Depression and My Some Other Day

On September 10, World Suicide Prevention Day, I, like many of you, read the news that Jarrid Wilson had taken his own life. I didn’t know Jarrid, but his death made national news—and reached my computer screen—because he was an associate pastor of a California mega-church and because he and his wife had co-founded Anthem of Hope, “a mental health organization dedicated to amplifying hope for those battling brokenness, depression, anxiety, self-harm, addiction and suicide.”

I didn’t know Jarrid, but I know people like him, people who struggle with depression . . . people like me.

That’s not easy for me to write. I think of myself as a private person. I think of myself as someone who’s in control and even-keeled. But life is too short, sometimes much too short, to keep putting off openness and honesty for some other day.

I am inspired by those whom I’ve seen walk a path of vulnerability. Some are contributors at this site, such as Abby, who writes about her bipolar disorder. Ann discusses her depression in a post on meditation. And Marilyn blogs, “I have never spoken openly about my depression. In fact, this piece is the first piece I’ve ever written about the dark feelings that threatened to consume me.”

This is a first for me, too.

It wasn’t until I returned from the mission field that I was diagnosed with depression, but looking back, I can see that it was present while I was overseas, minus the name. I waited as long as I could to let it become official, based on years of trusting in my own strength and shaking my head at the presumed weakness of others. I remember when my younger self, confronted with someone who told me he had depression, said, “Why does he have to be depressed. Why can’t he just be sad?” I remember seeing a friend’s prescription bottle and smugly thinking, “Not me.”

Since then, I’ve learned that depression is more than sadness, and getting treatment is not a cause for shame. I should have known that long before, but I hadn’t sought out and listened to the right voices.

When Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson revealed his depression in February of this year, he did it from a very visible platform—the Canterbury Pulpit in Washington National Cathedral. In his sermon he tells about being hospitalized just two weeks earlier because of “this insidious chronic disease.” He defines depression as “a malfunction of the instrument we use to determine reality.”

“The brain,” he says, “experiences a chemical imbalance and wraps a narrative around it. So the lack of serotonin in the mind’s alchemy becomes something like ‘Everyone hates me.’ Over time, despair can grow inside you like a tumor.”

Gerson, a former presidential speech writer, is an eloquent wordsmith, and the imagery that he calls up—of a brain disruption clothed in an invented reality—resonates with me. I often wake up in the morning filled with dread, with my mind racing from negative thought to negative thought, searching haphazardly for reasons for the heaviness. And I can always come up with a multitude of reasons.

I have a tendency to forget things, but when it comes to my own shortcomings, missteps, and failures, no matter how long ago, I have a photographic memory. Add to that the stinging words I imagine my friends and coworkers and family members would say to me if they were completely honest, and I’ve found my narrative. Sometimes those dark mornings turn into dark days.

On my darkest days, my faults were all I saw when I looked in the mirror. On my darkest days, the part of my thinking that knew that image wasn’t true was silenced. On my darkest days, I didn’t want to kill myself, but I didn’t want to be alive.

I still have dark days, but it’s been several years since my darkest. I credit the God-given graces of medication, friendship, wise counsel, empathy, and unconditional love. But I can’t say that in the equilibrium of my mind all is now well and forever shall be.

As widely reported in articles about Jarrid Wilson’s death, last month he posted on Instagram: “I’m a Christian who also struggles with depression. This exists, and it’s okay to admit it.”

If only admitting the struggle were a cure-all. It’s not, but it can lead to healing. Admitting the struggle isn’t the whole journey, but it is a step in a necessary direction.

What if I had made that admission while working abroad? What would I have lost? What would I have gained? How would it have affected my family? Would we have shortened our time overseas? Would we have ended up staying longer? I simply don’t know the answers.

Nevertheless, I wish my some other day had come earlier. I wish I could have understood sooner what was going on inside my head and shared it with those around me. I wish I could have, back then, opened the door to let light into my darkness and to be able to speak into the darkness of others, “You’re not alone.”

(Marilyn Gardner, “Depression and the Third Culture Kid,” Communicating across Boundaries, December 27, 2016; Michael Gerson, “February 17, 2019: Sunday Sermon” Washington National Cathedral; Jarrid Wilson, Instagram post, August 17, 2019)

[photo: “Pier,” by Omer Unlu, used under a Creative Commons license]

Introverts on an Expat Team

Introverts are finally getting a LOT of attention.

That’s pretty ironic.

So many writers are addressing the challenges that introverts face in a world built for extraverts.  There is a trend . . .  a wave . . . some would even call it a revolution of information that is calling our attention to the fact that we have designed our systems to reward the outgoing and overlook the quietly reserved.

The dilemma is this . . . even if this is a true, game changing revolution it will likely take years to have a deep and lasting impact on the broader expat world which is generally at least two steps removed (he says generously) from the mainstream . . . and if it is just a trend then it will likely run it’s course and fizzle before the expats really get to taste it.

More irony — I don’t believe I have seen a social dynamic more blasted by the disparity between the outies and the innies than the expat world . . . specifically expat teams.

Groups of people gathered for a common purpose, living in community and sharing in the paradox of life as foreigners can be painfully, unequally stacked against the introvert.  Team building games, mandatory social events, round table decision making, professional development exercises — teams are built on obligatory social engagement from day one.

“Hey team . . . let’s do an ICE BREAKER.  You’re gonna’ love this!  Tie your shoelaces together, put two ping pong balls in your mouth, jump around the room and talk to EVERY SINGLE person until you find the three who have birthdays closest to yours.  Then you have five minutes to prepare a mock synchronized swimming routine to “Love Shack” which you will perform in front of the WHOLE team who will then judge you according to originality, enthusiasm and your weight.”

“Ready? Go!”

Even More irony — The rest of this post is specifically for introverts but they just broke into hives and quit reading.  We’ll get em’ next time.

I spend a lot of time with expat teams and this issue ALWAYS comes up.  Here are some thoughts from those conversations and from years of marriage to the most beautiful introvert on the planet:

1. Introverts add HUGE value to a team

Through all of the challenges, frustrations and hives — you bring tremendous worth to the team dynamic.  Someone needs to think before they speak.  Someone needs to say nothing when there is genuinely nothing to say.  Someone needs to NOT jockey for position, battle to be heard or chase rabbits around every single topic.  You are a support to the extravert, to be sure, but if the team is healthy the extravert will recognize your value and also be a support to you.

2.  Extraverts ALSO add HUGE value

Lest you get cocky.  Someone also needs to speak up.  Someone needs to say something . . . anything, even if it is stupid, so someone else can point out what a horrible idea it is and we can check it off the list.  Someone needs to say, “ENOUGH – we’re chasing rabbits, let’s get back on task.”  None of those people are likely to be you.  The extraverts are NOT your enemies.  In some ways they complete you (cue soft music) and you complete them.  When you’re connected . . . really connected . . . your extravert friend will bring the meeting to a screeching halt because they can see that you have something to say.  You need them as much as they need you.

3.  Being an Introvert does NOT mean you are a snob

You do run that risk though.  The scenario in your head that might go something like, “If I go, it’s going to suck the life out of me — but if I stay home, they’ll think I’m a snotty snot bag” . . . is probably not far from accurate.  Just because people are extraverted does not mean they aren’t also insecure. Neither does it mean that they are psychic.  Unfortunately people only know that you like them when you indicate, in some way, that you do.  Extraverts have got the verbal affirmation edge here but if you’re going to consistently bow out socially you should consider finding a safe, introvert friendly alternative for saying, “I really do like you people.”  Knowing that is not automatic.

4.  Being an Introvert does not mean you are NOT a snob

Sometimes it’s easy for introverts to find fault in other people because it grants them permission to not engage socially.  If you can rationalize that it is their fault then there is no reason to engage.  If you find yourself doing that more often than not . . . you may just be a snotty snot bag.  You should stop that.

5.  Initiate the conversation

If you’re living silently you’re leaving everything you do open for interpretation.  It’s easy, then, to judge the people who judge you.  “If they want to know they should come ask me.” But being an introvert is NOT a disability.  Have the discussion — with your close friends first, but spark the conversation among your team.  What does it even mean that you are an introvert?  What drains you?  What energizes you?  Point people to resources and engage.  If you take the lead you can choose the playing field.  If you ignore it, you’ll be playing on their field and you’ll start on defense.  Guaranteed.

6.  Make friends with an extravert

Some of the sweetest connections I have ever seen have been extreme innies and extreme outies.  They’re perfect at parties together.  The introvert can hide behind the extravert.  EX works the crowd just like she likes it and one by one brings her new friends over to the corner and introduces them to IN (just like she likes it).  IN doesn’t compete for attention and EX shields her from the crowds.  IN becomes a sounding board for EX and EX protects IN from disengaging completely.  It works.  Not automatically and not without intentionality but it works and sometimes it works brilliantly well.

7.  Adjust your plan

If the system is set up for extraverts you’re going to need to turn some knobs.  Language learning for example seems to come more naturally for extraverts because they like to  . . . well . . . talk to people.  However, hanging out in a crowded vegetable market or bouncing up and down in your seat and shouting “OOH OOH PICK ME TEACHER, PICK ME!!”  is not going to be your thing.  So find something different that works in your world.  Online study? Engaging one local friend and practicing over coffee at your place?  You have options.  Change your methods.  Change your paradigms.  Eventually you will change the team culture.  “Viva la Innies!”

8.  Be Proactively Digital

Introverts are finding their voice.  It’s just not out loud.  The world is rapidly becoming more and more introvert friendly.  I have seen extreme innies who have a completely different personality on in the blogosphere or on social media.  They are encouraging, engaging and would even seem to be outgoing — and then in person they might be timid and even borderline reclusive.  Run with that.  Be assured that the digital version of you is the real you.  We’re just on a different playing field.  This is your turf.  Own it and use it to be a part of the team.  Best part?  You can engage and energize at the same time . . . you’re practically a cyber-extravert.

9.  Withdraw to re-energize, not to hide

The more you know yourself the more you will function well even if the surrounding system is built for extraverts.  Being an introvert doesn’t mean you CAN’T engage people.  It does mean that when you do, it drains you.  Extraverts, on the other hand, actually get energy from it.  When you learn to read your own gauge you can foresee when you are going to hit empty.  While you might prefer to crawl into a hole and never come out it is rare that you will have that luxury on a team.  Sometimes you NEED to engage.

Withdraw.  Refuel.  Re-engage.  Repeat.

10.  You are not alone

Trust me.  You are not the only one who feels the pain of going to yet another team meeting.  You are not the only one who fears that they will be called on publicly to come up to the front to be stared at.  You are not the only one who goes home, crashes hard and vows to do bad things to anyone who dares break your silence.  You’re not the only one who has watched 8 years worth of a sit com series in 2 weeks.  You are everywhere.  On every team.  All over the world.

You are SO not alone which you probably find incredibly encouraging — even though — more than anything — you just want to be alone.

Oh the irony

Got some advice for the Innies or the Outies?  Please comment below.

originally posted on

After Moving Season

by Ellen Bragdon

It’s September again. I’m back in Southeast Asia, and that means rainy season, so my umbrella better be in my purse at all times. I’ve stubbornly put out my fall decorations, though this place has never seen “fall,” and I’ve just paid $7 for a small head of Australian broccoli.

In June, another expat on Facebook posted, “It’s PCS (permanent change of station) season again. Thanos just snapped his fingers… and they’re gone.”

We’ve been doing this expat thing for only 2 1/2 years, and I can already count up on both hands the number of friends that we’ve made and have moved on. This summer was particularly bad for our family on the lost friends spectrum. A lot of the families that arrived when we did moved on in June. They were the ones that had power of medical attorney for our kids. They were the ones that had our extra house keys. Those relationships formed an important background of support for us. We knew they were there if we needed them.

We spent 6 weeks in the U.S. this summer soaking up the free Dr. Pepper refills, the piles of queso and chips, and the green space and playgrounds. I was ready to return to my own bed and my own space (and to a diet where I would hopefully lose the 5 lb. I gained in the U.S.) But I wasn’t prepared for how I would feel to be back in a place where I’d be reminded that some precious people weren’t going to be a part of my daily life anymore.

I said to myself that I needed to put on my big girl pants, take a deep breath, and dive in again to the endless work of making friends. I’m still saying that to myself. Saying it doesn’t make it any less hard to do, though. Some days, I’d rather curl up in my yoga pants on my couch with a book and decide to make do with friends from 18th century British classics.

“I don’t like making friends with people who are leaving.” A friend said this recently, and it got me thinking. I don’t like it, either. The problem is that if you’re an expat, your friendship pool just got really small if you’re only going to make friends with people that probably won’t leave. And even if you’ve decided to have as many local friends as possible, they can leave, too.

The leaving rate is much, much higher in expat life than it was in my old life in the U.S. Even there, though, it happens regularly. One of the families that we were closest to moved away the year before we came overseas. I’ve been texting with friends with unstable work situations in the U.S., and I’ve realized that some of them might be gone when we return. I’ve learned that the only guarantee that I’m going to get is that friends will come and go.

Here’s what I’ve decided at this point in my expat journey:

If you count the cost, the cost will often be too high. So don’t count it. Be open to love and community anyway.

A few weeks ago, I noticed another expat in our community was selling some books on our group chat, and it looked like she shared my tastes. We met, and now our oldest sons have new friends, and I have a regular coffee date. But I had to text those difficult words, “Would you like to go to coffee?”, not knowing what the answer would be.

She told me today that she strongly felt God telling her to be open to making a new friend. I (probably) only have a year left in this country, and she knows that, but she isn’t counting the cost. I thanked her for that, and I thanked God for reminding me that He will provide the relationships He thinks I need.

Another brave family invited us out for lunch after church. They saw that our family was a part of their regular routine, and they recognized their need for new friends as this year begins. We said yes, and now we have friends to go to lunch with, and they now know about a new Bible study close to them to try out.

There are valuable and beautiful relationships out there to be had, but we have to open ourselves to them. I don’t always feel strong enough to try, but I’m going pray for the strength I need. The alternative doesn’t look so great to me.


Ellen Bragdon lives with her husband and 3 sons in Manila, Philippines. She spends her days homeschooling, searching for imported Dr. Pepper, sweating, and discovering new varieties of Asian food. You can find her at

Why Beginnings Matter

I had flown to China before, but that was always with a return ticket. When I moved to China, my ticket was one-way. Back in the day, smoking was allowed on the flights. I was on a Chinese based airline and I began to understand some of the changes I was in for when the flight attendants commandeered the last three rows of the middle section and build a blanket fort.

They took turns going into it for smoking and rest breaks. You can picture the waves of smoke that escaped when someone went in or out.

Do you remember the feeling as you disembarked from the plane? Though late at night and exhausted, the muggy August air smelled . . . like not my home country. I really had finally arrived. To this day, if I arrive at an airport late at night and it’s muggy and the wind blows just right, a small wave of exhilaration washes over me.

Ah, the first year on the field.

But before we talk about your first year, let’s all look back with fondness when I made a foolish declaration and discovered I am a “time optimist.” Remember that last December I announced that I would write Getting Started: Making the Most of Your First Year in Cross-Cultural Service in one month?

I blame you, dear ALOS reader. And Velvet Ashes and others who participated in a survey in which I asked about your first year. By “blame,” I mean thank! 

Thanks to you, Getting Started is so much richer because you shared your story. (And may see yourself anonymously in print.)

Getting Started was worth the wait, wouldn’t you say?

Why? Because as Daniel Pink said in When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing

“These are the three principles of successful beginnings: Start right. Start again. Start together.”

We often can’t start right without help from others. Getting Started will help cross-cultural workers start right because so many shared their story. People in their first year will see themselves.

Getting Started can be a reference book for the first year and help people to start again. Though life is like a race, unlike a race, life comes when several starting points. When you are in your first year or term, Thank God you can start again.

Reading Getting Started with others who are on a team, in an organization, or in an online community like this (or Velvet Ashes or Global Trellis) will help people to start together.

Firsts are significant and beginnings hold sway. That is why even though I was embarrassed that this project took longer than I planned and during the spring I was sorry that I dragged you into the process with me, those principles helped me too to stay focused on book that will help so many.

More than any other book, Getting Started embodied starting together. Thank you for taking the survey and sharing your experiences. Because of you, thousands more will have a chance to make the most out of their first year on the field.



To Joyfully Be Manure

Annalena Tonelli was an Italian catholic who spent 34 years working among Somali nomads with tuberculosis in Kenya, Somalia, and Somaliland. Stronger than Death: How Annalena Defied Terror and Tuberculosis in the Horn of Africa is her biography, a story of courage, radical love, and crossing religious and cultural boundaries.

The very first piece I wrote for A Life Overseas in 2012 was Why I Will Not Say I Never Made a Sacrifice. Then I went and wrote the biography of a woman who said exactly that, that she never made a sacrifice. She spent decades in the Horn of Africa, once not returning to her home for eight years. She lived among Somali nomads with a contagious and deadly disease, working to develop an effective treatment. She rescued people from a massacre, literally hid behind donkeys while dodging bullets on her way to feed the sick during Somalia’s civil war, was taken hostage, beaten, assaulted, insulted. 

She said this was a beautiful life, not a sacrifice.

It was a challenge to write about her. I felt convicted and inspired, daunted by her example and my failure to do even a portion of what she did, to give even a sliver of what she gave, though we have lived in some of the same cities.

I never met this woman in person, but her death changed my life. And then, when I started to research her life, that changed me, too. 

“Annalena sacrificed, but not in vain. It was not without joy, not without faith. I think she felt the loss of all she left behind, set it beside the thrill of all she found, and was able to render everything sacrificed as rubbish, counting the privilege as gain.”

At first I saw her as a saint, someone living so far beyond the capabilities of the rest of us mere mortals that we should place her on a pedestal, admire her, and get back to our own small lives. But the more I learned, the more people I talked to, the more of her letters I read, I discovered a complicated woman who was willing to make extraordinary compromises, even controversial ones, for the sake of her ultimate purpose. 

She was far from perfect and her real human weaknesses and frailty can inspire those of us who also live and serve internationally to be honest about our shortcomings and mistakes.

Annalena once wrote, “I can never do great things. I will always do small things. I will be a presence, a witness. . . . We must accept spending our lives not doing anything great or extraordinary. Accept a simple life, trivial, monotonous. Understanding that the only valuable thing is our presence. Our coming here is only meaningful to the extent that we are joyfully willing to be manure.”

To be manure. Is that why you moved abroad? Is that why you are engaging in development work or service projects?

I have a hole in my backyard right now (again). The hole goes straight through cement to our sewage. Once, before the hole, a friend was standing in the yard and then all of a sudden, she had broken through the cement and was standing in our sewage, in our literal crap. She is such a forgiving person that she is actually still my friend.

When I remember helping her clean up, when I look down that hole, when I smell the odor coming from the hole, I remember what Annalena said. Our coming here is only meaningful to the extent that we are joyfully willing to be manure.

The book will be published on October 1, 2019 and I’m excited to share her story. 

I hope her example will encourage you to find deep joy in your work and life, even if you find yourself steeped in manure.

Stronger than Death: How Annalena Tonelli Defied Terror and Tuberculosis in the Horn of Africa, will release on October 1 from Plough Publishing. Find the book at Amazon,Barnes and Noble, and IndieBound

Bonus! My publisher is offering to give away 15 hardcover copies. To be entered to win one of these, you can download the PDF via Net Galley. Write up a review on your own blog, newsletter, or Facebook page by SEPTEMBER 22 (you’ll have to read quickly!). Go to this page at Plough and enter the live link to your review and you’ll have a chance to win one of these beautiful hardcover books!

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The Exvangelical Movement and Why I Will Always Love the Church

I didn’t even know about the exvangelical movement until about a week ago, when I read about this former pastor’s leaving of the faith. I have now read enough to have some context for the term exvangelical. I have enough compassion to want to hear every story of every person who has entered into it. And I have enough history with evangelicalism to leave it for good.

When I was a little girl of ten, someone I loved and respected very much, told me I should think about whether or not I ought to be praying out loud during our weekly prayer meetings, since I was a girl. It hurt so badly and felt so confusing. But my Dad, a prayer warrior who loved his little girl, told me to not listen to this–I needed to pray. And I needed to love the Church.

And I have. Even when I sought a job as a youth director at the church where I was a youth intern and was told I couldn’t fill the position because I was a woman. I kept praying and kept loving the Church.

When, in genuine love and concern, many of my conservative friends and family thought it was wrong for me to pursue a Master of Divinity as a woman, I understood where they were coming from, forgave and kept loving the Church.

In recent years, I have experienced marginalization, even mistreatment, and much misunderstanding as someone who is diagnosed with the mental illness, bipolar disorder.

Why? For all that is good and right, would I keep loving the Church?

Because it is the Church with a capital ‘C’. It’s the distinction I make, from church with a lowercase ‘c’. The church is the one which has acted so imperfectly it’s hard to find Jesus in it. But the Church is the one I will always love. She calls forth the undying love of the Great Bridegroom as He names her Bride. This Church is the One Jesus laid down His life for, and the One He promises to claim for His very own at the end of all things.

This Church cannot ever be confused with the all-too-often societal, political and misguided world of evangelicalism. Yet much that is beautiful and true of the coming Bride is found within the faithful hearts of evangelicals, and the lovers of Jesus worldwide.

I truly find it sad many exvangelicals have fully detached themselves not only from evangelicalism but the faith itself. It is my weeping heart desire that, till all is said and done, many final chapters of Homecoming to the arms of Jesus will be written.

Knowing that many are leaving evangelicalism marked by deep pain, how can I keep loving the Church? Because She is God’s covenant people. You see, evangelicalism is not the Church and the Church is not evangelicalism. Like Israel of old, evangelicalism is a whore who runs after false gods. Power. Materialism. Superiority. But there is a blueprint even for this. The Bridegroom betroths her to Himself forever, naming her His Bride, the one He owns and will perfect even at the height of her chasing after the idols, the Baals.

As a part of the Church, I am also a spiritual whore. I have loved many other things, often above God. I have craved power, prestige, position. I have wanted to be served rather than to serve. I have denied the heart of my Savior, my Bridegroom, who freely gave His own spotless life for His Bride. Yet, He promises to forever bring me Home and all who are His own, the Church.

This is where I find those who leave the Church, and too the faith, lose their way. It is a meta-narrative, a grand story, of which we are all a part. History repeats itself and we are either the true worshiper or the idolater. We can become the very thing we promised to never be if we forget where we’ve been and where we’re going.

We’ve all been there. I cannot imagine even one person who has grown up in a church not being wounded deeply by it. I can’t imagine someone who hasn’t been pierced by a loved one who believed differently and held up the Bible, full or righteousness, to prove it. And not for one teeny, tiny moment do I want to imply that there is someone who hasn’t been truly beaten up where they should have been loved, cared for and protected.

Yet, the Church.

I don’t know what has come first for exvangelicals. Is it the wounding, trauma and subsequent disillusionment, or a rejection of the person and truth of Jesus? I want to know, so if you are reading this, please tell me.

It’s so hard for me to believe that the rejection of Jesus comes first. I think the tainting of the church that is full of evangelicalism precedes all other things. Then, there is simply sifting fingers through a lot of sandy ‘truths’, ‘values’, ‘positions’ and yes, people, and wondering what possibly can be kept?

I don’t have a lot of answers, but I do have one. Jesus is Faithful and True. He is the rider on the white horse coming for His very own Church, His Bride, soon. He promises this on the basis of his life, death and resurrection–completing the fullness of redemption for this whole fallen world. I can no sooner reject this than reject everything he says and everything the Bible says about Him.

I proudly stake my all on this truth–He is coming for his very own and so very soon. It is the worst time in history to give up on His Church, when all is coming together–the fulfillment of all things.

So take my hand. Let’s join together and love His Church. Let’s recognize we are His Bride and be the ones awake, the ones making ourselves ready. Let’s stay strong amid all of the complexities, the issues, the evangelical imperfect construct, and never, ever stop loving.


5+ Questions to Ask a Visiting Missionary at Dinner

Ok, so you’re inviting a visiting missionary over for dinner. For sure you’ll ask them about their ministry and all they are experiencing God doing in the hearts and lives of the people they serve. This is good and important, but it doesn’t have to be the only thing you talk about. In my experience, most missionaries have an arsenal of hair-raising and side-splitting stories. Once you’re past the meat of your dinner conversation and moving on to tea and coffee, why not try some of these?…

Have you had any near death experiences?
Once, in a war-torn country in West Africa, the taxi I was riding in lost its breaks while heading down the side of a mountain. When the road plateaued a bit, passengers jumped out and started throwing rocks under the tires to try to get it to stop. We eventually did stop, but not before blowing through a military checkpoint. The image of army officers shouting and waving machine guns is forever imprinted in my memory. There was also the time I forgot to close the curtains and our gardener saw me naked. I am convinced mortification is an actual cause of death.

What are your most prized food items?
Cheese. We recently went through a cheese drought and it is hard to explain how deeply and completely this loss affected me. A few years back I also heard rumors of Dr Pepper making it to the shelves of a grocery store in another city. I still scan every shelf of canned drinks in hopes of one day scoring this elusive soda.

What about weird cultural experiences?
My husband once came home and said, “I shook hands with a bunch of topless women today.” Lest you think this comment is evidence of impropriety, let me assure you that these women were proudly dressed in their traditional attire and welcoming my husband to a wedding. I saw the pictures. Their skirts were beautiful.  

Have you met any famous people?
Does having dinner with the president of The Gambia count? All right, actually I was one of about 200 people having dinner in the same room as the president. I still have no idea why I was included, but it’s pretty fun to say I had dinner with a president. I also have an Indonesian friend who used to be on TV and once saw Richard Simmons in an airport.

Are you reading any good books?
At least where I live, there isn’t much to do in the way of entertainment. No movie theaters, malls, amusement parks, or bowling alleys. We get up, do our work, come home, and don’t travel after dark. Since we’re practically on the equator, it gets dark by 6 pm which means lots of hours at home. In the absence of outside entertainment, we read a lot. Actually, if you really want a good book recommendation, ask my 8 year old. He gets through books faster than I can find them. But back to the point – most missionaries I know like to read and not just books you’d find in the religious section of the book store. I just finished Beneath a Scarlet Sky by Mark Sullivan, a fantastic true story of an Italian teenager in WW2.

Other potential conversation topics
Hot sauce experiences.
Strangest places you’ve slept.
Animal encounters, both wild and domestic.

Bonus question: Can we visit?
If you just spent a couple hours with me in conversation over spaghetti in your kitchen and would actually consider making the trip to see me in my kitchen, this is the conversational equivalent of offering a diamond ring. YES! Yes, absolutely yes. Thanks for asking.

In general, I find missionaries to be pretty interesting and fun loving people. I have laughed myself to tears, been profoundly moved, and shaken my head in disbelief at stories from fellow missionaries. Sometimes it’s just a matter of knowing what questions to ask. I hope these help you move beyond the formality of missionary dinner talk, and to get to know your missionary a little bit better.

Bon appétit!

When You Need to Make Major Life Decisions

by Sara Simons

Within the last week I’ve had at least four conversations with individuals who are experiencing the inner restlessness of pending transition. These feelings of restlessness are often accompanied by anxiety, stress and disturbed sleep. The awareness has surfaced that they are on the verge of burnout, are living in a place of deep disconnect with their values or are not being utilized in their current role. These persistent places of discontent and lack of clarity in direction create a feeling of uncertainty and often “stuckness,” not to mention intense stress on our whole ability to function. Is this where you are at?

The difference between a simple wrestling or minor tweaking and a major life transition is the persistent won’t-go-away acknowledgment that something major needs to change. Whether an organizational shift, a role change, or a geographical move — this shift feels disorienting like an aftershock of an earthquake. And it is. Preceding these thoughts is often a series of events that have led to the present. Conflict, discouragement, feeling unused, crisis – these moments or series of changes may have felt like an earthquake, but it is the frequent aftershocks that are the call to action.

I often hear from those I work with:

“The writing is on the wall.”

“It’s just painful to admit we’ve been so discontent for so long.”

“The hard part is acknowledging all that we’ve invested in and have to let go of.”

“Goodbyes are once again in our future.”

“We just don’t know what to do next.”

Some talk about transition as beginning the moment you begin asking the deeper questions related to restlessness. I struggle with that sentiment as some, myself included, are uniquely wired towards an analytical and futuristic processing style; we think frequently about possibilities without implying that a major shift or transition needs to happen.

At the same time, I feel strongly that we must listen well to our gut instincts, to our bodies that carry continual stress, and to our minds that race, seeking calm. We know internally that things can’t stay as they have been. However, we don’t always know what a next step would look like or what exactly needs to change. Let’s first consider the 6 major areas that most commonly require decision-making intentionality.

For cross-cultural workers decision-making is complex, and each decision affects every other. The choice of a role shift, for example, may alter the geographical fit, may determine the organizational fit, may change one’s entire landscape of friendship and social circles. And not just for the adult making the decision but for the entire family. For the sake of understanding how to better navigate the complexity, we break down the decision-making options into 6 major areas.


The 6 Areas of Decision Making
(For the sake of this article, the word “fit” replaces the word calling, as there are many interpretations of the word “calling”.)

  • Personal Fit (significance). Where does my deep gladness meet the world’s great need(s)? Is what I’m doing the ultimate contribution role that I am on this earth to engage in? If not, is it on the same track? Is my vocational work life-giving?
  • Team Fit (operation). Am I able to live out my ultimate contribution “personal fit” on this particular team? If not, why not?“ “Am I supported in my unique gift mix?”
  • Organizational Fit (support). Is this the organization that my values most align with? Where I can be supported? Where I can contribute my voice? Are there other organizations that are doing similar work?
  • Location Fit (effectiveness). Is the location I’m working in supporting or inhibiting my call? Is this the place where my calling can best be lived out?
  • Collective Marital Fit. Some may believe that when they exchanged vows, God called them together as a couple to engage in the same organization and team fit. Others have discovered their uniqueness may be best lived out as individuals in two very different settings of work. Especially as cross-cultural workers it is important to ask the previous 4 questions, “Is my spouse living into his/her vocational calling? Are they doing life-giving work?
  • Family Fit. This is similar to the above. There is disagreement around children being “called” to the same ministry and what their particular role is. Nonetheless I stand firm in believing that the health and well-being of the kids is top priority. How are my children thriving with my personal fit, team fit, organizational fit, location fit? Do their current needs require a prioritization above my fit or calling?


In my opinion the process of discerning a major career move or organization or vocational path includes focusing first on personal fit (often referred to as calling). Here are 7 approaches to consider when trying to clarify your personal fit/calling:


1. Keep doing what I already do well but change the environment.
Maybe you have outgrown the structure of the team or organization. What you were initially hired on for 15 years ago is no longer needed. Potentially staying in an environment, under certain leadership or in a specific role may limit your own personal development.

Question: Can I keep doing what I love but change where I do it?


2. Keep the work; re-allocate or change the quantity.
Some may consider focusing their target audience to closer match their passion and gifting. As well, changing the quantity allows for specialization, influence and impact as well as sustainability. Those who we see who are burned out often re-allocate their responsibilities and realize it takes several people to do the same title they carried for years.

Question: What needs to specifically change about the work I do in order for it to be sustainable?


3. Change the work, but stay in the same environment.
Within an organization maybe there are another set of possibilities for your skillset. For example maybe you were hired on as an assistant but have outgrown the role where your gift mix would be better used in leadership or development. Consider changing the role to adjust to your developmental phase.

Question: Is there potential for advancement or a lateral shift within this organization? If not, where might I best execute my gifts, strengths, and talents?


4. Turn an avocation into a new career.
Many look towards their voluntary service opportunities as what they would ultimately like to do for life-giving work. For example, during a transition season in my life I went to a local hospital and asked if I could volunteer doing play therapy in the children’s ward. I was in a funk, but knew I had always wanted to try working with creative therapy methods. They were happy to have me for the year I could give. Amazing to me now, is that although that was over 25 years ago, the passion I’ve always had for kinesthetic healing has been a part of my DNA! That voluntary service also gave back to me through caring for others – it took me out of my own worries and allowed me to leverage gratitude in an otherwise difficult season.

Question: What would I love to do even without getting paid?


5. Take on a parallel career.
The reason you may be experiencing a shift is primarily financial. For some taking on a parallel career or supplemental income may be the necessary transition step towards balance. People don’t take on a parallel career only for financial reasons. It may also be for convergence into the final years of service. You can now choose more specifically to work in a very narrow field. For example, take your training role and look for another outlet like public speaking or book writing. Leverage the years of knowledge and wisdom to benefit others. This track is often pursued for the sake of funding, mentoring, or influence.

Question: What do I already do that I could leverage better in a different setting?


6. Get more training.
As you think about your future the most obvious way forward may require a complete shift and more specialized training in a specific field of interest. Take someone who has always been passionate about physical health and healing. They may have lived it in their own life, but now need a degree in nutrition or being a yoga instructor to integrate their passion with a professional practice. This option of gaining more training affords one more discernment time, as well as he/she researches a specific field and his/her fit.

Question: What have you felt lacking knowledge in your current work or wanted to gain greater understanding of to gain professional integrity?


7. Keep on doing the same thing.
After a season of discernment and searching, you may have learned that what you have now is really a great fit and at this point nothing needs to change but something internally. Possibly a season of rest resets all the gauges to better see the joy of personal fit. Possibly an internal shift of gratitude or perspective occurs to recognize the value of what you have and that every organization and team has faults.

Question: Can you answer yes? For now this is where I best fit and what I am willing to work with for the next five years!


Your decision-making and discernment will likely take you down confusing, questioning roads. As you think about it in small chunks, give yourself grace to also think about it in smaller periods of time. This decision is not forever. Continue to explore and try it on and commit for a certain period of time. Give yourself or your spouse the needed permission to try, fail, succeed, and change their mind, but also to eventually lay down the need to continue processing. Make one step of a decision and begin moving forward right where you are at.

If you find you still need more guidance in your decision-making process, here are a few more questions to ask yourself:

  • What is the most compelling reason you believe a change needs to happen?
  • What have you already tried?
  • What has been the response from the significant people in your life (God, spouse, boss, supervisor, etc.)?
  • Given their reaction, what do you feel you need to do next?
  • What’s coming up for you as we talk about this?


Sara Simons, together with her husband and two children, has resided in Spain for the past seven years. In many ways, transition has been a part of her life for as long as she can remember (she has relocated 27 times and has been living cross-culturally for nearly 10 years). Sara holds a BA in Psychology, an MA in Intercultural Studies, and an ICF accredited Coaching Certification. She loves to walk alongside people in major life transition and help them to discover their unique purpose regardless of their current circumstances or limitations. Doing this in nature, using art, or while traveling is a bonus. Find her online at

So Much N O I S E! (and a Book Giveaway)

I grew up in rural America. We had neighbors, but you couldn’t see them. In fact, get this, you couldn’t even hear them. And I know this stretches the bounds of believability, but you couldn’t even smell the neighbors’ food. They were acres away.

We were closer to cows than people.

Now I live in a place where you can most definitely see your neighbors (because the kitchen and bedroom windows are less than 10 feet from their kitchen and bedroom windows.) Now I can hear the neighbors coughing (or fighting or playing marbles with bowling balls).

I can feel the neighbor’s music, and I can certainly smell the neighbors’ food.

Is this stressful for anyone else?

In the whole scheme of cross-cultural work, in the whole Story we’re excited to live out, noise and hyper-proximity is not a very big deal. You could even spiritualize it and call it incarnational. But you know, I’m a human, and the constant LOUDNESS is actually a thing. It’s actually a pretty stressful thing. So I thought I’d use the first part of this article to see if it’s stressful for anyone else?

You too? Really?

How do you deal with it?

I believe in a multi-disciplinary approach, ergo, I’ve tried pharmaceuticals (Benadryl), technology (apps), multiple physical barriers (mattresses and headphones), and of course, prayer (“please make hearing ears deaf”).

Of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with our living arrangements in Cambodia (or our neighbors, for that matter), and I’m in no way claiming any sort of moral superiority because I like quiet. It’s just that this is part of the cross-cultural thing that’s hard: it’s a lot louder here than where I came from, and eight years hasn’t changed that.

So here’s how I manage…

Diphenhydramine sort of helps with getting to sleep and staying that way. Consult with your doctor first, and word to the wise: don’t try parenting while on this stuff, ’cause that’s not good for no one.

Noise cancelling headphones = magic. My over usage, combined with the tropical climate, destroyed multiple sets of the earpieces on these things. But still, one of the best purchases of my cross-cultural life.

Nope. It’s not gum. You’re looking at my earplugs container. I’ve got one of these in my office, one in my backpack, and one on the nightstand. You NEVER want to be without earplugs. Just remember it’s not gum.

The Sleep Pillow app. (see below)

I heart white noise. So if you take the white noise that’s possible from Sleep Pillow, add in earplugs, then cover the whole thing with noise cancelling headphones, _______________________ is all you can hear.

Extreme circumstances call for extreme measures. When our neighbors decided that karaoke was the best way to spend evenings, we called in the Queens — two queen-size foam mattresses propped up outside of our bedroom windows. This might be confusing if you’re not sure how Cambodian row houses work, but if you get it, you totally get it. Basically, our bedroom windows open up into this room, which is the first level. I was standing in our front door when I took this photo.


If none of these measures are effective, then you should probably just go ahead and buy our book.

A Book Giveaway!
Elizabeth and I would love to gift a couple of folks with a free Kindle version of our new book, Serving Well: Help for the Wannabe, Newbie, or Weary Cross-cultural Christian Worker.* If you live in the US, the UK, or Australia, we could send you a hard copy instead, if you’d like.

Ruth Van Reken (co-author of Third Culture Kids) had this to say about Serving Well:

“Recently I read a lovely book called Serving Well by Jonathan Trotter and Elizabeth Trotter. While it contains many great practical tips and strategies for success in cross-cultural living and working, it is not simply one more ‘how-to’ manual. Particularly for those in the faith-based communities, the authors continually emphasize the why of service, not simply the how. This is a soul-encouraging book. I highly recommend it.

Serving Well has over 100 chapters that cover everything from how to prepare for the field all the way to how to return well. It includes reflections and discussions on transitioning overseas, taking care of your heart, marriage, and children once you’re there, communicating with senders, common pitfalls, grief and loss, and what to do when things don’t go as planned.

To be entered into the drawing, think of someone who might like a copy of Serving Well and then tag them in the comments section of A Life Overseas’ Facebook share of this post. If you tag someone, we’ll enter your name and their name into a drawing that will happen on September 10th. You can tag up to three people and they will all be entered into the drawing.

If you are reading this via e-mail and you have limited access to Facebook, just reply to the message and put “book giveaway” in the subject line. That’ll get you entered.

Thanks so much for understanding that this cross-cultural gig is amazing, and LOUD, and rewarding, and hard, and wonderful, and so much more.

And may the Father’s grace and peace be with you and yours today.


All for ONE,


*affiliate link

Are You Tired?

by Julie Francis

Have you ever wanted to quit? Give up? Throw in the towel? Throw up your hands? Walk out the door?

Are you tired? Tired of turning the other cheek? Putting others before yourself? Praying for your enemies? Blessing those who curse you?

Are you weary? From stress? Obligation? Conflict? Boredom? Same old/same old?

Are you sick of falling back into your old patterns? Stalled progress? Lack of results? Not seeing the fruit from your hard work?

Are you exhausted from lack of sleep? From depression? From difficult living conditions? From days on end without a Sabbath and no break in sight?

Do you wonder if you will make it out alive? Wonder how high the price will be? The amount you’ll have to pay? Who or what you will have to sacrifice?

Have you had it with giving things up? Saying goodbye (again)? Moving? Transitioning? Not having a home, connection, deep roots?

Are your tired of waiting for the blessing God promised? Is this the “full life” you expected?

Is it all… worth it?

Staring through the bars of a prison cell doesn’t seem like a very full life. Chained in filthy conditions. Little food. Forget the comforts of home. Yet, Paul wrote these words in confidence:

Don’t be misled—you cannot mock the justice of God. You will always harvest what you plant. Those who live only to satisfy their own sinful nature will harvest decay and death from that sinful nature. But those who live to please the Spirit will harvest everlasting life from the Spirit. So let’s not get tired of doing what is good. At just the right time we will reap a harvest of blessing if we don’t give up. Therefore, whenever we have the opportunity, we should do good to everyone—especially to those in the family of faith.

Your purpose in life isn’t to be comfortable. The world has lied to you. Your purpose in life isn’t to store up treasures on earth. The world has lied to you. Your purpose in life isn’t to do what makes you happy. The world has lied to you.

Your purpose in life is to please the Spirit. You will gain everlasting life! So, don’t give up.

By God’s grace, by the power of the Holy Spirit, by the joy and peace that come from being united in Jesus in his suffering and death– you can learn to be content no matter your circumstances. You can do all things through Christ who gives you strength. You can rejoice in your sufferings. You can know with certainty that what has happened to you will turn out for your deliverance. And that God works all things for good for those who love him.

Are you tired? Worn out? Bored? Apathetic? Sick of doing good? Exhausted from suffering? Are you about to fall under the weight of the cross God has asked you to carry?

Don’t give up. He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your Spirit. Amen.


Julie Francis has lived as an alien and stranger in Southeast Asia for seven years and counting among a large, unreached people group (less than 1% Christian) with her only teammate and husband of 13 years. Together they raise their five 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.