Sick and Far Away

We all know what it’s like. It’s the fever that comes over us late in the evening. We think we’ll sleep it off, but by morning it’s far worse. It’s accompanied by terrible dysentery. We still hold out for the hope that it is a 24-hour virus, only to realize it is not. Or it’s the croup that comes over our 18 month old in the night. We wake to a strange bark. What could it be? It sounds like a sick dog has made its way into our apartment. Uneasy, we suddenly realize it’s our precious toddler. Rushing into his bedroom, we see him standing up in his crib with his favorite sleep animal. He cries out “Mama” in a hoarse whisper, struggling to breathe. We gather him up and turn the shower on full steam, praying to the God who made him, who loves him.

There are thousands of other scenarios that we could describe. Often, the outcomes are wonderful. The fever and dysentery resolve; the croup is stilled and the next day we get to a pediatrician; the stitches are placed by a kind doctor who speaks our language and we tear up in gratitude. But there is a point in any of these cases where everything feels urgent and hard. Depending on where we live, we may rue limited medical care in ways we never think about when we are healthy.

These are the stories of being sick and far away. Stories where we have only our gut feelings, and Where There is No Doctor to guide us. Loneliness often overtakes us, knowing we are at the mercy of our new neighbors and friends, knowing that our moms, sisters, and doctors are far, far away.

As I write this, I’m sitting in Istanbul, Turkey. After being bathed in fog for several days, the sun has finally broken through and brightens my room. We are all sick. As my ever wise sister-in-law says, “I’m pretty sure it’s not a ‘sickness unto death,’ but it sure feels like it.” From across the room I weakly nod in agreement, my fever rising and causing chills over my body.

Sick and far away. Lonely, tearful, in pain.

And yet, sickness and disease is part of the human story. In my favorite read of the year, Prayer in the Night, author Tish Harrison Warren reminds us that for centuries priests would come pray for people and tell them to make a will. It’s not because of lack of faith. Prayer was for healing, but if healing did not come, a will was a smart way to care for those you left behind. It’s because life is what it is — a broken version of the original plan. It still holds much joy, hope, beauty, and goodness. It also holds far too much pain, sorrow, sickness, and death.

Since I was a little girl, these times of sickness have often brought help from unexpected places. At four years old, with a raging fever brought on by Malaria, a couple from my parents’ organization arrived at our house in the middle of the night to get us to care and safety. At 30 years old with the toddler with croup, a kind friend told me about an excellent pediatrician who made house calls. At 34 with a raging fever and my husband traveling, friends who had no idea I was sick showed up just at the right time.

Often, but not always. The reality is that help doesn’t always come. As thankful as I have been for help that has come, I have also witnessed the tragic deaths of community members, permanent loss because of sickness, outcomes that have made me cry out in sadness and anger, and weep for months. “Pray for healing and make a will” played out in real time. We walk through the door of permanent loss that death brings, slowly learning to embrace our existence where longing is a breath away, and we accept sadness as a permanent fixture of the gladness. Yet, sickness and death have brought me close to the one who understands pain and sickness like no other. I don’t understand this mystery, and I never will. But I lean in. I don’t know any other way to be, any other thing to do.

In this world that offers many contradictions and paradoxes for people of Christian faith, there are also some clear hard core truths. One truth that we cling to is that God loves this world: he loves his creation. He entered it through the person of Jesus to walk with us, weep with us, get sick with us, rejoice with us, and heal us. At times of sickness, I cling to my limited understanding of God’s love for this world; his awesome love for a creation that he continually runs toward, limitless in his creative ability to grab our hearts. As my fever rises, I marvel that he loved it and us enough to reconcile all of creation to himself and renew it through that reconciliation. This faith that I’ve pledged my life to points me to a greater reality than the one that I see and to the feverish, achy body that I now feel.

In her recent newsletter, “Do Good Better,” Rachel Pieh Jones writes powerful words about anemic faith vs. painful faith. Her words resonated deeply as I lay on my brother-in-law and sister-in-law’s couch groaning with sickness, wishing my faith was less anemic. I offer them here as a benediction to this piece.

“Was Jesus happy, comfortable, and safe when people wanted to throw him off the cliff? When he had no place to lay his head? When his family fled to Egypt? When he was beaten, spit on, mocked, stripped, and murdered?

This idea creates an anemic faith that cannot withstand the buffeting winds of a real human existence. It creates an idol out of God and utterly misunderstands God’s character. It provides no language for dealing with pain or fear. It leaves no room for forgiveness, for courage, for endurance, for patience, for lament, for reality. …I want to talk about painful faith. Faith that cries out, ‘This hurts! This is not justice! Where are you God?’ In my darkest moments, the times when I couldn’t breathe because of grief or fear or rage, the times I had to stop driving because I couldn’t see, had to lay down on the kitchen floor because I could no longer stand, had to hurl stones from cliffs and scream, lost my voice from crying, you know the moments. You are a human, you’ve had them too. In those moments, faith hurt. It hurt because it didn’t heal anything, it didn’t solve anything, it didn’t take away the emotions. But faith pointed me in a direction. I knew where to aim my sorrow and anger and confusion.” –Rachel Pieh Jones in “Do Good Better

When Their Culture Becomes Your Idol

It starts off innocently enough. In your months or years leading up to your move overseas, you pick up a few books at the library and start reading to learn a little bit more about the place you are going to live. You watch videos on YouTube about the culture and food and the language you are about to enter in to.

You attend cross-cultural missionary trainings where you learn how important it is to seek to understand the culture in which you are about to go live. They teach you practical things like how to dress and what to cook, how to shake hands and how to drive, but they also help you to better think about the perspective of others and how they might view the world and the gospel.

You move abroad and at first, these adjustments are “easy” to make. Easy in the sense that you’ve been expecting them, so they don’t feel like a huge shock or burden. You gladly pull on the baggy skirt and head out the door and you stop and say hello to each person that you pass no matter how long it takes. It doesn’t feel like an inconvenience, because this is what you’ve been waiting for, preparing for…a chance to move here and demonstrate the love of God.

Soon though, the honeymoon phase with this new culture wears off a little bit. No matter how much you study, no matter how hard you try, no matter how many sacrifices you’ve made, you will make mistakes. You’ll offend someone by reaching out to greet them with the wrong hand, you’ll use a seemingly harmless phrase that’s common in your passport country only to watch in bewilderment as your colleague explodes in rage at your insensitivity. You’ll be criticized for the way you planned an event out of order, or you’ll be shamed for accidentally letting your knee show as you knelt down to help a small child. Often times, it’s in these moments of “failure,” pain, or confusion where our hearts start looking elsewhere for solutions that seem, on the surface, more attainable, more logical.

For many of us, the answer our flesh immediately offers to us is to just “work harder.” For some, they’ll dive deeper into trying to understand every single intricacy of the culture, believing that that’s a feat they can actually achieve in one lifetime. They’ll pride themselves on what they are learning, and they might even start to shame other foreigners for their ignorance. Somewhere deep within them is a fear of messing up and a desire to be seen as the expert, the one who “gets it.” At times, though, they may be tempted to elevate the role that culture plays in evangelism, so much so that it keeps them paralyzed from sharing the good news because they aren’t quite sure how to present it perfectly yet. They see understanding culture wholly as the magical key to unlocking the heart of man, as if the Holy Spirit himself no longer has any role to play.

What started out as genuine desire to learn or to be “all things for all men for the sake of the gospel” (1 Cor 9:22), has perhaps started to become idolatry.

Martin Lloyd-Jones describes an idol as “anything in our lives that occupies the place that should be occupied by God alone. Anything that is central in my life, anything that seems to me essential. An idol is anything by which I live and on which I depend, anything that holds such a controlling position in my life that it moves, rouses and attracts too much of my time, attention, energy and money.”

How exactly does one person’s culture become another person’s idol?

It happens just the same way anything else becomes an idol in our hearts–by weaseling its way in, often masquerading itself as something good and harmless, meanwhile taking our attention away from our one true love, master, and purpose.

Understanding and adapting to culture in and of itself is not wrong– it is a good thing. It is something we are called to do, a tool for showing the love, kindness, and compassion of our Savior in deep and unique ways to those who need it most. But sometimes it’s not an issue of what you are doing, but why you are doing it. What are your motivations? Why are you doing what you are doing?

Is it a _________________:

  • Desire to be liked by everyone that you meet and interact with?
  • Desire to have it (or force it to) be reciprocated to the same level?
  • Desire to accomplish or “win” the expat integration game with your outward appearances?
  • Desire to learn/understand, to solve the cultural puzzle or web, so to speak, and to have all the answers?
  • Desire to avoid messing up (cultural taboos) and having to live in that shame temporarily?
  • Desire to protect oneself from being called out or surprised with a new rule?
  • Desire to meet obligations that others have put on you, whether that’s supporters back home or people in your host community?

It’s a delicate line to walk: being in this world and yet not of it, honoring and respecting culture, whether theirs or your own, while not allowing it to consume you or control you.

Culture — either theirs or mine — was never meant to be an idol, and yet we idolize it when we give it such control in our lives and space in our hearts.

What started out harmlessly enough became an all-encompassing obsession. Whether it’s the hollow pride of proving that I’ve mastered this and am better than everyone else, or whether it’s the internal battle that is raging within me and shackling me down with chains of bitterness and resentment, their culture has taken a hold of me, and the next thing I know I’m bowing down before it. Bowing down and asking for approval, acceptance, protection, praise, acknowledgement, security–you name it. All those things that God has already given me through adoption into his royal family, I’m seeking after elsewhere.

When we worship anything or anyone over the living God, we will be disappointed…over and over and over again. When we attach our self-worth to other people’s acceptance of us, we become controlled by people-pleasing behavior, and our peace, joy, and contentment are dependent on the ever-changing waves and nuances of culture and human whim rather than the solid rock of Christ himself.

What happens, then, when even after all your strivings, they still don’t accept you, or you still fail? If your self-worth and ability to share the good news of salvation is tied up in their culture’s approval of you, how then will you respond when those efforts go unnoticed, unappreciated, criticized, or unreciprocated? Maybe you will just dig in and try harder, mustering up more of your own strength as you strive to please a false god with impossible expectations. Or perhaps you will start to resent every little thing about that other culture, elevating your own passport country’s culture as The Way, The Truth, The Light? When this is our relationship with culture and the people of that culture, how then will we be the salt and light of the earth? How can we love like Jesus did when our very purpose and identity is washed away and extinguished by even the subtlest breezes of opposition?

It may not be as obvious as the golden calf, but it sure does have the same effect. So how then are we to interact with our host culture? What then is the Christian’s relationship with culture? How do we balance becoming all things for all men and being in the world but not of it? Where exactly do we draw the line?

Again, in the end, it’s not so much about what we do…whether we eat or drink or wear long baggy skirts or don’t…it’s more about why we do it. What is the heart behind it? Are we doing it to earn love from man? Are we doing it out of fear of man or his obligations? Are we doing it to prove we are right and they are wrong? Or are we doing it for the sake of the gospel, out of freedom, for love of lost souls so that they might truly know salvation to its fullest extent and experience the same grace that we ourselves have received?

Paul was not compelled to adapt to the culture and give up his rights by a desire for the approval of man, pride, or perishable rewards (Gal 1:10; 1 Cor 9:15-16, 25-26) nor by the obligation of any law (1 Cor 9:19). Rather, he was compelled by the unbreakable, unconditional, never-ending, overflowing, powerful love the Father had given him for the lost “so that I may by every possible means save some…. because of the gospel, so that I might share in the blessings” (1 Cor 9:22-23).

1 Corinthians 13:1-3 says, “If I speak human or angelic tongues, but I do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging symbol. If I have the gift of prophesy and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have faith so that I can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. And if I give away all my possessions and if I give my body in order to boast but do not have love, I gain nothing.”

I might add this twist: “Even if I speak the language perfectly, carry out all the cultural customs according to what’s expected of me, have cultural and/or biblical wisdom greater than all the other expats here, and outwardly play by all the rules, but don’t have love…I am nothing, I gain nothing.”

 

Radical Forgiveness

by Rahma

This week marked the sixteenth anniversary of an unforgettable family tragedy. My mom’s first cousin Jeff was driving with his five children when a pickup truck suddenly crossed the grassy median and hit them head-on at 60 miles per hour. All five of the children were killed instantly, and Jeff suffered serious injuries. I was in my senior year of high school at the time, and I remember seeing my mom cry when she got the phone call.

Carolyn, the mother of the family, had been in town running some errands, and her family had been on their way to meet her. I cannot imagine the unspeakable grief of a mother losing all five of her children in one instant.

But even while her husband was still in the hospital, Carolyn visited another hospital room: the room of the driver who had hit her family’s car. His name was Mr. Helm.

Carolyn took my Great-Uncle Jason (the grandfather of the children who died) to visit Mr. Helm. Together they told him that they forgave him and were praying for him. They did not press charges. They did not seek revenge. They chose to forgive. When cousin Jeff recovered, he, too, offered forgiveness to Mr. Helm.

My mom flew across the country from Virginia to Washington State to attend the funeral of my second cousins. Five crosses now mark the graves of Carmen, 12; Jana, 10; Carinna, 8; Jerryl, 4; and Craig, 2. For years, the picture of their five beautiful faces hung on my mother’s refrigerator. The picture served as a reminder to my family of incredible suffering and radical forgiveness.

This week also marks the three-week anniversary of an ongoing hostage crisis in Haiti. Seventeen mission workers are being held captive, including five children. The ages of those children are 8 months, 3 years, 6 years, 13 years, and 15 years.

Great-Uncle Jason, the grandfather of the five children who died in that car crash so many years ago, is now waiting and praying for news of another grandchild. His 27-year-old grandson traveled to Haiti to serve and was taken hostage the next day. But Great-Uncle Jason is again responding with unbelievable faith and forgiveness. Watching him offer forgiveness to the hostages brings tears to my eyes.

What kind of radical faith can bring people to say such things? To offer forgiveness to those who are holding hostage and threatening the lives of their loved ones? What kind of faith brings a mother to forgive the man whose truck killed all five of her children? How can my Great-Uncle Jason, who has already buried five grandchildren, hold onto hope as he awaits news of yet another grandchild?

And yet, this is the faith that we are all invited into. My family are Mennonites, but it is not only Mennonites who are called to forgive their enemies. If we call ourselves Christians, then we are part of a faith that calls us to forgive. We follow a savior who called us to love our enemies and to do good to those who persecute us (Matthew 5). Every time we pray the Lord’s prayer, we pray, “Forgive us our sins as we also forgive those who sin against us.”

Our savior left us countless examples of forgiveness. Perhaps the most powerful example of all came as he was hanging on the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

But do we forgive like this? Do we actually forgive those who sin against us? Would we choose forgiveness if we were in my Great-Uncle Jason’s shoes? Or if we were Jeff and Carolyn, the parents who lost five children in one moment? Or if we were the parents or grandparents of one of the other hostages in Haiti?

This week as I reflected on these tragedies both past and present, the Lord brought it closer to home for me. Sunday, October 31st was the ten-year anniversary of a devastating fire in the first slum community that I lived in. When the flames were finally put out, all that was left was a smoldering neighborhood and 200 families who were suddenly homeless.

Do I forgive the perpetrators of this devastating fire from ten years ago?

Forgiving is not the same thing as condoning sin or enabling abusers. However, our Lord has instructed us to forgive. Forgiveness helps free us from our anger, bitterness, and prisons of hate. But it is only with the help of the Holy Spirit that forgiveness can be possible.

Now as I live in another slum community in one of the largest cities on earth, I am grateful for my Christian Mennonite heritage which taught me to love Jesus, care about the poor, and seek to love my enemies. I know I cannot do this perfectly, but that is why we need grace. Each and every day we must cling to the grace offered by our Lord Jesus and know we are forgiven.

And it is because we are forgiven that we can then offer forgiveness to others.

Lord, help us on our journeys to forgiveness. Give us Your heart to forgive those who have wronged us. Help us to be agents of love and reconciliation to those around us, that the world may see and stand in awe of You.

 

*This article has been modified to remove references to the sending agency of the workers held hostage in Haiti. On November 9, 2021, the author, along with A Life Overseas, learned of a history of sexual abuse coverup in that agency. We grieve when any person is abused and are deeply sorry for any pain caused by the references in the initial article.

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

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.

Was Afghanistan Worth It?

 

In the frigid winter of 2008, my husband and I touched down in snow-covered Kabul, Afghanistan. We didn’t know exactly what to expect in our first year of life on the field, but we knew that it was where God had asked us to go. Young, eager, and probably quite naïve, we and many other Christians went to Afghanistan with our wills written and signed. For some of our dear friends, their time in Afghanistan ended in their untimely deaths.

As we grieved the loss of both Afghan and foreign believers, many of us did not realize that Afghanistan would become our new family, the siblings who would grieve with us when heavy losses hit close to home. We did not realize that Jesus would show up in the form of Afghans comforting us in our loss and grief with their own understanding of the same searing trauma. And perhaps none of us realized that, from the day we first stepped foot in the Kabul airport, Afghanistan would forever be a home to us, a place that would prove to be a far better teacher of the lessons of Jesus’ sacrificial love than any seminary or Sunday school class could ever be. 

Afghanistan was our home for nearly seven years. Our two children began their lives among Afghans who trained them in the art of generous gift-giving. But in 2014 as the country grew increasingly unstable and our oldest approached school-age, we knew the time had come to say goodbye. Leaving the rugged beauty that is Afghanistan was perhaps the most difficult parting we have ever experienced. Afghanistan was rarely in the news those days. But today, bloody images, heart-wrenching reports of abuse, and Afghans’ desperate attempts to flee their country are in the headlines almost daily. News and heartbreak have caused people around the world to ask the question: “Was all of this mess worth it?” Our friends and family have been asking this question as they consider the many soldiers who died or sustained life-altering injuries in Afghanistan. 

Like all things, the answer is nuanced. But Christians should be willing to consider more than just the governmental expense and military loss of life. Prior to the Taliban’s fall in 2001, there were several Christian organizations working in Afghanistan to care for the poor and needy. God’s people had been working in the harsh land of Afghanistan for many decades prior to military intervention. Organizations like IAM, SERVE, and Shelter Now International had been bringing hope and help within the borders of Afghanistan and also to her refugees in Pakistan. They served Afghans with health programs and educational projects. They dug wells, set up hospitals, educated children, and helped rebuild a country ravaged by decades of war. They worked under Taliban rule and sought their permission to implement aid projects.

These Christian men and women came from all over the globe to learn a new language, culture, and way of life very different from the ones they had left behind in their home countries. They came armed only with sincere faith in the God who called them and with the hope that their lives and work would bring some sliver of light to a troubled land. Before the eyes of the world were on Afghanistan, God was at work. And when the country fades from headlines and the world moves on, our Father will continue in the work He started there.   

When the Taliban fell and foreign forces invaded Afghanistan, it brought a new sense of stability to the country. Very quickly, women were given new freedoms and children gained educational opportunities that had not been available during the Taliban regime. International aid started pouring in, and with it came a new wave of Christian workers who would implement new projects and programs and help to start businesses. It was not only Christians, of course. Professionals from many backgrounds, countries, and walks of life came flooding into Afghanistan; some because it paid well, others because they felt compelled to do something to help this struggling country. 

As Christians, we must not fail to miss that the past twenty years of relative stability allowed for a massive number of Afghans to encounter Jesus for the very first time. This happened because of Bible translation projects, media production and broadcasting, and the simple fact that Christians were present and able to communicate the gospel in the heart language of Afghans. This is not to say that stability is a necessary precursor to making Christ known (history proves the opposite is true), but the amount of media coverage Afghanistan received during the past two decades placed it on the world’s collective conscience and in the hearts of Christians around the globe. It’s hard to know just how many Afghans are following Jesus today, but Afghanistan’s long-persecuted Hazara minority has reportedly been the most responsive to the gospel.[1]

While the church is right to grieve the many losses of foreign soldiers in Afghanistan, we must also lament the fact that so many innocent Afghan lives were lost as well. Men, women, and children were slain for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. They were simply people on their way to a wedding or at home sleeping in their beds.[2]  This loss of life should grieve us just as much.

Perhaps what the church in the west has failed to recognize is how much there is to learn from Afghanistan.Afghan Christians who remain in their country are now living out true humility, sacrifice, and obedience. They are enduring daily harassment, threats, and persecution from the Taliban. Many young Christians depended on the guidance of older believers, but the older believers had to flee the country. These young Christians are weak by the world’s standards, but they are growing strong because of their complete dependence on the help and sustenance that comes from Spirit of the Living God. While we Christians in the west are prone to following the strongest and trendiest in our orbit, Afghan believers are displaying the power of God in their fledgling faith as they follow Jesus with joy, boldness, and trembling hands. 

A military invasion that led to senseless carnage and corruption also gave way to more opportunities and human rights than Afghanistan has seen in my lifetime. The presence of both foreign interference and foreign aid paved the way for thousands of Afghans to meet Christ-followers and to hear the truth about Jesus. Could this have happened without military intervention? Of course. Our God is not confined by the will of the rulers and authorities of the kingdoms of this earth. But we cannot deny that God builds his kingdom in ways that confound us. He can use any circumstance for his glory. The eye of the Father has never looked away from Afghanistan, and I believe that one day the world will marvel at the vibrant church that takes root and thrives in a place that was long notorious for its bloodshed and violence. Perhaps on that day, we will dance around the throne of God and know without a doubt that our God and His kingdom are indeed worth it. 

[1] https://www.christianitytoday.com/news/2021/august/afghanistan-christians-taliban-sat-7-farsi-dari.html

[2] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-17334643

 

 

Plays Well With Others

Plays well with others

Follows directions

Shows respect

In elementary school, they used to have a pretty simple way of letting us know how we were doing in life, at least according to their limited observations in a few key categories. They graded us fairly simply; we were either satisfactory or unsatisfactory.

When I was a kid, before the part where we got into deep trouble, my Dad used to tease my sister and me. Whenever we would ignore an assigned task or disobey him, he’d say, in a long drawn out way, “fooooolllllowwws dirrrrections.”

As we get older, we all seem to learn to what level we must follow directions. We develop into rule-followers or rule-pushers, and we inch our way toward maturity falling in line or leaning hard on the limits. Either way, we are most often striving to find our way to a “satisfactory” rating.

Most of us find it far more difficult to ‘play well with others.’ I’ve been wondering lately, what would our first grade teachers say on our report cards today?

Eight years ago, as we prepared to move our family abroad, we were told “the number one reason people leave ministry abroad is that they cannot work well with others within their organization or community.” We gave that statement the side-eye. What? Grown up Jesus-loving people cannot get along, cannot “play well with others”? That hardly seemed possible.

Two and half years into our time in Haiti, we split up with the organization we’d come to serve. We couldn’t see eye to eye with our boss-people. They were happy to see us go. We disagreed on far too many things to continue on together. It was a painful and discouraging break-up.

If we have heard it once, we have heard it a hundred times. “We are leaving our organization to start our own thing. We just can’t work well together with our leadership.”

In all working relationships there are times of disagreement, times of disappointment or frustration. It happens between equals, between leaders and their support team, between friends.

My husband recently shared something his buddy said. This friend had spent many years watching people come and go in Haiti. He believes one of the biggest problems in smaller organizations is that most organizations lack a committed and loyal “number two.” He further stated that he had seen over and over how great working relationships break down and the person in the number two role chooses to move on to start something alone when their interpersonal relationships with leaders and/or co-laborers get challenging.

Paul says, “The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts,” and none of the parts are the same, but they compliment each other.

I am not leading an organization, but I am part of the body. I am in my place, and one of my roles is to complement the people I work with each day. It’s not all that glamorous, and it is not always fun, but it is a role that needs playing.

I’m learning as I age that not every hill is a hill to die on. When my life is over, it would devastate me to hear the people I worked with say, “She always had to win. She did not compromise.” When disagreements come and compromise seems improbable, I have an opportunity to ask myself, “Do I want to win, or do I want to be part of a body doing my part?” “Do I want to be right, or do I want to be the church?” This is not to say we should not share or shape the culture of our organizations by speaking up when we feel God’s prompting to do so, but it is to say that there are ways to differ in opinion in a gracious, humble, and respectful manner.

Perhaps there are those of us doing work abroad that are not necessarily called to “start our own thing” or to act in the head leadership role. Maybe, like my husband’s friend said, what is most needed are loyal and faithful “number twos” that can recognize how easily the devil comes to destroy relationships, plant doubt, and stir discontent among us. It could be time to try harder to play well with others.

What about you? Are relationships in your work abroad causing more stress than the work itself? Are you called to a number two position? Do you “play well with others”?

Originally posted on August 21, 2013

It’s okay to be happy

Last week I listened to the audio version of The Preacher’s Wife by Kate Bowler. While focused on America and the “Precarious Power of Evangelical Women Celebrities,” I was struck by the pendulum swings of what worked in one era, sounded tone deaf in another.

In acknowledgement of our own pendulum swings, I find that currently most online spaces for cross-cultural workers emphasize the hard parts of being a cross-cultural worker. Which, I know, is in response to those hard parts not being given any space. This was a needed course correction that may not leave enough space for another story to coexist.

As I thought about my post this month, the book of Psalms came to mind. I love the richness of life represented by the different types of psalms and the variety of lengths.

So, in the spirit of Psalm 117, the shortest psalm, I remind us that it is true that life on the field can be confusing, disappointing, and hard. 

It is also true that on the field is interesting, exciting, and easy.

You do not have to hide your happiness. It is okay to be happy on the field.

Image by StockSnap from Pixabay 

My CCW Top 40 “Playlist”

I’m not a very sophisticated musicophile. I like what I like without a lot of reasoning, don’t follow specific genres, can’t decipher a lot of lyrics (or don’t remember those I can), and don’t have targeted-enough tastes to pay for any online subscriptions. So I was recently listening to my free Beatles-ish Pandora station and the song “Nobody Told Me (There’d Be Days like These)” cued up. I thought to myself, “Now that would be a good descriptor for some of my time overseas.” And that got me thinking about what other titles could make up a top-40 “playlist” for when I was a cross-cultural worker (CCW).

After a little more thinking, here’s what I came up with. I can’t vouch for the lyrics to these songs (see “can’t decipher” and “don’t remember” above), so please show me some grace on that. Speaking of grace, my list doesn’t include any hymns or worship songs. If so, “Amazing Grace” would be on repeat throughout. Instead, I decided to go with church music’s secular cousins—twice removed—this time around.

Any titles you’d add? Maybe something a little more contemporary? As you can see, I’m kind of lacking in that area. Anyway, if you know these tunes, hum along with me.

  1. I’m Leaving on a Jet Plane
  2. Hello
  3. We’ve Only Just Begun
  4. Upside Down
  5. Tongue Tied
  6. Now I Know My ABCs
  7. All Shook Up
  8. Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood
  9. Homesick
  10. It’s Going to Take Some Time
  11. I Beg Your Pardon (I Never Promised You a Rose Garden)
  12. Don’t Stop Believin’
  13. I Will Survive
  14. With a Little Help from My Friends
  15. Stayin’ Alive
  16. Two Worlds
  17. The Same Moon
  18. On the Road Again
  19. Hello, Goodbye
  20. I’ve Been Everywhere
  21. Running on Empty
  22. Say a Little Prayer
  23. I’m a Believer
  24. Hallelujah
  25. Beautiful People
  26. Another Day in Paradise
  27. What a Wonderful World
  28. Tell It like It Is
  29. If I Were a Rich Man
  30. It’s a Small World
  31. We Don’t Need Another Hero
  32. Keeping the Faith
  33. Against All Odds
  34. Hit Me with Your Best Shot
  35. Nobody Told Me (There’d Be Days like These)
  36. I Will Survive (reprise)
  37. One Day More
  38. I’m Still Here
  39. Should I Stay or Should I go?
  40. Goodbye

[photo: “spinspinspin,” by Shannon, used under a Creative Commons license]

A Lament for the American Church (or how I’m processing my codependent relationship with the church)

I love the church, and I have loved the church for a long time.

I’ve led worship 600+ times in local congregations. I’ve preached dozens of times across several countries. I served as an overseas missionary in Southeast Asia for 8 years. I’ve been in “church work” in one capacity or another for over 20 years.

In fact, I still serve with a church planting mission organization, providing pastoral care and coaching to missionaries around the world. My day job is walking alongside of hurting people who also love (and are serving) the global church.

I still love the church, but I’ve got a problem.

Watching the American evangelical church for the last several years has been devastatingly hard. Initially, I watched as a sort of outsider, living and ministering in a developing country that had a proud and boisterous autocrat as a leader. And now since COVID led to an early repatriation in March of 2020, I’ve watched from a more comfortable spot in the rural Midwest.

Has it been devastating for you too? Have you grieved at how some elements of the American church have responded to racial issues, to politics, to the Capitol siege, to the ongoing global pandemic that’s killed over 660,000 people in our country alone? Have you lost friends and maybe even family?

During all of this, I’ve desperately wanted to change the church. I’ve shared articles and written Facebook posts trying to convince people to behave differently, to care differently, to love differently.

I’ve needed the church to behave differently so that I would be ok, so that I wouldn’t be embarrassed, or ashamed, or angry. As it turns out, that’s not very loving or healthy.

I’m beginning to realize that there’s a difference between loving the church and being enmeshed with it. There’s a difference between being grieved at her sins and being so emotionally devastated by her sins that I want to scream at people. One is healthy and vital, while the other is evidence of codependency.

 

Definitions & Caveats

Codependency is “excessive emotional or psychological reliance on a partner, typically one who requires support on account of an illness or addiction.”[1]

In unhealthy systems like this, talking about things openly and honestly can get complicated; silence is of paramount importance, and silence helps to maintain the status quo. One writer described it this way:

“One fairly common denominator seemed to be the unwritten, silent rules that usually develop in the immediate family and set the pace for relationships. These rules prohibit discussion about problems.”[2]

I have felt this. I have felt the urge to sit down, to shut up, to stay silent. But I can’t anymore.

The real-world impact of codependency is complex, but at least in part, a codependent person will seek to control the ill person (or addict) so that the codependent will remain psychologically intact.

This was me. And it’s made me bone-weary.

My identity was so wrapped up in the church that a threat to the church (even if it was from inside the church) felt like a direct threat to my core self. I don’t want to live that way anymore.

Is the American church a functioning alcoholic, drunk on power and patriarchy? Yes, some of it is. But “the church” is a pretty large entity to lump together in an accusation like that. So please hear me when I say this: there are parts of the American evangelical church that really are sick. Those parts need to be honestly assessed and truthfully addressed. But that doesn’t mean it all needs to be burned to the ground.

Eugene Peterson spoke plainly about the tensions of living in (and serving) a community of believers. It was not all rosy. But even while admitting the challenges, he wrote, “I have little time for the anti-church crowd who seem snobbish and who have little sense of the lived way of soul and Christ.”[3]

C.S. Lewis would have agreed, I think. A generation before Peterson, Lewis wrote this in a letter to a friend: “The New Testament does not envisage solitary religion. Some (like you – and me) find it more natural to approach God in solitude; but we must go to Church as well.”[4]

I can’t “do faith” on my own. I’ve gained so much from my involvement in local churches. It has been good for me, spiritually, emotionally, and even psychologically. My family has found a local body of believers in our new town in the Midwest, and we are jumping in to community and fellowship.

I am not anti-church, but I am anti-pretend, and I can’t act like things are OK in the American church.

I resonate deeply with Beattie when she writes, “[C]odependency is called a disease because it is progressive. As the people around us become sicker, we may begin to react more intensely.”[5]

Is that what’s happening to me? To us? Have we been in a codependent relationship with the church? Is this why now, as her behavior appears to become sicker and sicker, so many of us are reacting more and more intensely, getting either angrier or else just running away? I think so.

 

Churches Love Codependents

Codependents make great church members. They’re sacrificial. They’ll do anything. They’ll go anywhere. And they’ll defend the leaders and the system if they have to. They care a LOT about the church.

Many church-growth strategies look like a playbook for making people codependent. Encourage strong identification with a specific church/leader/group. Call it branding. Teach a lot about the uniqueness of this church and church culture. Create a very strong “us vs. them” motif. Emphasize teachings on authority and respecting spiritual leadership/headship. And if our “family” is ever in crisis, circle the wagons. And God forbid, but if anyone from without or within criticizes the church, take it personally, react vehemently, and DEFEND.

As it does in the world of codependency and addiction, these strategies quickly lead to a persecution complex, and American evangelicals thrive on a persecution complex.

 

Local Church, Hope of the World?

The now-disgraced pastor and author Bill Hybels used to say regularly, “The local church is the hope of the world.” I used to quote that statement regularly. But you know what? I’ve learned it’s not true. In fact, that message causes a slow but steady trend towards deep dysfunction: Hide flaws. Silence survivors. Conceal abusers (or transfer them somewhere else). Don’t let those on the outside see reality.

Codependents always protect the addict.

But protecting the reputation of the church is a fool’s errand, and it typically ends up meaning, “We need to protect the reputation of our leaders.” If the leader is leading the church that is the hope of the world, or at least the city, then we must protect him, along with the system he leads.

And if a narcissistic politician promises to protect our churches and our “Christian rights,” then we must protect him, too, and hold him above reproach. This is so wrong and harmful for our nation, but we learned it in our churches first.

To put it more bluntly, if the local church is the hope of the world, then the leader of the local church is the hope of the world too. Chuck DeGroat, clinician and pastor, writes about narcissistic church leaders. These leaders are more than happy to be seen as the hope of the world. He writes, “The grandiosity, entitlement, and absence of empathy characteristic of narcissistic personality disorder was translated into the profile of a good leader.” In these systems, “Loyalty to the narcissistic leader and the system’s perpetuation is demanded.”[6]

This is not healthy.

 

Next Steps

The last few years have revealed some of the addictions and illnesses of the evangelical church: patriarchy, white nationalism, a fervent and enduring embrace of narcissistic, abusive leaders, and a disregard for the truth.

During all of that, we were also taught to love the church. And we did.

I did.

What many of us learned, though, was that we needed to love the church as the prime thing. Nobody said it, but I think we gained more identity from our churches than we did from our Christ.

We desperately need to work on de-centering the church (and politics) and re-centering the Christ, the hope of the world. Karen Swallow Prior recently wrote about this in her article titled, “With this much rot, there’s no choice but to deconstruct.” She says,

“We must make Jesus the head of his bride again. We can no longer put the church — its name, its reputation, its money, its salaries, its staff, its programs, its numbers — before Christ himself.”[7]

Enmeshing ourselves with charismatic Christian (or political) leaders is tempting. It helps us feel like we belong and like we’re on the inside. But if our core identities hinge on our churches or our political parties, we have erred terribly.

 

The Church Called TOV

This article is not a book review. However, I believe a truthful review of Scot McKnight and Laura Barringer’s book, A Church Called TOV, would be this simple: A Church Called TOV is a textbook for walking out of religious codependency.

It’s that good.

The authors compare unhealthy, dysfunctional dynamics, with gentle, Christ-honoring pathways forward. Here are the main ideas:

Conclusion

I don’t want to love the church in a codependent way anymore. I will still love her, but I don’t want to be enmeshed with her, where her good (or bad) behavior alters my own sense of self.

I want to nurture empathy and grace. I want to put people first and tell the truth. I want to pursue justice and honor humble service. I want to grow into Christlikeness.

I will continue to be a part of my local church, but I don’t want my core identity to come from her. It can’t. I can’t be enmeshed any longer with the American evangelical complex.

The local church (even a great one) is not the hope of the world.

Jesus Christ is the hope of the world.

Amen.

Come, Lord Jesus.

 

A Lament for the Church: a prayer of letting go

The path to healing from codependency often involves an emotional detaching. That does not mean you care less for the person from whom you’re detaching. It just means you are detaching from “the agony of involvement.”[8]

This lament, patterned after the material in Mark Vroegops’ book, Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy, is my attempt not to care less, but to care healthier.

God of the Church, the one who sees the end from the beginning, hear my cry to you today. You established the heavens above and the Church below, and one day you will invite your Bride, your people, to feast with you in the New City, the golden city of God.

But here and now, O God, your Bride seems sullied. More to the point, your Bride seems to be chasing after the wind, pining away for other lovers who promise power and a seat at the table. Your people are damaging people. They have turned on the least of these, preferring instead to join in with mockers, to stand with sinners.

You will not be mocked, and you will not endure their sins forever. So do something! Stop this madness! Bring light back to our eyes. Make compassion great again! Do not stop your ear to the cry of your people. No! Listen to their fawning over false prophets, see their bowing before every lying hashtag and would-be tyrant. Open their eyes and break their hearts!

You alone know, O God, the depths of the deceit, and the depths of your love. I yield the floor, trusting that this is your case to make, and believing that you will. Your ways are too complex and masterful for me to comprehend, so I yield.

I trust you to figure this out and respond appropriately.

And I rest in your promises to forgive me too.

Amen.


[1] Oxford English Dictionary

[2] Codependent No More, by Melody Beattie

[3] As quoted in the book, A Burning in My Bones, by Winn Collier

[4] The Quotable Lewis, by Martindale and Root

[5] Codependent No More

[6] When Narcissism Comes to Church, by Chuck DeGroat

[7] https://religionnews.com/2021/08/04/with-this-much-rot-theres-no-choice-but-to-deconstruct/

[8] Codependent No More

Originally published at trotters41.com

Led by the Global South

“A typical Christian today is a non-white woman living in the global South, with lower-than-average levels of societal safety and proper health care. This represents a vastly different typical Christian than that of 100 years ago, who was likely a white, affluent European.”

(from the Center for the Study of Global Christianity)

This was the quote that jumped out at me recently when I saw a graphic called “The World as 100 Christians.” The graphic was created by The Center for the Study of Global Christianity , a research center located at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary.  

Like most infographics, the graphic is a way to help people grasp an idea and give them the desire to learn more. In my case it worked, and I began to look at something that I have known has been happening in Christianity and missions for a long time.

I’m asking you to track with me as I go back to 1982, when Oxford University Press published a landmark reference book called the World Christian Encyclopedia. Written with scrupulous detail, it was 1000 pages of detailed surveys and statistics on Christianity throughout the globe. At the time, Time magazine praised it as “a benchmark for our understanding of the true religious state of the planet.” This publication became the first of what are now three major publications released in 1982, 2001, and 2019. The 2019 edition was published after extensive updates of statistics and narratives by research staff from Gordon Conwell Seminary’s Center for the Study of Global Christianity.

Their website says this about the volume:

“From Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, the World Christian Encyclopedia includes quantitative information on every world religion and Christianity down to the denominational level.”

Significant to this discussion is the change of Christianity from being dominated by North America and Western Europe to the rise of Christianity in the Global South. As someone who grew up in a part of the world where the struggles that Christians faced were monumental, where to be a Christian meant that you faced discrimination, inequities, and potential persecution, this change is a beautiful and wonderful thing to behold.

The important thing to recognize is that white, affluent Americans and Europeans are not the main voices that should speak – or be listened to – for Christianity or for Missions today. Instead, we must recognize, listen to, and open our hearts to be led by the Global South. If we do not already realize this, it is time that we pay attention.

What does it mean to be led by the Global South? We have been given the mic for a long time. What does it look like to pass it and to not try to grab it back? Those are big questions, and I can’t do them justice. What I can do is offer some areas where we can learn from Christians in the Global South.

The Global South knows what it is to suffer. When I talk to Christians from Pakistan, Egypt, and Afghanistan, I am always humbled by their understanding of suffering, by their grace in the midst of suffering. I know little about suffering for my faith; I know little about suffering in general. I will never forget a meeting years ago with some Egyptian Christians who had converted from Islam to Christianity. When one of the students in our study abroad group asked them if they had suffered, they looked at the students in astonishment and replied with a simple, “Of course.” The simplicity and strength of the response was profound. No other words would have been as powerful. As Christians we have never been promised fame, riches, good health, healthy kids, or any of a number of things that we tend to put into our “blessed by God” buckets. What we have been promised is God’s presence no matter what happens. 

The Global South knows what it is to live without safety, security, and physical comforts. Our barely conscious quest for safety, security, and physical comforts are hallmarks of Western Christianity, and we try and build up that safety and security in every country we enter. We pack large suitcases full of things that we don’t want our kids to miss. Our chocolate chips melt as our massive shipment stands for hours in the hot sun waiting for a customs official to let them go, and our taco mix sometimes gets eaten by rats – but by God, we will fill our suitcases or die trying. And I am the first to tell you that my suitcases are full of chocolate chips and that my taco mix did indeed get eaten by rats! I love, love, love my physical comforts. There is nothing wrong with comfort per se. There is nothing wrong with loving beauty and wanting to create a home, but we must be ever conscious of our motivation behind these things. If we go overseas only to recreate the homes and lives that we left, then we’d best look in the mirror and figure out our purpose and motivation.

And then there’s the safety piece. I’m struck by how often people from the west say to me as I travel, “Be safe! Be Careful!” It’s said out of kindness and concern, but perhaps there is also a distorted sense of what safety is or should be. Rachel Pieh Jones, long a favorite writer and friend of mine, has penned the truest words I know on safety in her longform essay, “The Proper Weight of Fear.” At one point in the essay, she describes questions that she and her husband were asked before leaving for Somaliland. “The second question after weren’t you afraid was were you safe? Of course, we were safe. Of course, we were not safe. How could we know? Nothing happens until it happens. People get shot at schools in the United States, in movie theaters, office buildings. People are diagnosed with cancer. Drunk drivers hurtle down country roads. Lightning flashes, levees break, dogs bite. Safety is a Western illusion crafted into an idol and we refused to bow.”

The Global South knows what it is to live in collective community. To live in collective community is a Biblical ideal. We are called to live not for self, but out of responsibility and love for each other. This collective community isn’t about finding who you like and deciding to form a team with them. It’s about working toward relationship with the people who are in your lives. Western Christians are great at being in community with people they like, people who agree with them politically, spiritually, and materially – but when disagreement enters, we are quick to absolve ourselves of the same community we spoke so highly of. It reminds me of the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Life Together: “The person who loves their dream of community will destroy community, but the person who loves those around them will create community.” Since I was young, South Asian and Middle Eastern Christians have modeled community for me – community that doesn’t exist out of sameness, but out of love of God and neighbor.

How do we, how do I, respond to being led instead of leading? To giving up my belief in my own expertise, instead opening up to the wisdom of others?

With cultural humility – Cultural humility is a term I use all the time in my workshops. If it is true in healthcare, it is even more important and true in missions. Cultural humility gives up our right to be experts, releasing that right and being willing to be a student. In the school of suffering, safety, security, and community, I know I am not a teacher. I am a kindergartner. I know so little of any of these things. Cultural humility also emphasizes healthy self-reflection and self-critique. Not to be absorbed by self, but instead to willingly analyze and bring that analysis to God. Cultural humility also asks that we be aware of historical considerations and take them into account as we honor new leadership from the Global South. 

With a focus on partnerships – I’ll be honest – I don’t know what this looks like. Partnership brings to mind a picture of relationships, service, and commitment to a long-term goal. All of those are impossible without a commitment to cultural humility. We want to walk beside, not in front of, people. Partnerships may look different depending on if the work is focused on education, medicine, business, or church.

With grateful hearts –  What an incredible encouragement to know that so many places in the world are coming to understand the love story at the heart of the Christian faith! To grow in understanding the love of God and how this love compels and leads to new mission endeavors is a gift we have been given. What a picture of a creative God whose spirit moves in ways we can scarcely fathom! There is no better response than a heart of thanksgiving, a heart that humbly acknowledges God’s ways as higher than ours. It is with a grateful and awe-filled heart that I welcome these changes.

To be participants in God’s good work in the world is a gift. To be front row observers and called onto the stage of God’s glory being made known brings wordless humility. To step back and humbly be led by a new generation of Christians around the world – this is what it’s all about. May we stand back in awe and step forward in obedience. Amen and Amen.

Life as a Christian Business Kid

by Clarissa Choo

I grew up as a business kid living first in Singapore and South Korea and later in a closed country and the Czech Republic. I’m an adult TCK now, but first and foremost I am a child of God.

Although Singapore is my passport country, my parents were not “typical” Singaporean parents. They never expected my sister and me to achieve perfect grades. Instead, they desired that we come to know Christ as our Savior and dedicate our lives to Him.

Their initial plan to avoid the stressful education system in Singapore was to immigrate to Canada. My dad had spent a significant number of years in Canada studying higher education and interacting with the culture there. But God’s plans were different from my parents’ plans.

God re-directed our path to South Korea through my dad’s work. I was five years old at the time. The Canadian embassy eventually approved our visas, but Dad had already accepted his job contract, and we had already moved to South Korea. We stayed in South Korea, where Christ saved me when I was seven years old.

Later in my teen years I searched for Christian TCK communities and found that the majority were intended for missionary kids. At the time it seemed that Christian BKs like me were quite rare. So if you’re a missionary or a missionary kid, you might not know what the life of a Christian BK looks like.

I’ll let you in on a little “secret”: although the paths of a missionary kid and a Christian business kid may seem different, they share similarities. Because as saved children of the King, we have one common goal – reaching the unsaved with the gospel no matter which country we live in.

As a former BK, I am perceived by some people as “pampered” or a “brat,” and I’m sure some MKs view my path as a fancier and less difficult route than theirs. In terms of finances, it may seem that way because many companies paid the bulk of living expenses for expatriates.

But people’s assumptions aren’t always accurate. While my family was outside of Singapore, my dad was diagnosed with a rare, chronic auto-immune disease called CIDP. His monthly treatments for life were so expensive that there were times when we were concerned about how the bills would be cleared. But God met our needs every time. 

And here’s another “secret” of mine: I used to envy missionary kids. Many MKs I knew could stay in their host country longer than I could. They could speak two languages fluently while I lacked sufficient time to be multilingual due to another move on the horizon. Having two “homes” appeared better than having many, as I’d have to say goodbye again. And again and again … and again.

Later as an adult I went through complex PTSD, partly due to stifling my emotions without processing them properly during transitions as a young child. I’m sure many of you can relate to that.

I can talk about so many blessings though — the main ones being experiences. Some of the experiences came from attending private schools filled with international students and from immersing myself in the local culture. Other experiences came from distributing gospel tracts and witnessing individuals place their trust in Jesus. In fact, my most precious memories involve local churches and mission work.

Just like we weren’t “typical” Singaporeans, we weren’t “typical” expatriates either. What I mean by that is that when we were overseas, we weren’t heavily involved in expat communities (although we did participate a couple of times). Instead, our main communities stemmed from local churches.

One Sunday at our church in South Korea, the pastor preached about missions. While he prayed the ending prayer, my dad took my tiny hand and brought me to the stage (my mom and sister were in other ministry rooms). I watched as he knelt and dedicated his heart to support mission work. Although my family didn’t carry the title of missionary, as saved children of God we were still missionaries. Throughout my life, I’ve seen my parents support mission work in various ways, whether through finances, prayers, simple actions of servitude, or sharing the gospel.

When we were in the closed country, I felt as though I was living a “double” life due to the government’s restrictions on Christians sharing the gospel message. During the weekdays I was a uniformed student, and over the weekends I attended an illegal house church with my Sunday clothes on. My parents could have brought us to a legal church as that was seen as the “safe” option, but legal churches were prohibited from openly sharing the gospel. Thus, we attended a house church – a decision we never regretted.

My parents even opened our house on Wednesday nights for the church’s mid-week Bible studies. We stayed in a private compound, which contained many expatriates like us. One action led to another as workers from the compound came to our house on Wednesdays to hear the Word of God. Back then, I didn’t realize how dangerous that was, but we didn’t regret that decision either.

That’s because salvation is priceless, and we shouldn’t keep the gospel to ourselves. Everywhere is a mission field.

In the Czech Republic, my family spent a lot of time serving a small church. I played the piano, watched after the kids, passed snacks around, and cleaned. My family served in their own ways too. We gave gospel tracts to individuals who crossed our paths and brought one of them to the church.

God has used local churches across the globe to shape my TCK life and perspectives over time. Each time God brought us to a new country, I would wonder about the church He was leading us to and about the unsaved who would cross our paths.

Furthermore, my TCK experiences with missions in various countries instilled in me a desire to support and be involved in both overseas and local missions. And no matter the path or country God places me in, I believe He wants to use that desire to further His kingdom.

~~~~~~~~~~

Clarissa Choo is an ATCK and a former business kid. Although she has lived in four countries, Heaven is her only home. She’s the administrator of the newly launched website ministry, TCKs for Christ. The platform seeks to serve, encourage, and challenge Christian TCKs to use their gifts and live victoriously with a firm identity in Jesus Christ. You can connect with Clarissa at ClarissaChoo.com or her Instagram, @ClarissaChoowriter.

Beware the Idols of an Overseas Life

When we first move overseas, all we feel is the sacrifice. 

Homesickness punches us in the stomach; we experience a physical ache for left-behind loved ones. Our new country feels strange and overwhelming. We lose our sense of self-respect as we bumble along in communication. We mourn the loss of our identity and productivity as we try to figure out how to drive, eat, and parent in this new universe. There are times when we even hate it, and wonder what on earth brought us here.

But then, something changes.

It will likely take (many) years, but one day it dawns on us that we feel more at home in our host country than our home country. We tell jokes in a different language. We navigate the bus system with ease. We crave the local food. We no longer look forward to our furloughs or home assignments, and might even dread them. 

We’ve found a new community, and it’s possible that those relationships are stronger and deeper than anything we had back at home. The view outside our kitchen window has become familiar. Grocery shopping is mundane. We’ve figured out how to make this new life work. And we are comfortable.

And that’s exactly when we must be on our guard.

Think about it this way: when our life overseas is a sacrifice, we continually contemplate our calling. Why am I here? Is this worth it? Am I doing any good? We dig deep into dependence on God. We evaluate our motives. When life is a slog, our vision is clear: we know why we are doing this. 

But what about when life becomes comfortable? Once we’ve adapted to a new culture, we come face-to-face with the reality that this overseas life has perks. Sometimes, lots of them. 

Our lives are interesting. Fulfilling. Living as an expat means we get the benefits of two worlds: the richness, beauty, and adventure of our host country, but with all the safety nets from our home country. We get to travel to exotic places. We become exotic people.

We get to stand out–not only in our host country, but back at home too. We are respected, set apart, even put on a pedestal. 

We don’t like to admit this. We would rather stick with the “sacrifice” narrative, because it feels better. And of course, some sacrifices never disappear. But often, with enough time, the perks outweigh the sacrifices. 

Comfort is sinister because it can lull us into lying to ourselves. This new identity can be intoxicating. We laugh and say, “Living overseas is addicting!” which is kind of funny, but kind of dangerous. This fulfilling life can blind us to the truths we need to see.

Being venerated by others can steal our cultural humility–both overseas and back at home. Feeling comfortable can poke holes in our dependence on God. Our sense of calling can be overshadowed by the fact that we just really like our life. 

We might stop evaluating our effectiveness. Stop questioning our motives. We may even ignore that little voice that tells us it’s time to turn the ministry over to locals, that it’s time to move on. 

It’s very easy for the perks of living overseas to become idols. What is especially disturbing is that these idols are disguised as sacrifices–both to us and to those back at home. The missions narrative can allow us to live for ourselves while pretending that we are only about God’s kingdom. This should terrify us. 

Does this mean that it’s automatically time to leave when life overseas becomes comfortable? Does this mean that we aren’t allowed to enjoy the gifts of an overseas life? Of course not. If you are in that place, rejoice, for it took a lot of grit to get there. But also, be on your guard. Don’t lose your commitment to humility, to self-evaluation, to asking the hard questions of yourself and your ministry. Recognize the danger of comfort, look it straight in the eye, and confront it head on. If you find yourself defensive, pay attention. What’s really going on in your heart?

John Calvin famously said, “The human heart is an idol factory.” We should not be stunned to discover how quickly our hearts will take something godly and beautiful–even in missions–and turn it into our own personal idol. Let us beware.

How to Keep Living When You’re Drowning in Limbo

I packed a suitcase of thin fabrics, suitable for three weeks of tropical humidity and meetings in air-conditioned rooms. I hugged my husband goodbye, then texted him from the airport. It was early March 2020, and after a few months of restrictions in Beijing, I was looking forward to being somewhere other than our small apartment for a few weeks. The plane took off, and unbeknownst to me, I left my home in China for the last time.

18 months later I am living with my parents in my native Australia, and my husband is in our new home in his native U.S. I was able to visit him there for three months over Thanksgiving and Christmas. The rest of the time we have been living apart with no idea how long this situation will last. Last year we were waiting for things to change, and when it became clear nothing was changing, we began planning a move to the U.S. without me there in China to help. This year we’ve been working through the green card immigration process that will allow me to join him in the U.S.

That’s a lot of loss, a lot of limbo, a lot of uncertainty.

The Covid-19 pandemic, with the accompanying lockdowns, border restrictions, flight cancellations, school closures, work changes, and health crises, has created a lot of loss and limbo and uncertainty for many people – especially those of us with international lives. 

Drowning in limbo

Last year I had no idea how long I would be in Australia, when I would go home to my home and husband in China, and later whether I would go home at all. I had arrived in Canberra, the coldest part of Australia, with three weeks’ worth of tropical weather clothes – right as we went into winter. I lived in hand-me-downs from thrift stores, the local buy-nothing group, a friend, and a few things I’d left at my parents’ house because they were holey or otherwise less than optimal. It took me months to decide to buy adequate shoes and socks and underwear – because those purchases were acknowledgements that I really wasn’t going home to Beijing where I already had everything I needed.

And that is a perfect description of living in limbo. 

When you’re living in limbo, you’re in an intermediate state, and you don’t know how long it will last. You’re stuck. You can’t make decisions – you can’t even buy socks. You might have all the transition skills in the world, but it’s hard to use them when you don’t have a new place to settle into, when you’re waiting to arrive – or leave. This can be particularly hard for seasoned expats and other globally mobile individuals. We have strategies and skills, and we know how to use them. Then we end up in limbo, and our strategies and skills don’t work the way we’re used to.  

Last year, I wasn’t so much living in limbo as I was drowning in it.

This year, I’m living differently. My life is still full of uncertainty. I’m still living with my parents and unsure when I’ll see my husband again. But I’ve also found ways to keep afloat, to keep moving – to truly live in the midst of limbo. 

How to keep living in limbo

Uncertainty is a difficult state to live in. It’s hard to plan for the future when you don’t know what’s coming. It’s hard to enjoy the moment when you know it could change. Impermanence isn’t a place where you can be at ease. 

Over the past 18 months I’ve learned a lot about coping with all the unknowns and creating peace and joy in the middle of uncertainty. Here are my four best pieces of advice – things that have helped me stay afloat through a life of uncertainty while I’m stuck in limbo: 

1) Invest in small comforts

Sure, you don’t know how long you’ll be where you are. But as long as you’re there, make sure you have what you need to relax and be at peace, whatever that means for you. Living in limbo is hard enough without having anything that you find soothing and comforting. Any money you invest in those small comforts is an investment in your mental health, your peace of mind, and your ability to cope in a difficult situation. If that situation resolves quickly and you find yourself with two of your favourite comfort items, that’s okay! You can save one for a rainy day, leave it at a place you visit often, or bless someone else with it.

2) Plan small anticipations

One of the hardest things about living in limbo is not knowing when your situation will end. It’s so hard to plan ahead, to have things to look forward to in a concrete way. There’s a vague sense of, “When this is over I’ll do __________,” but it’s difficult to be more specific. Anticipation is a source of joy, and losing the ability to anticipate near future events is problematic. We need markers of time and things to look forward to. My solution: create small anticipations for yourself. Create little routines, and luxuriate in the smallest of joys. 

One way I’ve done this is by throwing myself into my favourite reality TV shows. I watch them as they air (which is several nights a week for several months here in Australia) so that I can follow along on Twitter with everyone else watching live. It was a tiny anticipation in the grand scheme of things, but watching Masterchef with hundreds of strangers on the internet became a huge part of my days and weeks! It was something I looked forward to during the day. 

3) Be present in the moment

Find activities that keep you grounded, that allow you to experience joy in the moment. Joy and pleasure that is not dependent on your situation or your circumstances, but simply is. Notice small things. Perhaps it is natural beauty – sunsets, flowers, mountains, bird calls. Perhaps it is playing with small children, immersing yourself in the wonder they see, getting caught up in the magic they make with simple things like boxes and blocks and crayons. Perhaps it is a time of rest, with a good book, a cozy blanket, and a cup of tea. For me it has been all of these and more. 

4) Lean into the experiences you couldn’t have otherwise

What do you have access to because of your time in limbo that you wouldn’t otherwise? Usually the negatives of our situations shout very loudly. Those difficulties are real, and the pain they cause is real. The grief that comes from plans laid waste is valid and needs to be acknowledged and expressed. But it’s not the whole story. What can I access in my limbo life that I couldn’t access elsewhere?

In my case, two particularly significant experiences opened to me in limbo. Choosing to lean into them has brought me incredible benefits that have helped to redeem my limbo time. First, I’ve been able to access beneficial healthcare with a doctor I’d previously only seen for annual checkups, and the positive changes to my health have been dramatic. 

My second open door has been time with my young niece and nephews. The oldest is five; the youngest is nearly 17 months – he was born about 6 weeks after I arrived. I’ve been 15 minutes down the road from him and his older brother his entire life, and usually see them several days a week. My other niece and nephew live halfway across the country. Twice I’ve been able to live with them in their house for a full month, being a part of their everyday lives in almost every way. As a long-distance family member, these are joys I never dreamed I would get to experience. 

So yes, living in limbo is awful. Uncertainty is so hard to live with. There is so much about my situation I don’t like and wouldn’t choose. And yet, there are ways to make it easier to bear. There are ways to cultivate joy in the midst of heartache. If you find yourself stuck in limbo like me, I hope you will find these ideas helpful.