How Does Physical Health Impact a Missionary’s Decision to Leave the Field?

by Andrea Sears

There are many things about living on the mission field that can influence the physical health of missionaries and their families. When the body does not cooperate, even the most simple of tasks can become difficult. Sickness can necessitate trips to the home country for treatment, or even permanent relocation to an area where full recovery is possible.

We measured the frequency and strength of influence on the return decision for the following statements considered to be host-country-related factors:

  • I experienced significant health problems.
  • My spouse experienced significant health problems.
  • My child/children experienced significant health problems.
  • There was inadequate health care in my host country.
  • I had a lack of health insurance.
  • I felt that stress affected my health.
  • I felt that stress affected the health of others in my family.
  • I had limited access to clean water.
  • I felt that the climate/geography affected my health negatively.
  • I felt that pollution affected my health negatively.

When it comes to health matters, neither missionaries nor their sending churches and agencies are necessarily in control of how their bodies will respond to physical conditions, challenges, and illness. Country factors impacting health, such as climate and pollution, can hardly be changed. However, it is hoped that this data will be helpful for its descriptive value, as well as for the limited conclusions we can draw about preventable factors of attrition related to health. It may also suggest areas for deeper etiological research into the health of missionaries. 

 

Results
The table below summarizes the results for each question by providing: 

  1. The percentage of respondents who said that they experienced this factor on the mission field,
  2. The percentage of respondents who experienced the factor that said that this factor did (to some degree) affect their return decision, be it a slight, moderate, or strong effect, and
  3. The “strength index” of each factor, weighted for the size of the effect on their return decision. 

 

Discussion of Quantitative Results
It is noteworthy that more than half of missionaries reported having serious health problems. More than one-third reported serious health problems for their spouse. And one-third reported serious health problems for at least one child. These are very high rates of sickness for the periods of time being reported (the average tenure was approximately 8 1/2 years). In all three cases, over half of the respondents reported that this issue affected their decision to return to their home country, and to an overall moderate degree. It is hard to know how much overlap there is between the three categories, but clearly many families have multiple people experiencing significant health problems, which can compound the stress of dealing with them.

The most significant finding of this section (and indeed, one of the most significant in the survey) is the degree to which participants felt that stress affected both their health and the health of their families. More than two-thirds felt that stress affected their health, while half felt that stress affected the health of other family members. In both scenarios, this affected the return decision in 68-70% of cases, and to a relatively strong degree. These findings seem to indicate that the whole family experiences the stress of living on the mission field and is affected by it. Spouses and children are not immune. In addition, when stress is affecting the health of the whole family, the likelihood of attrition increases.

 

Qualitative Data
To survey the most frequent types of health problems experienced by missionaries, in addition to the quantitative scaled data, we collected open comments on the following question:

  • If applicable, please describe any serious health problems that you, your spouse, and/or your child/children experienced.

The collective suffering reported truly shows the sobering costs of the missions call, and the astonishing bravery and stamina of missionaries in facing them.

Many missionaries reported here on mental health issues that they and their families experienced. There is a subsequent section specifically pertaining to mental health, but at this point in the survey, respondents would not have known this, so some provided it here. The analysis of and commentary on mental-health-related data will be set aside until publishing of the relevant section, except for one very important observation: Missionaries reported mental health issues more than any physical health category, and this occurred without them being asked to include such issues specifically.

We must remember that these were self-reported “serious health problems.” We did not ask specifically about each possible health problem, nor define what constituted a serious health problem. 

 

Stress as a Contributing Factor
An important observation is the role that stress can play in many of these physical ailments, either giving disease a foothold or exacerbating a problem that would otherwise be less severe. In fact, 52 commenters specifically mentioned that they believed or were told that their physical health problems were caused by high stress: 

  • Some were diagnosed with cortisol regulation problems and adrenal fatigue, directly related to long-term stress exposure. 
  • Others developed disorders that are known or suspected to have stress as a contributing factor, such as migraines, gastric issues, high blood pressure, autoimmune disorders, insomnia, or mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, or PTSD. 
  • Still others had chronic health conditions that were potentially worsened by stress, such as asthma, diabetes, Crohn’s disease, or cancer. Stressed individuals are also more susceptible to viruses and infections, and take longer to recover from injuries and surgeries.

 

Environment as a Contributing Factor
Sometimes the physical environment in the host country was not conducive to maintaining the health of the missionaries and/or their family. This included primarily air pollution, but also natural substances that caused allergies or severe reactions. 

 

Mental and Physical “Grit”
Reading the stories of health trials reveals one type of high price paid by some missionaries for their commitment to the call. The mental and physical toughness of these missionaries is also apparent. Far from being “weak” or debilitated by their health struggles, they were more typically strong individuals who stubbornly persisted for some time despite them. 

Having a health emergency is frightening enough in one’s home country. Being in a place where you are not sure you can even get the medical care that you or your children need can cause an entirely different level of anxiety and uncertainty. One participant shared, “Frankly, any health issue seemed to be serious in an overseas context.” This is a sense of vulnerability that people in the home country cannot often understand.

It is truly impressive how much missionaries are willing to endure for the privilege of participating in the Great Commission. Sending agencies, churches, and friends back home should be aware of what missionaries may go through physically in order to provide the necessary emotional and practical support when health problems strike.

 

Lack of Support as a Contributing Factor
Even when faced with severe physical or emotional challenges, some said that they still would have stayed were it not for other barriers that came into play. For some, it was a lack of team support during health trials. Others even felt that team dynamics were actively creating stress in their lives that contributed to the health problems they experienced.

 

Conclusions
What can we learn from this data to help us better serve our missionaries? How can missionaries best protect themselves from health dangers on the mission field?

Physical health is important to all people everywhere. It enables us to have the energy and ability to follow our dreams and calling. When the body is working well, we don’t think about it. When it malfunctions, restoring it can quickly become the focus of our concern. Poor health can hobble our ministry as quickly as team conflict, family emergencies, or a loss of funding. 

We must not idolize physical health, for we know that our bodies are subject to decay and that God works through suffering as much as (or more than!) He does through health. But neither must we ignore it, naïvely missing its importance to our ability to serve. With this model of being good stewards of our missionaries’ health, but also recognizing that we are not in full control of it, we can do the following things to lower attrition:

  1. We can ensure that missionaries have adequate health insurance or a financial plan for the payment of health services. 
  2. We can train missionary candidates on physical health issues common to the area to which they are going, how to diagnose and treat them, and how to seek medical care when it is needed. 
  3. We can also train missionary candidates on the importance of stress management, and the effect that stress can have on their health. 
  4. We can practice good self-care as missionaries, being careful to steward our own health well. This includes pursuing healthy diet, exercise, and sleep habits; maintaining a healthy weight; and remembering to have regular times of rest.
  5. We can check-in about physical health when delivering missionary care. 
  6. We can provide mutual care and sensitivity to team members who are experiencing health challenges. 
  7. And finally, we can remember that even when all these things are done, there is still a spiritual war taking place in the unseen realm and physical problems may be a sign of spiritual attack. We must remember to avail ourselves of the spiritual armor of God, prayer, time in the Word, the laying on of hands, fellowship with other believers, and the power of the Holy Spirit.

And when sickness does come, we can remember that this too is forming us into Christ’s image. God still loves and cares for us even when He allows us to pass through difficult times, and these same trials can be used to glorify Him. 

 

For more detail and specific comments in the qualitative section, visit www.themissionsexperience.weebly.com/blog, or email andrea.d.sears@gmail.com to request the full pdf document of the results.

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Andrea Sears is co-founder of the ministry giveDIGNITY, which works in the marginalized community of La Carpio in San Jose, Costa Rica. The ministry focuses on Christ-centered community development initiatives in education, vocation, and violence prevention. Her family has been in Costa Rica for 11 years, and served as the Missionaries in Residence at John Brown University during the 2017-2018 year while on furlough.

Guiltitude: the Guilt of Having in a World of Sacrificing

by Michèle Phoenix

My pastor got a car.

His van was totaled in a wreck and, just as he and his wife were considering what it would take to finance a new vehicle, someone they know offered them a Volvo.

This past Sunday, he spoke with awe in his voice about the miraculous provision for his family. Then he emphasized that the car was well above their means and added, “I don’t want anyone to see the car and think, ‘Wow, my pastor can afford a Volvo?!’”

I turned to the friend sitting next to me and said, “I hate that he had to say that.” Then I remembered how often I’ve done something similar.

I’ve noticed the syndrome beforeI’ve lived it. And it has reached epidemic proportions in the world of missions. Even among the MKs I serve, I see it embodied every day, inherited from parents who might not have realized the lessons they were teaching.

Guiltitude [noun]

Condition in which guilt overwhelms gratitude—most commonly observed in those who are dependent on charitable giving—aggravated by fear of judgment, often resulting in calculated communication and/or conscience-stricken self-restriction. 

 

CONFESSIONS OF A GUILTITUDER
When I moved back to the States from Europe, I found my elation over God’s provision of my townhouse tempered by strong feelings of guilt.

Though I could document every miracle that had paved the way to my new home, I still struggled with the guilt of “having” when I lived in the ministry-universe of “sacrificing.” 

I wondered if guests would see my flea-market European antiques, bought for $50 but worth hundreds in the US, and question whether they’re appropriate for a missionary’s home. I found myself wanting to explain things by saying, “This was given to me by a friend” and “I bought this for next-to-nothing at a charity store in Alsace” as I gave tours of my two-story miracle.

Even today, nearly ten years later, as I look around this home and see the items contributed by the outrageous generosity of friends, I am assailed again by that uncomfortable combination of paralyzing guilt and galvanizing gratitude.

I live in the land of Guiltitude.

Guiltitude is not a uniquely Phoenix notion either. Though it doesn’t afflict all missionaries, it impacts enough of them to warrant some attention. Its symptoms are wide-ranging:

  • Missionary to Germany relinquishes the old, beat-up Mercedes he was given (for free!) by members of his local church and invests his own funds in buying a less “brand-y” car to avoid looking ostentatious.
  • Missionary to Switzerland, while interacting with his supporting church, avoids speaking of the recent purchase of expensive editing software, though much of his ministry relies on producing music and videos.
  • Missionary family scores $25 plane tickets to fly to Monaco for spring break. They post only a handful of pictures taken in the wealthy Principality, but are sure to thank the discount airline and the person who offered them cheap housing when they do. You know…just in case.

When I lived overseas, I vividly remember talking with a friend who had, for a year, bought virtually no furniture for her home. I asked her if she planned on getting a couch and kitchen table at some point, and she said, “My supporters send me money for ministry, and getting furniture is not ministry!”

Like so many others, she’d bought into something I call Donor Demand. There’s an old-school component to it. We like our missionaries to look deprived and to live without. It adds a certain nobility to the minister’s status and to the giver’s sacrifice. 

You might be amazed at the rigid (and sometimes irrelevant) standards by which the validity of a missionary’s work has been judged. Owning a Mercedes and serving in a beautiful location are just two of the numerous reasons for which devoted financial partners have been known to rethink—and sometimes withdraw—their crucial donations.

Guiltitude can be hard to diagnose, as it often masquerades as responsibility or humility. Its most obvious symptoms are:

  • Fear of having (because true ministers, by some accounts, must live in squalor)
  • Fear of doing (because some activities may be misunderstood as frivolous)
  • Fear of full reporting (because some ministry partners may misread the value and purpose of what is owned and done)

I’ve seen all three reach irrational levels in MKs who grew up in an environment where financial guilt of some sort prevailed. Even their adult relationship to money and ownership can be irreversibly skewed by the toxic influence of Guiltitude.

[Note: it goes without saying that there are instances in which missionaries truly have lived in excessive or dishonorable ways and been rightfully confronted about it.]

In my own life, I’ve found how easy it is for guilt to sneak into a spirit of gratitude. I am so grateful for God’s provision of my every practical, physical and spiritual need since I began in ministry in 1991—and for the donors whose gifts have kept me serving for these twenty-nine years!

That gratitude pushes me every day to be worthy of their sacrifice…but it also contributes to a creeping sense of guilt. How can I invest the funds I receive from supporters, who often give sacrificially, on things that are less than essential? Why should I buy a thrift store buffet or the used car of my dreams when others can make do with cardboard furniture and a 16-year old beater?

 

TREATMENT
I’m afraid I don’t know whether there’s a permanent cure for Guiltitude. Something tells me it’s a chronic disease that lurks in subconscious places. Perhaps a good place to start is for both sides (the servers and the givers) to acknowledge its existence, then treat its symptoms with a healthy dose of truthful assessment. If nothing else, this may at least mitigate Guiltitude’s damage.

May I offer a few additional suggestions? 

Missionaries:

  • Remind yourselves that you are called both to live and to serve. For most humans, living well requires rest, some level of comfort and the occasional escape. It’s okay to enjoy places, things, and activities that are financially responsible. You are not supported just to do a job, and there is growing evidence that self-care leads to greater longevity on the field of service.
  • Report clearly and intentionally, not out of guilt, but out of a desire to accurately inform those who follow your ministry.
  • Surround yourself with a smaller, understanding group of friends with whom you can share parts of your life that you don’t reveal on social media or in letters. This will keep you from feeling like you’re being deceptive. You’re just being selective.
  • Counter irrational disapproval with facts and assert truths that contradict flawed rationales.

Supporters and onlookers:

  • Understand that the occasional treat (activity, trip, unnecessary object) may actually enhance the missionary’s ministry, because it contributes to emotional and physical wellness.
  • Don’t apply to your missionaries restrictions you wouldn’t apply to yourself.
  • A poor, burned out, or suffering missionary is not more godly than a comfortable, healthy, and happy missionary.
  • Remember that the pictures you see only tell part of the story.
  • If you must speak with a missionary about what you think you’re seeing, begin by gently asking questions and truly listening with a compassionate heart.

As I sit today in my modest and comfortable home, surrounded by treasured bits and pieces of my years overseas, I am grateful for three decades of ministry rich in locations, accomplishments, and experiences. I am also aware of the challenges that come with the blessings. My commitment to myself, as I contemplate the opinions of others on what they see of my life, is to thoughtfully consider legitimate causes for concern, to adjust my choices (when appropriate) out of faithfulness to God, and to prayerfully let go of unfounded accusations—even those I inflict on myself. 

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Don’t miss the Pondering Purple podcast, available on all your streaming platforms. In each brief episode, Michèle highlights one of her most popular and helpful articles in a format you can consume on the go.

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Raised in France by a Canadian father and an American mother, Michèle is a mentor, writer and speaker with a heart for MKs. She taught for 20 years at Black Forest Academy (Germany) before launching her own ministry advocating for TCKs. She now travels globally to consult and teach on topics related to this unique people group. She loves good conversations, French pastries, mischievous students and Marvel movies.

Stay Connected to God When You Move to the Field

Digging through my memories and as I try to uncover what I anticipated church would look like when I moved to the field, I knew that my teammates and I wouldn’t often go to a public church. That’s about it. Looking back, I can see that I forgot to imagine what we would do for church.

So, three people, a guitar, and a book about the Psalms sounded like . . . honestly nothing I had experienced and did not fit into the category “church.” Church was planned and executed by others; and by others, I meant more than three in the “congregation” and by people who were pastors. Though I grew to love the intimacy of a smaller group, no place exists to hide when it is just three of you.

Here’s what I didn’t know at that time: your relationship with God changes when you move to the field because you are responsible for it in ways you do not have to be when you are in your home country. 

Likely pre-field, your relationship with God was nurtured through regular church attendance in a language you understood, coupled with some form of church and ministry involvement, spiritual practices, and deep in-person relationships. In this context, you knew how to feed yourself. You knew annual rhythms and how to pace yourself. You had people to turn to in a pinch.

Over time you will have these in place, but during your first year, you might not have the language or be in a context where it is safe or wise to attend a public church.

To help those new to the field start off connected to God while other pieces of on the field life get in place, today I am excited to shared Connected: Starting Off Spiritually Fed on the Field. You might have underestimated how you will need to relearn everything . . . even connecting with God. 

As much as you love God, finding meaningful ways to spiritually feed yourself takes time. Connected is designed to feed your soul and nurture your relationship with God as you adjust to cross-cultural life. When so much of life is new, focus each month on one Fruit of the Spirit. Staying connected to God isn’t a given, but it can be cultivated. 

Picture your first nine months marked by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. This book will help that picture become your reality with seven questions per month to help you connect to God on the fruit of the month.

Because part of growing and developing as a cross-cultural work involves celebration, let’s celebrate this new resource! Leave a comment and two of you will win a copy (if mailed in the U.S.) or on Kindle (anywhere in the world). What fruit of the Spirit are you enjoying or needing these days?

Let’s celebrate that our God wants us to be Connected to Him and connected to the places and people He calls us!

(Winners selected Sunday evening, MST)

Questions about Going, and the Answering Thereof

You can learn a lot by asking questions. You can learn a lot by answering them, too.

Recently, a young couple came to my wife and me with a list of questions for us. They were trying to figure out how to respond to the stirrings they were feeling about ministry opportunities and wondering if they should consider serving cross-culturally someday.

I think our answers fell somewhat short of profound, but I hope they were helpful. What struck me, though, was how much their questions got me thinking. Good questions have a way of doing that. They’re beneficial for the ones asking and for the ones pondering the answers, as well.

So if you’re considering going overseas, here’s a list of questions you could ask those who’ve already gone. And if you’re one of those who’s already gone, here’s a list of questions to help you reflect on the process that got you there. I hope some of them make you say, “Hmmmm, good question. Let me think about that.”

All of the questions below are concerned with the lead up to departure. For what comes after that, well, we can come up with those lists some other time.

When did you first consider serving overseas?
When did you know for sure you should go?
What did you hope to achieve by going?
Did you and your spouse have the same level of commitment?
What did your parents and/or children think?
How were you supported?
How did you raise support and how long did it take?
How did you decide your income level?
Did you have debt when you left?
How did you choose your sending organization?
What role did your church play?
What would you have done if you’d not gone?
What did you leave behind?
What concerns did you have?
What made you excited?
What did you think success would look like?
How would you describe your stage of life when you started your cross-cultural work?
What sacrifices did you know you’d have to make?
How long did you plan on staying?
How did you decide where to go?
What did you know about your future host country/culture?
What kind of research did you do?
Did you know anyone in the place you were heading to?
What kind of support team did you develop?
What did you pray for?
What responses did you get to your prayers?
What kind of “calling” did you respond to?
How did you prepare?
What was your main motivation for going?
Who were your biggest cheerleaders?
Did you have people close to you who didn’t want you to go?
What hurdles did you need to overcome?
What disappointments did you encounter?
What plans for your children’s schooling did you make?
What did you do with your “things”?
Did you have any doubts?
Did you have any previous cross-cultural experience?
Did you study the language before going?
How did you pick a ministry target?
What verses in the Bible spoke to you?
Who were your role-models?
Why didn’t you go earlier?
Why didn’t you wait longer to go?
and . . .
What questions did you have?

[photo: “Which Way Is Home?” by Abby, used under a Creative Commons license]

The Expat Cookbook

I made another cookbook and it is specially designed for us, for expatriates.

I know we all have cookbooks and the internet and who needs another one. But this one is special. It is designed with us in mind. Expats. People who travel and move and go places and who love people on all sides of the planet and want to eat food.

The Expat Cookbook is not ordered according to Soup, Salad, Mains…

It is ordered for how we actually live.

Chapters include:

Comfort Food

Food to Bring on an Airplane

Food to Mail in a Package

Feed a Crowd on a Budget

Food to bring to the office where there’s no fridge. You know, recipes for our real life. Almost all the recipes come with multiple adaptations and options so it is also a book that lets you thrive with your own taste, creativity, and what you have available.

Maybe you’re moving after the New Year. Maybe you are just now making up your wish-list for Christmas. Maybe your loved one is moving away and you know how much food communicates love.

No deep thoughts for A Life Overseas readers from me this week. Frankly, my brain is fried from Covid life, election hoo-haa, seminary classes, and all the other normal things. Thanks for sticking with A Life Overseas through it all and thanks for letting me share about this with you!

You can pick up your copy at Amazon or through PayHip

Amazon is the only place to get a paperback. I apologize that it isn’t in Indie bookstores yet. Working on that..

For now, cook on and enjoy!

(I’m pretty sure I caught all the typos and apologize for any that remain)

*contains affiliate links

5 Things for TCKs to Consider When Choosing a University

by Lauren Wells

A couple years ago, my husband, myself, and our two kids traveled to the Midwest to visit family and attend the wedding of a good college-friend of ours. The wedding took place near where my husband and I both went to university, and this was my first time back to that place since our college days several years before.

There is something about going back to a place that makes you see it in a new light – through new eyes. If I’m being honest, my memories of our college town are stormy and dark. The thoughts of my time there have always been accompanied by an anxious, sick to my stomach, thank-goodness-I’m-not-there-anymore feeling. If I’m being honest, I was really dreading going back to that place. I was excited for the wedding and elated to see old friends but was not thrilled with the geographical location.

But, Indiana surprised me. As we spent the weekend exploring Indianapolis with our kids, I kept saying to my husband, “Wow! Indiana isn’t as horrible as I remembered!”

So why did I remember it that way? Why did I picture a dark, dreary, lifeless place when I would think back on my time in Indiana?

While I do believe that I was exactly where I was supposed to be for university and wouldn’t trade the great friendships and amazing husband that I found there, I realized that there were some things that made my college experience very difficult. Things that I never would have considered before arriving at college. Things that I think are likely relevant to most TCKs.

So now, when I talk with parents and their TCKs who are starting to think about and apply for universities, these are the things that I recommend that they explore.

 

1. A school with a TCK program or group
Because I went straight from Africa to school in Indiana, I was considered an international student. I quickly realized that, in that group, I was the odd one out. The international students were those who came from different parts of the world, but they were not American and for the most part, had never lived in the United States. I, on the other hand, was very familiar with the United States and knew how to grocery shop, open a bank account, dial 911, et cetera, so it was hard to be required to attend these “American Life” classes. While there were great people in that international student group, I didn’t feel like I really fit, and it seemed like they didn’t think I fit with them either.

Likewise, I found it hard to connect with the majority population of the university who were mostly from the midwestern states and hadn’t traveled outside the country. These were the main two groups, and I didn’t feel like I really belonged in either one of them. Though I did end up making some great friends, it was a difficult process trying to figure out who I was and where I fit. I later found out that there were a few other missionary kids at the university who had similar experiences, but we never crossed paths during our college years because we were all TCKs trying to blend in. I think that things could have been so different for all of us, had we had a TCK group to associate with.

 

2. A diverse population
Having lived in international communities overseas, I missed being surrounded by people from all over the world. The university had some international students, but there were not very many, and the American student population was not very ethnically diverse. I would also have loved to have had professors from different parts of the world who could offer a more globally-influenced perspective on the topics they were teaching.

 

3. A multiethnic location
Along with the previous point, the Midwest is not incredibly diverse. Location wasn’t something I had ever considered when deciding on a university, but I wish I had. I think that I would have felt more comfortable and less of an outsider had I been in a city that was more culturally diverse. The fact that I had to drive an hour to find an international grocery store and that ethnic restaurants were few and far between, was painful.

 

4. An option that minimizes debt
Most TCKs end up going into a helping profession, according to David C. Pullock and Ruth Van Reken, (Third Culture Kids 3rd Edition, 2017). Unfortunately, many helping professions are not the most financially lucrative. This works fine for TCKs (who are generally not interested in wealth), but it does create a problem when they graduate from university with an average of $60,000 in student loans and a career path that can’t pay those off in fewer than 25 years.

The bigger issue with this, and something that I wish I would have considered when choosing a university, is the fact that student loan debt ties your feet. Having tied feet is many TCK’s worst nightmare. No longer are you free to travel, because you have the lead ball of student loan bills chained to your foot. Paying bills requires a job, and maintaining a job requires sticking around long enough to avoid looking flakey on a resume. I ended up switching to a community college and finishing up at an online school to reduce the amount of student loan debt I accrued, but if I would have thought to do that from the beginning, I could have significantly reduced the debt that I graduated with and thus would be more financially free to travel.

 

5. A school and major that allows for travel
I didn’t consider, as a young college student, the fact that my TCK-self would have a need for change and travel. If I had, I would have chosen a school and major that required some sort of overseas study program, or an overseas university entirely. I would have also made sure that my degree was one that would yield a career that allows for travel. I ended up changing my major and now am in my dream career that does involve travel and cross-cultural work, but if I were to go back, I would have started with that trajectory from the beginning — considering that I would want to travel.

 

Third Culture Kids experience an intense and challenging transition when they leave their globally-mobile lifestyle and head to university. Considering these few things could have eased that transition for me and allowed for a university experience that catered more to my TCK nature. If you are a TCK or parent of TCKs starting to think about university, keep things things in mind as you sift through your university options. While they may not be essentials for all TCKs, I do believe that they are worth considering, exploring, and having conversations about.

 

Originally published here.

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Lauren Wells is the Founder and Director of TCK Training and author of Raising Up a Generation of Healthy Third Culture Kids. She specializes in practical, proactive care for TCKs and their families and has trained TCK caregivers from over 50 organizations. Lauren grew up in Tanzania, East Africa, where she developed a love for smokey chai and Mandazis (African doughnuts). She now lives in South Carolina with her husband and two children.

 

A Global Pandemic and Lives Interrupted

In our house we have a saying. “Don’t speak while I’m interrupting!” Other people don’t find it quite as funny as we do. We are a family of interrupters, none worse than me and my husband.

Sometimes I wonder if that statement is what God might say to me with a gentle grin as he upends my life with interruptions and changed plans.

A few years ago I wrote about my brother and his wife having an encounter with the Great Interrupter. In their case the encounter put them in a place of selling a home of over 15 years, leaving a church of the same, leaving a community where they have loved hard and were loved back, and leaving the only home their children remember. They embarked on a mid-life journey to begin a life in the Middle East. Like a train heading one direction only to switch mid-journey to another set of tracks, so was their interruption. Who needs a mid-life crisis when the Great Interrupter is in your life?

Seven years after their interruption, my husband and I had our encounter with the Great Interrupter. We ended up in the Kurdish Region of Iraq in a 2-year commitment at a Kurdish university that would end up being cut short after a year with another great interruption. While I loved the first interruption, despite the myriad of details and hard goodbyes, I hated the second. I cried every day for a month in Kurdistan and then more once we arrived back in the United States.

And the thing that made me the angriest was when people said to me “There must be some reason for this.” “Yes,” I would respond somewhat politely. Inside I was more honest – Don’t you think I freaking know that in my head? It’s my heart that hurts. Or the even more honest “Shut up!”

And then came a global pandemic and around the world we have seen lives interrupted. Our plans were all going so well! We had dreams and businesses, ideas that were turning into reality. Then just like that – bam! Borders closed and we left the countries we loved. Or we stayed, only to be housebound for weeks on end, unable to meet with people we had come to love, stymied at every turn. Even worse, some have encountered the death of those they love and that interruption feels unbearable.

The words “God’s in control” that are so easy to say when things are going well are suddenly impossible. Collectively we’ve been shown just how little control we actually have and it’s maddening. Out of one side of our mouths come screams of “NOOOOO!” and out of the other comes the socially acceptable “But God’s in control! God’s got this!” The war in our heads is brain crushing and headache inducing.

As a community at A Life Overseas, even before the pandemic we knew intimately about these encounters with the Great Interrupter. When your life seems to be heading one way, the trajectory clear, and then in a slow but steady encounter with the Great Interrupter you realize that your life is being disturbed. No longer can you settle comfortably in the familiar because the voice of the Great Interrupter is strong and powerful, compelling if not always clear.

These interruptions are not easy. How can we possibly do this? What should our next step be? Is this the end of our life overseas? When will I get to see my aging parents again? What do we do in the future? How do we worship? How do we move forward at all. These questions and more are part of our inner dialogue and our outer conversations. There are also the physical and emotional symptoms and feelings of being out of control. Sleepless nights, anxiety, a nervous stomach, checking our email, phones, and the news constantly, tears, irritability, anger, and depression are all the human parts of coping with these interruptions.

Can we, can I, believe that within this quite obvious lack of control, accompanied by our physical and emotional discomfort, there is a safety net woven by God to catch us? A safety net created with the deepest love and whispers, not shouts, of his presence? Can I believe that interruptions are not mistakes, rather they show us God’s care in ways we might never understand without them?

Throughout history God has interrupted people’s lives, moving them from comfort to the unknown and asking them to trust along the way. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses and more are in the ranks of those whose lives were interrupted and who walked in faith. To be honest, I’m less interested in them then I am in their wives. What could the untold stories tell us of these women and their faith journeys? What would they say to me, to you about trust? About faith? About God’s whispers in the hard parts of the night?

I don’t come to you with answers today. I come with these words, committed to memory many years ago, for these are the words that I hear whispered in the still of the night during these interruptions:

“I know that my redeemer lives,
    and that in the end he will stand on the earth.
And after my skin has been destroyed,
    yet in my flesh I will see God;
I myself will see him
    with my own eyes—I, and not another.
    How my heart yearns within me”
*

What is the story of your interruption during this pandemic? How did your life change? Are there words you remember in the dark parts of the night? Words whispered in your heart? Please share them and know – You Are Not Alone.

I Never Thought I Would Miss the Spiders

Earlier this year, my kids and I were still in Tanzania, and while driving home, we stopped at a roadside fruit stand. 

I asked for a huge bunch of bananas, handed the seller my money, and she passed the bananas through the window to my pre-teen son, sitting in the passenger seat. This was routine; we did it several times a week.

I pulled back onto the street and had driven just a few yards when I heard my son give a horrified yell. Alarmed, I looked over and saw an enormous spider, about the size of a silver dollar, crawling on top of the bananas in his lap. The yell turned into a guttural yelping, as my son stood up, dropped the bananas on the seat and proceeded to clamber over all of the seats and into the trunk of our minivan. 

Meanwhile, I was still driving, and meanwhile, the spider was also running for his life in my direction, so I joined in with the cacophony of noise in the car. The spider then decided that hiding underneath my seat was a safe place to get away from all the screaming. 

I gathered my wits about me and considered my options. I could pull over, but would I really successfully manage to find and destroy the spider while on the side of the road? Or I could drive home and pray that he decided to stay put until I got there. 

I chose to keep driving, tense as a turkey in November, while imagining a giant spider crawling up my leg. Thankfully he did not, and when we got home, I relieved my tension by emptying a can of bug spray under my seat. 

Last week, I was in the grocery store in my new home in California, and I picked up a bunch of perfect, spotlessly yellow, pristine bananas and plopped them into my shopping cart. 

Comparatively, it was a very boring experience.

After 16 years overseas, I’ve lived back in the States for several months now, and what I miss about Tanzania isn’t entirely what I expected. 

America is so convenient. I get a thrill going to the grocery store, and not just because the bananas are spider-free. If the recipe calls for pepperoncinis, guess what? I can buy pepperoncinis! If I have a hankering for chive and onion cream cheese or tzatziki Triscuits or Apple Cinnamon Oat Crunch Cheerios, there they are, just like that! In Tanzania, I would have actual dreams about American grocery stores–not just daydreams. And yet, convenience can quickly turn into monotony when there are never any surprises.

I miss how excited I used to get when I would find Root Beer on the shelves of my grocery store in Tanzania. Or that time I called my best friends to tell them to get down here really quick because there’s a bin of dried cranberries for sale! Sure, cooking here is much easier, but I’m also not as motivated to cook when everything is pre-made. I love how Tanzania pushed me to develop skills I didn’t realize I had. I love how it taught me to be grateful for small things. 

In America, the garage doors open by themselves. The dishes wash themselves and the clothes dry themselves. The electricity never goes off and the water is always hot coming out of the tap. 

But yet, there were many evenings in Tanzania when I would stand barefoot in my backyard, pulling clothes off the line. The palm trees would rustle, the heavy air smelled of the ocean, and the crickets would rhythmically trill. The dryer I now have in my garage is a lot easier, but it just doesn’t carry the same magic. 

America is comfortable. With a flip of a switch I can regulate the temperature. Almost everyone around me wears the same clothes and speaks the same language and shops at the same stores. All the streets are paved and everyone follows the rules on the roads. The sameness is comforting and predictable and stress-free. But it’s also not always interesting. 

In Tanzania I struggled through diverse relationships, where my co-workers saw life very differently than I did. It was sometimes stressful, but it opened my eyes to a broader perspective of the world. I often grumpily complained about poor internet or crazy drivers or constant humidity, but the discomfort toughened me. It made me stronger, more resilient, more flexible. It helped me find my satisfaction in God. I miss that.

I feel safer in America. My white skin does not make me stand out, so I can walk along the streets at dusk and not worry about getting my phone stolen. I never worry about men breaking into my house with machetes. I sleep better. 

And yet, I take my safety for granted here. I don’t pray about it as often; I don’t often call to mind my true Prince of Peace. In the realm of the sovereignty of God, I’m not any safer in America than I was in Tanzania. I just have a misplaced trust in my government to keep me safe. 

I knew I would miss the relationships, the beauty, the culture, and our fulfilling ministry in Tanzania. But I find it interesting that I also miss the very things that I was most looking forward to leaving behind. Like jagged glass that is slowly smoothed by the pounding waves, those things that grated on me, frustrated me, compelled me to browse the internet for cheap plane tickets–those things formed who I am. They made me a different person than if I had spent my whole life in America. I wouldn’t want to change that. 

For many years, if you had asked me what I would not miss about Tanzania, I would have assured you that spiders fit into that category. Now, I’m not so sure. After all, without them I would have always thought that buying bananas was boring.