With one plane ride the whole world as TCKs have known it can die. Every important place they’ve been, every tree climbed, pet owned, and virtually every close friend they’ve made are gone with the closing of the airplane door. —David Pollock and Ruth Van Reken, Third Culture Kids
This closing door doesn’t just happen to Third Culture Kids. It’s also the experience of immigrants who leave behind many what-could-have-beens in their old country. Cross-cultural workers feel the door close when they leave their work and return “home.” (What other job requires you to leave the country once you’re no longer on the payroll?) International students close the door with the hopes that new opportunities will open many more. And refugees often see the door slammed and locked by soldiers carrying guns.
But while the door is closed, the mind is still open to thoughts about what was left behind. Some thoughts are joyous and life giving. Some are hurtful and life stealing. And often they come intricately, painfully intertwined, called up by a scent, a word, a sound, a flavor, a feeling or a dream. Bittersweet.
For those who find themselves on the other side of a closed door, I offer this prayer, inspired by Reinhold Niebuhr’s “Serenity Prayer“:
God, grant me the confidence to let go of the regrets that I should not hold on to, The ability to hold on to the memories I should not let go of, And the wisdom to separate the one from the other. Amen.
Ahh moving abroad . . . that’ll fix it. A fresh start. A new leaf. A change of scenery. That’s what I need to break me out of the unhealthy rhythms and dysfunctional habits I’ve been carrying with me for years. Right?
The people reading this are having at least three distinctly different reactions right now. The starry-eyed “Soon-To-Be’s” are like, “Exactly what I was thinking. Makes total sense.” The half-jaded “Been-There’s” are saying, “PFFFT. Keep dreaming chump.” And somewhere out there someone just giggled and thought, “Yeah, not so much, but it gets better.”
I wish it were true. I really do. I wish that packing up and moving to a new place meant that you could leave your baggage at home. But you can’t . . . at least not most of the time.
(Just a side note to anyone who actually did discover that moving away fixed all of their issues . . . you should maybe not say anything just now . . . the rest of us don’t like you.)
I call it FLIGHT INFLATION (capitalized for emphasis), and it’s a reality built on two simple principles:
Issues can fly
They expand when they land
The cross-cultural life can be the great inflator of personal problems. It can also be painfully deceptive, early on. The excitement, the adventure, and the newness can serve as a great cover-up for a good long time, but rest assured . . . if it’s in there . . . it will come out.
Let’s get blunt for just a minute so there’s no mistaking what we’re talking about here:
If addiction is your thing — drugs, booze, porn, attention, name it — an international move is not a substitute for recovery. You can expect that your triggers and temptations will be stronger than ever. Even if your vice seems unavailable in your new home, addicts are masters at finding what they crave.
If your marriage is in the toilet —You may very well need some time away with your spouse, and a trip abroad could be just what the therapist ordered . . . but LIFE abroad is NOT a break from reality to gather your thoughts and talk things out . . . it is a NEW reality altogether. It’s a reality that mixes all of your past frustrations with a whole new set of frustrations. That’s dangerous chemistry.
If you have anger issues — That’s one place in your passport country where your life can be compartmentalized. Blow up at work, and no one at church will ever know. Kick the dog, and he’ll keep it a secret. Life abroad is (and I generalize here) more community driven — less prone to personal space and segmented social spheres. Who you really are is harder to keep secret in a bubble when everyone you know is all up in your business.
Whatever your issue is — Withdrawal. Gossip. Anxiety. Depression. Control issues. Procrastination. Doubt. Shame. Laziness. Misphonia (that thing where mouth sounds make you crazy . . . what? . . . it’s a real thing . . . stop judging).
Seriously — whatever it is — life abroad doesn’t fix it.
Anonymity, isolation, lack of support, cultural stress, feeling out of control (this list goes on for a while) are all factors in the swelling of our issues abroad. Consider the fact that you are often expected to complete high stakes tasks with other anonymous, isolated, unsupported, highly stressed, out-of-control people, and FLIGHT INFLATION starts to make sense.
But this is not a doomsday post (could have fooled me, right?). So hear me out.
If you’re a starry-eyed “Soon-To-Be,” don’t freak out.
Everyone has issues . . . for real . . . everyone.
Do everything you can to address them before you go. And set up a plan to keep addressing them.
Don’t be naive. Going in with your eyes open sets you up to do this right.
Sidenote — If your issues are actually going to crush you abroad, it is MUCH better to discover that before you go.
If you’re a half-jaded “Been There,” there’s good news.
You’re also half unjaded. Resolve not to go the other half.
Say it with me: “Life abroad does not get to rob me of my _______” (marriage, sanity, sobriety, dog).
Become a master of seeking wisdom.
Sidenote — If your issues are already crushing you, finish this sentence, “It would be better for me to ______ than to lose my ________.” Then do whatever it takes.
And if you’ve been there, come through it, and learned something along the way, here are some requests for you.
Share your wisdom. Humbly and with great empathy. Please.
Don’t get cocky. Issues come back.
Be an advocate for people with issues. They could use someone who understands.
Sidenote — Consider that people are NEVER the best version of themselves in transition. Help them navigate.
It’s hard to describe the turbulence of soul that comes from being on the move, always unsettled. You cannot be still and breathe deeply. You cannot love the wild-growing front-lawn tulips too much, or the way the sunlight turns the living room into a golden elven forest in the afternoon. They will soon be gone. And with every big move, you are the new person all over again, trying to make friends at double-speed, weary of explaining where you came from and why you’re here.
We have lived in our current home in Taipei for thirteen months, the longest in any one place for nearly four years. This dubious “longevity” doesn’t prevent my gut fear of another uprooting. Experience leaves an imprint of expectation in our hearts. The nomadic lifestyle began in earnest when we finished seminary, after which a pastoral job and preparation to be missionaries led us to several different cities and even more homes. We moved twelve times in a span of two and a half years, and it hurt my heart terribly.
At nearly every house or apartment I resolutely unpacked everything, decorated the walls with my grandmother’s paintings and the children’s art, and brought cookies when meeting our new neighbors. I tried to make each place a home, even if it would not last long. And I grieved the loss of our previous home and the life we had built there.
I grew up in one place, but without knowing it, even then I longed to be home. I kept subtly searching for something that tingled like a phantom limb; it had to be there—my entire being reached out for it! Or was it only an untouchable dream?
I can relate to Peter when he tells Jesus, “See, we have left everything and followed you” (Mark 10:28). I reflect with some self-pity, perhaps like Peter, that we have left our family and our friends and our homeland to follow Christ. I know that dying to myself is the only path to life and abiding happiness, but even so, my heart is burdened in the midst of loss.
Jesus responds to Peter’s outburst with a longer-term view:
“Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life.” (Mark 10:29-30)
His words, though demanding, are a balm to my soul. God has fulfilled the temporal part of the promise many times over. We have been welcomed into the physical homes of fellow believers when we were in need, and our brothers and sisters in Christ are our family in every way. But even more so, the fleeting losses of following Christ are nothing compared to the eternal gain.
The ESV Study Bible notes that “Jesus assures the disciples that they have answered the call and are blessed.” This pain of being between worlds is not a logistical problem, but a sign of following His call. It’s not a sign that we are failures as missionaries, but that the redemption of the world is costly. Christ bore the greatest cost of all.
The home we long for is not a phantom or a dream: we were created to yearn for our Lord’s lovely dwelling place. “My soul longs, yes, faints for the courts of the Lord; my heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God” (Psalm 84:2). In his earthly life, Jesus shared in our homelessness. He left his perfect heavenly home to rescue us from our sin; he had no place to lay his head. And he will return to remedy our aching hunger with the ultimate Home he prepares for us even now, where there will be no more crying or pain because the former things have passed away.
Originally published at A Life Overseas on December 22, 2015.
“A few nights ago, Mama F came to me terrorized, begging and screaming for the basil plant in our yard.”
I lived in Tanzania for 16 years, and this was one of the most extraordinary stories I heard.
I have a friend, an American I’ll call Allison, who has lived in a remote village in Tanzania for decades. Often when they visited the main city, they would stay with us.
It was on one of these visits that she told me a story that sounded like it came straight out of the New Testament: mind-blowing to those of us from western, secular cultures, but not uncommon in the rest of the world. What struck me about this story was not just the supernatural aspect, but how at our heart-level, no matter our worldview, we cling to things that feel more certain than God. We idolize our contingency plans.
But first, the story.
One of Allison’s neighbors, Mama F, declared faith in Christ and started attending a Bible study. Allison praised God for this, not knowing that the story was just beginning.
This is how Allison told it:
“A few nights ago, Mama F came to me terrorized, begging and screaming for the basil plant in my yard. I saw that something had taken hold of her four-year-old daughter. She was clenched in her mother’s arms, writhing and gurgling, and foaming at the mouth.
Hearing Mama F’s cries, other neighbor women gathered, and we all followed as she ran back to her house, smearing my basil plant on little F’s head. Baba F, the father, had run for the witchdoctor to buy emergency witchcraft to ward off the attack. Mama F would not accept my westernized offer to take them to the hospital.
We women entered her home, everyone wanting to help. One woman shook and rubbed a live chicken over little F. Another brought a pouch with herbs to burn and handfuls of dirt to make a mud mixture to smear over her body. Mama F frantically gulped a liquid from a cup and spewed it onto her daughter. Then she placed knives under her armpits, wrapped F in banana leaves, and tied a black cloth charm around F’s wrist. The ladies burned weeds so that smoke filled the room. Meanwhile, F was writhing and foaming, enveloped in darkness.
As I walked that night with these women I love who were so fear stricken, so desperate to save this child in the only ways they knew of, I prayed out loud for His Light to shine in this living nightmare. He enabled me to speak simple, childlike words in this dark chaos of despair. ‘God is able to help and heal F. This witchcraft will not work. May I pray for her in Jesus’ name? I can ask for help from the Almighty God because I believe Jesus shed his blood to pay for my sin so I am forgiven. Please let me pray for her.’
But I knew I needed to say more. ‘Mama F, because God is holy and only He deserves glory, you have to stop this witchcraft. He wants you to see it is by His power and grace alone that F is healed. Please remove the knives and the leaves.’
Miraculously, they agreed, and placed her in my arms.
I squatted down on the dirt floor, holding that precious, terrorized little girl in my arms and I prayed. I felt the conviction of the Holy Spirit that this was not just a physical need for healing, but spiritual. So, in Jesus name, I prayed against the powers of darkness over this little one; I rebuked Satan and told him to leave; I entrusted F into God’s arms of healing and protection.
God heard and answered! As I prayed, the convulsions and foaming and gurgling ceased, and F lay peacefully in my arms. I heard the women’s voices declare, ‘Wow! The prayer is working! Jesus Heals! God hears the prayers of Christians! Let’s go find more Christians to pray for her!’
We returned to my house where my teammates were waiting. With F still in my arms, exhausted but at peace, my teammates and I lingered with our neighbors in our front yard, praising God for His healing in word, prayer, and song.”
But the story was not yet over.
Allison continued, “Mama F attended the ladies prayer group again and gave praise to Jesus for his healing of her child. Then a few days later, F came to our home to play, wearing her charm necklace again.
I spoke to her mama that God does not share His glory with another. F does not need the charms for her protection when we cry out to the one true God. She agreed, but the necklace charm remained.I told her there is no need to fear, nor appease the forces of darkness. But the necklace remained.”
Allison sat in my kitchen on a Wednesday and told me what happened just the night before:
“Tuesday evening, the terrors came again to F. Since we were here in the city when the attack came on, little F’s family sought the help of our teammates, who together prayed for her, but this time she was not responding. They agreed to take her to the clinic in the neighboring village.
When I received word of this, I asked if she was still wearing any charms. She was. My husband called Baba F and exhorted him to remove the charms, as God will not share His glory with another. Meanwhile, the doctor was not able to help F. So they brought F to our local evangelist where they cut off her charm necklace and began to pray for her again. She was immediately restored to normal.”
When Allison finished her story, my reaction was to cry, “Glory be to God!” It is, indeed, truly a remarkable story–especially for those of us who assume that this kind of thing ended in the book of Acts. But it would be a shame for those of us from westernized cultures, who scoff at magic charms and witchdoctors, to think that God isn’t trying to teach us the same lessons that he was teaching little F’s family.
He wants the glory alone.
And his glory is never evident in contingency plans.
I’ve thought about this often since I heard Allison’s story. How often do I have a contingency plan? How often do I say the words that God is faithful, but in the back of my mind, I agonize over solutions to worst case scenarios?
Sure, I say I believe in heaven and that life is only a shadow of what’s to come. But really, I want to enjoy that shadow with as much comfort as I can muster and as much pleasure as I can wring out–just in case this is all there is.
Sure, I know that God is the rightful king and sovereign over the universe. But I’d also really like to be under a government that is safe, powerful, and holds to all of my values–and I’m anxious if I don’t get that.
Sure, I believe that Scripture tells me that God will provide for all my needs. But I cling to that steady savings account and regular income, just in case.
I know there’s a balance here, because God expects us to be wise and prudent with the tools for protection He gives us. God often chooses to care for us through the grace of life insurance, modern medicine, or social security. But when I go to sleep at night, where is the source of my peace? Where is the line between taking wise precautions versus tying my safety nets to my wrist like a magic charm? I must ask myself: Am I trusting in God, or am I trusting in my contingency plans?
I wonder if sometimes, God is just waiting for us to cut off the magic charm. Because He will not share His glory with another.
*A version of this post was originally published at Not Home Yet.
Meet Jeremy. He’s a ceramic bank given to me in 1971. He has traveled the world with me on many missionary placements and had a special place on my dresser for 50 years, whether it was in Zimbabwe, the United Arab Emirates, or Australia.
Four years ago we were living in our most recent home of 17 years – Australia – when our visa was denied. Just like that we had to leave it all. We stopped being “overseas workers” and became “stateside personnel.” Jeremy, like always, came with us. But this time the final move was too much. When I unpacked him and saw that he was shattered – possibly beyond repair – I was devastated.
I couldn’t face his brokenness, so I left him there – packed away in a shoebox – for three years. Maybe my husband would fix him for me. But then life got busy. I had a new role in the mission – complete with extensive travel. We bought and set up a house. We settled (lightly) into a new neighborhood and church community. I had many responsibilities to fill my time and distract me from finding the opportunity to fix him.
When life came to a standstill in COVID, I found myself with time and space – lots of it. I had no more excuses. I realized I needed to take responsibility for the job of fixing Jeremy myself, instead of hoping my husband would do it for me.
Sitting at the newspaper-covered table looking at the scattered pieces of Jeremy, I saw myself in a variety of cracked and broken pieces – all the losses brought about by our return. They are sharp and jagged shards of loss. Loss of family, of leaving behind my daughter, son-in-law and two precious grandsons. Loss of a fruitful ministry. Loss of a sense of accomplishment. Loss of a ministry I felt God had specifically prepared me for. Loss of identity as an “overseas worker.” The frustration of having to call this passport country “home” when it has never really been home to me. The final “nail in the coffin” was the loss of my high school girlfriend to cancer two months after returning. We were supposed to retire together.
And then the questions came. Why, God? We were so close to Retirement. Couldn’t we have just stayed there a couple more years and finished well Couldn’t we have enjoyed a sense of completion and closure in that placement? In one denied visa it was gone. All those Losses lay before me, and now they were compounded by a new loss: loss of confidence that God had prepared me for this new role and responsibility in the mission. At this stage in life, do I really need to take on such a daunting role? I feel a bit like Sarah.
The act of reassembling Jeremy became a pilgrimage of healing. One piece at a time, I could see how God was putting me back together too.
But looking at Jeremy, the trauma is evident. The scars and cracks show. There are gaps and pieces knocked out which are either lost or too small to glue back. Those “too small” pieces are collected in a bag and stored inside him, as they are still part of his story. It just seems wrong to throw them away.
The reality is, I have cracks and gaps as well — and pieces I keep inside me that are too small to glue back. They are still part of my story, and occasionally they get jostled by life. Because they are sharp, they cause more pain. But they are still part of me, and God gives me the time and space to process them as well – and bring more healing.
God still surprises me. The back of Jeremy’s head was a place where the pieces were just too small, and I could not fill in the hole. Initially I was disappointed. But then I noticed it is the outline of Australia – the place where part of my heart remains with my kids and grandkids and the place of our more recent ministry and memories. I leave the “hole” as it is because it shows the special nature of God’s love for surprises which bless and comfort.
The Japanese have developed the art of Kintsugi – repairing cracked and broken pottery or ceramics with molten gold or silver. The philosophy is that if an object has been damaged, there is even more beauty to be appreciated and a history which needs to be celebrated, not hidden or discarded.
To celebrate the beauty of both Brokenness and Healing, I painted the cracks on Jeremy with gold paint – to make them more visible, especially when light shines inside him. May it be so with me; may God be more visible in me because of the very cracks and gaps of my brokenness.
“My grace is enough for you, for my power is made perfect in your weakness.” So then, I will boast most gladly about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may reside in me.” (2 Corinthians 12:9 NET)
Marti Williams is a TEAM missionary kid from South Africa. Now she and her husband have served with TEAM for 37 years. She has ministered in various roles of Leadership Development, Church Planting, Bible College Lecturer and Women’s Pastor. She and her husband have served on 3 different continents ministering in Zimbabwe, the UAE and Australia. They are now Stateside on Special Assignment where Marti is serving as the Director of Equity and Diversity for TEAM. Their 3 married daughters currently live in Cambridge, UK, Atlanta, GA and Adelaide, Australia, where their 2 grandsons are being raised as Australians with American roots.
See the blade twist to a stop See the smoke rise after the pop And I’ve broken another blender
Blenders keep breaking; I can’t bear to get another one. Is it that I keep buying low-quality blenders? Or is it the power surges and dusty, tropical environment? I can’t remember how many blenders I’ve been through in my years living in SE Asia. I don’t have one at the moment; I can’t bring myself to buy another one. I know it’s going to break.
Friends keep leaving; I can’t bear to get to know new people. Every new friend is an embryo of a goodbye. The expat community has such a high turnover. As an Australian living in Asia, I’m in a community with people from many countries. We all live here together as foreigners. Some stay for a few months, some for a few years, and some for a few decades. At any given time, I know of someone who is gearing up to move back to their passport country.
I was finally getting to know them Maybe enough to be a regular confidant Then they announce they are leaving And they give their stuff away
I was finally getting to know them Maybe enough to tell them where we keep the passports Then they announce they are leaving And they give their stuff away
I was finally getting to know them Maybe our children will grow up together Then they announce they are leaving And they give their stuff away
We are a mosaic of everyone we’ve ever met, so they say. A mosaic is composed of pieces of different colours and shapes arranged together to form beauty. Well, I say the content of our house is a hodgepodge of many of the people we have farewelled. Our things are a jumbled, messy mixture of exited expats’ former items.
When an expat leaves, they need to get, say, 6 years of belongings down to a 20-kg bag. They sell, they gift, and they throw away.
I have a shelf from a friend who left 15 years ago, a saucepan from a friend who left 8 years ago, toys from friends who left 5 years ago, many books from a friend who left 3 years ago, a bed from a friend who left 2 years ago, and a jar of sprinkles from a friend who left a year ago, just to name a few.
Each piece of the mosaic is part time machine and part airplane. The jar of sprinkles connects us to those years we spent with the former owner. Memories of decorating Christmas cookies at her place pop up when I see the tall glass jar full of coloured balls.
It also connects us to that same friend in the present day. A reminder she is not here, but on the other side of the world. Her children probably don’t remember the sugary mess we made at their place. And they won’t be hosting cookie decorating here again.
I need to grow the mosaic. Although I can’t bear the thought of getting to know more people, I also cannot live without expat friends. I have local friends and friends in my passport country, but there are some things only fellow expats will get.
Locals know nothing other than crazy traffic, so they don’t see it as crazy. Passport country friends don’t know what it is like to fear every trip around town in your first year of a new country — but then to also fear the traffic in your passport country every visit.
So I will continue to welcome new friends. It’s better to have friends and say goodbye than to never have friends. And next time I am saying goodbye, maybe I will take the plunge and ask if my departing friends are looking to re-home their blender.
Katherine’s childhood church in Australia launched her on a trajectory to Asia. After a decade of preparation she landed in Cambodia and married a local Bible teacher.
In his book Upstream, Dan Heath explores how to solve problems before they happen. Basically, when you are upstream you have different—better—options than you do downstream. Downstream you are forced to react to situations, whereas upstream you can anticipate and, in some cases, mitigate problems.
Many organizations have “home assignment” or “furlough” policies. About a year ago at Global Trellis I asked the question, what would an upstream approach to home assignments, furloughs, or sabbaticals look like? Is an upstream approach possible for a sabbatical? Or a life in ministry? It is.
However, according to Heath, three barriers can get in the way of an upstream approach:
1. Problem Blindness — is the belief that negative outcomes are normal or inevitable. Phrases like “that’s just how it is” or to put a Christian spin on it, “that’s part of the call.” While it’s true that there is a cost to the call, too often we play that card without really thinking through if it is a cost or a result of problem blindness.
Sabbaticals are only for pastors or professors.
Home assignments aren’t really restful.
What a waste of my supporters’ money! I should be on the field.
2. A Lack of Ownership — occurs because many individuals or organizations are too overwhelmed or under resourced to move upstream. At Global Trellis, we want to be part of the solution and have pledged to be part of preparing you to function upstream when you can.
My organization doesn’t have a plan for my home assignment, they just said I have to take one.
Sabbaticals are only for research, so this doesn’t apply to me.
What will supporters think of me? What will I tell them I’m doing?
3. Tunneling — occurs when people are juggling a lot of problems, they give up trying to solve them all and adopt tunnel vision. A clue that you’re tunneling is when you feel a sense of scarcity. You might feel that you don’t have enough time, money, supporters, teammates, options, or even favor from God. Tunneling forces you into short-term thinking. As Dan Heath said, “In the tunnel, there’s only forward.”
You have no idea how many churches and supporters I need to visit.
I already feel strapped for time! I cannot add a course to guide me through my sabbatical on top of it all.
I have a whole year . . . what’s the rush?
The Sabbatical Journey Coursewas created with these three barriers in mind and is available twice a year. The doors to the course will open on September 9, 2021 and you can notified when the Sabbatical Journey Course is available here.
While we might experience problem blindness, God never does. God will use the time you have for your home assignment, furlough, or sabbatical. He sees you, and loves you.
When I was born, it was quite the event and a lot of really great people wanted to meet me, or so I’m told. Just a few years later, my kindergarten teacher praised me for being especially polite. And then, in grade school, I was awarded the red, white, and blue Good Citizen badge to wear on my day of honor. I guess I was a pretty big deal, but I’m not surprised, seeing how I was living at the very center of the earth.
Growing up, I remember that news from next door, no matter how trivial, was profoundly more important than what was going on anywhere else on the globe. Therefore, a friend who missed school because of the flu got more attention than a famine in Africa. Weather patterns focused on my home town, as well, as we prayed more for sunshine for a birthday party than we did for people in Asia facing a typhoon.
So it’s no wonder I grew up having to fight against selfish tendencies. Who can blame me, knowing how much God was fixated on me and those in my vicinity?
Somewhere along the way, though, I found out that there was a whole world out there, a world filled with people who were just as big a deal as me—people who missed school and had birthday parties and sometimes suffered calamities beyond my comprehension. Jesus loves all the little children of the world, adults, too, I learned, and he wants them to know about his love.
So as I built my life, getting an education, finding a job, and starting a family, I had an eye on the horizon, not content to stay within my tight borders. In time, I booked tickets from America to an uttermost part, and with my wife and children, stepped onto the plane. It was then that I traded my selfishness for selflessness and self-sacrifice and never looked back as I devoted myself to cross-cultural service.
Oh, that it were that easy.
In Genesis, God tells Cain to be wary, as “sin is crouching at the door,” ready to pounce like a wild animal. For me, self-centeredness is at my door, and it doesn’t hide and wait, it steps up and knocks, like an intrusive neighbor or a persistent salesman.
Knock, knock, knock.
No matter how far I’ve traveled, self-centeredness always knows my address and is able to relocate with me. Resisting that knocking is a daily challenge. And while I like to think that I usually ignore it, there are also times when I pull the door wide open and invite it in to sit with me on the couch. And there I am, at the center of the earth again.
When we first arrived at our new home in Asia, it was a temptation to think we’d arrived at the pinnacle of Christian service. Look at us! I got used to writing newsletters about exotic day-to-day happenings, sharing about our ministry, and eagerly anticipating answers to the prayer requests we emailed to supporters—supporters, those people who gave sacrificially to our work, to us, trusting we were worth the investment.
Before our move, we sold most of our possessions, and that was a good thing. Surely not having to keep up with the Joneses would help me focus less on myself. In a recent discussion of Eula Biss’s book Having and Being Had at Mockingbird, CJ Green quotes a missionary as saying “Americans spend their entire lives ministering to things.” “Her point,” Green explains, “was that material goods tend to distract from matters of the heart and soul, whether it’s the home you’re constantly renovating, or the phone you keep updating, or the car always in need of fixing.”
Yes, that’s true. But ministering to people rather than things still gave me enticements to elevate myself. I was American but not like those Americans. I may have left materialism behind (OK, not really), but it was easily replaced by more spiritual forms of self-focus. How does my ministry compare to that of other cross-cultural workers around me, and around the globe? How much does God value me and what I’m able to do? How much effort is Satan concentrating on me to stop my threats to his kingdom? How much more strategic is my work in this country, in this city, in this neighborhood?
And then, from time to time, when we travelled back Stateside, we got to speak on stages, attend carry-in dinners hosted in our honor, and accept thank yous and donations. And we were treated like royalty at the homes where we stayed. One time, someone even gifted us a trip to Silver Dollar City.
Knock, knock, knock.
OK, now here is where I need to interject something. Some of you are already feeling guilty about receiving funds, taking vacations, and the like, and it may sound as if I’m saying those things are the problem. They are not. The problem is the temptation to respond to them in the wrong way. It’s not as if removing all those things automatically makes that temptation disappear. The knocking can just move to a different door.
And to those of you who are underfunded or under-appreciated or worn out, to those who are praying for a hand up, not out of entitlement but out of need, please hear this clearly: Self-advocacy is not the same thing as self-centeredness. Self-care is not the same thing as selfishness. Self-compassion is not the same thing as self-importance. Being self-aware is not the same thing as being self-focused.
Ok, I needed to say that, but now back to me, because, you know. . . .
When we returned to the States for good, we got rid of most of our belongings again, but among the things we kept were a suitcase filled with been-there-done-that t-shirts and a desire to hit the ground running again. Reverse culture shock and a recession meant that we hit the ground at more of a slow crawl, but in time we made progress—and we now own an old house with plenty of repairs to be made, two cars that need upkeep, and several phones to update, upgrade, and replace. It’s hard not to be devoted to that ministry of things.
We like the community where our house is located. It has its own personality and the people here know each other and take pride in the neighborhood. We can see that in the Facebook page our neighbors use for sharing news and concerns. Their posts show us that there are lots of lost pets needing to be found. There are also lots of suspicious people walking around who look as if they don’t belong and are up to no good. We know that there are growing instances of crime in our area (rifling through unlocked parked cars and even a couple home intrusions and robberies), but there’s another kind if disturbance that’s got me concerned. It’s that pesky knocking at my door that’s started up again. I wish our neighborhood group would let me know when self-centeredness—and nationalism and ethnocentrism and egocentrism and other forms of meisms—are making the rounds, jiggling doorknobs and peaking in windows.
I like the community of cross-cultural workers we’re part of, too, those who are getting ready to go, those who are there, and those who have been. How about we share with each other the unwelcome guests doggedly trying to gain entrance into our homes? If your problem isn’t self-centeredness, I’m sure you have your own unwelcome visitors who keep dropping by. How about we keep an eye out for each other?
Knock, knock, knock.
Now If you’ll excuse me, I need to go and not answer my door.
In June, the boarding school in Pakistan where I spent my childhood closed her doors. No longer will children respond to the gong of a bell that goes off for meal times. No longer will high schoolers gather outside the hostel, shyly sitting with The Boy that one has liked for so long, hands brushing against each other through the conversation and laughter of their classmates. No longer will staff and students alike have to shout over the roar of monsoon rains on tin roofs. The pine trees will no longer hear the whispered joys, sorrows, and prayers of students. Steel bunkbeds will no longer capture early morning tears of homesickness. There will be no more chapel, no more tea time, no more study halls, and no more graduations. Never again will the school song, so long ago penned by my father, be sung in that setting.
An era will be over, and with it – part of my life will seem erased.
Last night I watched memories of Murree, put together by my dear friend, Paul. With my husband and younger daughter by my side I was able to experience again the thick fog of Jhika Gali and the hairpin turns of roads. I heard one last gong of the bell and laughed as a monkey, captured perfectly on film, ran toward me and then away.
I have known about this closing for some time. The school was founded in 1956, a wonderful and admittedly rare happening where missionaries of every denomination got together and worked to build a school for the children of missionaries and nationals who were serving in Pakistan and neighboring countries. This year, after 65 years of service, the doors to the school will close. The last class has now graduated. Murree Christian School will no longer be a concrete place with walls and windows, students and administrators. Instead it will be relegated to memories in people around the world and, surprisingly, a wikipedia page of its own.
My friend Robynn and I occassionally text back and forth about our school closing. Ten years apart, we had similar experiences at MCS. Times of sorrow and sadness to be sure – but that is not the only story. Our stories are stories of much laughter and learning, of grace and growth, of the pure joy of youth. About two months ago I texted to Robynn “Our childhood is slowly being erased.”
A closing ceremony that brought hundreds of us together on ZOOM was planned for July. As it grew closer to the time of the ceremony, the more I felt an urgent sadness that needed to be voiced. MCS holds so many stories. I somehow never thought that the day it closed would really come. As my dear friend Robynn says so well:
Deep relationships were formed. Faith was nurtured. It’s difficult to capture in words what this hidden place has meant to many now literally scattered the world over.
To be sure, we live in a different era. The school had dropped in size to a miniscule number. Staff are hard to come by and finances more so. Schools cannot stay open simply to be receptacles for childhood memories. In fact, the beauty of the times I visited back after graduation lay in the fact that it was still a living, vibrant place. New students and staff that (shockingly) did not know me had their own memories and events, their own life stories. A terrorist attack shortly after 9/11 changed the school in unimaginable ways, taking away the freedom that we students from the seventies had. Dwindling class sizes made it the more difficult to justify the cost of keeping up the buildings and grounds. Less people were comfortable sending their children to boarding school. There are many reasons to close and the decision to close was more difficult than I can imagine.
What does an adult do when they feel their childhood is slowly being erased? The tendency would be to grasp at whatever I can to keep the picture of what I had.
Instead, I open my hands and I give the pencil back to God.From the beginning it is he that wrote the story of MCS. It is God who gave the vision, God who sustained the decades of life, God who loves the people who entered and left the large, stone building to forge their way in a world beyond.
As I have thought more about MCS closing, I have released the idea of my childhood erased. That is giving the closing of a man-made, though wonderful, institution too much power. Instead I’ve thought about the stones of remembrance that I take with me from my childhood and this place that shaped me.
The idea of stones of remembrance comes from the Old Testament book of Joshua. The Lord tells Joshua to choose 12 men, one from each tribe. They are to go and pick up a stone from the middle of the Jordan River, at the spot where the priests were carrying the Ark of the Covenant. They were to carry the stones to the place where the people would spend the night. There they would put them down to serve as a sign. These were stones of remembrance. They served as a sign to the people present and to future generations that God was there, that he was faithful, that he did not leave his people.
What are the stones of remembrance in my life that connect to MCS? What rocks can I point to, stones of surety that declare “God was here.” What can I list that point to a life of faith, built on a stone foundation?
My stones of remembrance are imperfect people who taught me how to forgive and fellow students and dear friends who taught me what it was to press on. My stones of remembrance are the laughter that drowns out the memories of homesickness and the growth that leans into discomfort. My stones of remembrance are brothers who share blood and friends who share memories. My stones of remembrance are rocks of trust and knowing that somehow, all would be well.
I am gathering the stones, I am putting them down in writing, so that I too can tell future generations “This is what shaped me, this is why I am here.” Because it’s good to remember.
At every graduation and important event, we sang our school hymn, voices raised to the rafters of the old church building turned school. Some of us sang with immense talent, others just sang. Though all were lost in those moments in their own thoughts, never knowing that most would look back on these times and the song itself with deep longing. I leave you the final verse here – a reminder that no closing of anything is powerful enough to erase childhood.
Lord with thanks and praise we honor Murree Christian School
May her life and fame and service for thee ever rule
Built upon a firm foundation, in God's hands a tool,
Shaping lives of dedication, Murree Christian School
In all our lives we go through times where places and people we love change, where we recognize that life will never be quite the same. What are your stones of remembrance for those times? Where can you point to rocks of trust and a foundation that holds even when the building changes?
We launched to India as newlyweds. After an 18-hour bus ride into the Himalayan mountains, we strapped ourselves into two giant backpacking backpacks and walked into a village. Several years, two kids, and many life lessons later, we found ourselves wondering how to help our kids love the country where they were born.
Our kids had been through more than their share of stress and trauma. Could we stay in India anyway? One thing was clear: we needed to make some changes. Whether you’re a new missionary or looking for ways to help your family re-bond with your host country, here are seven things we’ve found that help.
1. Be a Tourist. I know, I know. You probably spend a lot of time trying not to look like a tourist. You want people to see that you live here. That you’re permanent. I get it. We lived in India for seven years, and we didn’t see the Taj Mahal until year six!
But the thing is, celebrating the unique things in your host country is unlikely to ruin your witness. On the contrary, it stimulates the economy and gives you things to talk about. So go see that interesting monument. Take that camel safari. Buy the keychain made in China that says “Thailand” on it. Make memories in your host country, and your love for the place will grow.
2. Plan Regular Breaks. This is especially important if your ministry assignment is in an intense or underdeveloped area. And it can be an easy thing to neglect. When we lived in India, it was 14 hours away by bus to Anywhere Else, so we pretty much stayed home.
However, once we realized our kids needed more, we had to get creative. We found local places to take breaks—a hot spring, a hotel with a pool, a restaurant that served pizza without garam masala on it. As it turned out, my husband and I needed more, too.
Taking breaks calms the brain and nervous system and gives you a bird’s-eye view on problems. It’s like a giant reset button, giving you the mental fortitude to tackle your tasks with fresh energy.
3. Spend A Little Money. This might sound materialistic at first glance. But here’s where I’m coming from: when my husband and I first launched to India, we were afraid to buy knives and a cooking pot, lest we look rich. Another friend of mine was advised by coworkers not to buy any furniture for the same reason.
It’s important to consider the economic situation of your friends and neighbors, and of the host country as a whole. But if a small luxury would save you time and frustration, and if it won’t specifically hinder your witness, go for it! Once Joshua and I finally got set up in a home, we were complimented by all the neighborhood dadijis (grandmas) for providing for ourselves. We had graduated from wandering trekkers to normal people.
4. Forgive. I try hard to be neutral and chill when it comes to cultural misunderstandings. But certain things break through and offend me to my core. In India, our neighbors had the habit of blaming mothers for everything that went wrong with children—from mosquito bites to major injuries—whether or not the mother was within a 20-mile radius of her kid at the time.
This violated my hidden cultural assumptions: Mothers instinctually know how to parent; good mothers don’t get told what to do, because they already know; good mothers don’t want their children to be injured, so communities should always reassure rather than blame. The message I got when I was blamed for everything was this: “You are a terrible mother. Also, we don’t like you.”
It was hard to forgive and let go of my offendedness, because it just made so much sense! But once I did forgive, I came to understand the Indian mindset: Mothers do not instinctually know how to parent, and we should pressure and give advice, lest they mess things up. If we don’t say anything, it’s because we don’t care. In other words, my Parvata friends were actively caring about me and trying to help me do my job well.
Forgiving gives you permission to keep seeing the good in people. Apply grace liberally!
5. Temporarily suspend some boundaries. Before launching to India, we read a wonderful article called, “Bonding and the Missionary Task,” by Brewster and Brewster. That article was second only to the Bible in our initial mission strategy. As the Brewsters suggested, we packed very light—hence the two backpacks. We used only public transportation. And we lived with a local family.
We lived with less privacy than we wanted. A lot less. And you know what? That transparency and dependence on the local community endeared us to each other! Even now, we consider each other family.
6. Make sure you put important boundaries back! We should have gotten our own house, bought a kitchen table, and driven our own car just a smidge earlier than we did. About four years earlier.
Temporarily living with lowered boundaries can help you bond with people. Obliterating your boundaries permanently will lead to burnout. You will have a lot of trouble being “lights of the world” if the unique “flavor” of your family is watered down because you’re trying to be like everybody else. Take it from a family who knows!
7. Find a Friend. This is tip numero uno, my very best advice. I had many friends and adoptive family members. But it was finding two ladies to be my real, genuine friends that cemented my love for India forever.
Darshika and Naina came from completely different backgrounds. One was relatively poor; the other ran a popular guest house. One was highly educated and driven; the other couldn’t read. One chose to follow Jesus; the other didn’t make that choice. But we connected. We got each other.
My husband, Joshua, has a handful of really good friends in our current location in North Africa. I can see how much it makes him love this place. Because the most important thing about a place, the thing that really helps you understand and love a place… is the people.
This is especially true for children. My kids want nothing more in life than to have real friends. So, whatever you need to do to find them, make sure each member of your family has one or two true, genuine friends. And do what you can to nurture those relationships.
Bonus Tip! In the end, circumstances beyond our control caused us to leave India earlier than we’d planned. But our efforts were not in vain. Even now, we and our kids have many happy memories from those colorful, spicy, intense seven years. And I can say with honesty that I still love, admire, and appreciate the people we lived and worked among.
And implementing these tips in our second host country has helped us thrive and adjust to normalcy more quickly.
My final piece of advice is this: Adjust your focus every day. Look for the good in your host country and its people, and apply grace to the rest. When Jesus gets ahold of people, that’s what He’s going to do anyway. And hopefully, by that same grace, we imperfect missionaries will get to play a part in His plan to bless the world.
Abigail Follows has lived on three continents and listened to the life stories of friends in three languages. She has been a cross-cultural missionary for 11 years. Abigail lives wherever God leads with her husband, two children, and cat, Protagonist. She recently released Hidden Song of the Himalayas, a memoir about her family’s seven years as missionaries in India. Find out more at www.abigailfollows.com.
Yet again, I found myself seething as I got up from the table and walked out the door. My heart was pumping fast, my hands were shaking, my jaw was clenched, and my eyes were bulging out of my head. Why was this happening again?
I think am an Angry Missionary. Maybe you are too?
Anger. It’s not something we like to talk about a lot. The imagery I’ve engrained of a missionary is someone maybe like Mother Theresa…gentle, kind, loving, quiet, patient, enduring, strong, docile. When I think of her, or any of the other iconic missionaries I’ve read about, I don’t think about anger. And yet, when I talk to other missionaries, here and around me now, this is what I hear:
“I used to be a nice person.”
“I never used to struggle with anger like this before.”
“This country is making me lose my testimony.”
“I don’t know who I am anymore, I feel so angry.”
“Everyone around me is angry and I just find myself falling into that too.”
Why might a missionary in particular struggle with something like anger? First let’s look at what anger is.
Anger, according to Christian counselor and author David Powlison, is the emotion we feel when we identify something that we perceive as 1) not right and 2) important enough to care about.
What types of things can cause anger to rise up within? A simple Google search pointed to a number of things that may occur throughout, if not define, the missionary experience.
We experience unmet expectations. We have expectations about what life would be like here, who we would become, how quickly we’d become that person, how much we can get done in a day, when we’d see the fruits of our labors.
We experience loss. Loss of friends as they transition in and out, loss of donors, loss of security, loss of careers, loss of schedules, loss of comfort and familiarity, loss of freedom, loss of control, loss of identity.
We experience stress. When the home office tells us to add just one more thing to our plates, when donors drop and needs keep rising, when we set foot in any government building to process paperwork, when we walk down the street and horns are blowing and people shouting.
We experience or bear witness to injustice. When we see murders and robberies of the material poor that go unsolved and untried, corruption that contaminates every aspect of life, people dying way too young of treatable diseases simply because of where they were born.
We feel unheard and misunderstood. When the people we came to love reject us and betray us, when we mispronounce words as we fumble through yet another greeting, when people assume they know who we are or what we want by nature of our skin color or passport, when sponsors back home ask, “How was your trip?” while we are back home on furlough.
We experience fear. When we think about what could happen if one of my children got seriously sick in this country, when our home and personal sense of privacy and security has been violated by a home invasion, when we don’t know what to expect any given day.
I laughed as I read through the list and realized that I’d experienced pretty much every single one of these triggers within the past two days. By nature of our lives overseas, we missionaries probably find ourselves living lives that are chock full of things that could easily set anyone off into a fit of rage or downward spiral of bitterness. While some might see those reactions as justifiable, is that really the path we want to take? Are we slaves to our circumstances or emotions or do they simply reveal what is already in our hearts? What does your anger reveal about you?
Think back to the last time you were angry. Why were you angry? What wrong happened? Who/what are you trusting in to right that wrong? How did you react? Why did you care so much? Which ones of your values were violated? Was your response to anger constructive or destructive?
In your anger are you placing anything above God? Your rights? Your will? Your feelings? Your plans?
We often hear in church about righteous anger. When I think of righteous anger, my mind always goes straight to the story in the Bible with Jesus flipping over the tables at the temple (Matt. 11:15-18). The market people had violated the sanctity of the temple, and Jesus came in and uprooted that sin while also preaching the truth to those present. So, what about me? Am I acting in righteous anger when I am red-faced, shouting and rolling my eyes at the man in uniform outright asking for a bribe along the road?
While there might be a genuinely righteous reason for getting angry (i.e. corruption), often times what I find as I’ve allowed the Spirit to search my heart, is that there is usually also an element of my own sin coming through too. My soul was rightly grieved by the sin, but my flesh was also pricked. My pride has been offended, my feelings have been hurt, my ego has been bruised. I want what I want. Instead of being angry at the presence of sin, I tend to get angrier about how the sin affected me…my plans, my day, my happiness, my sense of self. Rather than going after the sin itself, I sometimes get side-tracked and go after the person. At my weakest moments, I want to unleash a mouth full of sass and glare with ice blue eyes that have been likened to piercing daggers. I begin to plot evil against one of God’s beloved.
“For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against a spiritual wickedness in high places.” (Ephesians 6:12)
Jesus knew this and responded accordingly. He too experienced unmet expectations, loss, fear, stress, injustice. He too was most definitely misunderstood. And yet in His anger He did not sin. In confronting the sin of others, He did not allow himself to fall into the trap of committing sin himself.
Anger is an emotion meant to help us identify when things are not going right and to move us towards action to make it right. That is a big part of our role as created beings here on earth, to be His Hands and His Feet in bringing about the good and perfect and redemptive will of God. However, anger that reacts in uncontrollable, selfish, pitying, passive aggressive, self-righteous, bitter, and argumentative ways does not honor God, but man.
How then can we use our anger to honor God? In the same way that we lay our lives down before God, so must we do with our anger. Our anger must become a servant, bowing down before the God Most High. We are not to become servants to our anger, nor slaves to our circumstances. Only to God.
When we give our anger to God for Him to use in His ways and in His time, we will see that our anger becomes controlled, correctly motivated, and directed along the path of true justice. It isn’t supposed to just simply go away or get stuffed down in hard to reach places of our hearts, nor should it completely overpower us. In submissive anger we can show mercy for the sinner, just as God did for us, while still speaking truth about the wrong that occurred and taking actions to make it right.
Anger must point people towards God, not away. While it highlights and makes known the destruction that has been caused and how it has offended God, it must not destroy any more through words or deeds. Anger misdirected leads people down the path of despair. Anger submitted to the Will of God leads people down the path of hope and redemption.
To be an Angry Missionary is not necessarily a bad thing. It doesn’t have to be an oxymoron.
The wrath of God is inseparable from the love of God. There cannot be anger, if there is not first love. God’s anger is aroused when His love is violated by sin in the world. As missionaries, God has placed a heavy burden on our hearts to love the people of the nation where He has brought us. When we commit to loving His people the way He loves them, asking Him to break our hearts for the same things that break His, we will get angry. But it’s how we use that anger, for His glory and purposes and not our own, that will truly define our life overseas.
Tonight my daughter came home with homework of fill-in-the-blank words, where they give you a picture and maybe a “letter” (or in our case, a syllable) or two as a hint. These assignments are new as she’s starting to advance in learning her hiragana [the simplest of the phonetic lettering scripts of Japanese].
Some words I just type into the dictionary, and together we learn a new word. The problem arises when you have no idea what they’re trying to portray in the picture. Two out of six were words I have no reference for… one of them I’m not sure we have a word for in English. So I’m waiting for a message from a friend who will help me help my kid with her homework.
Anyway, it’s gotten me thinking about the ongoing upheaval of our sense of competency that begins the moment you land in a new world you’ll now call home.
Before you left, it was all about competency and calling. Or at least, so you thought.
You go through applications and interviews, you study, you take courses, you prepare, you pack, you have meetings and presentations, you answer questions… people think you’re ready to go! “They are fit for the calling,” you hear them say.
And you need to do these things. You have to be wise and not embark foolishly and haphazardly.
But here’s the paradox: you land, and you can just go ahead and throw all that out the window.
I know. It doesn’t make sense. But it really does make sense.
No longer are you the person who knows “all the things.”
You’re a learner now, and it’s best to honestly suit yourself with that attitude along with your new visa stamp.
Gone are the cultural clues, the comfort of how you do things, social structures and systems that you’re familiar with. Gone are the days of intuitively understanding life and the way everything works. Gone are the days of giving on-point presentations; you’ll be combatting first grade homework!
It’s time to learn a language. That’s not like a one- or two-month course and then you’ve checked that off your list. For many languages it’s thousands of hours of study and practice. And you’ll probably butcher it for a good long time and speak with the worst accent. You’ll make silly, embarrassing mistakes. You’ll talk like a child and have to work hard to refine and grow yourself.
You’ll need help, and lots of it. You’ll need humility, and lots of it.
You’ll need a good sense of humor to laugh at yourself and not take yourself so seriously.
You’ll make blunders culturally. Some you’ll laugh about (later), and some you might cringe over here ever after.
You’ll learn to interpret all the things you didn’t even know were there before, because they aren’t written.
You’ll learn new expressions, new things you didn’t know you could do (by the grace of God!), new vibrancy and variety of the beautiful creation of God.
Hopefully, you’ll slowly learn to strip your Biblical beliefs of their cultural colors and give the substance to another to see God bring it to colorful life in their cultural expression and the work of the Holy Spirit in their life.
You’ll be serving– or even deeper than that– learning how to serve. Learning how to share.
It’s our seventh year together on the field. I see just how far we’ve come in all of these areas, praise God. These are the things you might read about in our newsletters or our blog.
But what we live, in our daily missionary lives, is the distance we have yet to go. It’s all the things I still don’t know, but that there is grace for and that God works in.
A Japanese Christian man who works with many missionaries told us that it takes a good 10 years for a missionary to start getting good at culture and language here. So we still have even more to go to be properly seasoned.
And yet, in the meantime, we know God is working and using us, and moving in the process. We see it in our lives and in the people around us and in God’s leading and timing. It’s a journey, definitely not as we anticipated, and yet, all the things we learned and unlearned and then re-learned– they make a lot more sense these days.
This entire journey is a walk of faith and trust in God that He’s got the map right even if the one we’re holding is upside down. He’ll enlighten us like a loving parent, if we’ll allow Him to. He’ll even transform us through this journey and work through us in ways we might never have seen coming. In the end, it’s Christ who supplies our competency as ministers of the Gospel.
Janine, her husband Vicente, and their three daughters live and serve in the Tokyo metro area. They established an evangelistic media ministry to share the Gospel. Janine served for 3 years in Mexico before moving to Tokyo to work in church-planting, where she eventually met her Honduran husband who happened to visit on a short-term trip. Janine enjoys audiobooks, quilting, cooking and obviously, writing. You can find out whether they survive elementary school by following her personal blog.