Oops, I Forgot Myself: How to Reclaim Your Identity in a Massive Transition

You know that feeling? It’s a sick one. In your gut. Sometimes you catch it early. Two minutes down the road on the way to the airport.

“Did you pack the swimsuits?”

“Yes.”

“Socks?”

“Yes”

“Underwear?”

“Yep.”

“Boarding passes?”

“YES! I got everything ok?!”

“Sorry . . . (long pause) . . . passports?

“Shoot! Turn around.”

It’s nice when the light bulb goes on in time. Nothing hurt. We can still make it.

It’s not so nice when you’re sitting on the airplane, or unpacking your boxes, and it hits like a lightning bolt. That thing you really need in your new place is the thing you left in the old place.

But there is a whole other layer. A deeper one.

The one thing that almost all of us (at some level) forget to take with us in a massive life transition is . . . ourselves.

Who we were in the last place gets washed out in the new place. Our new life demands our attention. So we give it. The new people don’t know us yet. So we show them the surface. There is a language that we don’t speak (even if we’re “returning home”). So we get by. The systems, the patterns, the customs, the culture, the way of life are all radically different. So we scramble. We make do. We figure it out.

And then we wake up . . . weeks later — sometimes months — occasionally years — and the light bulb goes on . . . I forgot myself.

And it feels too late to turn around.

Transition challenges personality.

It attacks normalcy.

It assaults identity.

So if you’re waking up in the middle of a massive life transition, take heart, you’re not the only one who doesn’t feel like yourself.

But that helps nothing right?

“Great, everyone is screwed up but I DON’T KNOW WHO I AM!”

That’s fair.

Here are a few thoughts on reclaiming your identity when you wake up and realize you left it sitting on the kitchen table in a place you can’t get back to.

1. Learn the difference between inside and outside.
When you move from one place to another, you immediately start responding to outside things — the external forces that are pressing against your daily existence.

You have to. You’re supposed to. You’re not doing it wrong.

But.

In your core, there is a pile of values that didn’t change when everything on the outside did. There are beliefs, passions, habits, dreams, joys, frustrations, and pet peeves that define who you really are.

You should know those.

Like really — know them.

Not just in response to a question but intimately — KNOW THEM.

List them out.

Spend time with them.

Pick them apart.

Deconstruct them.

Put them to the test.

See what gets cut — and what doesn’t.

You should be the top scholar of your own core — but maybe you never had to be until now. Maybe your inside has always been supported by the outside so that you didn’t have to think about it.

Now you do.

When you KNOW who you are in your core you can go ANYWHERE with confidence.

When you DON’T, you’ll be stuck in the anxiety of a missing identity because you’re relying on the outside stuff to define you.

 

2. Know what makes you, YOU.
Little y, big Y.

Just because you have moved doesn’t mean YOU have arrived. Not all of YOU.

What did you give up, for the sake of the move, that feels like it was actually a part of you?

What did you DO back there that you don’t do anymore?

What did you leave behind that feeds your soul?

This one might sting a bit . . . who are you blaming that on?

Here’s the kicker — it’s a REAL challenge to do life (as you know it) in a new place. It doesn’t look the same. It doesn’t feel the same. It doesn’t even smell the same.

I’ve known marathon runners who threw up on their first run in China because of air pollution.

I’ve known musicians who couldn’t find an outlet for their music in their new spot.

Chefs who can’t get baking powder.

Artists who can’t find art stores.

More often than not though, it comes down to the fact that their motivation just got kicked in the gut. They had to spend so much of their energy re-learning how to do regular life stuff that they really struggle to find the space for the things they love.

Again. Fair.

But.

Transition is the process of becoming YOU again. Did you catch that? It’s a process. Movement from one highly functional place to another with a completely dysfunctional dip in the middle.

So.

When the time is right, remember who YOU ARE.

Finish the sentence. I AM ___________________.

A runner?

An artist?

A writer?

An entrepreneur?

A designer?

A people person?

An introvert?

An encourager?

A party animal?

A reader?

A hiker?

A dreamer?

Then dig into the HEART of why YOU are who YOU are. What is it about that thing that makes you come alive? Maybe you can’t do it in the same way but maybe . . . just maybe . . . you can. Or you can find a substitute that recaptures some of it. Or you can create a space that hits the same mark in a different way. Or you might just discover something new about yourself while you’re digging around.

The point is that if a piece of YOU is missing in your new place, you don’t have to settle for it.

But we do.

We run the “I used to be so good at” or “I gave up so much to” or “I just can’t anymore” narratives in our head until we believe that there is no way around it.

Don’t give up that easily. This is YOU we’re talking about.

 

3. Postpone your expectations. Don’t forget them.
I HATE the phrase “lower your expectations.”

I get it. I understand the heart behind it. Going in expecting to be able to function at the same level as you did in the last place is a recipe for a letdown.

“So just expect it to be horrible. Then you won’t be disappointed.”

No. Just no. Stop saying that.

Expect delays. Expect challenges. Expect frustration. Expect hiccups, and speed bumps, and problems (big and small) ALONG THE WAY to a fully functional, thriving life where you are not only enjoying the best bits of who YOU are but you are pouring them out on the people around you.

Write this down – it’s important.

You should NEVER compare the beginning of the new thing to the end of the last thing.

That’s not fair.

That’s like a farmer planting seeds and coming back to harvest the next day.

“Why is there no corn here?! I PLANTED CORN YESTERDAY!!”

I’m not a farmer but even I know the answer to that. “Because you chopped it all down a few months ago.”

It took time in the last place. You had to figure it out. You had to meet the people. You had to build the relationships. You had to learn the systems. You had to set things in motion and find the rhythm.

None of that is in place when you move into a new thing.

None of it.

You chopped it down.

So plant the seed. Set the right environment. Put the right things in. Keep the wrong things out. Start with some tiny roots. Then give yourself the space and the grace to emerge in due time.

You’ll get there — even if you can’t get there yet.

If you are in the middle of a big move or a massive life transition, there is so much hope. There is hope in the collective groanings of “I am not alone.” There is hope in the process of transition. There is hope in the core of who YOU are.

If you have forgotten yourself — go get yourself back.

Originally published at The Culture Blend

When Hard Things Happen There While We’re Here

Ten years.

That’s how long we served overseas. And next month, that will be how long since we moved back to the States.

This year, this month, is also a milestone for Joplin, MO, where we live. It’s the ten-year anniversary of the F5 tornado that devastated our city on May 22. I’ve mentioned the tornado here before, including in last year’s “Coming or Going during Turbulent Times,” but it was in reference to our repatriation. Now I’d like to talk about it in another context: dealing with difficulties that happen “there” when we’re “here.”

My memory’s not really clear on all the details, but I think one of our coworkers contacted us on the morning of May 23 (we were 13 hours ahead) to tell us to go to the Weather Channel online, that a storm had hit Joplin. He, his wife, and kids had also lived in Joplin and had family there, so this was much more than just “news” for them, as well. When we got on the Internet, we saw reports of major destruction. News anchors were saying that one third of the city, home to 50,000, was gone. Surely not! we thought. They showed video of the high school, saying it was “gone” too. But we could see it. There it was! They had to be exaggerating. And yet a storm chaser cried as he stood where houses had once been.

We tried to call our son who was a sophomore at the university in Joplin, but cell service was overwhelmed. He’d been at the house of our forwarding agents nearby when the storm hit. One of them was at work at the hospital but couldn’t get home because the cars in the parking lot were stacked into piles. When we finally got ahold of him, we’d seen more of the damage than he had, because of internet and electricity outages in Joplin. We were hesitant, though, to give many details for fear we were wrong.

As it turned out, the high school was gone, even though many of the walls were still standing. Also destroyed or damaged beyond repair were five other schools, the hospital where our forwarding agent worked, a Wal-Mart, the Home Depot, and Academy Sports. The city of 50,000 suffered a horrific amount of devastation from the rain-rapped, multi-vortex tornado—up to one mile wide and on the ground for 22 miles: 161 people killed, 4,000 residential dwellings destroyed, an estimated 9,200 people displaced, 553 businesses destroyed or severely damaged.

The destruction made the news in Taiwan, though most of our friends there didn’t know that that was our home town. It was a big topic of conversation for us as we gathered updates. We were also preparing for our move back to Joplin in a month. It was quite a stressful time.

One day on the way back from visiting my daughter’s school, as I neared the steps to the MRT, I saw a breeze catch some leaves on the sidewalk and swirl them in a circle. It was a small thing, but it filled me with emotion and I turned around and jogged quickly back to the school. I found the PE teacher, a friend (all of the teachers there were our friends), and told him how hard the last few days have been. He said he hadn’t realized how much it had affected us—neither had I—and he prayed for me and my family and the people of Joplin.

Knowing how much the movement of some scattered leaves had bothered me helped me understand how much, much, much more the people in Joplin were going through. My anxiety couldn’t compare because I wasn’t there. But oh, how I wished I were there, to help and console and listen and share in the stories unfolding. Simply to be present.

It’s hard to be here when bad things happen there. Sometimes it’s while we’re overseas and tragedy hits family and friends back home. Sometimes we’ve returned and tragedy hits family and friends back at our other home. It’s hard when you’re so far away.

Though the tornado had such a large impact, it wasn’t the most difficult distant event for us personally while we were abroad. Two years after our relocation to Taiwan my wife’s brother died suddenly from a massive stroke. Because of schooling and the cost of plane tickets, just my wife and young daughter travelled back for the funeral. Two years later, my father died from pneumonia. I flew back for the funeral by myself. And then, a year before the tornado, my wife’s mother died, also from pneumonia. My wife and oldest son (who was already stateside for college) attended her funeral. All very difficult times for us.

When we got the news that our parents were ill, we hurriedly made plans to travel to be with them, but in both instances, they passed away before we arrived. My father was initially placed on a respirator, but when he seemed to recover, I delayed my planning for the trip. Then he relapsed, went back on the respirator, and died soon thereafter. My wife found out that her mother had died after her plane landed in California.

At my father’s visitation, several people told me how happy they were that they’d been able to talk with him during that short window when he was better. I must say that I resented that they, instead of me, had been able to have those face-to-face conversations with him. But while I still regret my absence, I’m now glad for all those he got to talk with. He was far from alone.

As a cross-cultural worker, I served under the banner of Matthew 28:19, the “Great Commission,” a passage that is followed by what many have called the “Great Promise”: “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (NIV). It is a great comfort to know that Jesus is with us as we serve overseas. It is a great comfort to know that Jesus is with us whatever our vocation, wherever we are. And while we often look to this promise for the miraculous fruit it will bear as we spread the gospel, it is his presence, not his actions, that he pledges. He will be with us. He is with us.

It is a great comfort to know that he is with them, too.

He was with my father through my mom and sister and our neighbors who visited him in the hospital, encouraging him in the ICU. He was with my wife’s brother and mother and other family members through those in the community who gathered around them and ministered to them. He was with the people of Joplin through the first responders and medical workers attending to their injuries. He was with Joplin through the churches and volunteers (177,000 who registered in the first two years following the storm), handing out meals and supplies and cleaning up tons of debris. He was with our oldest son through our sending church and friends who were already looking out for him in our absence. And he was with our second son, who was attending university an hour and a half away, through friends we knew from college who checked in on him for us as storms continued to roll through the area.

And even when bad things happen and no other person is around, Jesus is there. How do I know it? Because he promised to always be close by, and he is trustworthy.

When hard things happen there while we’re here, we wish we were there, too. But we’ll never be all the places we wish we could be. That’s why we depend on others to be there for us. And we lean on Jesus, the one who is here and there and everywhere, now and then and always. Remembering that doesn’t completely take away the distance and the hurt, but it does help. When we can’t be there, he can. When we’re not present, he is. He says it’s so, and that’s a promise we can rely on.

[photo: “Horizon,” by Sandro Bisotti, public domain]

7 Ways We Secretly Rank Each Other

Last week a friend wondered in passing, at the end of email, why some reasons to leave the field are more respected than others. She knew a couple who was leaving because their young adult children were not doing well in the US. Instead of being supported in their decision, they were asked why they didn’t “trust their children to the Lord.”

Yesterday I had tea with a woman who will move to the field in August. She is in the midst of sorting and pre-packing. We were discussing the number of bags she planned on taking. You could almost see the veil of shame come over her as she recounted other people’s comments.

Through ranking, we either feel better or worse about ourselves. Which of these areas have you ranked yourself, ranked others, or been ranked by others?

Why you left the field. More respectable? Illness or denied visa. More likely to be secretly questioned? Meeting someone on eharmony, adult children in some form of crisis (and faith crisis? Clearly you didn’t . . . .), or aging parents. The underlying question is: Where is your faith?

How many suitcases you travel with. Next time you pack, notice the comments you make to yourself or others make to you. Do you find yourself apologizing? Feeling embarrassed? Justifying how few or how many you have?

Form of education you choose. Oh the unspoken rules when it comes to schooling! The rank I sense from best to worst is: local schools (with some additional education from your home country on the side), home schooling, international schools (must be nice to have money grow on trees).

Language ability. Do you speak with the tongues of angels? Clearly you are a better missionary than those who speak like five-year-olds.

The numbers game. Number of converts. Size of your church. How many you have baptized. How many have joined your organization this year? If your numbers aren’t growing or at least impressive, the temptation is to justify, or explain, instead of merely report on facts.

Type of work. Are you translating the Bible? Helping with refugees? Freeing people from trafficking? Gold stars all around! How about balancing the books? Do people comment on how your job helps others to do their jobs? While it may be true, it also communicates that God values a well-conjugated verb more than a financially responsible organization. The subtle ranking in our language is more insipid than we realize. And those of you doing laundry and cooking? Thanks for enabling those who are “in the trenches”? As if what you do isn’t as the “real work?”

How large is the cultural divide you crossed? In other words, how exotic do your pictures look or stories sound? The more different your life, the higher you rank.

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When Jesus said he came to make all things new, he meant it.

And he is going to start with us. We want to know what we are doing is significant. As image bearers of a God who is creative and purposeful and reveres work, this is good. Maybe even very good. We go off-rail, however, when we look to others and compare ourselves.

Can we stipulate a few areas? Of course we need to

  1. Pray about decisions and seek wise counsel. Having done both, any of the above could be viable options or not the best path for you, your family, or your situation.
  2. Be culturally aware and sensitive.
  3. Continue to grow as individuals, couples, and teams. A conviction or understanding you had needs to change over time as you learn more about the language and culture. If you have been on the field for five or more years, you know that the culture you live in not the exact same one you entered.

We also need to actively seek to please God and not other humans. We know we need to seek to please God and follow Him. But sometimes words are easy to say and hard to live. To help you live this lesson, print out this article or cut and paste this list. Spend some time with God reflecting on what you believe.

Ask yourself—What do I believe about:

Why somebody left the field.

How many suitcases a person or family travels with.

The form of education you or a fellow missionary chooses. 

The overall language ability. 

The numbers game. Consider what you believe high numbers and low numbers convey.

The type of work a person is doing.

The relationship between a big or small cultural divide between the passport and host country. Do you believe those who have to cross a larger gap are better than those who serve within a smaller culture gap?

—Ask yourself what you really believe about each area.

—Then go through the list again and ask God what He wants you to know.

—Is there one area He wants you to explore? Asking questions like: What experiences formed my belief? How is my belief now getting in the way of what God says? Where have I ranked or judged others? Do I tend to come out better than or worse than others when I rank?

I do not believe that God is after sameness. Part of the beauty of the Body of Christ is our variety. Without even realizing it, we have all been conditioned to rank callings and abilities. This is not the good news we preach! Instead, that is The Law repackaged.

The Psalmist declares:

You take care of the earth and water it, 
making it rich and fertile.
The river of God has plenty of water;
it provides a bountiful harvest of grain, 
for you have ordered it so. (65:9)

Let that wash over you.

The river of God has plenty of water.

The river of God has plenty of water.

Plenty of water.

When you fall into the ranking game—whether towards yourself or others—you may believe the river of God will run dry. So, you may feel compelled to get while you can, hoard what you have, or judge decisions others are making.

When Jesus said he came to make all things new, he meant it. Thankfully his mercies are new every morning and He can remind you (and me!) to keep your eyes on Him and not on each other.

Washing the Feet of Jesus

by Rahma

It was a normal afternoon. We were just finishing up the school day (at the free kindergarten we run in the slum community we live in).  All the students had gone home, and another teacher and I were sweeping the playground area. The other teachers were cleaning up inside.

Suddenly, I heard the other teacher yell angrily: “Hey! Don’t come in here!” She lifted up her broom threateningly. 

It was Agung. He took a step into the entrance to the playground area. Agung is the man in our community who suffers from some sort of undiagnosed and untreated mental illness. My husband and I have known Agung for as along as we have lived in this slum community. He used to live with his grandma in a little shack by the canal that runs through the neighborhood. When his grandma died a few years ago, someone else took possession of their house and Agung left to wander the streets. Sometimes he disappears for months at a time; other times we see him walking past our street almost every day. He refuses to talk to almost everyone; but occasionally he will answer someone he trusts. I would guess he is only a few years older than me, perhaps 36 or 37 years old.

We are not scared of Agung. We are not scared because we know his name. We have sat with him in his (previous) house. We have watched him play dominoes and know that he used to have a radio that he liked to listen to. But the three other teachers present did not know much about Agung. They only know him as the “crazy person” who wanders around, sometimes peeking in people’s houses. They know him as the person who always wears the same dirty pants and shirt and does not have a home.  I could see fear in their eyes and body language as they retreated into the school— all of course in the same moment that my friend shouted “Hey! Don’t come in here!”

I quickly tried to assure them it was ok. “Don’t be scared. It’s just Agung.” I said. “He is not dangerous.”

I walked towards Agung and asked what the matter was. (Normally he only appears at our door if he is sick). He pointed to his foot. Underneath all the black dirt, I could tell that his foot was very swollen. I asked what had happened, but he would not speak an answer.

My husband came soon after that, and he too tried to ask Agung what had happened. No answer. Right at the entrance to the school is the large water tank and spigot for kids to wash their hands before entering the playground. My husband knelt down and washed Agung’s swollen foot. It just happened to be a few days after Easter, and I could not help getting teary-eyed as I watched my husband follow our Lord’s example.  

The foot did not have any visual wounds on it. “Did your foot get run over by a car?” We asked. No answer. We felt helpless to really do anything to make a difference for Agung. We gave him some ibuprofen for the pain, a glass of water, and some ointment to rub on his foot. My husband gave him a shirt from his dresser. Then Agung was on his way again, limping away to wherever his feet would carry him.

Living in Jakarta for the past ten years, I have seen many mentally ill homeless people wandering the streets. Often their hair is long and messy, their clothes a brownish-gray color like the streets they live on. I feel so powerless to help them — and so aware that each person struggling with mental illness has a family somewhere, a story, and a name. This touches me particularly because my own brother struggles with very severe bipolar disorder.  My brother has navigated multiple hospitalizations, ups and downs, and countless medications and doctors and therapist appointments over the past ten years.  Meanwhile, on the other side of the ocean, I have struggled with the realization that these people I see could be my brother. And actually, they are my brothers and sisters— precious people to be loved and cared for.

It has now been over a month since the incident with Agung, but it keeps playing over and over again in my mind. The fear my friends had in the face of interacting with the unknown, “crazy person.” The simple yet counter-cultural act of my husband stooping to wash his feet. This to me was a living picture of the gospel—of what our Lord has done for us. And we are to follow our Lord in serving those the world is fearful of, views as “unclean,” unwanted, dangerous even. Knowing their names.  Speaking in Love. Offering hope.

Agung’s name means “Great.” It is often a title used for God. And somehow his name seems appropriate to me. In washing Agung’s feet, my husband was indeed showing love to our great Lord. The one who promises to meet us in whatever we do to the least of these.

We still see Agung walking past almost daily. He did not put the new shirt on, but he carries it on his shoulder. It is now almost as dirty as the shirt he is wearing. We do not know what is going on in his mind or heart—but somehow we know he knows we care.

Originally published here.

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Rahma (not her real name) and her husband and two boys have lived and served in a slum in Jakarta for the past ten years. She enjoys learning piano, playing in the rain, and devouring Amy Carmichael books. You can learn more about the organization they serve with at servantsasia.org.

God of Loss and Love

Yesterday I unexpectedly found myself by a lone bench on an empty ocean front. A boat was just off the shore, solitary but securely anchored in the sea. I ached with the unexpected beauty, the symbolic solitude of the boat. I felt like this boat. Alone, aching, but securely anchored. As I stood there, I thought about the last two months and how a crisis can set off a whole new cycle of grief and loss.

Though seemingly unrelated, grief is grief, and loss is loss, and every time we experience another loss, buried past losses and griefs can end up resurrected. Like a dot to dot child’s book, grief and loss connect together creating a picture that represents something much bigger than just one dot.

In my first year of nursing school we played a game one day. It was a dramatic game of life. Tables were spread around the classroom with cards at each table. We all began at the same station with very little. We had a birth card and that was it. As we went through the game, we gained more, but it was far from fair. Some people gained a family card while others remained without. Some people got career cards, others got cards that said they were jobless and had to apply for benefits from the government. Still others kept on getting more and more money. About half way through the game, the rules and cards began to shift. We all began to lose things – both physical and material things. We began to lose friends and cars; jobs and eyesight. We protested loudly, as only eighteen year olds who understand all the things can. It was unfair. It was unjust. We hated it. Ultimately, all of us ended much where we had begun – with a single card. Then one by one, we lost even that card and they went into the graveyard of a garbage can.

I hated the game. It was rude and unfair, but I understand why our professors had us play it. How else can you help 18 year old students learn empathy for the patients they were caring for, for the losses they were undergoing as they faced illness? How can you give them a concrete way to experience loss? If the game was unfair, how much more so is life itself?

This I know – though I did not know it at 18: Whether we stay rooted to one place throughout our lives or we traverse the globe, the two things we can count on are loss and change. We might think we can control these only to have them surprise us with their insistent persistence.

While many write poetically about God being a God of grace and generosity, indulge me as I think about the God of loss, for loss and change are the two constants that humanity shares across the globe.

Is God the author of loss? The creator? The healer? If he is a God of grace and generosity, can he still be a God of loss? Some days I am not sure. If he is a God of grace and generosity, can he still be a God of loss?

In the paradox and mystery of faith a resounding yes to all these questions arises in my soul. A God of grace, generosity, loss, and ultimate love is woven into the whole, a mystical tapestry. Tapestries are made more beautiful by the stories that are woven into them and what would a story of gain be without loss beside it? What would a story of love be if we didn’t know what it was to not be loved? What would a story of grief be if we never knew joy? They are empty without their opposites. Without the resurrection, the cross is but a horrific, miserable death. With the resurrection, all of life changes, including loss and grief. My questions don’t have answers. Instead they are met with a person. Like Orual in Till We Have Faces, I cry out: “I know now, Lord, why you utter no answer. You are yourself the answer. Before your face questions die away. What other answer would suffice?”*

Though I seemingly quote this bravely, my honest desire would be to learn more of God without having to go through loss. I wish life didn’t have and hold so many unchosen crosses. But as I wish, I know that even as a little girl I began to know this God of loss and love. I first felt loss and his corresponding love in the cold steel of a bunkbed, a thin mattress separating me from the hard wires of the base. I felt deeply the loss of a mom and dad, the loss of a home, the loss of security. Even then, I knew this God of loss; a God who cares about loss and grief, who wraps us up in his love even as we shout out the grief of broken dreams and broken hearts. A God of loss who stretches out a strong arm to the lost. In my story, his strong arm led me from childhood to adulthood, a long journey of grace.

The grief and loss dots are connecting again during this period of my life and I feel his arm stretch out to me now, even as I run away, wanting to ignore it.  Like the runaway bunny, whose mother will never give up, no matter where I run to, the God of loss always finds me. Though I may want to ignore him or accuse him of apathy and mistreatment, his light and his love push the shadows of loss away every, single time.

In the book Prayer in the Night, author Tish Harrison Warren writes this: “Here is what I am slowly stretching to believe: there is no shadow side of God; no hidden deception or darkness behind the God revealed in Jesus. The God we pray to is the God who loves us — endlessly, relentlessly, patiently, and powerfully.”

By his grace I continue to press into this, believing that:

“What’s lost is nothing to what’s found, and all the [loss] that ever was, set next to life, would scarcely fill a cup.”

Frederick Buechner – Paraphrased

Beyond Culture Shock: Culture Pain and culture Stripping

Expatriates are told to prepare for Culture Shock and expect to experience it within their first year.

But what about after that year? What about after seven years? Nine? Fifteen? What about the frustrations and tears, hurt and stress, internal (or external) cries for ‘home’? What about those days when you will do anything to get.out.of.here?

After the first year, I thought I was free from culture shock. Now I would delve deep, adapt, feel more local than foreign. So when I continued to struggle with cultural issues and when that struggle increased and peaked around year seven, I thought I was crazy. Failing. The Only One.

This wasn’t culture shock, I had moved well beyond shock. So what was it? I discovered that two things happen, after culture shock, as we root in a land not our own, as we love hard and get involved and take risks.

  • Culture Pain

Culture pain comes when the difficult, or different, or confusing aspects of a new culture begin to affect you at a deep, personal level. Living overseas is really your life now. This is your past, your present, your future. This is where your children learned to walk and ride bikes, where you laugh and grieve and build a tapestry of memories.

Things like corruption and poor health care, attitudes toward HIV, education of girls, adoption, or poverty, religious rituals, children’s rites of passage, are not theoretical anymore. This is now you giving birth, your daughter in the classroom, your adoption papers misplaced, your coworker recently diagnosed. These issues are now yours to navigate. And sometimes, that hurts.

  • Culture Stripping

Culture stripping begins the moment you touch the earth in this new place. It doesn’t stop. Ever. Not even when you return to your passport country. Culture stripping forever changes who you are.

Culture stripping is the slow peeling back of layers and layers of self. You give up pork. You give up wearing blue jeans. You give up holidays with relatives. And those are the easy things. Your ideas about politics and faith and family, your sense of humor and taste in clothes, the books you read, evolve and change. Even, potentially, your outlook on spirituality.

You have little instinctive protective layers between you and the world. Buffers like fluency, shared history, family, no longer buoy you. You are learning, but you will never be local. And so you also are stripped of the idealized image of yourself as a local.

This also hurts, but it is a good, purposeful pain. 

Kind of like Eustace in C.S. Lewis’s The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. He was turned into a dragon and failed to get rid of the scales on his own but Aslan comes.

“That very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when we began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’d ever felt…he peeled the beastly stuff right off…and there it was lying on the grass…and there was I smooth and soft as a peeled switch and smaller than I had been…I’d been turned into a boy again. You’d think me simply phony if I told you how I felt about my own arms. I know they’re no muscle and are pretty mouldy compared with Caspian’s, but I was so glad to see them.”

  • Glad for it

The arms, the new self, this new way of living and seeing the world look different than before you moved overseas. Not perfect, not like anyone else’s, and still sensitive. But different because the shock, the pain, the stripping, have changed you.

And you are glad to see it.

Have you experienced Culture Pain? Culture Stripping? Culture Shock? Did one surprise you more than the others? Linger longer? Cut deeper?

Power Dynamics on the Mission Field

Power is a dirty word for Christians who want to follow a life of humility, right? In church, it feels like we’ve been conditioned to not talk about power unless we are talking about the power of the Holy Spirit. To talk about power and how it plays out among mere human beings feels like a risky road to start walking down…almost like the one that James and John stepped on to as soon as they asked Jesus whether they could be granted the seat at the right hand of the Father (Mark 10:35).

But the reality is, we all have power, whether we admit it or not. Power is not just a position, but instead it is the capacity or ability to direct or influence the behavior of others or the course of events.

Power comes in many forms and many types. Power can be either visible or invisible and sometimes we are aware of it while other times we are not. Power is associated with many words such as “power over”, “power to,” “power of,” and “power with.” Power can either be used or abused. Power can lift up and power can crush.

Power itself is not inherently evil. Seeking opportunities to influence is not a bad thing. God gives us opportunities to influence and sometimes even places us in positions of influence so that we can direct or point people towards His truths and His ways. Pastors are placed in positions to influence their parishioners, parents influence children, and teachers influence their students. In their healthiest forms, power in these relationships is being used to empower others by influencing and encouraging positive behaviors, but at other times this power can be used to abuse or oppress those with less power. The study of how the use of power plays out in relationships of those with varying degrees of power is called power dynamics.

If power dynamics exist within the church, within the home, and within the workplace, it’s pretty safe to assume that power dynamics exist within our ministry field. And if they exist, then we should probably be talking about them.

When and if we talk about power dynamics and missions, our focus is usually on the relationship between the missionary and host country nationals. The importance of talking about power dynamics and the potential effects on relationships as we live out and share the gospel is generally recognized, given the economic conditions and sometimes colonial heritage of many of the countries we serve in.

How often though do we talk about power dynamics between missionaries who serve alongside each other as part of a team? Are we not also involved in relationships with one another? Even if we are coming from the same country, does that mean power dynamics are not also at play amongst us? What is the likelihood that we are all entering into these relationships with the exact same understandings about what power is, who has it, how it should be regulated, and why it’s important to talk about?

Given that one of the most common reasons cited by missionaries for leaving the field is trouble with their own team members, maybe we ought to begin a conversation about this.

WHY should we talk about power?

  • Creates a unified language about power. We may not all have the same definition or idea of power and how it relates to our relationships, our roles, and our witness so it’s important to establish some commonality in language so as to avoid misunderstandings and hurt.
  • It encourages self-reflection and self-awareness. By first acknowledging and then engaging in open and honest conversations about power and it’s origins and uses, we are able to reflect on our role and our use of power to determine whether we are honoring God with it or not. Power can be an amazing asset when used in the right moment and in the right context. But if we are unaware of the power that we are yielding, we just might end up walking around like a bull in a china shop, hurting and alienating those we love.
  • Helps create efficiency and ownership. Talking about power and who has it can help us identify areas where it needs to be either consolidated or distributed further. Consolidation of power can help when perhaps we are taking too long to make a decision because too many people are involved. Further distribution of power can serve as a tool for more people to feel ownership in decision making and the mission itself.
  • It can help to clarify roles and temper expectations. In talking with many missionaries, I know that one of the big challenges that comes along with saying yes to this job is the fact that often we don’t really fully know what we’re saying yes to! Nonetheless, we each come onto the field with our own expectations of what we will be doing and how we’ll be doing it. Although we may all have a shared mission, we have different ideas about how that will play out and how our power to influence should or shouldn’t be used which can lead to a lot of unmet and unrealistic expectations and bitter or resentful feelings when things don’t necessarily play out that way.

By being afraid or ashamed to talk about power or by denying it exists at all, we may be missing out on opportunities to equip our brothers and sisters in Christ to live out their purposes. Power is not just something to be wielded, nor is it something to be ignored. Christian author Andy Crouch asserts that power is a gift because “power is for flourishing.” Power, or postures of influence, is what allows us to be image bearers for Christ in a world that is looking for hope and a Savior. We can use our power as a gift from the Holy Spirit as God intended it, or we can hand it over to the devil and let ourselves become ensnared within the throngs of jealousy and pride. Because power is a gift, we are called to steward it and use it wisely.

HOW can we leverage the gift of power among our team?

  • Facilitate a conversation about power dynamics and the ministry. Talk openly together as a team about this reality and both the positive and negative implications it has on your relationships with each other, with host country nationals, with partners, with the board etc. Talk specifically about the factors that influence power dynamics such as differences in roles, age, gender, experience, race, denominational views, education levels, subcultures, personalities, and of course money. How money is spent (ie how this “power” is used to influence others for the sake of the gospel) can be a huge area for tension. Don’t allow the devil to take that and use it to create division. Instead, take hold of the narrative through open and honest communication. Talk about power dynamics if you are just now joining the team and you don’t anticipate any problems or whether you’ve been a team for years and you’re looking for ways to grow stronger. Talk about it with each other, talk about this with board, and talk about it with partners, donors, and funders.
  • Personality tests or spiritual gifting tests. Personality tests and spiritual gifting tests are tools that can better help us to understand not only teammates, but also ourselves. When an organization or a team leader knows the personalities of those on their team, they can better understand the values from which each person operates and the lenses through which they might view a situation. When we understand the strengths and weaknesses of the members of our teams alongside those personalities, we can uniquely position each member of our team into a position where their giftings can flourish and create maximum influence for the Kingdom.
  • Set up an organizational chart for your team. A chart that shows hierarchy or spheres of influence can greatly help to empower each team member in his or her area. This helps to set up clear communication lines and boundaries so that each person knows to whom to talk, defer, or delegate. When there is less confusion as to who should be doing or deciding what, you are limiting the potential for misunderstandings and negative feelings about control. It can feel “icky” to have conversations about control/power because it’s a blurry line between looking like you are in it with selfish pride verses just craving structure that might help you and others to thrive. A (flexible) organizational chart can provide a foundation for those hard conversations.
  • Develop clearly written job descriptions for each team member. This goes in line with the organizational chart as it will help to further clarify the responsibilities (or areas of influence) of each team member. I suggest having these written up before a team is brought together, but as we all know, things never seem to work out quite exactly how we planned so perhaps make a point to revisit these job descriptions together as a team as roles or projects shift.
  • Pray for each other daily. Pray that God would give your teammates opportunities to use the power that God has given them to influence people for His kingdom. When we are continually lifting each other up in prayer, this act will naturally soften our hearts towards our teammates and rather than praying about how we can deal with this other person’s perceived power complex? perhaps we are instead praying about how we can help that person and ourselves grow in self-awareness, wisdom, and love within the unique sphere of influence that God has placed us in?

Let’s start the conversation of power within our ministries and our teams. Maybe you can start by just subtly dropping this blog to their inbox as a hint, but I think it might serve you better to be a little more direct. There are tons of great resources online and books that can help us facilitate these conversations in a healthy and God-honoring way. Talking about power dynamics will not solve anything in and of itself. It can however serve useful as a tool or framework for helping us evaluate our roles on the team and ensuring that each person has opportunities to use the gifts and talents God has given them to glorify God and live out their purpose through the transforming power of the Holy Spirit.

To the Repatriating TCK: Don’t Lose Sight of Christ

by Clarissa Choo

It was August 4, 2020, Czech Republic (CZ). Without anyone telling me to, I buckled my airplane seatbelt. I had a window seat, but I didn’t want to look out, else I burst into tears. Not wanting to regret my decision, I forced my eyes to the window. The cabin doors closed. This is it. I swallowed a lump in my throat. Soon, the plane ran down the runway and took off. The scenery at my window slanted. I can’t. Blinking back my tears, I turned to face forwards.  

I wished I didn’t have to return to my passport country. I wished that I could find a job that was willing to sponsor my work permit in the CZ, so I could continue to serve in the church there. Nonetheless, I accepted that this was God’s will, and if He wants to bring me back to central Europe, He’ll do so in His own time. 

For now, He wants me to be in my passport country, Singapore. 

Returning to your passport country is never easy. There are ways to mitigate the challenges. You can attend debriefs, receive counseling, and read advice about reentry. These steps are helpful, increase your awareness of what’s going on, and spur you to take action for the next step. As an adult TCK, I definitely encourage you to seek this kind of help.

But even with these supports, the process is still difficult. It’s complex, as it involves your past, present and future, your identity, acknowledging grief (and sometimes unresolved grief), reverse culture shock, your sense of belonging, goals, a change in location, adapting, the search for necessities, finding a job, settling into a new school, and the list can continue. The factors can be taken apart to be studied individually, yet they’re connected to others. The process is therefore more complex than one may think.

The duration also contributes to the difficulty and complexity of the reentry process. You’re unsure of how long you’ll take. Even after a year, you may realize you’re still adjusting to the food, still processing some hidden losses of the past, and perhaps, still searching for a suitable hospital or school. Personally, although I repatriated nearly nine months ago, I haven’t completely adjusted yet.

All of the above can be overwhelming. I’m not typing that carelessly. I know it through experience as I’ve returned to my passport country twice – the first time during my early teens and the second now in my early twenties. Both times were challenging. 

During the first repatriation, I experienced a huge reverse culture shock, couldn’t acknowledge my grief, had a hard time accepting God’s will, and struggled to adapt to a country where people expected me to behave like a local. 

During the second return, I had to adjust to changes that weren’t there before (like Singapore’s strict covid measures), and I struggled with processing grief. A Czech friend died while I was in the CZ, and I was repatriated a few months later. On top of those struggles, I had unresolved grief from my childhood.    

If you’re reentering your passport country, it is easy to get lost in the complex factors, only to lose sight of the most important One in your life: our Savior. That’s right. The One who bought you from the bondage of sin so that He can have a relationship with you – Jesus Christ. As a citizen of heaven, it is so vital, so crucial, so significant that you keep your eyes on Him, keep guarding your quiet time with Him, and keep putting Him first. Stay close by His side, dear TCK. And that is not a one-time action. You need to persevere to pursue and love Jesus.

When challenges hit you with their full impact, you have two choices: turn away from God or cling to Him. I chose the first during my first reentry. As a result, I missed blessings, strayed far away, and went through much hatred, anger, and pain that could’ve been prevented if I had picked the latter.

I learned a valuable lesson and don’t want to repeat my mistake. Thus, when I was repatriated a second time, I chose to continue to be close to Christ and was blessed by the fellowship He and I had as I went through the challenges. Through them, I got to know Him deeper than before. And through them, He helped me to process unresolved grief, refined me to be more like Christ, and drew me closer to Him (1 Peter 1:7, James 4:8).

Staying by His side is worth so much more than running away. So please, dear fellow TCK, don’t let go of His hand. He is the joy amid your grief (Romans 15:13), the healer of your hurt (Psalm 147:3), the comforter when you cry (2 Corinthians 1:3-4), the strength of your weakness (Psalm 73:26), the courage of your fear (Joshua 1:9), and the guide of your path even when the valley is dark (Psalm 119:105). 

Being a citizen of heaven includes the rugged terrain of life no matter the country you’re in; it’s part of the cost of following Jesus. Hence, trusting God does not mean that your road is smooth without potholes or grief (John 16:33). Rather, trusting Him means that you’ll cling unto Him amid the happy and sad times, no matter where you are.

The comforting truth is that through it all, He is upholding you with His right hand:  “Fear thou not; for I am with thee: be not dismayed; for I am thy God: I will strengthen thee; yea, I will help thee; yea, I will uphold thee with the right hand of my righteousness” (Isaiah 41:10, KJV).

 

Yearning to connect with other TCKs who are going through the same difficulties as you are? Truth4TCKs is an online conference that does exactly that. Their mission is to bring biblical truth and encouragement regarding the cross-cultural and highly mobile life to TCKs. Their theme for this year is finding what it means to be a Global Citizen of Heaven; the event takes place in May 2021. You can find out more from their website here

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Clarissa Choo is an ATCK and a former business kid. Although she has lived in four countries, Heaven is her only home. Clarissa is the Blog Tour Host for the online conference, Truth4TCKs 2021 in May, and the founder of the email/Instagram ministry, TCK Letters. She’s also a staff writer of TCKs for Christ, an upcoming website ministry dedicated to serving Christian TCKs. You can find her online here and on Instagram here.

I Could Never Do That

“I could never do that,” she exclaimed. “But that’s because I have kids.”

It was fifteen years ago; I was sitting behind a table at a missions conference, the church members perusing the displays of flags and brochures. She was a young mom, about my age, and was commenting on my husband’s and my decision to move back to Tanzania, long-term. 

My internal response was to feel a bit snooty. I wanted to say, “Well, I plan on having kids there, and I’m still doing this.” But I bit my tongue.

I knew better than to judge her, because how many times had I said, “I could never do that” about all sorts of other things? Moving back to Tanzania and raising kids there didn’t feel like a big deal to me because I had been an MK in Africa. But I had told my friend in Mongolia, “I could never live there.” And what about my missionary friend who lived in a remote part of Tanzania, without running water or electricity? Hadn’t the same words slipped out of my mouth?

I am by nature a cautious, unadventurous person. I like the status quo; I’m not into new things. So it is way too easy for me to say, “I can’t do that.” I can come up with all kinds of excuses that sound really noble. I’m not wired that way. I’m not gifted in that area. I don’t have the time (when maybe I do). 

I can even make my excuses sound spiritual. I’ve already sacrificed so much for God, so why would he ask me to do this other hard thing? Or the best one, that no one can argue with, God hasn’t called me to do that.

This is tricky. Some of us struggle with boundaries and say yes too often. Some of us really do need to take a rest. And of course, there are actual “can’ts.” We have physical limitations. Your medical condition may prevent you from serving in a very hot climate or a very polluted city. Your bad back may keep you in a bed for long stretches. You might not be able to sing a note on key, or your tongue might be unable to trill those r’s, no matter how hard you practice. 

But the truth is, sometimes we say, I can’t when really what we mean is I won’t. It just feels so much better–to ourselves and the people around us–to say I can’t. 

I can’t raise support.

I can’t homeschool.

I can’t send my kids to boarding school.

I can’t live without electricity.

I can’t form a relationship with that cranky neighbor.

I can’t go to one more dysfunctional church meeting.

I can’t put up with one more person knocking on my door. 

This is where we’ve got to do some soul-searching. When we find ourselves bucking up against that hard thing in our lives, we’ve got to let down our defenses, open up to God–and probably an honest friend who will tell us the truth–and ask ourselves if we are just making excuses. 

I look back on my years in Tanzania and consider all the things I accomplished that I never would have thought I could do. Driving on the left side of the road. Leading worship. Hosting large groups. Conducting an interview. Killing ticks and centipedes. Writing Sunday School curriculum. Navigating foreign government offices. Making bagels from scratch. Deboning a chicken. Flying by myself to a remote area of the country. 

I didn’t feel brave. I was not excited about trying these new things. But the reality was, if I didn’t do it, it wouldn’t get done. If I wanted to adopt those children, I had to get used to driving on the psychotic downtown streets. If we wanted to stay in the country, I had better learn how to navigate immigration. If my husband longed for bagels for his birthday, then I better learn how to make them myself. If I wanted to be a school principal, then figuring out how to do interviews came with the job. If I didn’t want centipedes in my child’s bed, then I had to learn how to kill them. 

I surprised myself, over and over again. Lo and behold, when I was forced to do things, I was far more capable than I realized. In fact, I look back on my missionary life and I’m incredibly grateful for the opportunity to stretch myself in so many different ways. At the time, it just felt hard and scary. But in the end, I was able to do a whole lot more than I ever thought I could. 

I’m not endorsing self-help mottos like, “If you can dream it, you can do it,” because this isn’t about finding strength in ourselves. This is about being willing to take an honest look at our excuses and how they line up with what we know God wants us to do with our lives. God will give us the strength to do what we know He has called us to do. His grace is enough. In our weakness, His power is made perfect. It may require repentance, humbling ourselves, and taking a step of faith. Or a lot of steps. 

Just last year, I was faced with a challenge I thought I couldn’t do. We were returning to the States, and I had the opportunity to stay on with our mission as a pre-field missionary coach. The position was perfect for me and God made it clear that I should move towards it, but I balked. I can’t raise support as a stateside missionary, I told myself, my husband, and my friends. It’s impossible. But God finally broke through my excuses, I surrendered to Him, and here I am, as a stateside supported missionary. I can’t or I won’t?