A Defense of In-Between Times

by Jacob Sims

The baby turned six months Monday. Thanks to a series of small-scale bureaucratic miracles, she now counts two-thirds of her life overseas. It passed in but a moment for this young US passport holder. She laughed and cried and ate and slept, basking in the ephemerality of each moment as the sunlight fell softly through her nursery window. 

Though it is only four months since our arrival, I too feel a bit as if I’ve spent the majority of my conscious life in this foreign metropolis. 

Some poisonous concoction of humidity and smog and strange smells and COVID lock-downs and longings for connection and crisp mornings conspire to effect a dramatic slowing of time as I grind to the nadir of my cultural adjustment and pandemic fatigue bell curve here in the dead of hot season in Southeast Asia.

In another year, I might take advantage of cheap, regional flights and jet off to an island or drive up a windy mountain pass, or get out of this city, out of my apartment for goodness sakes, anywhere, just go. 

In another year, I’d pass the time with play dates and happy hours and other meaningless outings around town.

In another year, I’d be normal again. 

But, it is not another year. It is this one, this in-between time. And here I languish alongside the rest of the world. 

I wait in absentia with America as my people, my nation, finds it is no longer willing to wait. In fact, we no longer can wait, not for the future good of ourselves or our families, certainly not for the theoretical good of nameless others who might live if we can wait just a few more months before resuming our petty, violent lives. 

I wait in my new nation of residence as this people has no choice in these matters, where the state says when to fear and what and how high to jump when you’re afraid and where no one asks why or how long anymore.

I wait with the millions and perhaps billions fighting rising anxiety and depression. I wait as we all wrestle with the emotional stressors of a global in-between time; waiting to know if we are going to be okay. We each wait our turn to join the growing ranks of the mentally ill, wondering if, perhaps, we already have. We wait not knowing when this will end or what to do with the unvalued moments here within our grasp.

What are we to do with these in-between times? What of the days spent waiting? How do we reckon with the weeks and months lost and slipping away even now at the speed of molasses in the winter? 

Mostly, we don’t wait at all. Mostly, we merely long after an ethereal normalcy. We do not know when we will return to normal or even if such a normal exists on our horizons. Yet, it is on that abstract horizon that we hang unfounded hope. We long for our nostalgic conception of that which was and its even more idealized form what could yet be again. 

Sure, our status quo was overly busy and, somehow, at the same time, saw us too often idle, bored or overwhelmed into stasis at the sheer meaninglessness of it all. Sure, it was violent and unjust and careless of its impact on others and overly deferential to systems of power seen and unseen. Sure, these systems and their various, insidious techniques have “modified man’s very essence” as Jacques Ellul poignantly describes in his phenomenological masterpiece, A Technological Society

“He was made to go six kilometers an hour, and he goes a thousand. He was made to eat when he was hungry and to sleep when he was sleepy; instead, he obeys a clock. He was made to have contact with nature and he lives in a world of stone. He was created with a certain essential unity, and he is fragmented by all the forces of the modern world.” 

In other words, even pre-pandemic normal wasn’t normal. It wasn’t really normal or true or worthy of being wished back into being as we now wish these in-between times into the dustbin of our distracted, fragmented memories. In essence, our normal then was dominated by the same thing which dominates our in-between time today.

We longed and long with every fiber of our being towards a misdirected hope. We yearned for freedom or we pined after security — knowing but not fully accepting that both were illusions in a world which offers no true ability fully grasp either. We hoped our carefully laid plans and totalizing systems, our reified rationality or “techniques” as Ellul names them, would save us from the meaningless which had become our existence.

What we were really longing after was meaning, belonging, significance — love. What we really wanted was someone to hold; someone to laugh and cry with; someone to know and in that knowing catch a glimpse of what it means to be truly known apart from our marginal utility or social striving.

And now, many of those someones are gone. Some are lost to the virus; many more to the stress of this in-between time; almost all to the semi-permanent social distance which erects further the walls separating our longing, searching, empty souls.

We now lament in unison the easier access to those people in our lives which brought such beautiful, painful, messy hopeful glimpses of love — or even less transcendent forms of human interaction for that matter.

What then of the here and now? What of the costly precious moments we have left while the global system is still down on its knees? What now while we’re still stuck inside with limited access to our relationships or material distractions or new destinations to see and conquer and post about, hoping others might notice? How might we become, in this in-between time, something different, something healthier, something better postured towards our true longings?

Instead of another Netflix show, maybe now is the time to ponder the questions we were always afraid to ask. We miss easy access to people, but do we miss them as humans to be known, to hold, to long for, to be loved? Or do we miss them as props in our own selfish pursuits of transcendence, members of the rapt audience to the grand performances we believe our lives to be? 

Instead of another bottle or more pills or another angry rant on social media or whatever poison numbs our pain most acutely, maybe now is the time to lean into that suffering. Maybe the in-between time is our opportunity to recognize that there is a plane of perseverance which we would otherwise never know were we not to live in a time and place which evokes such pain. If it does not break us, if it does not truly end us or cause irreparable damage, if it does not kill us, it may yet make us stronger. It might even offer glimpses of hope if we approach it with dignity and an eye for it.

Instead of ruminating on opportunities lost or goals left collecting dust or a life’s momentum totally killed by an unexpected global and personal tragedy, maybe now is the time to lean down and kiss that baby who is smiling there, naïve to the world burning around her as the sunlight falls softly on her head. For once, there is no pressure to be elsewhere. Indeed, there is nowhere else to be but here in this in-between moment with her.

Maybe now is the time to live and lean into those blessings of this in-between time which — like the ones of our now idealized pre-COVID world — we also likely won’t appreciate until they vanish. By only looking forward to a future which may or may not ever come to exist, we risk missing out on those moments which certainly do and are all around us if only we have the eyes to see.

Maybe now is the time to summon those last vestiges of perseverance and bits of character we thought left us long ago. Making the seemingly trivial yet eternally important choices will not come easy. This moment, these in-between times are undeniably difficult, but we might just survive if only we can find and remember a purpose worthy of our endurance. 

Maybe now is the time to lean on our Emmanuel. Our ‘God with us’ once became human and remains in solidarity with our late-stage pandemic dregs. Indeed, He is with us in this and all unique and trying times of fatigue and weariness and sickness and eagerness to move beyond the challenge at-hand. He beckons us even now into His arms, into the grand adventure of practicing our faith and hope and love amidst life’s in-between times, these sacred moments of expectation.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Jacob Sims serves as International Justice Mission’s (IJM) National Director in Cambodia where he leads a team of investigators, lawyers, social workers, and others in the fight against labor exploitation. From 2015-2020 he led an international development consulting practice and served as adjunct faculty at the College of William & Mary—lecturing in courses on Education, Human Rights, Migration, and Global Health. Jacob previously led humanitarian programs in northern Myanmar and co-founded a social justice organization in eastern Uganda. He is currently preparing to publish his first book, WanderLOST: stories from the winding road to significance.

How to grow your culture knowledge

In January Rachel Pieh Jones asked the question How Well Do You Know Your Host Nation? and challenged all of us to move beyond culture learning that focuses primarily on food and language. I have to admit that I fist pumped the air as I read and probably said a few too many

“Yes!”

“Yes!”

“Yes!”

Little did Rachel know, but I was working on just such a resource. Her words felt like a confirmation of God’s heart and desire for us to know the people we have come to serve.

One of the tricky parts of culture and cultural knowledge, however, is that it it’s easy to measure and judge each other, especially internally.

“My language skills will never be as good as hers!”

“Oh my word, I cannot believe that he didn’t know how rude he was being.”

The truth is, there is always someone who knows far more than you and someone who knows far less than you do. So, when it comes to culture, we need to be like runners who keep their eyes on their own lane and focus on making progress themselves. How about instead of judging each other, we encourage and equip each other to keep growing.

Sounds good, who is going to push back on that? But if you’re like me, I want to grow, but the busyness of life can get in the way of my good intentions. That’s why I created a four-week challenge that fosters a culture growth spurt by focusing on one area of culture each week: history, the arts, pop culture, and religion. 

The challenge has two tracks, one for those of you new to a culture, and one for those of you who are old hands in culture. Each week you will be emailed three options for how you could grow that area of your culture knowledge and you choose one of the options. The challenge is designed for a one-to-two-hour time commitment each week.

Growth doesn’t just happen, but you also don’t have to figure out what to do all on your own. This challenge works well for individuals, families, and teams to do together and is available until May 13th. You can join here.

Here is a taste of the challenge. The challenge uses the metaphor of a tree to picture your culture knowledge. This is part of the history week: 

History can be a mixed bag, can’t it?! If you’ve already completed the option you picked earlier this week, you might have learned something about your host culture that inspired you. But it is just as likely that you learned something that broke your heart, angered, or confused you.

History is all of these things! It is inspiring and angering. It is laced with beauty and laced with injustice. It reveals God’s character and reveals the need for God. You need all of these aspects for your culture tree to grow in a balanced way . . . not just one part—a lone branch or leaves without a trunk.

If you haven’t started on the history options yet, that’s okay. Take a moment to think about when you will. This weekend? Tonight? Don’t overthink it, but do block out thirty minutes to an hour.


Just think of where your culture knowledge will be in four weeks if you don’t take the challenge. Probably not that different from what it is right now. But with the guidance and support of this challenge over the next four weeks? When Rachel asks the question How Well Do You Know Your Host Nation? With this challenge you can answer, “Better than I did!” You can join the free challenge today here.

P.S. Thank you Rachel for calling all of us to keep climbing! And here is a Prayer for Old Hands in a Culture — you can pray it for yourself or old hands you know.

Photo by Magdalena Love on Unsplash

Maybe I Should Stop Asking God to Use Me

by Andrea Parker

We came to Kenya in January 2015. After four months of language school, we arrived at the mission hospital where we were to live and serve, just in time for a mass exodus of families. To put this in perspective, the expatriate community went from over 40 kids to 3 within two weeks of our arrival. For some, it was leaving the field for furlough. For others, it was a permanent departure. Regardless of the reasons, we arrived when many were leaving, and they left jobs that needed to be picked up. We were new to the mission field and eager to begin serving after years of preparation.

Because of the paucity of people available, upon our arrival, my husband was asked to take over leading one of the training programs at the hospital. We were told that: (1) There was no one else available to take on this particular role that needed to be filled, (2) my husband was the obvious choice to do it (largely due to point 1), and (3) There were less than two days to turn things over to a new leader before the person currently running the program was leaving. 

My husband didn’t feel prepared, didn’t necessarily want to take on the role, and felt a bit overwhelmed by the idea of leading a training program as a brand-new missionary. Yet, he was available to fill the role.

And God brought us here to use us, right?

At the time, we didn’t think too much of the situation. After all, it was an anomaly. Surely, missions isn’t always like this?

 

Spoiler Alert
Over these past six years, we have observed that, unfortunately, our experience was not an anomaly. We’ve seen similar situations time and time again, for ourselves and others. New missionaries on the field, those returning after leave, expatriates, and Kenyans.

There is always too much to do in missions and never enough people to do it all. So, when our primary goal is to get it all done, our focus becomes how we and others can accomplish the work. This often and unfortunately means giving preference to the programs that we want to see succeed and the good things that we want to see achieved over the people with whom we serve, live, and work. This approach has increasingly grieved us as we’ve seen the damage done to those we care deeply about. It’s been one of the contributors to the burnout we’ve experienced over the past year.

 

Our Identity
In a recent time of cross-cultural worker debriefing, we learned to think about identity, or how we think about who we are as people, like a three-legged stool.

The three legs of that stool are:

  •       Value – who we are as children of God and as God’s image-bearers. This is inherent, immutable, and universal.
  •       Significance – what we do. This includes our jobs, roles, hobbies, and the positions we hold.
  •       Community – where and with whom we belong. This is our group, our tribe, those who know us, accept us, and give us our sense of inclusion.

For all of us, one or two of these tend to be stronger, but a healthy identity requires some balance of the three.

My husband and I realized through our time of debriefing and processing how much our identity is derived from our significance and what we do. Who are we? We’re surgeons, missionaries, parents, and educators. I’m a wife. He’s a husband. I’m the Assistant Program Director of the surgical residency. He is the Director of Research for the hospital. My work is important to me, and my identity is tied to doing it well. When my competency at any (or in some cases, many) of these roles is drawn into question, my sense of identity is rocked.

My idea of what it means to be a “good missionary” is often based on whether I or others perceive that I am doing enough and doing it well.

I don’t think we’re the only ones who form our identity from our significance. While I can’t say it’s uniquely American (I don’t have knowledge of enough cultures to make that claim), I do think that for many Americans, significance is the major component of identity. One only has to think about the typical questions asked in getting to know a new person. Right after the introduction comes the question, “What do you do?”

As American cross-cultural missionaries, we carry this cultural value with us. We not only derive our identity but define our success and, in some cases, justify our existence in missions based on what we do. How many patients do I treat? How many roles do I have? What am I doing? Am I busy enough? At times, we almost wear our jobs, our roles, and our busyness within those tasks like a badge of honor.

 

Our God-Image
“In the beginning, God created man in His own image, and man has been trying to repay the favor ever since.” Voltaire

I’ve heard this quote in various forms, attributed to several authors and thinkers, but this is the oldest version I can find. It strikes me as profoundly accurate. Each of us has a conception or an image of God. While we like to think that our idea of God most closely reflects the reality of who God is and what God is like, our image is shaped by our experiences. Often, this is the behavior of or messages we receive from those we trust or who are authority figures for us.

If my parents were perfectionists and had high expectations for my performance, I may see God as first and foremost holy, unyielding, and expecting my perfection. If I had a Sunday school teacher who taught me about God’s grace and forgiveness, I may come to see God as primarily loving. Sometimes, it is a cultural perspective that informs how I think about God. If my culture values a certain characteristic, I may come to see God as having that characteristic. The way we conceive of God informs how we imagine that God thinks of us. It also determines how we think about ourselves and how we relate to and lead others.

 

Godly grit versus godless grind
My American culture prioritizes significance and emphasizes an identity dependent on what I do. Because this is the case, it is easy to assume that God emphasizes the importance of significance in identity as much as I do. This has the potential to profoundly impact the way I view and treat myself. Do I reduce myself to the jobs I do, the roles I play, or my accomplishments? Or do I elevate my own identity based on those roles, jobs, and accomplishments? What happens if I apply that paradigm to others? Do I reduce others to their roles? Do I think of them more highly when they have more tasks? Or when they’re accomplishing great things?

If we reduce ourselves and one another to purpose, utility, roles, responsibilities, jobs, callings, tasks, and accomplishments, it becomes dehumanizing. The complexity of identity should encompass who we are as image-bearers of God and our belonging in community. A unidimensional idea of identity drastically diminishes the value we assign to ourselves and others. I wonder if this doesn’t augment the godless grind, the unpleasant and unholy cycle of just enduring that results in burnout, rather than promoting Godly grit, a divine perseverance and passion that allows us to thrive long-term.

 

Why would I not ask God to use me?
I’ve begun to wonder if, in asking God to use me, what I’m doing is asking God to prop up my identity by increasing my significance. Over these years of missions, I have found myself feeling guilty if I think I am not doing enough or if I think that others will think I’m not doing enough. If I see a role going unfilled, I have tended to ask the question, “If I don’t do it, who will?”

I fall into the patterns of comparison. If I’m not taking call every other day or leaving the hospital after dark when someone else is, am I really doing enough to earn my spot in missions? Unconsciously, I can turn that same attitude on others. Are my colleagues pulling their weight? If I see a role going unfilled, I may ask the question, “Why isn’t that person doing it?” At times, I conflate what I or others desire with what God desires.

Perhaps it reflects that I don’t trust God’s control if I constantly fill the gaps in my human effort, regardless of the consequences.

This has caused me to reflect. What if I stopped asking God to use me? What if, instead, I asked God to prune me or to grow others with me in community? Would that strengthen the part of my identity that comes from community? Or what if I asked God to give me a deep, transformative knowledge that I am God’s masterpiece and that those I encounter daily are God’s works of art? Would that strengthen the worth and value part of my identity? Would it help me understand God in a more holistic way?

I have a deep desire to be a part of what God is doing in this world. I want to participate in kingdom work. But my identity desperately needs more balance. I don’t want to create God in my image of hyper-valuing tasks. I don’t want to reduce myself and others to jobs, roles, and duties. I don’t want to dehumanize or devalue others. I don’t want to prioritize programs over people. I want my ministry to be holistic and life-giving.

I want Godly grit, not godless grind.

I feel like I’ve begun to have a sense of the problem, at least in my own life. But at times, fixing it seems impossible. I’m still learning how not to feel guilty about things going undone. I’m still learning how to approach my life in missions without a myopic focus on what I’m doing and how well I’m doing it. I’m still learning how not to view others through the lens of productivity and performance. But maybe part of it begins with asking God to help me know my worth and develop my community, but not to use me.

Originally published here.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Andrea moved to Kenya with her husband and daughter in 2015 to begin serving at a mission hospital. As a general surgeon, she strives to show the love of Jesus through the provision of compassionate surgical care to those without the means to otherwise receive it. She also helps to train young Christian, African physicians to become surgeons and to disciple them in their walks with Christ. Even after writing this blog, she finds it difficult to express who she is without discussing what she does.

Toilets Around the World

Travel for long in any part of the world and you will discover the need for a toilet. The need could be urgent, perhaps caused by Daallo Airlines (the official airline of the Horn of Africa) inter-Africa meals. It could be a run-of-the-mill need, but no matter. You need a bathroom. Or a toilet. Or a bush. Or a hole in the ground. And you need it stat.

What kind of bathroom facility might you find? It depends on where you live and, spoiler alert, if I based my decision of where to live abroad on bathroom standards, I would go to Japan.

Ethiopia There is an abundance of squatty potties except at Western-style restaurants or hotels where you can find the more throne-like seat. But none are not guaranteed to be clean, flushable, or stocked with paper or water. When in rural areas, there is not even the need for a hole in the ground, simply find a tree and squat. But be prepared to be observed, especially if you are a foreigner.

Indonesia Public toilets are mostly squatty potties with buckets of water, no flushing. The left hand is used for wiping so make sure to never use the left hand for anything else, like shaking hands, pointing, or handing out food or gifts. Sometimes people charge a small fee to use these toilets though whether this is an official position or an entrepreneurial street kid can be unclear.

Chad At bus stations in Chad the toilets have four walls, no roof. There is a cement floor with a small hole and raised blocks on either side to step on. When the bus stops and isn’t at a station, for a small fee passengers can use the village’s three-walled structure with a dirt floor and a short-drop hole. If the bus stops away from a station and away from a village, find a bush or a clump of grass. Men on one side of the road, women on the other.

Djibouti In the city for many men, all the world is a toilet. They just step to the side of the road and unzip. Many rural areas share a bathroom among neighbors: four tin walls and no roof, a hole in the ground, and a bucket of water. In the city some restaurants have facilities, toilet paper and toilet seat not included. The airport sometimes provides paper and running water and on a good day, the toilets will flush. In homes, there is often a pair of ‘toilet flip-flops’ that people slip on because the floors are wet.

Somaliland A restaurant in the coastal town of Berbera in northern Somaliland has a four-walled, no ceiling wooden structure with a short drop hole that goes more back than down, meaning the goods mostly just sit there. With no water for washing it down or for washing the hand, dirt has to suffice. When a toddler once had a diarrhea accident on the dirt floor inside the restaurant, the waiter simply covered it over with a plank of wood.

Ecuador Unless you bring your own, in Ecuador you prepay for toilet paper so hopefully you are able to make a good guess regarding how much you’ll need. There are no toilet seats and since those are rather hard to fit into purses, get used to not using one.

Austria One particular toilet in the subway station at the opera house charges a small fee to fill the bathroom with the delightful strains of classical music while you go.

South Africa At a game park in South Africa, at the end of a long path lined with tall reeds for privacy, you can find a fully functional flush toilet, open to the sky. No walls, no ceiling, and hopefully no overhead satellites.

Taiwan In Taiwan’s public bathrooms you are actually given the choice between sitting and squatting. For those who prefer to not touch anything, squatty is the preferred option. In fancier locales, toilet paper is provided in the stall but otherwise, either gather a handful at the communal dispenser or bring a wad in your purse.

United States No hands is the goal in American bathrooms. Automatic flush, automatic water, automatic soap dispenser, automatic hot air dryer. But privacy doesn’t seem to be a major concern as bathrooms have short doors and cracks between them. Also, conservation of water doesn’t seem to matter as the toilet bowls are filled so high that there are stories of foreigners, or returning expatriates, going for a wipe only to find that they have dunked their hand into the water.

Japan In Japan you can push a button to turn on music or white noise in your stall so others won’t be disturbed by your sounds. Not only do people not want to hear you, they don’t want to smell you either, so some toilets come with a power deodorizer. Other push-button options include a bidet wash, a dryer, an automatic seat-lifter for men, and an automatic paper seat cover dispenser. Doors go all the way to the floor for complete privacy. There are also handles for hanging umbrellas and sometimes even heated seats.

Personally, I like the idea of the opera music in Austria but the heated seat in Japan won me over. In Djibouti it is so hot we have no need for heated seats, but I grew up in Minnesota, the frozen tundra as we like to call it. Getting up in the morning and sitting on a freezing toilet seat is all the shock you need to wake up for the day. A heated seat sounds divine.

Everyone, everywhere, needs a bathroom, whether it is the earth or a warm throne surrounded by music. The specifics will vary but the need is universal.

Welcome to the essence of the travel experience.

Motherhood on the Field: Expectations versus Reality

by Katie Von Rueden

Before my husband and I arrived in West Africa to minister in remote village among a minority people group, it was pretty clear (to us) what we were going to do. We were to be literacy specialists, as our heartfelt prayers had prepared us for, and our degrees had trained us to carry out. Our ministry description was to engage with the people and culture, learn the language, publish stories, teach people to read, then train up teachers and storywriters to make the ministry reproducible. 

And give or take the expected adjustments, surprises, and stresses of our first couple years on the field, by God’s grace we were more or less on our way to fulfilling those ministry tasks. And then we returned to the field after a home assignment, and several things came with the start of another term:  a new baby in tow, stepping into branch leadership, and the necessity of shifting the central focus of our family’s ministry in our project from literacy to helping facilitate the Bible translation in process for our people group. 

I can’t speak for my husband and the process he went through shifting from pre-field expectations and post-field reality that came to be within a few short years of our arrival in West Africa. It was an entirely different kind of adjustment. But I’ll attempt to describe that shift for me when I became a missionary mom. 

It was if suddenly, though I continued to write updates for our supporters back home, I was relegated to the role of a spectator to our ministry. Available time to work on literacy initiatives, like creating and editing materials, was pushed into the small margin of my son’s afternoon naps, if it happened at all. In the context of our rural village life in a taxing, tropical environment, I felt like I had just enough physical and emotional energy to manage our home and care for my infant (and serve as the front-lines journalist of my husband’s ongoing adventure, of course).

In my head, I knew what I was doing was important … for my son, for my family, for our ministry. But in my heart, as I dug into the daily grind made up of the million wonderful, but mundane, moments of parenting, I felt the grief of an identity I felt I had lost, and guilt that I wasn’t fulfilling my ministry role as a literacy specialist.

I didn’t realize how much this seeming sidelining of responsibilities bothered me, though, until a young couple arrived on a vision trip to our field, and the woman, on observing my morning routine with our then one-year-old, asked me: “So, what do you do besides take care of Tristan?” 

Uh… well, I wash and wring out loads of cloth diapers, make baby food, cook all our meals from scratch, and tend to the spontaneous visits, requests, and needs of our village neighbors Every. Single. Day. But I wasn’t quick-witted enough to fill her in on All. The. Things that encompassed that “singular task” of “taking care of my child.” (By the way, we all still have to live in the places we relocate to, and that in itself is a lot of work above and beyond the neat and tidy ministry we sign up for in this business.) Because I knew her underlying question was actually what did I do as a field worker?, I managed some reply about the literacy projects I worked on in my spare time. (Yeah right.) But that’s not the response she needed to hear that day from me.

What I should have told her, had I grasped it then myself, is that the discipleship and education of my children and the care of my family is the crux of what I do on the field. Family is ministry. Making my family my ministry actually plays a critical role in the Bible translation happening in our home office every day.

Colossians 3:23 says, “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men.” For men means for other people, but I think it also means for you, yourself, and your ambitions. Work heartily for God’s glory, not to please others, or your own ambitions, or what you think God wants of you, or what others want of you.

When I took the time to examine my heart, I realized that the only one who had a problem with my “shifted identity” as a field worker was me. But through God’s grace, and my husband’s occasional, heartfelt notes of encouragement, I realized that I wasn’t a sidelined field worker not doing her job. The assigned task of literacy in its fullest capacity was yes, temporarily shelved. But my worth is not found in what my ministry description says I do, but who I am as a child of God.

But at the risk of sounding contradictory, I need to say there is a tension between following a calling and living under grace, free from unfair expectations. In following the path that God has called us to in life and ministry, we can fall into two ditches. There is the ditch of tenacity, of singular focus to a calling. This could be the call to translation, or literacy, or technical or administrative support, or healthcare. While this Apostle Paul-like commitment to a calling is good, a singular focus to a ministry may cause us to miss opportunities to be present for our family, our colleagues, our neighbors. Our ministry job descriptions are not finite: our life’s calling is to bring God glory, and clearly, there’s more than one way to do so.

However, we must be careful not to fall into the other ditch of capriciousness, or being too flexible in our service to God and what He has called us to. Being the all-around helpful, dependable man or woman is good, and it is God-honoring, but we must be careful not to stumble into the path of least resistance and lose trajectory in what God is asking us to do with our time and skills.

Here’s how these “ditches” translate for me: In this season as a missionary mom of young children, had I fallen into the ditch of tenacity to serving as a literacy specialist, I would be setting myself up for incredible frustration and missing doing my job as mom well. But I still risk falling into the ditch of capriciousness. I’ll admit, oftentimes it’s hard not to use my children as an excuse for not doing something hard or uncomfortable that I sense God is asking me to do. As I’ve attempted to tread the course between those two ditches, embracing my role as a missionary mom of littles, it has opened doors to different ministries for this season, such as building into the lives of village kids that flood our yard each day unannounced. 

God isn’t into job titles. He’s not waiting for me to show up at my desk to edit a literacy tool. 

He’s waiting for me, for you, to show up

To do something, even when… especially when… it’s hard. When you feel side-lined and unseen.

To not be so blindsided by a change to what you expected to do when you got to the field, that it renders you useless for a real opportunity in the present reality He’s giving you—whether for the short or long-term. 

To be focused, but flexible. 

Your worth is not in what your ministry description says you do, but in the God you serve.

~~~~~~~~~~~~

Katie makes her home in a rural, West African village with her husband and two children. They serve with a Bible translation organization in literacy and scripture engagement, making the Word accessible in the heart language of minority people groups. As a teenager, Katie dreamed of teaching English at an international school in China. Her university degree and cross-cultural experiences were propelling her in that direction, when she met her husband and God rewrote her story (or invited her into a new chapter). Making Africa her heart’s home over the years has been a journey of surrender and of discovering joy and God’s calling in unexpected places.

Return to Life

The 2000 film Return to Me is a family favorite. The movie features Bob and Elizabeth, who have been together since high school and who are still very much in love. One tragic night Elizabeth, who was an organ donor, is killed in a car accident. We watch as doctors transfer her heart to Grace, a woman who’s needed a new heart for a long time.

Grace goes nervously into surgery, hopeful for a new life. Bob, blood still on his clothes, goes home to an empty house. It’s an agonizing scene.

Months later, Grace has recovered from surgery. Bob, meanwhile, is having trouble living without Elizabeth and has buried himself in his work. Friends continually try to set him up with other girls, but Bob wants nothing to do with anyone new. He can’t get over the loss of Elizabeth. Then one night during one of these blind dates, Bob meets Grace at the family restaurant where she works. Sparks immediately start flying.

In the following weeks and months, Bob’s heart opens up to new love. But Grace is guarding a secret. Although she doesn’t know that Bob’s wife’s heart beats inside her chest, for some reason she can’t bring herself to tell Bob she’s had a heart transplant. Eventually the two of them figure this fact out, and the revelation is traumatic for both of them. Bob disappears; Grace flies to Italy to paint.

While Grace is gone, Bob realizes he loves her and can’t live without her. He looks for her at the restaurant only to find that she’s gone. He acknowledges, “I miss Elizabeth. I’ll always miss her.” Still, he’s ready to embrace a new life with Grace. He goes in search of her, and their reunion is sweet. The audience can see them building a future together.

One year after having traumatically evacuated Cambodia, I think I understand a little of what Bob meant in his restaurant confession. We left Cambodia in March, just as the pandemic began closing borders. We were relieved to have made it to U.S. soil, and for several weeks we assumed we’d be able to easily re-enter Cambodia in the fall as planned. But by May our visa and passport plans began unraveling, and by June, life as we knew it in Cambodia was over.

I didn’t even get to say goodbye.

2020 became one long grieving session. This might sound strange if you knew me in the early 2000’s when Jonathan felt called to missions and I didn’t. You might remember how I fought the call for so long. But now I felt like Mr. Holland from the movie Mr. Holland’s Opus, in which aspiring composer Mr. Holland longed for fame and renown, but instead ended up teaching music to high school students. At the end of his career, when budget cuts forced him to retire early, he observed, “It’s almost funny. I got dragged into this gig kicking and screaming, and now it’s the only thing I want to do.”

Like Mr. Holland, I didn’t initially want to move to Cambodia, but once I got there, I found a life I loved. I wasn’t ready to say goodbye — but covid said differently. For weeks, I woke up crying. Opening my eyes each morning was a painful reminder of where in the world I wasn’t. In Cambodia I had a strong support system. I lived every day with a sense of meaning and purpose. I had a place in the community and rituals and routines that brought structure to our chaotic cross-cultural life. We had raised our children there, and Cambodia was all they knew.

It was a difficult life, sure, but it was also an exceedingly good one. And I wasn’t sure I would ever stop crying over this loss. I lived in the “if onlys.” If only we didn’t have passport problems. If only we didn’t have visa problems. If only covid hadn’t happened. If only, if only, if only. I thought if I could just get back to Cambodia, I could recapture all my former happiness. In reality, even if I could have returned, I couldn’t have recaptured my old life. Covid made that impossible for seven billion of us.

Then one day my near-constant crying stopped. I thought I had accepted my new circumstances. And I do believe I had accepted that I couldn’t get my old life back. But reflecting now, I realize that I struggled deeply throughout the fall and winter. I had said goodbye to my old life — though not in person and not on purpose. But I still didn’t know exactly what my new life would look like, so it was hard to root myself here. Everything seemed bleak. I didn’t think I could ever be happy again.

We were looking for a home at the time. We knew we had to be out of our temporary housing by the end of December. After several housing disappointments (a story for another time), I began to fear becoming homeless (emotions may exaggerate facts, but the intensity of the feelings are real). We didn’t have a church home yet because of covid, so I didn’t have local community to help me through this transition. I knew I couldn’t get my old life back, but I still desperately missed it.

Finally, finally, we found a home that fit our family that was also in our price range. We signed the papers mid-December, which was a bit closer to the deadline than we would have preferred. Still, we were thrilled to have a place of our own. I had no idea it would be such an important milestone in our repatriation process.

We’ve been in our new home for three months now. It fits all six of us so perfectly. I live in the daily disbelief that we could have found such a fantastic place for our family to live. We are making it our own, slowly writing our name in the land. Jonathan is tending the lawn. Pictures are hanging on the walls. We have rituals and routines, and I’m slowly re-building a support system. Living in our home has helped get me “unstuck” from the grief and helped me to move forward. It has given me a glimpse of what the next season of life might look like.

Cambodia is still a natural part of our conversations, and we frequently talk about our old life. The six of us have so many shared memories, both pleasant and unpleasant. Occasionally I even long for life in Southeast Asia. But I no longer think I can’t live without Cambodia, that life simply cannot go on without Cambodia. I’m beginning to understand what life can look like here on the other side of the ocean. I feel like Bob, who knew that he would always miss his old life, but who now knew that he could also live a new life with Grace.

My old life and my new life, side by side