maybe it’s a cheap trinket with a special memory attached.  Even better but give something more than your leftover ketchup and mop bucket.

Tip #5:  Photo Bomb Everything

Go crazy with the pictures.  Pictures are what you’re going to be looking at twenty years from now when you can barely remember what life was like way back then.  There is no better way to capture great events.  More than that though, pictures can become the event themselves.  Grab your friends, your camera and hit the town like supermodels.  Go to your favorite spots.  Eat your favorite foods.  Take a thousand pictures (that’s a conservative number) and laugh until it hurts.

You’ll love yourself for doing it in 20 years.

Too crazy for your blood?  Tone it down and hire a photographer to do a photo shoot for you and your friends.  Then go to dinner.

Picture events can be a great way to say goodbye to your friends and the memories will last for decades.

Tip #6:  Rank Your Friends

You read me right.  Don’t be afraid to rate your friends from best to worst.  Write down everyone you know and tag a number on them.  Your highest ranking friends need a special level of your attention as you leave.  In contrast you don’t need to do dinner with people if you don’t know their name.

Here’s an example but make it your own

Closest Friends — Quality time alone – Go away for the weekend

Close friends — Go to dinner individually

Good Friends — Go out as a small group

Friends — Invite to a going away party

Acquaintances — Send an email about your departure

Stupid People — Walk the other way when you see them

Important sidenote – Once you have your plan you should destroy all evidence that you ever ranked your friends.  Seriously.  What kind of person are you?  Jerk.

Tip #7:  Don’t Fret the Tears or the Lack Thereof

Know what’s really common as you pack up to shift every piece of your life to a different part of the planet and say goodbye to people and places you have grown to love deeply?


Know what else is common?

Lack of emotion.

Strange I know but people are different.  Crying makes sense.  There is plenty to cry about.  However, wanting to cry and not being able to is every bit as normal.  Maybe it’s because you’ve already cried yourself out.  Maybe it’s because the hard part for you was the process of deciding to leave and you spent all your emotion there.  Maybe you just can’t wait to get out.

Whatever the reason — don’t feel guilty for weeping like a baby . . . or for not.

Tip #8:  Get specific

When you are telling people how much they mean to you don’t settle for the generic version:

“Hey, (punch on the shoulder) you really mean a lot to me.”

Where I come from, that would pass for good, solid, heartfelt, transparent affirmation.  Almost too mushy.  But try setting that statement aside for a moment and lead with the specifics.

  • What have they done that means so much to you?
  • How has that impacted your life?
  • What qualities have they shared that you are taking with you?
  • What are some specific examples?
  • How are you a better person for knowing them?

THEN finish with . . . “and you really mean a lot to me.”

People are dense.  Don’t assume they know how you feel.

Bonus Tip:  You get extra points for being awkward.  Make eye contact.  Go for broke.

Tip #9:  Do Your Homework

What’s the protocol for checking out of your apartment complex?

What’s the penalty for breaking your lease?

What immunizations and paperwork does your cat need to fly home with you?

Does he need to be quarantined?  Before you leave?  After you arrive?

How do you close out your bank account?  Your cell phone?

What’s the weight limit for luggage on your airline?  What’s the penalty for going over?

This list goes on and on and only bits and pieces of it are relevant to you.  But in the masterful words of G.I. Joe, “Knowing is half the battle.”

A little homework early can save you a huge headache and a boatload of cash during an already stressful time.

Tip #10:  GRACE — Give it freely and keep some for yourself

When your good friend finds out you’re leaving and asks if he can have your TV . . . Give him some grace.

When your kids don’t know how to process so they just fight . . . Give them some grace.

When your husband shuts down and doesn’t talk for a day . . . Give him some grace.

When your wife explodes for “no reason” . . . Grace.

When your landlord tries to milk you for some extra money . . . Grace.

When the whole community doesn’t even seem to care that you’re leaving . . . Grace.

When your #15 asks if she can ride to the airport with you and your #1 . . . Grace.

When someone offers you half what your asking for your Christmas tree . . . Grace.

When you fall apart and snap on your friends, your kids, your spouse or the lady trying to steal your Christmas tree . . . it’s for you too . . . Grace.

Leaving is hard.  There’s really no way around it.  People whom you love dearly will inevitably and with the best of intentions, say and do very stupid things.  So will you.


If you are packing up, I hope this helps.

If you know someone who is packing up, pass it on.

If you’ve been there and done that don’t be stingy.  Add your tips.  What worked for you?

Click here for Part 2 about what happens after the plane ride:  Landing Well — 10 More Tips on Repatriating With Dignity

And here for Part 3 about saying goodbye and going nowhere:  Staying Well — 10 Tips for Expats Who Are Left Behind

And here for Part 4 for the welcomers: Receiving Well — 11 Tips for Helping Expats Come Home

How to decide to end a part of your ministry

Church world is known for allowing programs to limp along for years instead of ending them. The same could be said at times for overseas work. One week ago, a campus ministry I volunteer at decided that at the end of this school year the weekly lunch we host will stop meeting. Several of us will continue with the students and visiting scholars in some fashion in the fall (details still to be worked out).

In the end, the decision might appear to be a simple one, but it was not easy. On the surface, much of life will stay the same. No one needs to move, no new visas need to be sought, no major finical crisis, instead we had to discern if the Lord was closing a door or asking us to press on. I have been mulling how to decide when to end a program or other ministry slice.

How we find ourselves in these situations

  1. It is part of life. Every living thing—even a program, committee, weekly lunch, annual outreach—is born, grows, and at some point, dies. (At times to be reborn, but not always.)
  2. These situations require difficult conversations and time, it can be more comfortable in the short run to keep going. Or they might involve a sacred cow, and as you weigh the political reality, you decide just to keep going. It could be that Mary has given so much to this program and you do not want to hurt her feelings, so you decide just to keep going. Perhaps you are not sure what to do instead, so you might as well keep doing this.
  3. External factors also influence an outreach. Maybe a new law opens (or closes) doors, inviting (or forcing) you to do things differently. Other external forces include natural disasters, finances, and personnel. In our case, we have funding for at least another year but combine few scholars being granted visas and an aging volunteer base – we have not been able to attract younger volunteers. People are tired (and genuinely unable to do some of the work physically.).
  4. God is paradoxical. So, we, as Christians, do not make decisions solely on numbers, finances, or open doors.

So, what can we do

  1. First, spend time in prayer. If you sense a program is coming to an end or needs to change notice where you feel resistance to this idea (almost clinging, if you are honest) and where you feel relief. Resistance and relief can be threatening so if you feel yourself wanting to ignore or push them down, ask God to be curious and to face them with Him.
  2. Organize your thoughts. Why do you think it may be ending or time for a change? What external factors are you facing? What are you willing to do to either keep it going or help it to end well?
  3. Prepare to have a difficult conversation. Even if you sense that most of your team or coworkers will agree, that it is time to end, that does not mean it will be easy to say out loud. Get input from all members, especially from those who tend to be quiet.
  4. Trust that God will lead you. The discerning process does not need to be rushed, but it does need to be intentional so that you are not living in self-afflicted limbo for months.
  5. Once a decision has been made, move on. If you decide to end a program or ministry, end well. Plan a celebration to honor the work that God has done through it. If you choose to keep going, recommit in such a way that creates a new chapter of the story God is writing.

I am writing this post in the in-between space where we have made the decision but have not yet had our final celebratory meal. The lunches and other activities started almost twenty years ago, long before my time participating. Hundreds have been touched, and dozens have labored in love. Six years ago, when I joined this merry bunch, I would not have guessed how decisions made on the other side of the world and in our own lives would lead to the ending of an era.

It is sad. It has been hard to decide to end this iteration of outreach. And we believe it is the right decision.

What has your experience been with ending a ministry? What has helped you (or would have helped you) to end a ministry? What ministries or slices of a ministry do you need to consider stopping or changing?

Photo by Matt Botsford on Unsplash

15 Things I Want to Tell Graduating Third Culture Kids

Originally published on Djibouti Jones

You can always come home. Home might not be this house but home is always this family. Come rejoicing, come weeping, come whole, come broken, come lonely, come with packs of friends, come in silence, come and spill it all. This table, meaning the table I’ve set in my heart for our family, always has room.

You can never go back. There is no rewind on life and no redoing spent years. You can’t go back, even if you come back. In You Can’t Go Home Again, Thomas Wolfe wrote, “Make your mistakes, take your chances, look silly, but keep on going. Don’t freeze up.” Keep going. This host country will keep going and changing, too. When you meet again, whether this country or the people you have known on the continent, know that you will have to reintroduce yourself and re-explore the other and rediscover who you can be together, or from a distance, now. You might want to go back, you might think things were better or easier or simpler back when…that’s nostalgia. That’s saudade. That’s okay. Those days were good and beautiful and hilarious and I can testify to that. They are part of you now, in your very being, the fabric of what makes you, you. But you can’t live them again. Hold them, honor them, and live into the now and the new.

Guard your heart, your mind, your soul, your body. Be wise, be discerning. Make good choices. Be patient, take your time. Stay in touch with old friends. Don’t sink into social media or the internet or porn or alcohol or consumerism.

But don’t lock it up. Don’t shut the door to keep out what might feel like overwhelming American culture. Don’t be afraid to be tender and loving. Don’t cling so fast to friends far away that you don’t have space for new friends. Be vulnerable, in the appropriate relationships.

Don’t treat Americans with contempt. Hear them out, learn their stories, ask inquisitive questions.

Don’t be afraid to be who you are. All that TCK awesomeness. All that you awesomeness. You can blend it up however you want, but don’t be ashamed or embarrassed or too proud. Be you.

Be honest about what you don’t know. Don’t be afraid to ask questions or to ask for help. People might think it is strange that you don’t know something they think is normal American life, but most of the time, they will also enjoy helping you and you never know what friendship might come of it. Be humble.

Explore and be curious and savor. Think of your college campus or your new city as though you have just moved abroad, which for all practical purposes, you have. Think of American English as a new language, restaurants as exotic local fare, a trip downtown as an exciting cultural exploration. Try stuff. Try broomball. Try downhill skiing. Try snowball fights. (Don’t try licking the flagpole in January). Try saying “oofdah.”

Seek out a trusted advisor with whom you can be completely transparent and ask for cultural guidance. Here gender and race conversations look different. Here poverty, justice, corruption, wealth, privilege these things look different and are talked about in different ways. It will be hard and you might feel confused sometimes, but try to learn to contextualize your conversations and learn from the people around you. Conversations in America have changed since mom and dad lived there and we can’t be specifically helpful in this regard because we are often confused, too. In this same vein, seek out a counselor, a trained professional, who understands cross-cultural issues.

Find a strong, healthy, joyful, creative, supportive, purposeful spiritual body to be part of. Maybe a church, maybe a campus group, maybe a small group of friends. Explore who you are, spiritually, apart from mom and dad.

Root yourself. You might be tempted to flit around and there will be potentially appropriate times to leave – to transfer or to study abroad – but don’t move just for the sake of movement. Settle in, make a home, even a dorm home, connect with people, invest in your community.

Call home. Text. Facebook message. Send photos. When you do, be honest. Goods and bads. Talk us through it. We’re transitioning, too. We miss you like whale sharks would miss the sea.

I am eternally grateful that we have had the honor of sharing this life abroad with you. This life hasn’t always been easy, but what is easy? No place is easy. The way you love your host country is precious. And it has embraced you back. This is a rare thing.

You are not alone. You can cross the sea, go to the highest mountain, the lowest volcanic lava tunnel, you are not alone. God is with you, cliché and true. But also, all the people who have loved you and taught you and coached you and prayed for you are with you. You don’t leave friends or family behind, not when they have invested in you. They have become part of who you are, part of your character and your stories. You know this, from the Open Houses that we had/will have. We need to have them on two continents, with letters from people in dozens of other countries, because love and support is coming at you from all corners of the globe.

Live here and now. They might be hard words to live in and I’m still learning how to do this well. Right here, this now. And then this one and then this one. Pay attention to your here and your now and feel it. This actually builds new pathways in your brain. Did you know that? How you choose to receive and embrace each moment matters. Make it good, even the hard ones. Learn from them. Savor the good moments. Laugh when you want to, cry when you want to. Get angry and feel wonder. Here. Now.

Okay and a couple bonus, obligatory things:

I love you. I’m proud of you. Always and forever, to the moon and around to this country and back around again.

What do you want to say to your graduating senior, TCK or not?

Read suggestions on helping TCKs transition to university in Finding Home.

Find more wisdom for graduating TCKs here.

I’ll be your friend if you let me.

We were the same age and seemed to have a lot in common. I remember thinking, “She’ll be my friend.” I was wrong.

Moving  to our new location overseas I believed making expat friends would be as easy as making friends has always been for me. Smile, engage in conversation, look for common ground, and make plans to see each other again. Easy. Actually, one of my favourite friendships started simply by shaking hands with a new couple at church and saying, “We look about the same age. Want to be friends?” And then we were.

Only now, in this new place, my smile and conversation weren’t working. I couldn’t make a friend. There seemed to be this invisible wall people placed themselves behind emotionally. I was new and my life ahead looked terribly lonely.

Six months after we arrived, a family returned from furlough. The wife came straight over and stuck out her hand. She smiled, introduced herself, and I felt like crying. After 20 years overseas she hadn’t disappeared behind the wall as so many others of lesser years had. I silently vowed never to disappear behind the wall either.

The years roll by. We say painful goodbye after painful goodbye. The wall sometimes seems like an inviting place. I understand now the emotional safety others have sought behind it.

But the wall is not for me.

I’ll be your friend if you let me. Let’s go walking together. Watch movies together. Come for dinner or a cup of tea. Bring your kids. Bring your good days and your bad days. You are welcome here. We’re all stretched thin and I know I’ll have to say goodbye to you at some point. In the meantime, I’ll treasure your friendship for what it is- a good gift meant for this particular time and this particular place.     

You are wanted here. It’s so very nice to know you. You have a friend in me.

Serving Well – a Book, a Resource, a Shared Life

I can’t remember when Jonathan and Elizabeth Trotter first entered my online writing life. Perhaps it was when the former ALOS site founder and I were discussing one of their posts, perhaps it was before – no matter, at some point I realized that our online friendship had become one that I looked to for wisdom, laughter, and venting. We who are a part of A Life Overseas know well the value of online friendships.

When I was approached to write the foreword for their now newly-released book I was both honored and humbled. I share it today with our community with a hearty endorsement for the book Serving Well. Within this volume is an invitation to live fully, love well, grieve loss, fight injustice, and embrace friendship.

When it comes to missions, missionaries, and the missions’ conversations, we live in a cynical and skeptical age. Those who are serving or want to serve overseas are assaulted with everything from failed missionary blogs and podcasts to heated debates on colonialism and white saviors.

Despite the cynicism, God is still moving people to places around the world where they are putting down roots in unfamiliar soil and seeking to write their names in the lands where God has directed them.  They seek to live out God’s story in a cross-cultural context.

Where do those who are intent on pressing forward in a life of cross-cultural service turn? How can they live well in places where they don’t belong?

Jonathan and Elizabeth’s book, Serving Well, emerges as a bright light and resource for those who are intent on pressing forward. Transcending place, this book is a wellspring of wisdom, perspective, truth, and encouragement for cross-cultural workers. Beginning with preparation, the book covers everything from preparation to returning, with sections on grieving, marriage, children, communicating and more. It can be read consecutively or, depending on the reader’s needs, by section.

I am a missionary kid, a failed missionary, and someone who continues to serve cross-culturally. I met Jonathan and Elizabeth as all those identities merged, and I read their words and heard their hearts with incredible gratitude. Here was the real deal. My cynical heart found solace and foundational wisdom and understanding through their writing. This couple is living out God’s big story, and they are living it out in a cross-cultural setting. Their writing reflects their lives – the good, the hard, the awful, and the fun. We are not only invited into their words, we are invited into their lives. In Elizabeth, readers will find a friend and wise confidante; in Jonathan, they will find a counselor and brother; and in both they will find a couple who exemplify cultural humility, godly leadership, and deep joy in the journey of serving.

In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul writes to people in Thessaloniki, Greece and says this: Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well.”* In the library of mission’s literature you can find many things, but to be invited into a life through a book is something rare and precious. Serving Well is not just a book – it is a shared life.

This excerpt is from the forward of Serving Well: Help for the Wannabe, Newbie, or Weary Cross-cultural Christian Worker ©  Wipf and Stock February, 2019 by Jonathan and Elizabeth Trotter.

Other Endorsements:

Serving Well is deep and rich, covering all aspects of an international life of service from multiple angles. It is full of comfort, challenge, and good advice for anyone who serves abroad, or has ever thought about it, no matter where they find themselves in their journeys. It is also really helpful reading for anyone who has loved ones, friends or family, serving abroad——or returning, to visit or repatriate. Jonathan and Elizabeth Trotter are both insightful and empathetic writers, full of humility and quick to extend grace——both to themselves and to others. Their writing covers sorrow and joy, hope and crisis, weariness and determination. Best of all, from my perspective as someone who has worked with TCKs for over 13 years, it contains an excellent collection of important advice on the topic of raising missionary kids. Choose particular topics, or slowly meander through the entire volume piece by piece, but whatever you do——read this book!”
——Tanya Crossman, cross cultural consultant and author of Misunderstood: The Impact of Growing Up Overseas in the 21st Century

“Serving Well is more than a book to sit down and read once. It is a tool box to return to over and over, a companion for dark and confusing days, and a guide for effective and long-lasting service. Elizabeth and Jonathan are the real deal and Serving Well, like the Trotters, is wise, compassionate, vulnerable, and honest. This needs to be on the shelves of everyone involved in international, faith-based ministry.”
——Rachel Pieh Jones, author of Finding Home: Third Culture Kids in the World, and Stronger Than Death: How Annalena Tonelli Defied Terror and Tuberculosis in the Horn of Africa

You can purchase Serving Well: Help for the Wannabe, Newbie, or Weary Cross-cultural Christian Worker on Amazon or directly from the publisher Wipf & Stock.

*Thessalonians 2:8

Touch the Untouchables

by Ivy Chiu

To love God and His people is the core of missions. That’s why missionaries leave their homes and move to places far away from anything familiar. Love is the reason for this crazy movement.

Well, that sounds all great and wonderful. But as I’ve entered long-term missions, I’ve realised it’s not always natural for me to love the people I serve. I’ve found it’s possible to be on the mission field and do all the work but at the same time, not love the people. Instead, I’m there simply to fix a problem. Trying to understand people’s situations, but not wanting to really relate to them. Standing a safe distance away from the ‘untouchable.’

As an Asian with a lot of straight and silky hair (that is hard to braid), African hairstyles were a completely new territory for me. I am always amazed by the endless creativeness and possibilities with African hair. I enjoy watching the ladies braiding their hair, but I never tried it myself until one day a girl called my name and asked me to help her take off her weave. I said yes without realising what I was getting myself into. The other lady knew this was my first time, so she gave me a warning “This is going to take some time and she hasn’t washed her hair for a while. It’s a bit greasy and messy.” Immediately, I felt the dirt with my finger and I could smell the grease on the wig which had been used by multiple people. To be honest, I was not comfortable, but it was too late to say no. With clumsy fingers, I dug in.

If I had thought about it before, I would not have agreed to help. I would have wanted to keep myself clean. Dirty hair might not sound like a big deal. However, this shows that in some parts of me, I still wanted to stay in my comfort zone. I wanted to make sure the ‘mess’ of people would not affect me. I didn’t want to take the risk. Deep in my heart, I still separated myself from the people I served. I might be friends with them, but I was not willing to put myself in their shoes. But this is not the attitude of love.

I also started working with people who are HIV+. I thought as a missionary I was totally ready to love these people who are often pushed away from communities – I was there to serve the outcasts with the love of God. The reality struck me when I had a few people over to my house. I am not proud of my reaction to that first visit. I freaked out over the possibility that someone would cut their finger and bleed and I would somehow come into contact with it. I have received many teachings and trainings about HIV – I knew I just needed to be aware. Even with all the knowledge in my head, my heart still panicked. Love should be without fear and there I was, a missionary afraid to get close to the very people she was called to serve.

‘’While Jesus was in one of the towns, a man came along who was covered with leprosy. When he saw Jesus, he fell with his face to the ground and begged him, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.” Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” And immediately the leprosy left him.’’ – Luke 5:12-13 (NIV)

Lepers were some of the most untouchable people in the Bible. Everyone was afraid to get leprosy, a sign of uncleanliness, and so lepers were often isolated from the rest of the world. To me, the most amazing part of the story in Luke is not that Jesus had the ability to heal the leper, but that Jesus chose to touch him. From other scriptures, we know that Jesus could heal people via simply speaking – it was not necessary for Jesus to touch a person for healing. However, He touched the untouchable as the way of healing. Jesus didn’t stand far off and pray for the man. He reached out His hand without fear. He loved this man and knew what the leper desired most. Jesus didn’t care what other people might think and He truly acted out the belief that the man was worthy to be loved and accepted.

This story brings me back to my knees in prayer for God’s forgiveness and love. My love is too limited and I need God to help me overcome the fear. It’s by God’s grace I am able to serve and love the people I work with because I am too weak. I don’t want focus on the work instead of the people; creating a comfort zone within the mission field. I need to daily remind myself that love is the reason why I am here and it’s risky. I know there will be times when I want to run away and pray from a distance, but instead I need to run to God and ask for His power and love to fill me and help me reach out my hand to touch the untouchable.

Originally published at OM.


Ivy Chiu, previously a city girl rushing into the Taipei metro everyday, now enjoys walking around beautiful villages at Lake Tanganyika, Zambia. After two years seeing God work amazingly in different parts of the world with OMships, Ivy decided to continue her journey with God in Africa. She likes to listen to people’s stories and write newsletters (really a rare species). Her dream is to become the shortest giant in the world.

Power’s Out Protocol (or What to do When Things Get Real)

It’s hot season here in Southeast Asia. It’s also there’s-not-enough-power-and-water-to-go-around season. It’s odd to have a full day with water and power and sanity.

Now, I know the audience here understands what I’m talking about. Some of you are roughing it WAY more than we are, and some of you aren’t. But you know, I’m so over one-uppers.

Whether you never have power or you live in paradise, the unexpected happens. Stuff hits the fan when it’s spinning and when it’s not. It’s inevitable.

When the government announced daily power cuts “for the next 72 days,” I knew our family needed a protocol: a power’s out protocol. So the six of us sat down and crowd-sourced this thing. We bounced around some ideas and landed with these seven. They’re not foolproof, and perhaps you’ll want to change it up. Fine.

But as for the Trotter Six in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, well, we taped this thing to our wall and it’s become part of our family vernacular.

1. @#(Q^&#!!!! (bleep)
This is also a part of our family vernacular. Now, to the pure all things are pure, so I’ll let your brain fill this in however you will. It could be Ramona Quimby’s GUTS GUTS GUTS or it could be a simple, “Well gosh darn it.” It could be more.

Whatever it is, this first point allows us and our children to acknowledge that this sucks. It’s hot, it’s hard, it’s uncomfortable, and we’d rather have electricity and all the modern marvels that it brings.

We don’t STAY here, in the first step, but we do allow it. The alternative is to try to rush past reality, forcing ourselves and our children into a hazy universe where Christians are never uncomfortable, where Christians aren’t allowed to feel (or voice) difficult emotions, and frankly, that’s not very Biblical.

So we allow step one. And then we keep stepping.


2. Breathe
The power of a simple breath is astounding. It can reset the soul and pause a freak-out episode (the technical term). Taking a few slow deep breaths changes you physiologically, too. I do an exercise with clients where I use an app to measure my own heart rate; I get a baseline and then I take a few slow   deep   breaths  —  in through the nose, hold for a few seconds, and slowly exhale through the mouth. My heart rate visibly drops about 5 beats per second.

I also do this regularly when driving in Phnom Penh, or when getting ready to step up to the stage to preach. It’s not magic, but sort of.

When the power goes off, heart rates go up. Breathing helps.


3. Remember, “This will NOT last forever”
It is lasting right now. We established that in the first step. But where we live, we can be pretty sure that it won’t last forever.

Purposefully remembering this obvious truth broadens our sense of time, putting the current darkness (or heat) in perspective. It doesn’t fix it, it doesn’t turn the lights back on, but it does inject a dose of the fuller reality. Darkness may last for the night, but joy comes in the amperage. I mean morning.


4. Do your regular life
This one’s courtesy of my ten-year-old. She said, “Well, I just think I should do my regular life. It’s not a big deal.” She’s wise.

Sometimes, we just have to breathe, buckle up, and do what’s next. Elisabeth Elliot would agree, I think, as she was famous (or infamous) for telling people to “do the next thing.” In fact, she often quoted an old Saxon poem:

From an old English parsonage down by the sea There came in the twilight a message to me; Its quaint Saxon legend, deeply engraven, Hath, it seems to me, teaching from Heaven. And on through the doors the quiet words ring Like a low inspiration: “DO THE NEXT THING.”

Many a questioning, many a fear, Many a doubt, hath its quieting here. Moment by moment, let down from Heaven, Time, opportunity, and guidance are given. Fear not tomorrows, child of the King, Trust them with Jesus, do the next thing

Do it immediately, do it with prayer; Do it reliantly, casting all care; Do it with reverence, tracing His hand Who placed it before thee with earnest command. Stayed on Omnipotence, safe ‘neath His wing, Leave all results, do the next thing.

Looking for Jesus, ever serener, Working or suffering, be thy demeanor; In His dear presence, the rest of His calm, The light of His countenance be thy psalm, Strong in His faithfulness, praise and sing. Then, as He beckons thee, do the next thing.


5. Say something you’re grateful for
This isn’t just some kitschy saying, belonging on hand towels at your grandmom’s house. This is actually evidence-based. And Biblically-based, turns out.

This is step five, NOT step one. That’s important. We do want to shepherd our kids and ourselves into an overarching attitude of gratefulness. But forcing gratefulness too soon just leads to hypocrisy and resentment.


6. Remember, “We’re not alone in this”
It’s not just that misery loves company, it’s that company can help misery. I’m not the first person to feel miserable, not the first to be adversely affected by the weather, not the first to feel anger when the rich neighborhoods get treated preferentially, and I’m not the first to despair when the lights go out. Others have done this. Others are doing this. LOTS of others, in fact.

This can build empathy, if we’ll let it. We know what it feels like to taste rain after a drought. We know how refreshing a cool breeze can actually be. And we know the near-psychosis that can develop when sleep deprivation and unrelenting heat bear down on a soul.

Perhaps we’ll remember this when we’re tempted to judge the refugee who’s been sleeping outside for who knows how long, exposed on so many fronts. Maybe we can recall these days when we’re tempted to condemn the “foolish” choices of the poor. Take away consistent, reliable utilities, the support systems of a functioning society, the protections of a healthy legal system, and watch.

I’ve only experienced a tiny fraction of these things, and even then, I only experience those things for small amounts of time. But I know, more than ever, that I am human. I am weak, and I desperately need the power of God, the fellowship of the Church, and a resurrected earth.


7. Use your resources
I don’t know why, but we need reminders.

Like I said, we need reminders.

Use your resources. It’s a motto in our house, so we put this one last, and then we made another list outlining our resources. What are yours?

What do you have at your disposal, or what could you reasonably attain, that would make the situation a bit better? It’ll be different for everyone, but I’m amazed at how many people never pause long enough to take inventory.

So pause, think for a second, “What resources do I have to help me through this?”

For us, in this hot season with power cuts, it’s meant investing in a deep cycle battery and inverter. It’s meant eating out a bit more. It’s meant taking a little vacation we hadn’t planned on. We’ve changed our family schedule to take advantage of the times we’ve got power. It’s meant finding the coffee shops with generators to write stuff like this.

So hey, you, what are your resources? Are you using them? Do you need help brainstorming? Ask around, crowdsource, and then USE YOUR RESOURCES.


This protocol won’t fix everything. It might not even fix anything. But we’ve found it a little helpful. It at least gets our brains out of the block when the power clicks off.

Does it apply to more than a power cut? Yeah, I think so, but you tell me. Maybe you’ve got something else going on in your life, like a diagnosis, or a death. Maybe you’re dealing with something so very hard but also unshareable. A power cut’s easy to talk about on social media; not all hard things are.

Yup, this stuff’s hard. And yeah, I wish it’d stop or go away. And yet, we have breath in our lungs, a Father who loves us, and hope.

And we have a future.

And oh what a future that will be…


From our toasty home to yours, peace to you,



What to Know Before You Go

Let’s say you are boarding a transatlantic flight and hear, “Good morning, ladies and gentlemen; this is your pilot speaking. I’m 21 years old, and I’m excited to tell you that this is my first commercial flight! But don’t you worry; I’ve flown my Daddy’s crop duster at least a half dozen times. What I don’t have in experience or education, I make up with passion. I’m just about as willing as they come; my heart is practically bursting with willingness! Now buckle up your seatbelts; we’ll be off as soon as I find that user’s manual.”

I don’t know about you, but I’d be out of that plane faster than a fried egg off a Teflon pan.

Yet sometimes we approach missions in the same way. Willing hearts filled with passion are awesome, but they are not enough. So here’s where things get awkward: I’ve titled this “What to Know Before You Go,” when actually it should be more like, “What I Wish I Had Known Before I Went.” Because when I got on a plane to Tanzania almost twenty years ago, I was just about as bad as that pilot. Thankfully I didn’t completely crash and burn, but I learned the hard way, over and over again. Had I taken the time early on to do a little more study and a lot more wrestling, I could have spared myself a lot of grief, and certainly increased my effectiveness in those early years. Learn from my mistakes.

1. You need to have a basic understanding of worldviews.

This goes much deeper than a knowledge of world religions. For example, a person can call himself a Christian, but that doesn’t mean that his thinking, choices, and actions line up with the Bible. The same is true for those who follow other faiths. The religious labels people give themselves just scratch the surface of what they really believe. This is where a study of worldview comes in. If you are hoping to live, work, and have a gospel-impact on people of a different culture, that’s got to start with understanding their worldview–and your own.

Darrow Miller’s Discipling Nations: The Power of Truth to Transform Cultures should be required reading for any new missionary.

2. You need to know how to interpret the Bible on your own.

Most new missionaries have been nurtured in spiritually rich environments–strong Christian colleges and solid churches that often include discipleship, biblical teaching, and small groups. This is wonderful–but what happens when you end up in a city where there are no strong churches? Or those that do exist are in another language? What happens when you find yourself in a spiritually harsh environment with only a small team of other believers who can help you stay afloat?

Online sermons can help. Rich Christian literature can help. But at the end of the day, it’s going to be you and your Bible. Do you have the skills you need to interpret it without a pastor or small group leader’s help? Do you know enough about the various genres of Scripture, the historical context, and sound interpretation practices so that you can be confident of what it’s really saying?

The technical word for this is “hermeneutics,” or Bible study methods. Our family favorite is Living by the Book: The Art and Science of Reading the Bible by Howard Hendricks, but there are many other great resources out there.

3. You need to have worked out a biblical theology of suffering–or at least started to.

Of course, suffering can be found on every corner of the globe, in every social sphere. But any ministry that takes you up close and personal with the messiness of people’s lives, especially amongst the poor and disadvantaged, has the possibility of knocking you breathless with the depth of the suffering you will witness.

What will it do to your soul to see the blind child begging on the street corner? To be friends with the woman who lost her twins due to an unconscionable doctor’s error? To see the little albino boy whose arm was chopped off for witchcraft purposes….by his own uncle? If you haven’t already wrestled with God over the reality of suffering and the problem of evil, you may risk disillusionment, burn-out, or even losing your faith.  

Jerry Bridges’ Trusting God: Even When Life Hurts has had a profound influence on my life on this topic.

4. You need to know the theology of poverty alleviation.

What do you do about the beggars on the street corner? Or the constant requests by your neighbors for loans or favors? How do you assuage your guilty conscience when you go out to dinner or spend money on a vacation, knowing that people around you are hungry? Guilt will slowly strangle you unless you have already thought through how you will respond.

A theology of suffering answers, “How can God allow this?” A theology of poverty alleviation answers, “How should I respond?”

If you haven’t yet read When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor….and Yourself, now is the time. It’s an absolute must-read for any missionary (or any Christian, for that matter).

5. You need to know the history of your host country.

Are you able to identify the five most important events in your host country’s history? Do you know how the government is structured? Are you familiar with the nation’s holidays and why they are celebrated? What is every child taught? If you want to get to the soul of a people, then you must understand where they came from. Take the time find out.

All of these areas can be learned by dedicated study on your own. I learn best by reading, so I’ve given my recommendations for my favorite books. But I’m sure there are audiobooks, podcasts, or videos on all of these subjects. If you’ve got other suggestions, please share! Utilize the massive amount of internet resources at our fingertips, and educate yourself on these important issues–ideally, before you go.