Coming or Going during Turbulent Times

storm clouds

In October of 2001, my wife and I boarded a flight and moved our family from the US to our new home in Asia. Nearly ten years later, in June of 2011, we moved back to our old home in Joplin, Missouri. Those dates may not jump out at you, but the first was one month after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The second was one month after an F5 tornado destroyed about a quarter of Joplin, killing 161.

When you relocate to a different culture, your world is turned upside down. How much more so when the earth itself seems to be tilted off its axis.

Some of you are making a cross-cultural transition right now, in the midst of a global pandemic, a global recession, and far-reaching upheavals confronting racism. So much emotional multitasking. So many unknowns. You’re not only tackling culture stress or reverse culture stress, but you’re trying to get used to a new normal when the old normal is challenging enough already.

There’s another term for new normal. It’s abnormal (at least for a while).

Speaking of culture, you have your own “cancel culture”: cancelled flights. cancelled church services, cancelled good-bye gatherings, cancelled welcome parties, cancelled support, cancelled camps, cancelled vacations, cancelled retreats, cancelled trainings, cancelled conferences, cancelled debriefings, cancelled classes, cancelled job opportunities, cancelled leases, cancelled assumptions, cancelled plans.

And when you get to make your trip, your first experience after you land is to self-quarantine for two weeks.

Please don’t just shrug all this off. Don’t dismiss the added stress that these increased challenges bring. Don’t simply put on a bigger smile as you push yourself harder. Rather, acknowledge the difficult circumstances and give yourself grace. And, as always, but especially now, understand the need for help in navigating your transitions.

“Every time there’s transition,” TCK-expert Ruth Van Reken tells Columbia News Service, “there is loss.” She’s talking about Third Culture Kids and Adult Third Culture Kids, but her words can apply to anyone moving between cultures. She goes on to say,

So when people are feeling strange about their situation I ask them, ‘What did you lose?’ Because where there’s loss, there’s grief. And when there’s no language for it, it comes out at your boss or in your marriage.

How wonderful it is to have someone to understand, to ask you the right questions. But sometimes you arrive into situations where everyone else is also going through some kind of transition, dealing with loss, and experiencing grief. Sometimes when you want to share your story, it’s as if those around you are saying, “Get in line.” Sometimes their stories seem more important than yours and you decide to hold yours in.

I’m a big proponent of intentional preparation and debriefing surrounding cross-cultural transitions. Skilled leaders know what to ask, how to listen, and what to say. They can start a conversation in chapter two, skipping the preface, because they’re already on the same page with you. And they give good, empathy-filled, heartfelt hugs.

But you may find that hard to come by right now. Groups can’t meet together. Ministries are postponing sessions. And hugs are extremely hard to come by. If that’s the case for you, I’d encourage you not just to skip everything until schedules are back on track. Instead take advantage of what’s available now—video sessions online, phone calls, or email conversations. I know from experience that it’s easy to put off things like this. Whether we’ve landed in our host or passport country, it’s common to want to hit the ground running and not spend the time needed for soul searching and soul care. So we wait for the day when getting together with someone will better fit into our schedules. But waiting can easily last forever as we become busy (overwhelmed?) with other aspects of life, as funds are spent elsewhere, and as we get in the rut of making excuses . . . until we decide it’s simply too late.

Even if you take part in something “virtual” now, you may still find it isn’t quite enough for you or your family members. If something seems to be lacking, don’t think of that as a deficiency on your part. If you’re suffering from Zoom fatigue, you’re not alone. Understand that while alternatives to face-to-face may be the best options available right now, they aren’t necessarily ideal for you. If you need more, something “with skin on,” I’d encourage you to commit to adding some kind of in-person version later, when that becomes possible. It won’t be easy, but if there’s a cost involved, set aside money for it or let your church know how important it is to you so they can help you afford it even if by that time your support has waned or funds have been diverted. Tell others how much you need it so they can help hold you accountable if your plans fade away.

And in between deliberate member-care events, recognize the opportunities to commune with fellow “travelers.”

When we transitioned back to storm-wrecked Joplin, we returned to a place full of transition, with people navigating their way down roads where the landmarks and street signs had violently disappeared. Some had lost family members, some their homes, some their jobs. Schools and a hospital were destroyed. Their losses were so much bigger than ours, but we joined the ranks of those affected by the storm. Across the road from our short-term housing, our church had erected a couple tents for distributing food and household items. I spent some time volunteering there, with instructions to help visitors “shop” but mostly to listen to them share about their tornado-caused wounds—physical and emotional—and to offer prayers. It was good for me to listen to their stories—and even nine years later, there are still stories to be heard.

Listening is a wonderful gift to give to others, and some people are able and desirous to return that gift. When you show that you care about the details of their lives, they want to return the blessing. They understand the shared emotions, even if the circumstances aren’t exactly the same. Praying for others is a wonderful gift, too. And some people will ask you how they can pray for you. They understand that prayer is a bridge to God and also a connection for those who pray together.

During turbulent times, the outside turmoil can disrupt your best-laid plans for inner calm. This is my prayer for you—that you’re able to engage in the grieving and the talking and the listening and the sharing and the praying and the giving and the receiving that you need to create that calm, no matter how long it takes.

(Peter Katona, “More and More Americans Consider Themselves ‘Hidden Immigrants,’” Columbia News Service, February 27, 2007 (archived at Wayback Machine)

[photo: “Storm Front 4,” by mrpbps, used under a Creative Commons license]

Stop Thief! (how to take back what COVID-19 has stolen)

COVID 19 is a dirty, rotten criminal. Ironically, not even a smooth one.

It sneaked in and no one saw it coming, but it made a bunch of noise and stayed way too long. Got greedy. Got cocky. Thought it could take everything.

Got news for you COVID … you don’t get everything. Not even close.

And you’re a jerk. Nobody likes you.

Full disclosure: This post comes on the heels of weeks of self-pity and sorrow over the loss and confusion that this thief has created — head spinning and scrambling, trying to figure out what comes next. Days of feeling like all is lost.

Maybe you’re in the same boat. Like you’ve just walked in your front door and realized that your home has been ransacked.

You feel violated, vulnerable, angry, terrified.

Here are seven thoughts to help you get back what this no good, sneaky, spineless thief has taken.


1. “Less than” equals more than nothing.
It has been a painful realization, but I have to settle for less this year. Less connection. Less engagement. Less quality. Less certainty. Less of the people I love and want to be spending time with.

You feel it, too.

But less is NOT nothing.

Don’t settle for the lie of “all is lost.”

Unanticipated, unchosen, undefined, homeschool is less. But it’s not nothing.

A zoom call is less. But it’s not nothing.

Social distancing, self-isolation, and even quarantine are much, much less that what I want right now. So much less than what I am used to.

But they are not nothing.


2. List your losses.
Something magic happens when you get specific.

The pain gets real, but so does the beauty of what’s left.

It’s natural when you’ve been violated to focus entirely on the violation.

It demands your attention.

But taking the space to list the actual losses gives you the space to set those things aside and deal with them as they need to be dealt with.

What has actually been taken?

Connection with your people? Your job? Your graduation? Your retirement plan? Your dream wedding? An important funeral? Your summer plans? Your routine? Your plan? Your sanity?

Whatever it is. Call it out. Tag it. Set it apart from what hasn’t been taken.

Don’t give COVID credit for what it hasn’t accomplished.


3. Don’t play the victim.
Thieves love a victim. That’s the whole point.

Power preys on the powerless.

The victim waits helplessly for the hero to come and rescue them.

Newsflash — this thing has impacted EVERYONE. That means that everyone needs help and everyone has the potential to help someone else.

If your ONLY focus is on seeking help then you are draining the shallow pool of resources that other people need more desperately than you.

Look around. Find a need. Meet it.


4. Find your thankfuls.
Time for a full life inventory. What do you have to be thankful for? Focus your attention on that.

To be clear — finding thankuls is NOT the same as ignoring loss. It’s not looking on the bright side. It’s not simply happy-stamping this mess and pretending like nothing bad has happened.

But a thief would love nothing more than to steal your joy — and joy is all around you.

Pick three. What are you most thankful for, even in this mess? Start your days there and see what happens.


5. Box out
Sorry. Basketball reference.

Boxing out is what happens when the shot goes up and you are close to the basket. You anticipate the miss even though you have no clue what is about to happen, and you prepare yourself to grab the ball and run with it. You do everything you can to get in position for the next play.

COVID isn’t going to last forever. How are you preparing yourself for what comes next?


6. Stop with the superlatives
“COVID has changed EVERYTHING!”

“NOTHING will EVER be the same!”

Stop it. Just stop it.

Focus your attention on what hasn’t changed.

Your family. Your friendships. Your people. Your places. Your values. Your routines. Your pets. The pictures on your wall. The things that make you snortlaugh. Your addiction to Netflix.

Full disclosure: I caught myself on this one. COVID for me means a whole new chapter. New country, new work, new home, new school for my kids, new community, new friends, and a LOT of hard goodbyes. It was easy to say, “this changes everything.

But that’s a lie.

A lot has changed — but not EVERYTHING.


7. Find the gold
It may not feel like it at the moment, but there is very likely some beautiful bit that never would have been possible apart from this jacked-up tragedy.

Time with your family? When are you EVER going to get it like this again?

Life has come to a halt? Remember when your biggest frustration was “I’m too busy?”

Don’t minimize the loss — but don’t miss the gold nuggets.

There is no doubt that this virus has taken a lot from us. It has thrown the world into shock and the losses are huge.

But pause.

Just for a moment.

Gather your bearings. Take a realistic inventory. Find the help that you need. Help someone who needs you.

And go get your stuff back.

Originally appeared on The Culture Blend.

When Your Story Gets in the Way

by Rebecca

We are our stories. Psychologists like Dan McAdams have been telling us we all have a narrative identity by which we come to terms with society, our past and our future. Missionaries also have a public story we use as we speak at churches, send out newsletters or maintain a blog.  We share who we are, the need we see, and our heart or gifting to serve. Our organisations also have story, a history and a vision for the future.

I have spent the last six months interviewing more than twenty leaders at all levels across five different mission and ministry organizations. I heard a lot of positive things about the place of story and narrative identity in each organization, but again and again I was presented with two interesting impacts individual stories have: reluctant leaders who felt accepting a leadership role would be to give up on the story they have been telling and reluctant followers who felt submitting to leadership might force them to limit their story or abandon the vision they have told to supporters.

Daniel Kahneman says, “we all care intensely for the narrative of our own life and very much want it to be a good story with a decent hero” (Thinking, Fast and Slow). As Christians however, we have a true narrative identity that reflects our status as image bearers of God. We are made for relationship with God and our sense of purpose as workers in the harvest only truly makes sense in relation to the work God is doing as the great gardener. 

For support-raised Christian workers, our relationship with our stories can be particularly problematic. So much of the impetus to support missionaries comes from an emphasis on an individual’s heart or giftedness. Even organizational stories are normally built on the stories of the lives of brave founders. These stories of heroic individualism form the origin story of many support-raised organizations but as organizations grow and diversify it becomes challenging for leadership to make space for the stories of each individual member.

In To Make a Change at Work, Tell Yourself a Different Story the authors suggest: “Once you’ve unearthed a story and dusted it off, the next step is to consider how it affects you. Is it constraining or liberating?” Often the stories we tell are motivating and help us persevere in challenging situations. For me, knowing I had a community of supporters who heard our story and wanted to partner by praying and giving was so helpful when a ministry initiative faltered or there was conflict on our team. But organizationally the stories can be constraining. They can make us reluctant or conflicted leaders and even worse followers.

I talked to many leaders who love the people they lead and serve; they feel humbled by their vision and their self-sacrifice but frustrated either by the distractions of leadership or the unwillingness of people to put team goals first. When asked to take on roles or responsibilities for the sake of the team, people have responded with “I’m not gifted at that” or “that’s not what I came to do”. Most often those are things like administration, management or leadership, things necessary for functioning organizations that are able to support them.

There is a sense that churches or individuals have financially supported them to do something very difficult in a difficult place that they are particularly gifted or equipped for it; like church-planting among an unreached group, evangelism among refugees or health care for people on society’s margins. They fear people won’t keep supporting them if the story changes, if suddenly they are in an office making it possible for other people to go rather than being on the frontline themselves. 

I heard so much wisdom from people I interviewed. An International Director explained that most powerful stories, the ones that develop leadership character, were the ones that were “told from a position of humility, a desire to continue to learn and grow and a recognition that every person or character within the story contributed something into that story to enhance the work or enable it to happen.” He said: “That kind of story not only grows people but it strengthens organizations.”

A senior leader responsible for leadership development lamented that workers from non-Western contexts felt the need to copycat Western missionary stories that were individualistic and reflecting a linear arc of progress. Collectivistic cultures tend to have different kinds of stories, less neat and straightforward, more collaborative, more cyclical. She encouraged organizations to give those workers the space to tell stories that really reflected their cultural orientation and brought diversity to the overall vision.

Support-raised organizations have always been driven by individual stories, and we don’t want to lose that beauty and that power. However, individual workers should be constantly reexamining their stories and making sense of them within a greater organizational story. The leader of a student ministry saw particular benefits to this as people transitioned into roles leading and training others rather than doing evangelism every day. 

Even more importantly we need to be connecting our individual and organizational stories to God’s big story. As Chuck De Groat reminds us “Today’s best thinkers are rediscovering the fact that we are relational to our core — storied beings whose narratives are meant to reflect God’s master narrative.” (Toughest People to Love

God’s grand narrative is more powerful and compelling than anything we could conceive on our own, and ultimately our calling is not to go and do a hard thing in a hard place, but first and foremost to a relationship with God and sanctification by him. The story about our vocation, our stewardship of the gifts God has given us, should only be secondary to that calling. This can only help us have a narrative identity that is more oriented to growth and collaboration; that holds space for other stories allowing us to be more generous with how we lead and follow. Lets keep asking if our storied selves reflect God’s narrative? This is a liberating way to construct our story, one that emphasizes our dependence on God and on each other.


Rebecca has been serving cross-culturally since 2012 and is a 2020 Fellow with Anglican Deaconess Ministries researching leadership development in mission and support-raised ministry organizations. Her research is published at 

7 Tips for Finding and Choosing a Sending Agency

by Naomi Johnston

When my husband and I decided we wanted to go and do long term missions we literally had no idea where to start. We had both been on short term mission trips separately, but both of us hadn’t really done anything typical. My husband had gone to Russia and ended up designing and welding up a fire escape for the local church there. And I had gone to India on a more personal trip with my Dad where we built upon personal relationships my Dad had made previously, strengthened church leadership and visited a lot of people in the community. Both experiences were life-changing, but not what you would call ‘normal missions,’ if there even is such a phrase.

Here are some steps that helped us research and choose a sending agency.


1. Forget Google
While in general I’m a huge fan of Google and the ease it brings to my life, I had no idea about how much of a monster Missions is and how many agencies there are out there. When I finally saw what I was trying to put a handle on, I had to put my computer away and take a breath. I tried to go back a couple of times, and I even reached out to one of the organisations on the list that sounded vaguely familiar.

But honestly, how is anyone supposed to make an informed decision while making the 3373625125637348949 calls necessary to get in touch with each agency? You can’t, so I highly recommend taking another route.


2. Look for Communication Quality.
While looking through Google, I managed to get in touch with an organisation that sounded familiar, and I organised an online interview. We seemed to fit, and it was all positive, but the communication dropped off after that. They didn’t seem to need us, and we didn’t want to bother them. This taught me that how an organisation communicates with new leads is very important and could be a clue as to how they run as an organisation.

Just remember, if this is your path, you’re going to be on the field in a foreign country with only small strings of attachment linking you back to the world you just left. So we decided that we wanted our sending organisation to make communication a priority, because that’s one giant key to keeping us sane once we finally get out there.


3. Use personal and local connections.
Personal and local connections are so much easier to set up, follow up, and evaluate. After failing at a few attempts of finding Missions agencies through Google, my husband approached the agency with whom he had gone to Russia. The director also happened to attend our church. He arranged a meeting to discuss our ideas and see if there was any way of going forward. This part of the process was remarkably quick and simple compared to what had been happening before, and that was mostly due to the fact that we could meet in person, catch up regularly, and track the process in real time. It also meant he could answer our questions and allay our fears pretty quickly and very organically.


4. Make sure the organisation values align with your values.
Because we were chatting to the director through our church connection, we took for granted that the organisation values would be the same as ours. As the process went on, we found out that there are some differences in opinion with some things, but luckily for us, these weren’t deal breakers. It would have been a shame to get most of the way through the process before potentially finding out that the differences were too many.

So if possible, look into the organisation and their beliefs, especially about things that are known to differ between Christian denominations. Be clear and concise with yourself about which issues are deal breakers and which differences you can accept.


5. If possible, take a short-term trip with the organisation.
At first I thought this option to be both frivolous and a waste of time. If we were going to work towards a short-term trip, wouldn’t that would take time and money away from our efforts to get out there long term? However, my husband still wasn’t firm on the idea of leaving his dream job, family, and the familiarity of home in order to chase a vague idea on the other side of the globe. So for us, a short-term trip became necessary.

However, even when not absolutely necessary, I would still highly recommend what is known in some circles as a ‘Vision Trip’. This gives the opportunity to experience firsthand how the sending organisation works in getting you on the field, without the pressure of it being the ‘long term launch.’ It also gives an opportunity to visit the field that you want to be a part of, and to be directly involved with the culture of that team and the dynamics of how they work. For me, meeting the destination team and seeing firsthand how they worked together was another confirmation that we had chosen the right country and the right sending agency.

Post-Covid, this can prove a real challenge, and maybe this option won’t be available for some time. However, I think when possible, a Vision Trip is such an irreplaceable course of action, and frankly, we wouldn’t be going long-term had we not done it. 


6. If you’re married, both spouses must agree.
This may conflict with how others feel, but there is no doubt in my mind that if you are married and you feel called to overseas missions, your partner must also be called. God would never call you to a relationship, to then call only one of you to the other side of the world for an extended period of time. The calling must come to both of you. To make it even more complicated, in my experience and from the experience of others I have talked with, sometimes the calling comes to each of you at different times.

I cannot stress enough to you how important it is, as the person who first gets the calling, to shut up and let God do the talking. Convincing a partner through colourful words, pleas, and stories to follow you across the globe without their own concrete belief that God is calling them there very often ends in disaster. Don’t let that be your story. If God truly wills it, it will happen in His timing and he will speak to both of you, albeit at different times.


7. Prayer and confirmation from God.
This can look different for each person, so I can’t speak as to what everyone will feel when confirmation comes. However, our confirming experiences included the approval of key mentors, the approval of both the sending and receiving teams, the peace that comes from God even as situations were tricky and scary, and the confusing combo of clarity, clear direction, and spiritual struggle. This final confirmation is something along the lines of knowing that you know that you know, and experiencing things that lean into your weaknesses and spiritual deficits. It can be challenging, but is very different from lack of peace.

While this is by no means an exhaustive list, it has been our personal journey. In the end we were able to confidently choose our sending agency, knowing that it was God’s will and that we were a great fit for them, as they were for us.

I’m curious to know if you have other suggestions for finding and choosing a sending agency.


Naomi Johnston is a photographer and designer based in Hamilton, New Zealand. Along with her husband Glyn and daughter Minna May, she is currently fundraising on her way to joining the One Mission Society team in Budapest, Hungary. She will be part of the media team, and is also hoping to work in Human Trafficking Prevention. Naomi writes regularly on her blog at and @thejohnstonjourney on FB and Insta.

Permission to be a beginner

Today was my fourth day of driving with my recently turned 15-year-old niece. With a few hours of driving together under “our” (this is not the royal we, if you’re teaching new drivers), we were both feeling good about her progress.

And then we had three near misses. One in a parking lot with a wall (thank you Jesus for my screaming, “Brake!!!”). One on a road as she drifted up the curb (we had talked about her tendency to be too far to the right, so at least this oops made my point). And once when she started after stopping to look at something and was in reverse, not drive; we flew backwards. Thankfully no-one was behind us.

Being a beginner is messy, isn’t it. Does this remind you of your early days on the field? Figuring our shopping or traffic or living with new teammates?

Being a beginner can also be exciting. But . . . want to guess the most uttered phrase out of her mouth on the first day?

“I’m sorry!!”

When she accelerated a little too fast or stopped w-a-y behind a stop sign or took a corner like a race car driver.

“I’m sorry!”

She was apologizing for not knowing how to drive. But how could she know?! She’s a beginner. I reassured her that she didn’t need to apologize for not knowing how to drive.

As we puttered around, I thought, “What a shame we live in a world of experts.” Where are the beginners? Where is the permission to not know? Where is the freedom to try things? 

You have permission to be a beginner.

You do not need to be the best teammate, support raiser, child educator, faith sharer, or language learner you can be right out of the gate . . . just be in process. At any stage of life, parts of you are going to be a beginner. 

With that in mind, Global Trellis is launching our next course for people in their first year on the field. Making the Most runs from September 2020 to June 2021 and is open to anyone who moved or is moving to the field in the year 2020.

Sometimes you need to find a place where you can let your guard down without watching eyes—even if your teammates and local friends are wonderful.

Want to know the second most uttered phrase out of Anna’s mouth?

“You have nerves of steel.”

Ha! Thank you Asian traffic for helping me not wince. But the truth I love her and do not want her to feel bad that she’s a beginner or embarrassed that she doesn’t know more than she knows. I want her (and you and me) to sense the joy of learning.

You have permission at any stage of your time on the field to be a beginner. So I ask again, where is God inviting you to be a beginner?

It’s awkward to be a beginner, but it also can be fun. I bet you have nerves of steel too :)! 

Know anyone who is newly arrived on the field or soon to arrive? Let them know about “Making the Most.” And be kind to yourself where you are a beginner . . . it will get better!

Part of this post first appeared in a Global Trellis mailing.

God is great and ever so good

My friend Barbara wrote to me recently, “God is great and ever so good.”

Her words struck me at a particularly vulnerable moment. I found myself repeating her words over and over when fear crept in. I couldn’t predict what I felt was a very fragile future, but I could speak truth over it – God is great and ever so good.

I have known loss, but in that loss God showed Himself great and ever so good.

I have known loneliness, but in that loneliness God showed Himself great and ever so good.

I have known despair, but in that despair God showed Himself great and ever so good.

God’s greatness and goodness are not dependent on my situation or my feelings. I know this, but believing and living it is entirely different. Barbara’s summation of truth sent me back into the scriptures, pulling verses that have for years comforted my heart and pointed me away from fear. With the world so upside down at the moment, I wondered if you too are facing unknown and could use reminding of just how great and good God is…

“You are worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honor and power; for You created all things, and by Your will they exist and were created.” Rev 4:11

 “Do you not know? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and His understanding no one can fathom.” Isaiah 40:28

“For with God nothing will be impossible.” Luke 1:37

“Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all His benefits; who forgives all your iniquities, who heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from destruction, who crowns you with loving kindness and tender mercies.” Psalm 103:2-4

“Let them give thanks to the Lord for His unfailing love and His wonderful deeds for mankind, for He satisfies the thirsty and fills the hungry with good things.” Psalm 107:8-9

 “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.”
John 14:27

“Through the Lord’s mercies we are not consumed, because His compassions fail not. They are new every morning; great is Your faithfulness. “The Lord is my portion,” says my soul, “Therefore I hope in Him!” Lamentations 3:22-24

“The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make His face shine upon you, and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up His countenance upon you and give you peace.” Numbers 6:24-26

The world is unpredictable. Heartache and difficulties are a part of life. Take comfort for the truth remains- God is great and ever so good.

If “they’ll know we are Christians by our love,” will they know we are missionaries by our listening?

by Alyson Rockhold

The brooms in Tanzania start early each day. A familiar “swish, swish, swish” emanates from every house. When I moved here, I was shocked that most women sweep their houses daily and mop the floors three times a week. At first, that routine seemed kind of ridiculous to me. So, I made the most basic mistake warned about in Missionary 101: Judging instead of Listening. I didn’t ask anyone why they swept every day. I didn’t stop to remember that Tanzanians are experts at living in Tanzania. I just stubbornly clung to what I knew to be true of housekeeping in America and tried to apply it here.

Then for weeks I complained that there was always grit in the bed. I bemoaned the fact that my husband’s allergies were getting worse. And I was dismayed to find that spiders were literally living in every corner of the house! When I grabbed a broom to knock down all the spiderwebs, I finally realized my folly. I could’ve saved myself a lot of aggravation and annoyance if I had started by listening to the people who live in this place.

As I was mulling over this lesson, I started re-reading The Poisonwood Bible, a fictional account of one family’s failed mission to the Congo. The first time I read this book, I was dreaming of the mission field. From that distance and without any experience, it was easy to stand in judgement on all the decisions that led to their downfall. Yet today, with plenty of my own cultural missteps fresh in my mind, I found this book to be a compelling reminder of the importance of being a missionary who opens my ears far more often than I do my mouth.

The book has a poignant example of the value of listening that begins when the father decides to dig a garden. His Congolese housekeeper tries to help him, but he ignores her every suggestion. He is convinced that he knows best, and he lets her broken English and lack of education be an excuse to cast aside her insights. The result is crop failure and a nasty rash from the poisonwood tree. Throughout the story, every time the father refuses to listen to his neighbors, his heart grows more hardened and his mistakes become more disastrous. Ultimately, his mission is ruined by his closed ears and hardened heart.

It makes me wonder if our ears and heart are somehow linked: Is our willingness to listen connected to our ability to love? The story of Isaiah’s call to missions has a lot to teach us about this. When God calls Isaiah to missionary service, he famously replies, “Here am I. Send me!” Years ago, as a new missionary, I used to love the thrill that came with claiming Isaiah’s words as my own. Now I wish I had paid more attention to what God says next. In Isaiah 6:10, God instructs the prophet to tell the Israelites that He will punish them by hardening their hearts and making their ears dull. This chapter has an important message for young missionaries: After your eager “Yes!” to God, continue in His service by keeping your hearts and ears open.

I’ve had to learn the hard way, through dust and spiders (and examples too embarrassing to enumerate here!), that my ears are two of the most important tools I have for cultural adaptation. I need them to learn a new language, to hear the stories of the people, to honor customs and experiences. I’m starting to see that there is a mysterious connection between my ears and heart, a powerful link between my ability to listen and my capacity to love. If the old hymn is true that They will know we are Christians by our love, perhaps also They will know we are missionaries by our listening.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer warned the church of his generation that “Christians have forgotten that the ministry of listening has been committed to them by Him who is Himself the great listener.” I wonder if the same can be said of our generation. When I open social media, I see so much shouting, so many multiplications of messages, so many voices desperate to be heard. Is anyone truly listening?

In these divisive times, the ministry of listening can sometimes be misconstrued as a weakness. Yet, I believe that God is calling His people to have the courage to listen well and the grace to keep our hearts malleable to the wisdom of others. Sometimes listening involves sacrifice. I must lay down my privilege and pride to enter into dialogues willing to truly hear voices that may challenge and chafe me. Listening is a confession that “I don’t know it all,” and I need your words to guide and teach me.

I am begging God for the grace to cultivate the skill of listening as a form of spiritual hospitality that by “paying full attention to others and welcoming them into (my) very being…(I can) invite strangers to become friends” (Henri Nouwen).


Alyson has lived half of the last seven years overseas including time in Tanzania, Haiti, and Zambia. Her resume includes such diverse experiences as teaching English, assisting with C-sections and making weekly cookie deliveries to the elderly. She’s so thankful to have a grounded, wise, hilarious husband to share the adventures with.

An Empty Ocean and the 10 Things We Must Remember About Grief

Walking alone at a park, a friend of mine saw a woman busily walking towards her, dictating something into her phone. The woman looked earnest and concentrated.

She came closer and closer, and as her words became more distinct, my socially-distancing friend heard these slow, simple words:

“Sadness is an ocean with nothing in it. Period.”

Oh how I want to know that woman’s story. I recently googled those words and came up empty; apparently, she hasn’t published them yet. In any case, I’m guessing you resonate with her sentiment.

These are hard times. Whether you’re still abroad, whether you’ve had to leave the field and stay gone, whether you’re hoping to return, or returned already, or whether the future is murky, my guess is that at some point over the past several months, you could have written, “Sadness is an ocean with nothing in it. Period.”

Or perhaps you would agree with Jayber Crow, Wendell Berry’s famous barber of Port William, who said one bone-soaked evening, “It had been raining, and it was still raining. It was going to rain.”

It feels like that to me sometimes. “It had been raining, and it was still raining. It was going to rain.”

And so we come to this: Ten things to remember about grief.

I hope that you find something helpful here, whether a thought or a link or two seconds away from the folks you’re quarantined with.

Whatever you’re grieving, it matters: whether it’s a job, a family member, or the future you had planned. In each case, loss singes, and grieving matters.

So, shall we?

1. Grief is a process
It is messy, unpredictable, and gnarly, but whatever else it is, grief is a process. That means it is not its own ending; it’s going somewhere, leading to something. Author and theologian Dan Allender doesn’t mince words when he writes:

“Grief is similar to vomiting. At its deepest convulsion it exhausts, nauseates, and relieves. It empties us, weakens us, and prepares us for food that in due season will strengthen us. But in its immediate aftermath, we need rest.”

This meme pictures the “process” well.


2. Grief might not feel like grief
It might feel like discomfort, or generalized sluggishness, or even anxiety. Grief expert David Kessler describes our current situation:

[W]e’re feeling a number of different griefs. We feel the world has changed, and it has. We know this is temporary, but it doesn’t feel that way, and we realize things will be different. Just as going to the airport is forever different from how it was before 9/11, things will change and this is the point at which they changed. The loss of normalcy; the fear of economic toll; the loss of connection. This is hitting us and we’re grieving. Collectively. We are not used to this kind of collective grief in the air.”

Read the full interview from the Harvard Business Review here: That Discomfort You’re Feeling is Grief.


3. You don’t have to be sad all day to effectively grieve
Therapist Kay Bruner recommends the evidence-based time limit of twenty minutes. She writes:

“This is a research-based number:  journal 20 minutes per day when you’re working on a specific issue.  I recently had an adult TCK client tell me how much the 20-minute exercise has helped.  She’s not stuffing down her emotions any more, and the 20-minute limit helps her contain the feelings so they aren’t as overwhelming.”

Read her full article here: How do we process loss and grief?


4. The Dual Process Model allows for oscillations
It is pretty normal to bounce back and forth between “I’m OK” and “I’m not OK and I’ll never be OK and why would you even think I’m OK?!”

Researchers Stroebe and Schut described this as “The Dual Process Model of Coping with Bereavement.”

It is totally normal to oscillate between the two, and actually, getting stuck on either side might be an indicator to get some outside help from a pastor or counselor.


5. People grieve differently, even if they’re in the same family
Some people grieve in giant waves. Some don’t. Some people show ALL.THEIR.GRIEF. Some don’t. Some people are vocal and some aren’t.

Some extroverts want the crowds to know all about it. Some introverts don’t.

The danger here is that you expect others to grieve the right way (read: your way), and instead of allowing them their own grief process, you try to stuff them into your box and they end up resentful or detached, finding solace far away from you.


6. Even if the loss looks the same, it isn’t
It’s just not. The loss I experienced when my dad died was terrible. It was also very different from the loss experienced by my younger siblings.

The hubris that says “my experience of loss is the gold standard by which all others shall be measured” is disgusting and antithetical to the heart of Christ.


7. Things will never be the same again
This is an indelible part of our story now.

And the grief of this season will bleed through the pages of our lives, marking the pages and stories that follow. Failing to acknowledge the COVID-19 chapters is to censor. To edit out. To delete plot twists and main characters. To murder history.

So we leave the pages as they are, splotched and imperfect. Because on every single ink-stained page, He remains. Comforter. Rock. Shepherd. God.

He remains the God who grieved.
He remains the God who understands.
He remains the God who comforts.
He remains. And He is enough.

So we keep feeling. We keep sketching out these life-pages, confident that He knows our stories. He loves our stories. He redeems our stories.

And we keep trusting that in the end, our stories are actually a part of His story.

And He’s really good with words.


8. Hope and despair can coexist in this space
Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann has written extensively on prophetic hope, even in the midst of legitimate despair. He writes,

“Hope expressed without knowledge of and participation in grief is likely to be false hope that does not reach despair. Thus…it is precisely those who know death most painfully who can speak hope most vigorously.”

Despair seems to be the crusty soil from which hope itself is born.

We need this reminder.

We need to remember that true hope is not just optimism. True hope is not a flimsy, fluffy thing. No, true hope, Biblical hope, sees it all. It sees the bad, the hard, the pain. It sees the depths and the darkness. It sees the world’s sin and my own sin.

And it keeps on seeing…all the way to Christ. In the end, deep hope must be securely grounded in the character and love of God.

For more thoughts on this theme, including links to a 21-minute podcast/sermon, click here. Or listen to the audio of the message here.


Magnanimous Despair alone

Could show me so divine a thing…

~Wendell Berry


9. While loss is personal, it’s not novel
Many faithful believers have walked hard roads before us, and many will after us. On its face, that’s not good news. But it is.

I wrote more about this idea in my article, What C.S. Lewis, Paul, and the Sword of Damocles can Teach us About Living in Terrible Times. In it, I quote my best friend, Elizabeth Trotter, who echoes C.S. Lewis’ call to do sensible, human things:

So what can we do when we’re confronted with all the darkness within, and all the darkness without? I mean, we know the end is good. We know the Bridegroom is coming back for us. But our eternal hope doesn’t always translate easily into our everyday moments and hours.

I think we need to chase the light. To DO something to help scatter the darkness. These days this is how you’ll find me chasing the light. . .

Singing a worship song.
Kissing my husband.
Chopping vegetables and preparing a meal for my family.
Reading a book to my kids.
Laughing at my husband’s jokes.
Going for a walk.
Drinking coffee with a friend.

These are the things that are saving my life right now. The small, menial acts that remind me that I’m still alive, that I’m not dead yet, and that the world hasn’t actually blown itself up yet.

No matter how sad I feel about everything on my first list, I can’t change any of them. But I can live my tiny little life with light and joy. With passion and hope. I can chase the light.

I chase the light, and I remember that this life is actually worth living, even with all the sadness in it. I chase the light, and I remember the Giver of these little joys, and I give thanks in return.

I refuse to let the griefs and evils of this world pull me all the way down into the pit. I will revolt against this despair. I will chase the light. I will grasp hold of the ephemeral joys of my itty bitty domestic life. And I will remember — always — the Source of this light.


10. Grief can be a gift
Grief is a gift that the Church needs to learn to deal with. Grief has the potential to refocus us on the Eternal, if we’ll let it. Grief and loss guard us against the temptation to degrade Heaven into a distant and entirely non-applicable theory, instead of the life-altering reality that it is.

“When hints of sadness creep into our soul, we must not flee into happy or distracting thoughts. Pondering sadness until it becomes overwhelming can lead us to a deep change in the direction of our being from self-preservation to grateful worship.” ~Larry Crabb

Grief can be an oxygenating reminder of Eternity. Grief is often the mechanism for drawing our hearts and souls back to God and the eternal intimacy he’s promised.

Read more on the gift of grief here and here.


Through it all, Jesus remains
Man of sorrows, giver of the Comforter. Holy.

He is still preparing a place for us, and if he’s still preparing a place for us, then we know he’s still planning to usher us in, one day, to paradise.

The future remains brighter than the past, more glorious, and more real.

Indeed, we live in the “now and not yet Kingdom.” And in this time, and in this space, it is right to mourn, it is normal to feel the pain, it is holy to burn for justice.

It is also good that we remember: he is coming back.


Come, Lord Jesus.