To Know Him in Suffering

by Rachel E. Hicks

Our family recently watched the 2012 film adaptation of one of my favorite stories of all time, Les Miserables. In it, there’s a scene in which the reformed convict Jean Valjean crouches over the sleeping body of Marius, a fresh-faced young man caught between love for Valjean’s daughter and the fervor of revolution. Valjean has just realized that Marius could be Cosette’s future, could care for her and love her after the aging Valjean passes away. 

In the cradle of the Parisian barricade, while around him all the young men are sleeping for the last time before they sleep in their graves, Jean Valjean sings a prayer over Marius for God to “bring him home.” He prays for blessing, for protection over this young man, for him to get out of this alive and live a full life. He even prays that if need be, he might die instead—he whose life is mostly behind him now, who has never been able to rest, who has been on the run most of his life.

Little does he know.

Over the course of the next few hours, God uses Valjean to answer his own prayer. As men are dying all around him and the enemy is breaking through the barricade, Marius is gravely wounded and falls. Valjean becomes his own answer to prayer as he hoists the limp body over his shoulder and escapes through the sewers of Paris to get Marius to safety. 

As he emerges from the sewer pipes, exhausted and covered in human waste, his pursuer is waiting. Inspector Javert—who cannot comprehend mercy and whose world revolves around the law—has Valjean at his most vulnerable moment. Valjean is beaten and beyond weary. All he has the strength to do is to plead with Javert to let him get Marius to a doctor; then he will be Javert’s prisoner again. He seems not to even care anymore if he is taken.

Life is hard. Somehow we must stop being surprised at its hardness. 

Sometimes when we are at our most weary, we intercede for someone else in pain, feeling that breathing out those words from our lips is the most we can manage. And God gently replies, “Carry her. Visit her in her pain. You are bone weary and cannot get through five minutes without tears. But I’m asking you to take her to the doctor yourself. And bring her a home-cooked meal while you’re at it. Hold her hand in silence for as long as she needs you to.”

Why is it this way?

We pray for humility, God sends humiliations. We pray for eyes to see others how God sees them—He sends us to ghastly places and to people from whom we want to look away. We pray to know Christ better—He allows us to know Him in His sufferings.

To know Him in His sufferings. And in each other’s.

Crosses are made of solid wood. We see a brother carrying his cross and we pray that God would give him strength, or that He would make the burden lighter. In response, He tells us to go take it from him and put it across our own shoulders.

At the end of the movie, my son, a little troubled, remarked, “But the bad guys [the Thénardiers] never really got punished. They just went on living their lives.” A discussion ensued in which we mused on the fact that, yes, it’s true, the wicked and debased couple didn’t really get what was coming to them. They were never humbled. 

In contrast, Jean Valjean died having only experienced a little bit of peace at the end, a short but blessed rest right at the end of his days. He went quietly to his God, content and so very tired of living.  

And isn’t that the way life is many times? The wheat and the tares. The prosperous wicked. The good who die young. The unsung hero who quietly pours his very life out for others day after day, year after year. As we wound up the conversation, my daughter commented astutely, “Not a very American ending to the movie, was it?” (My kids are TCKs.)

What on earth is it all for? How do we not grow weary in doing good? How do we put one foot in front of another when we find ourselves burdened with being the answer to our own intercessions? 

It is no small thing to be the hands and feet of Christ in this world. But how desperately the world needs us to be. Some of us know how to intercede in power and persistent prayer. Others of us know how to walk out of our doors and “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly” with our God. A few saints do both well. Perhaps many of us do neither very well at all. Writer Brennan Manning says because we are the Body of Christ, He sweats, bleeds, and sheds tears through us. This is what a body does.

But you are not the Body of Christ by yourself. Neither am I. Maybe this is part of the secret to putting one foot in front of the other. 

If we know the love of Christ, and we keep betting our lives on the goodness of the Father, we understand that grace will be given us to keep doing good, one moment at a time (2 Corinthians 12:9). We will be keenly aware of our weariness, our need, as we love and serve. 

This is a good and necessary thing as we carry each other.

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Rachel Hicks is a second-generation TCK raising third-generation TCKs. She spent the bookends of her childhood in India, with moves to Pakistan, Jordan, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Hong Kong in between. She married her college sweetheart and managed to live in one place for seven whole years (Phoenix, Arizona) before moving as a family with two young children to Chengdu, China, where they lived and taught holistic ministry alongside a local partner for another seven years. They repatriated to the US in mid-2013 and now live in Baltimore, Maryland. Rachel is the new editor of Among Worlds, a digital publication of Interaction International. Her poetry and fiction have appeared in The Briar Cliff Review, Little Patuxent Review, Relief, St. Katherine Review, Off the Coast, Gulf Stream, and other journals. She is a Pushcart Prize nominee and the winner of the 2019 Briar Cliff Review Fiction Prize. She works as a freelance copyeditor. A few of her favorite things: electric scooters, spicy Sichuan food, hiking, and unhurried time to read. Find her online at rachelehicks.com.

The Faith of a Bicycle

bicycle

When we first moved to Taipei, we lived across the street from a park. One day, I was approached by three college-age students who asked me in English, “Do you know Jesus?”

“Yes,” I said.

“OK,” they replied. “But do you really know him?” This was a logical question, because while English has the one word for knowing someone, Chinese has two. The first would be the one in “I know who he is,” while the second means “I know him personally.”

I had the perfect response. Not only was I a Christian, but I was a missionary . . . and I’d been studying Chinese, too. So, I told them, somewhat smugly, in their language, “Yes, I know him. I’m a . . . bicycle.”

I wish I could say that the Chinese words for missionary and bicycle sound just alike, but they don’t. The first is chuan jiao shi, and the second is jiao ta che. I think I must have learned them on the same day, because they are forever confused in my mind. The young people in the park laughed with me and let me correct myself. “Chinese is hard,” they said. I didn’t argue.

Over the years, that encounter became a symbol to me for the good and bad times in Taiwan: Some days I was a missionary. Some days I was just a bicycle.

Flat Tires and Slipped Chains

In an article published by Christianity Today several years ago, John Wilson interviews British author Francis Spufford about defending the Christian faith in a post-Christian culture. Spufford talks about a chapter in his book, Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense, that gives a summary of the New Testament:

[T]he reason why I have Yeshua, my de-familiarized Christ, saying, “Far more can be mended than you know,” which I think is actually true to the New Testament, is that I want mending. Not flying free, not transformation, but humble, ordinary, everyday, get-you-back-on-your-feet mending, to be at the center of the Christian story.

When the book was being translated into Dutch, the translator sent me an email: “This word mend, I’ve looked it up in the dictionary, and it seems to be the same word you use for repairing bicycles. You must mean something else.”

I wrote back, “No. No. No. I want the bicycle-repair word.” What I absolutely want is to suggest that before it’s anything else, redemption is God mending the bicycle of our souls; God bringing out the puncture repair kit, re-inflating the tires, taking off the rust, making us roadworthy once more. Not so that we can take flight into ecstasy, but so that we can do the next needful mile of our lives.

We all need that kind of mending from God. I guess being a bicycle isn’t so far from being a Christian—and a missionary—after all.

A version of this post originally appeared at ClearingCustoms.net.

(John Wilson, “Faith for the Post-Christian Heart: A Conversation with Francis Spufford,” Christianity Today, April 3, 2014)

[photo: “Bicycle,” by Esteban Chiner, used under a Creative Commons license]

I Just Don’t Want to Go

It’s been nearly five years since we accepted the position to serve abroad. We are now in our third year of our second placement and we are in the throes of preparing for our first furlough. By the time we once again step onto U.S. soil, it will have been nearly five years since we have seen most of our supporters.

I should be ecstatic to be going “home.” I should be counting down the days until I can once again hug all my family and my friends, with my favorite cup of coffee in hand. People are going to expect me to be over the moon. I even expect enthusiasm from myself.

But, to be honest, I am not. I am not ecstatic, excited, or enthusiastic. To be honest, I don’t want to go.

I feel weary. I’m weary of explaining why we moved to Africa with our babies. I’m weary of explaining why we delivered a third child here and didn’t go back to the States for his delivery. I’m weary of having conversations about hard things to people who haven’t been here and won’t be able to understand in a deep way, no matter how good-intentioned the listeners may be.

I feel afraid. I’m afraid of questions that people may ask that I might not have an answer for. And yet, at the same time, I’m afraid of shallow questions that don’t get to the heart of what we do and why we’re here – of why we love being here. I’m afraid of blending into the shadows in a place that doesn’t really know me anymore. Here, I’m seen and known; here, I have a community.

I’m afraid of who I become when I’m there. The old habits that are too easy to pick back up again; the complacency that comes naturally when I’m in a place where life is easy.

I feel anxious. I’m anxious about others’ expectations that I can’t – or just plain don’t want to – live up to. I’m anxious about our crazy, ridiculous travel schedule that will have our family moving nearly every day for six months. (We do have some rest and down-times scheduled in, but most of the time we’ll be on the go.) How will our family handle all that travel?

I’m anxious about being “homeless” once again. I hate not having a place where our family can just be. We love our parents deeply and are incredibly grateful for their generosity for letting us stay with them between the long road trips, but it’s very, very different from having a place to actually just be a family. It is painful to not have a home.

At the same time, I’m already grieving leaving our home here. When we return, we’ll be moving to a different part of our host country. We’re very excited about this shift and know that it’s the right thing for our family and our ministry, but I love our community here. I love our town. I love our house. I love my daughter’s dance class and all my kids’ friends. I love our church!

I’m grieving our routine and normalcy. I’m grieving all the things we’re going to miss out on while we’re away: another ministry milestone as more students graduate, Easter with our church family, my oldest being able to celebrate her birthday with her friends, the annual women’s conference. I’m grieving a life we’ve made here and one that we love!

And yet!

I feel hopeful. I am hopeful for all the beautiful things we will get to be a part of. I am hopeful for the wonderful family times and reunions we will have. I am hopeful that our kids will get to experience (and love) parts of our homeland. I am hopeful for times of rest and celebration.

I am hopeful that God will show Himself faithful time and again – and that is a hope that does not disappoint! His promise to go with us and before us is sure and He has proved Himself faithful over and over again in our lives. We can know that He will be faithful this time, just as He has all the times before.

We remember the truth of Isaiah 40:31: But they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint. Let our hope be in the Lord, and let us wait on Him today!

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The writer and her family are both looking forward to this next phase of their life abroad and also grieving the past. They deeply feel the paradox that is cross-cultural living. She invites you in to hear the pains and joys of cross-cultural life. For those who are in this life, may you be encouraged. And for those who are receiving those who live cross-culturally, may you receive them well while extending grace on both sides.

What if 2019 was a disaster?

Earlier this month Global Trellis held six parties (hello time zones, we see you and we will outsmart you!). The parties allowed cross-cultural workers to share parts of a reflection packet for 2019. I hired my niece to help with the admin side of a Facebook Live Party and ten minutes before the first one started she said, “Do you think this will work?”

“I don’t know, but even if it is a total disaster, it will be okay!” (One of us tends to leap before we look; guess who!)

Prior to the parties, people signed up for and received a ten-page packet designed to “Reflect on 2019 and Prepare for 2020.” 

Perhaps you are reading this and thinking, “Ain’t no way I’d join a party like that, 2019 was a nightmare!!” 

First of all, I’m sorry. Hard seasons are scary, disappointing, confusing, long, exhausting, lonely, and to use a math term, Unpleasant37.

But at each party, someone would bravely share something like this (based on real comments made during the party, but details have been changed:

“Twelve months ago we had just launched a new ministry with a bunch of non-believers coming; and in the midst of that our child had a breakdown and had to leave school. I was home barely able to even leave our child to go to the local grocery store even. It was really, really dark and hard and scary.”

Maybe when you think back to last January, you can relate to having the rug pulled out.

When someone shared,

“This has been an extremely difficult year. I was actually dreading going back over it if I am honest…but, it was good to see how many good things happened too and the ways He carried us. That part was super valuable because I had only been seeing the negative lately.”

Another person responded,

“Jane, it was one of the hardest we’ve ever had too and I agree with what you said. I was surprised looking back how much good I saw too.”

Their responses reminded me of a study done by the University of California. “Participants who processed a negative experience through writing or talking reported improved life satisfaction and enhanced mental and physical health relative to thosewho [merely] thought about it.”2

No, it doesn’t remove the negative experience; all of the people who shared that 2019 was a hard year will remember it as a hard year. But by taking the time with God to reflect on the year (that’s the writing about it part) and then share in a party (that’s the talking about it part), they were able to process it more effectively than merely thinking about it.

Turning over a page in a calendar triggers a time of reflection and you might think “Rats, I missed it, it is already January 20th!” Nonsense. God wants to meet with you and review how life is going. 

Not sure where to start? How to do a Visual Examen for the New Year written by Sarah Simons has a great list of questions. Though you missed this years parties, you can still get the “Reflecting and Preparing Packet” here. Download it and give yourself a couple of days to do it . . . and then have your own party! From personal experience, “Bimbo donuts” are a wondaful party treat.

Don’t hope you reflect, get your calendar out right now and mark a time to “meet with Bimbo Donuts” so you too can process honestly negative (and positive) experiences from last year. The enemy wants to rob you of honestly praying about and processing your year; God, however, wants to meet and minister to you in the hard places.

As one participant said during a party, “I especially appreciated the highlights/goals section of the packet and the reflecting on the year month-by-month. The whole packet was wonderful though, and really helpful as a guide to think and pray through things I may not have thought of on my own.” 

It is not too late for you!


37 Unpleasant to the power of 37

2 The costs and benefits of writing, talking, and thinking about life’s triumphs and defeats.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16649864

When ‘Doing Well’ Means Looking Messy

by Gina Butz

My husband and I are no strangers to new homes. When we move to a new place, we unpack and settle in like we are gunning for a new HGTV show, Instant House. When people share that they still have boxes unpacked after years of living somewhere, I am baffled. Do you not need that stuff? Usually within a week of moving, we’re 90 percent unpacked. That’s just how we roll.

And when people visit, they take a look around and say, “Wow, you’re doing so well!

It is a phrase people throw around a lot, “doing well.” It feels like the finish line we are all racing toward in transition. I want to be the one to get there first. I’ll run across, triumphant, hang my gold medal around my neck, and others can look at me and say, “Wow, look at her. She’s doing so well.” 

But maybe an instant house or a jump back into productivity are not what denotes “doing well” in transition.

When we moved back to the U.S. after 13 years overseas, I joined a process group with about 10 other women. Most of them had lived overseas, so they understood at least on some level the disruption I was experiencing.

As the new kid on the block, I hoped I might find friendship in this group. At the least, I wanted them to think well of me. The challenge was that I was a hot mess. Every week something seemed to surface tears for me. Invariably, I found myself on the receiving end of empathy-a place that is a gift, but one I wasn’t accustomed to needing. 

If anyone asked us, I imagine we’d all say we want to bring our authentic selves to others while we’re in transition. But if you’re like me, you want your authentic self to be cool and put together. I was anything but put together that spring and it terrified me. I was sure no one wanted my messy self.

Yet all that crying and processing with those women was healthy. It did forge new friendships with women who saw my true, undone self and loved it. My vulnerability drew them to me, rather than drive them away. All the grief and loss I felt found a place to be held, which was exactly what I needed. 

What if doing well in transition means we look messy? What if it means the boxes stay unpacked for a while because instead we’re doing soul work? What if it’s needing to stop regularly just to have a good cry? What if it means we do less but feel more? What if it looks like us not being ourselves because we’ve lost part of who we were and we’re willing to grieve the loss before we scramble back to creating identity?

We don’t have to buy the world’s idea that doing well looks like an ordered life. Doing well is owning our current reality and living it truthfully, trusting that God will give us the grace we need to walk it well. 

So leave the boxes unpacked if you need to. Do one less thing if it means you let your soul rest for a bit. Give your grief the space it deserves. Let others step in and love your undone transition self right where it is. Our hearts are on their own timelines in transition-let them take the time they need, even if in the meantime we look a little messier. 

This blog post is an excerpt from Making Peace with Change: Navigating Life’s Messy Transitions with Honesty and Grace, by Gina Brenna Butz, releasing February 4th, 2020 from Our Daily Bread Publishing. 

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Gina Butz and her husband, Erik, have served in full time ministry for 25 years, 13 of them in East Asia. They are currently raising their two third culture kids and an imported dog in Orlando, Florida, where Gina serves in global leadership development at Cru headquarters. Her first book, Making Peace with Change: Navigating Life’s Messy Transitions with Honesty and Grace, releases in February. She blogs at www.ginabutz.com and loves to connect on Twitter and Facebook.

 

Serving As the Broken

Have you ever noticed that the people the Western church tends to send abroad for service appear to be overwhelmingly healthy?

Where I live, I have never met someone living and serving internationally for an NGO, humanitarian organization, or faith-based group who used a wheelchair. I have never met a deaf or blind Christian pastor. Or a missionary with one arm. Or with an obvious developmental delay. Or with severe burn scars. Or who walks with a significant limp. Or who has a child with any of these things.

(My experience is limited, don’t hear this as absolute. I know there are groups specifically working among those with special needs. I also know I don’t know how to talk about ability and development with appropriate sensitivity, be merciful with my ignorance.)

Often, those of us with hidden health concerns, like cancer, take our bodies out of the area of service to get the issue treated. I left Africa, had surgery and treatment, and came back looking on the outside almost the same as before. 

No one in my day-to-day community saw me at my weakest, most needy, most frightened, sickest point. No one knows, unless I tell them, about brain fog and inability to regulate body temperature and physical exhaustion and the battle against fear. I can hide my weaknesses.

There are other hidden broken things. We all know that in our private homes, things are broken. Marriages are broken, parenting feels broken. We are depressed, discouraged, afraid, envious, cruel. We’ve walked through divorce, addiction to porn, gambling, drinking, gluttony, anger, greed. We’ve lost parents, children, and health. Our faith feels shakier than we dare admit.

This brokenness, like cancer, can be kept hidden from our global communities.

But what impression then, are we giving as people who love Jesus? We’re giving the impression that Jesus-people are strong, healthy, whole, almost super-heroes, never doubting, never afraid, never in need, never broken in body or spirit or mind or relationship.

Yet it is in our very weaknesses and limitations that grace is revealed as powerful. “When I am weak, then I am strong.” And, “God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, the weak things to shame the strong.” 

Jesus came to heal the broken and needy and sinful and we behave as though we are Jesus. We will bring healing to the broken and needy and sinful!” Rather than the truth: that we need Jesus to heal us right alongside our host communities. 

We do not act as though we are with them in longing for restoration and healing, rather that we are somehow the source of it. We don’t act like we wake up in our mess every morning and need Jesus again.

Some say faith is for weak people, faith is a crutch.

I say, “Amen.” I am weak. I have all my arms and legs, but don’t have my thyroid and do have cancer, still spreading. I have my mind, but it can quickly veer into discouragement and borderline despair. I have a happy marriage, and no one can infuriate me more than my husband. I have incredible children, and feel terrified and overwhelmed through most of my parenting years.

Bring on the crutch of faith. I could not move forward through this life of grief and fear and pain without it.

And what of those among us with a physical, actual crutch?

Michele Perry worked in Sudan. She was born with one leg and wrote, “The limitations, challenges and obstacles that could disable me, when submitted to Jesus, become the very things that frame the greatest displays of His goodness in and through my life.” 

She experienced radical welcome into places where people had refused all other outsiders. She could not hide her need for crutches and this made her relatable.

We need to be honest and vulnerable about our visible and our hidden weakness and brokenness. We need to stop pretending and projecting that Christians are strong, healthy, whole.

We are broken by disease and loss. And we are healed by the presence of Jesus, Emmanuel, God With Us. That is good news.

How can you let your pain, brokenness, limitations, or weaknesses reveal more of God’s love and presence in your community?

The Harsh Flip Side of Serving Overseas

Those of us who live and serve overseas have a lot to be excited about. We experience many unforgettable, life shaping moments. It’s just that these great moments come with a pretty harsh flip side. If you’re considering moving overseas and are caught up in the excitement, or perhaps already are overseas and feeling a bit disillusioned by your experience, this post is for you. Here’s to acknowledging the inevitably downright miserable side of living this incredible life.

You will make your mom cry.
Maybe your parents will be supportive and proud of your decision to move overseas. Maybe your parents will be heartbroken and angry at your decision. Either way, moving far away from your family, especially if you have children, is painful if not devastating.

You will feel that your life is completely out of your control.
So much about living overseas is outside of your control. We could argue that the sense of control we have over our lives in our passport countries is just an illusion, but illusion or not the feeling of lack of control overseas can be overwhelming. A big one that comes around yearly for many people is visa renewal. Every 12 months your family’s home, work, and future rests in the hands of a few government officials.

You’ll look and feel like an idiot, especially in the early years.
Thankfully we’ve found most people in our host culture to be gracious and forgiving. Still, especially at the beginning, it doesn’t matter how well respected and credentialed you were before moving overseas, you will lack the vocabulary and cultural knowledge of a local pre-schooler. It’s hard to seem impressive when you need someone to teach you how to properly use a squatty potty.

You will lose your friends.
Not that you’ll part on bad terms, you’ll just likely drift apart. The friends you left behind will move on with their lives and the constant rotation of new people overseas means you will exist in a world of perpetual hellos and goodbyes. Some are able to hang onto a few close friendships with the aid of social media, but the gap left by those who are no longer in your day to day real life can feel more like a chasm.

You will feel a lot of doubt about your future.
In serving overseas, you step outside of the traditional career building ladder. When will it be ‘too late’ to go back and enter the workforce? If you do go back, who would employ you? If you stay, what about retirement?  Uncertainty, uncertainty, uncertainty.

***

Was this post depressing? Sorry about that. There are so many wonderful aspects of living overseas and those are good things to get excited about. I’ll tell you about them next time.      

Living Borrowed Lives

“A Syrian painter recently told me that we all have a map in our bodies, composed of the places we have lived, that we are constantly in the process of redrawing. A street from our childhood might be traversed by a train car in which we once fell in love. A garden from a year in London might yield, unexpectedly, a rose from the graveside of our grandmother. This map not only marks who we are but informs the way in which we encounter the world. The painter, a refugee originally from Damascus, was busily sketching the buildings of Istanbul, trying to move his map forward to the new country he now called home.” Stephanie Saldaña as quoted in Plough Magazine

I am writing my map in the other direction. I am trying to remember who I am.

Stephanie Saldaña

I curl up on the couch, reading an old letter from a friend. We were friends during our Cairo days years ago. We saw each other regularly, went to Bible Studies together, had coffee dates, traded ideas on how to adapt recipes with substitutions. How to make a cranberry-orange salad with no cranberries? What is the right proportion of molasses to sugar to create a brown sugar substitute? We arranged play dates and talked to each other about our family members who were far away.

I’m lost in memories as I read her letter. I left Cairo years ago. She left much later, but we both left. A good description of our lives as expatriates is that that we lived borrowed lives. The maps of our lives have had to be redrawn as the places have changed.

I’ve been thinking a lot about borrowed lives as I continue to face my own transition. I thought about this recently as I heard about someone who had to leave her adopted country. She did not want, much less plan, to leave. But like my own story in Iraq, governmental decisions sometimes dictate the time when our borrowed lives end.

In the past few months I have heard of over 25 families having to unexpectedly leave their adopted countries. Just now, as I opened my email, I read yet another story of a family unexpectedly repatriated.

These are hard, hard stories. Each story has different details but the common thread is that it is not their choice. Their choice, indeed my choice, would be to stay. They have forged relationships and created homes in places far from their passport countries. Sometimes they have lived for years in a place, only to arrive at an airport and be refused entry.

Admitting our expat lives are borrowed is a difficult thing to do. We often fight this, imagining perhaps that we have more control over our lives than we actually do. But with admission comes great, great freedom.

As I thought more about our borrowed lives, I realized that we can apply some of the same principles of borrowing things to our borrowed lives.

A borrowed life may be borrowed, but it is still a life. When I borrowed my neighbor’s vacuum cleaner, it may have been my neighbor’s but it was still a vacuum cleaner, and actually a far better one than I had ever owned! And what do we do in life? We live – we don’t fear what might happen. God doesn’t give us grace for our imagination, he gives us grace for what actually happens. We plant gardens and hang up pictures. We buy furniture and we create homes. We make friends and we find coffee shops. We seek the welfare of the cities where we live. Our life may be borrowed, but it’s still a life.

We respect and care well for the things we borrow. We know we don’t own them and some day we will need to return them, so we take good care of these things. We treat them with respect. This same principle applies to our expat lives. We treat these lives with the respect they deserve. It’s an honor to be invited as a guest into another country or home – yet often we act like they are the people lucky to have us. We may come with specific skills, but we are not God’s gift to any country or place. God is the gift, not us. God has been at work in places far before we arrived, he will continue to be at work once we leave, so we treat our borrowed lives as the gifts that they are.

We borrow things we need. The reality is that we need this expat life more than we admit. We have come to rely on the rhythms, though they be difficult. We reach a level of comfort living between and we don’t want to lose that. We are also often more comfortable with our economic status in our adopted countries. Often our residence comes with a government stipend that we would never have in our home countries. Other times, the currency of our passport countries yields a good return on exchange, putting us into places where we don’t have to worry about money in the same way. The cost of living in Kurdistan for my husband and I was a fraction of what our current Boston life costs us. Yes, there were hard things about living in Kurdistan – but I think we needed Kurdistan far more than Kurdistan needed us. I’m still trying to process that one.

Sometimes borrowed things get lost or damaged. The mature person will admit this and make proper restitution. So it is with our borrowed lives – sometimes we don’t treat them with care. Sometimes we take relationships for granted. Sometimes we assume our lives hold greater value simply because of the color of our skin or our passport. While this is rarely an open admission, this attitude subtly works its way into our work and relationships. Confession, repentance, and restitution are the only healthy ways forward.

Everyone has a borrowed life, we are just more aware of this fact. Here’s the truth – every breath, every step, every word – it’s all borrowed. We have been given this life for such a time as this, but none of us – whether expat or not – know when this life will be over. Job loss, health loss, death – all of these things are part of our journey. The worker or expat can be in a much healthier position to realize this than many of their peers in their passport countries.

The question remains, what happens when I lose my borrowed life? How do I move forward? How do we move forward? We grieve. We cry. We pray. We praise. We redraw our maps with the One who created us. We continue our borrowed life in another place, trusting that one day this will all make sense.

How to do a Visual Examen for the New Year

by Sara Simons

Whenever I prepare for a new year ahead, I find I long for a well-wrapped-up and understood year of learning behind me. When I was a child, my mom suggested a tradition from her childhood for New Year’s Eve – ripping up the previous year’s calendar. It felt bold! I loved the idea of an intentional marking of time with a celebration and a mess! And while as an adult I’m guilty of not carrying on the family tradition (I can’t part with my journal/calendar), I recognize the need to pause and consider the many gifts of the year (and now decade) prior.

Whether you’ve had an incredible amount of change or loss or a year full of amazing surprises, or whether you anticipate transition or more uncertainty on the horizon, the opportunity to take a deep reflective pause and make note of the year prior affords us space for both gratitude and perspective.

While I love to reflect and process for hours, I’ve found the desired space is not always readily available in this season of life and during the holidays. I’ve found grace in giving myself the whole month of January, as of late. But even still, a less comprehensive and intimidating reflection exercise was needed for me to be able to enter in. Here are a few carefully chosen questions and 4 suggested approaches, depending on the amount of time you have.

Here are some reflection questions to ask yourself:

1.     What are the most important events that took place in the last year? Who are some of the significant people?

2.     Where did I see the greatest breakthroughs (physically, emotionally, relationally, vocationally, spiritually)?

3.     What area(s) consumed my thinking and attention most?

4.     Where did I experience God’s delight?

You may begin by just diving in to these questions, but I find a few approaches aide my processing best. Begin by creating a quiet reflective space. Set aside distractions. Choose one of the following 4 visual prompts depending on how much time you can afford.

1.     15-30 minutes: Take a look through your calendar and make a list of the top events on your calendar. Let these events prompt your thoughts as you contemplate the answers to these questions.

2.     30 minutes-1 hour: If you take pictures, take a look back over the year’s pictures and allow the visual stimulus to jog your brain in reflecting.

3.     1-2 hours: Look back over your journal from the last year and note the important events and areas that concerned you or caused you great delight. You took time to write them down, note how they impact the questions above. (If you don’t journal or didn’t this year, looking back over emails or Facebook posts may stimulate some of the same thoughts).

4.     1-3 hours: Utilize one of the above methods together with this visual reflection exercise. Having already made a list of important events, Draw a clock with numbers corresponding to the months of the year (Jan = 1, Dec = 12). Starting with 1, meditate as you draw or write simple words that represent the highlights, breakthroughs, consuming thoughts or God’s delight of January the year prior. Where were you as the clock turned last year? Who were you with? What has changed since?

Give yourself time to go through each month, draw or make note of the thoughts or feelings you want to capture within or outside of the clock.

In the following example, I used one or two words to highlight some of the events or people that were important. I chose to add color and symbols to the highs and lows.

Team or Family Alternative: If you’re able, this is a great exercise to do with a team or family while one person narrates the questions and others silently meditate and draw/write. After 20-30 minutes you may desire to share the answers altogether or with another person.

This simple visual reflection exercise invites me to examen my head, heart and body. I’m prompted to be mindful to the present with a grateful heart. It’s as if I’m afforded a sense of closure and yet simultaneously able to recognize what is still undone. As well, I’m more open and anticipate the unknowns of the year coming. As I approach the New Year I’m able to bring a centeredness into the coming year. Here are a couple of transition questions I transfer from my examen and integrate into the New Year:

1. What Question(s) do I currently need answering from God?

2. What am I carrying with me into the New Year that I would like God’s healing around?

3. What word, verse or song might God want to use to speak to me this year?

What about you? What practices do you observe for contemplation of the year prior? What are your favorite questions you utilize as the New Year approaches?

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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 thewaybetween.org.

The Hardest Thing About Living Overseas

People often ask me what the hardest thing about living in West Africa is.

Is it being away from family and friends? Is it the “strange” food, specifically the lack of cheese and bacon? Is it the bad roads? The unstable electricity? The lack of clean drinking water in your faucet? The lack of healthcare? The different languages? The snakes or the mosquitoes?

The truth is, it is none of those things. Don’t get me wrong, those are very real challenges (even the one about the cheese) but if you want to know the one thing that makes living in Liberia hard…the one thing that keeps me up at night and makes me question whether I belong here or not and makes me feel so tired and weary and like I just want to give up and go home…it is the gray.

Learning to navigate all the gray.

Growing up I used to be so confident in my view of the world, my opinions, my beliefs, the way things were and that was because I so clearly saw a lot of my world around me as black and white. There was right and wrong and there was good and bad and there was nothing, absolutely nothing in between for a rigid and “holier-than-thou” youth-group-going rule-follower teenager like me.  Everything had an explanation and everyone and everything about the world could be categorized, organized, explained, even God Himself.

Viewing the world as black and white is comfortable, isn’t it? It makes it so easy to understand things and so much simpler to process our experiences, to quickly and efficiently judge our actions and the actions of others (though I know this isn’t my business), to categorize people into little boxes, and organize our ideas and responses to certain situations … “if this is the problem, then this is the only option” or “if a person does this, then they are that” and so on and so forth. It allows us to escape thinking about how our outlook on the world may possibly be…incomplete…or dare I say, wrong!

As I grew up in the US, one of the most diverse countries in the world, there were obviously plenty of things to challenge my mindset and my understanding of the world every day, thrusting me into the land of the gray. But at the end of the day, I could always look around and find plenty of people who looked, believed, behaved, or thought just like me and if I tried hard enough, I could always use this bubble to escape the gray….entering back into the land of crisp lines and black and white. 

Being in Liberia, that’s just not the case. For starters, 99.9% of the people I see or meet every day are very different from myself in terms of looks, culture, beliefs, etc. I meet so many people here whose way of life and thinking are so different from my own. Their childhoods are wildly different from my own, their pain/suffering is much deeper than I can comprehend, and their values systems about family, money, community, gender, education, truth, and spirituality/faith are more complex than I can still explain. Every day I feel like I’m walking deeper into the gray. Everyday my mind is swirling and I am overwhelmed with questions like:

  • Am I missing something here because I am looking at this only through my cultural lens? How does their culture, religion, race, poverty, beliefs, pain/trauma, personality, background shape their values and thus affect their actions? How does my wealth and privilege and nationality affect my own?
  • Are my thoughts being influenced by underlying prejudices? Am I making assumptions about or devaluing someone because of their race, ethnicity, socio-economic status, or education level? If I am, why? And how do I stop?
  • How do I know when the tension we are facing/feeling is simply related to cultural and individual differences and not a matter of right or wrong (as defined through scripture)? 
  • Is what I’m doing truly out of compassion or my desire to control situations and produce tangible results? 
  • Should I give money to this person/situation? If I am giving money, why am I doing it? Because I trust God or because I don’t? Is there another way?
  • How many times do I watch someone fail rather than stepping in myself to help? Am I creating dependency by doing or giving too much? Am I becoming lazy/jaded by doing or giving too little? When should I say “no” and when should I say “yes”? 
  • How do I know when to adjust my behaviors/action to fit into and show respect for the culture when it’s ok to just be myself? At what point do I lose myself and my own identity for the sake of respecting culture, a culture that often undervalues my own voice as a woman?
  • Where’s the line between grace and justice? Where is the line between letting someone’s past experiences or poverty become a crutch and holding them to unrealistic expectations and setting them up for failure? How can I even know if I’ve never walked in their shoes?

Maybe you can relate? Maybe you’ve asked yourself some of these questions before in your own everyday cross-cultural experiences? Maybe you’ve even had to ask these questions as you navigate conversations with someone who on the outside may look just like you, but who comes from an entirely different cultural background? 

It can be so exhausting to enter into this gray area, the area where answers don’t always come or aren’t clear immediately. It can be mentally draining spending so much time turning these thoughts over and over again in my head, especially because more often than not it is during these times that I am also confronted with my own sins and misunderstandings of who God is and who I am in His Kingdom. 

The world is not what I thought it was, people are not always who society told me they would be, I’m a much bigger sinner than I had feared, and God’s love is so much deeper than I could have ever dreamed.

What someone does doesn’t always define who someone is. Just because someone’s opinions, ideas, or feelings are different than my own, does not mean that they are automatically wrong or that they as human beings are any less valid or valued by Our Father in Heaven. 

The more we get out of our comfort zones and intentionally engage, listen to, and get to know people who come from different backgrounds than ourselves, the more opportunities we will have to screw up…yes, that much is definitely true. BUT ALSO the more we will learn about ourselves, each other, and God…and that’s a good thing…a really good thing.

The world is so much grayer than I originally understood and I’m learning I learning to be ok with that. 

You see, I’m beginning to understand and even believe that the gray is ultimately where the sweetest parts of life happen. The gray is where we are stretched, molded, pulled, squished, smoothed, shaped, and changed. The gray is hard and painful, but it is where healing happens, where relationships form, and where barriers are broken down and prejudices torn apart. The gray is where the threads of our common humanity and our oneness is made clear and tangible, if even for the briefest of moments. The gray is where questioning/doubts/fears have the room to breathe.

The gray is messy, but the gray is exactly what Jesus entered into when He stepped down from Heaven to live among us in this fallen world. The gray is the area where God invites us in and promises to walk with us, revealing to us both the brokenness and beauty of His creation. The gray is where we are emptied of everything we thought we knew. It is where we realize our inability as created beings to know all the answers, thereby forcing us into the arms of the One who does. 

These days, rather than trying to run away from it, ignore it, or control it, I’m learning more about what it means to actually enter into the gray and embrace it for all that it is. 

May God grant us patience, grace, wisdom, and courage as we enter into and traverse the gray of life together.