Abigail is a lover of life and story--the ones God writes and calls us to write with Him. She knows that no matter what tragedy comes, our stories are not over. Her newly released book 'A Million Skies' demonstrates the power of God's love and redemption over all of our lives. Having previously served overseas as a missionary with her husband and three children, she and her husband now touch the lives of refugees through the ministry of the Welcome Network. Learn more about Abigail at her blog and website (abigailalleman.com) or follow her on Instagram @abigail.alleman
We all find ourselves in places where we need to remember. Some of us have been serving overseas for many years. We are seasoned, experienced, and committed to the long haul of such ministry. Others of us are only beginning our journey, with light in our eyes and love in our hearts. Many of us are somewhere in between. Some have served a few years and intend to continue for years to come. Still others have served and find ourselves returned to our passport countries, with a continued desire to pray and minister to lives lived overseas in mission. And some of us long for fulfilled dreams as we continue to envision, plan, and send.
We are a community united in a sense of purpose related to the nations of the world. We desire love to be lived out, mercy to be given, and justice to be achieved. Yet, it is the nature of a broken world, to weary and even harden our hearts. So I offer this prayer in the hopes it will reconnect us all to one another and to the God of hope.
Hope of the Nations – A Prayer
You spoke it all into being, this vast wide world.
But that world fractured, and so did your heart.
Nations formed, and languages, cultures, and peoples.
Kingdoms rose and fell–domination and power reigning.
Often your hope has been lost – the hope of the nations.
Yet you promise every kindred, tongue, and tribe
Will gather about you – your glory and love
For endless ages to come.
You are the hope of the nations, the heart of hearts of all.
We step forward, step out, in risk, sacrifice, and fervent desire.
We rise, we fall, we win, we lose, we take up, we lay down.
We often lose heart as we see the pain of a suffering world.
But you remain – longing for all to come to one Home – your heart.
You are the evergreen hope of the nations.
You are the God who gave of yourself, crossing the infinite divide.
That hope is much more than our ability to give, dream and do.
You are hope incarnate, and in your light we find the only true light.
Revive us in connection to your love – the fruit of our living hope.
We need it as our next breath – our strength to rise each day.
To remember your light overcomes every darkness of this world.
To believe anew that you can change the most desperate in an instant.
To know you see all things through, as your perfect will goes forth.
You are the hope of the nations – the desire of our days, our heart of hearts.
You uphold the universe, and are in all, above all, and through all.
So be the life in us today, tomorrow, every moment, now and forever.
For you are the only true hope of the nations, and together we remember.
I remember when my team leader first spoke about learning to ‘self-feed’ spiritually as a part of living overseas. I didn’t understand what she meant then, during my initial missionary internship, but I certainly know now.
When we moved to Hungary long-term, I was pregnant with our third child. Hungary, like many non-U.S. countries, did not have child care options in most of the national churches. As a mom of young children, I entered a time when church attendance was scarce for me, and those circumstances would lead to floundering spiritually.
The struggle of being a missionary who couldn’t be fed spiritually by church pressed me to self-feed. By this I mean I developed the ability to be sustained spiritually outside of Sunday church or even mid-week fellowship. To be clear, it is very important to integrate into the church of our host countries. Yet, we also need to learn how to grow deep roots in our faith.
Here are some ways we can feed ourselves spiritually. With time and practice, we can learn to let our doing define our being.
Find consistent teaching or preaching which is gospel-centered: For me, this teaching came most through the ministry of Tim Keller. I felt such a shepherding presence from his consistent, biblically-sound, gospel-driven messages. I will never forget what it meant to repeatedly listen to the ‘Prodigal God’ sermons I had downloaded onto my iPod as I walked the hill by our Budapest flat. (His entire sermon collection is now available for FREE here.) I wept when he recently passed away as a testament to what his long-distance, yet, so close to the heart of God, ministry meant to me.
Meditate on Scripture: When I became a mom, this discipline led me on a deeper journey to learning to self-feed. When I was pregnant with my daughter, I memorized Romans 8. While memorization is not necessary for meditation on Scripture, it is very helpful to know passages so well that we can recall them in part or as a whole. There is a reason why Psalm 119:11 talks about hiding the Word in our heartsso that we might not sinagainst God. This internalizing of the Word is a journey we walk for ourselves, not counting on any church or small group to do it for us.
Connect with God through Your surroundings: Walks around our neighborhoods or cities are important anywhere we live. But, it is especially important to make what is foreign, familiar. When bill paying can be stressful, note the trees and the birds which perch on them, as we walk or ride or drive to pay a bill or speak our new language in relationship with native speakers or to do any anxiety-laden experience. As we do this, we learn to trust God anew that He is omnipresent and always with us and this world–His world.
Learn to Prioritize Heart Community: Like a good missionary, I didn’t want to become so much a part of the expat community that I wasn’t forming relationships with nationals. While this is a valid concern, there are times when we just need to make sure we have present, solid community where we can share our heart struggles. Some of our best and most safe friends may be nationals, and that is beautiful. However, these relationships tend to take a longer time to develop. If we are feeling isolated, seeking safe, heartfelt community with other expats is not failing to bond with our host country. It is at times necessary to sustain ourselves for the long-term.
Instead of Residing, Dwell: Psalm 37 became a key passage to center and focus me in my overseas journey. Verse 3b in my favorite translation says: ‘Dwell in the land and feed on faithfulness.‘ Dwelling means we find communion with God through being nourished by His faithfulness. Recognizing the steadfast love of God wherever we are in the world comes through the discipline of recounting God’s work on our behalf. We often do this by intentionally practicing thankfulness.
Speak the Gospel over Ourselves Daily: The gospel-centered teaching I mentioned above is important to anchor us. But if we don’t internalize the message of our unmerited favor through the work of Jesus Christ, we will cut ourselves off from the life we desperately need. It is one of the greatest occupational hazards of missionaries that we would withhold from ourselves the gospel-bearing heart of God which we so dearly want to share with others. As our identity is lost through all that is hard and foreign, we cling more deeply to lives of performance. But there is no true sustenance if we cannot melt into that white hot and holy love of God displayed supremely through the gospel.
And in all of our days and ways, as we sustain ourselves, we must remember we are not being nourished in ourselves. It is only through the presence of ‘Immanuel, God with us’ that we have that unending well of spiritual provision. It is His light which will face any darkness and never, ever, ever be overcome.
Long-term grief is real. It is eight years ago this month since we had to leave our overseas home. For so long the grief has been painful, like a part of my heart was ripped out. We departed abruptly, adding to the sharp nature of our grief.
But whatever the circumstances of your grief, know that God sees you.
We all face endings and must stretch forth into beginnings. Our lives overseas are often hard-earned and yet are fragile, dependent on factors outside of our control. Grief comes in many ways, whether in the leaving or in the staying as others depart or in a million other things which meet us at every bend in the road.
So how do we ever find healing amid the grief of this journey?
Here are five truths about grief that I’ve gleaned from my ongoing season of grief over leaving an overseas home I loved. They can also be found in Chapter 3 of my book, A Million Skies.
Grief is a unique journey to the person: No one’s grief is the same. Even if you are also grieving a ‘goodbye’ to your overseas home, your journey may be extraordinarily different from mine. We each have varied kinds of closure. We may have remained when others left. The pain we face, which is created by the sense of a shifting home, reminds us that anchors of community, culture, language, and even faith are no longer present. Fight the lie that you must grieve as others do. You have all the grace in the world to walk your own unique journey–to feel what you feel and know what you know.
Grief is messy: This is one of the most succinct truisms I have ever heard and known related to grief. One day we can think of what we miss with soul-deep anguish at the separation. The next day may have us laughing at a funny memory. No matter who we are, the ups and downs and trying to make sense of our grief is so very messy.
Grief is nuanced: Often when we think of those memories of things we loved most in our overseas home, the joy is mixed with such sorrow. We may never be present again with what we have so dearly loved. An English Camp where I worked with my missionary community for six summers had been my ‘happy place’ for nearly ten years. Then, suddenly what had been so joy-filled became, to the same degree, a thing of sorrow. And I know you have your own story, too.
Grieving well means we must remain in its process: As I returned to the States, I was so overwhelmed with grief, I just wanted to binge Netflix and avoid dealing with such sadness. However, I learned that the rock-hard ball of tears wedged deep within me would not go away, and worse, might harden me if I didn’t face my grief. As we navigate the pain, we need to learn to trust God, ourselves, and others again. At the same time, we remain in hard places and what sometimes seems never-ending sorrow.
Grief is never the end of the story: While grief is part and parcel of this life, it does not have final say. God invites us to co-author with him a life that can find true hope in a newness which is overwhelmingly good. If I reflect over these past eight years, I find so many precious relationships I never would have had if I hadn’t had to return to the States. I also have had countless opportunities to serve God as I have found the strength to open up my wounds, wounds intimately related to the life that was lost, and share those wounds with the world. In similar and different ways, you can find hope in the knowledge that your story is not even remotely over.
In the end what I have realized is that, though it was cut short of my hopes and expectations, every moment of my overseas life was gift. Every opportunity to love on students, to meet shop owners, to bond cross-culturally with our church or with the kids’ school communities, was an incredible privilege that few experience. Moreover, not a single moment was wasted. Just as it all was a gift from God, I can lay it at God’s feet as my gift unto his glory.
The trading of sorrow for joy happens little by little as we heal. If joy remains small in the remembering, take heart. You are not alone on the journey. Our Immanuel, God with us, lived a life of grief, of the loss of home. He bore our griefs and sorrows and offers hope as we grasp his healing hand to touch our pain. Ultimately, he promises to bring us home forever.
I leave you with grace. Yes, joy for sorrow. Healing for pain. And most of all, grace to be in the journey as you grieve monumental losses most cannot understand. You are dearly loved by God and given all you need to be right where you are.
I remember my Word of the Year for 2011. Home. It was the year we were preparing to move our young family thousands of miles from every home they had ever known. I knew I would need a way to define what home meant in order to stay the course of the lifelong calling of God upon our lives.
While our current calling is stateside with a ministry which resettles refugees, we remain a thousand or more miles from the other homes we have known. We are a year and a half into the process of our move, and I continue to ask what it really means to build a home for God which supports our family and welcomes others.
As the holidays approach, I think of the refugees we serve who desire to make true, life-giving, and sustainable homes in the U.S. They seek to do this even while they remain displaced and far, far away from many loved ones. And I think of you, similarly, seeking to build a home, ultimately for the living God, in places which are thousands of miles and oceans and cultures away from the homes you once knew so well.
As I ask myself this question, I ask you as well:
“How do we build a home for God wherever we are in this great, wide world?”
The answer is at once simple and yet complex. Building a home for God depends deeply upon finding a resting place of security and love which is ours in God. Yet this work must also be intricate and intentional as we live amidst diverse environments and cultures.
I was recently reading through the book of Exodus, and I found parallels between the Israelites’ construction of the tabernacle during their wilderness years and our construction of similar dwelling places for God in the places and spaces of our own sojourning. As we consider these similarities, we remember to keep holding the tension between this intricate construction of a tabernacle and the assurance of the veil torn in two which yields constant access to the presence of God.
So I offer to you some key elements of what it looks like to build a home for God wherever you are:
We must build or obtain a physical home: For the Israelites, the first element was the construction of the outer curtains and their frames. Before there were inner elements, there were the outer ones. In our journey, we must find a physical place to live wherever we are. When we found our flat in Hungary after much searching, I remember taking a deep breath and thanking God for all of the elements which came together to find the right place for us to live. For many missionaries, this piece is crucial to thrive in the work of our calling. Furthermore, it is important enough to be a selective process. As we pray and give this element to God, we find that he will provide just what we need.
The construction of a home involves skilled artistry: For the Israelites, they needed skilled workers who could find and sew together the right materials in the correct size and color. In addition, other artisans were needed to weave in specific designs. For us, this means that we remember that the unique gifts we have weren’t left in our home countries. We may be good at decorating or language learning or meeting new people, or some other thing. But we must remember that the specific abilities which make us special are needed for important aspects of the homes we will construct. As we manifest the ‘poema’ or poem of God’s workmanship through our lives (Ephesians 2:10), our home begins to take the specific shape of God in us.
We must beprepared to sacrifice,but there is also space to grieve: In the building of the tabernacle, the next step is the construction of the altar upon which sacrifices will be made. Metaphorically, our building of homes for God involves costly, even perpetual, sacrifice on the altar of our lives. In worship to God, we give our love for our families far away, our existing friendships, our comfort, our status, and more to live where we are. However, there is also a spacious courtyard which surrounds this altar, allowing us space to commune with God in our grief and time to surrender these losses to Him.
The oil of readiness must continually burn: The Israelites were called to prepare fine oil for the lamp stands of the tabernacle. Furthermore, Aaron and his sons were to make sure the lamp stands in the holiest place were continuously lit before the Ark of the Covenant. Similarly, our lamps must always be lit. In times of plenty or want, we are to be ever giving the light of the Gospel both to ourselves, as our own soul nourishment, and to all who experience the presence of God through us. Just as the central dwelling place of God in the tabernacle was the ultimate destination of God’s home, so with us we most centrally bear the light of God as we possess a living, vibrant home where we behold Him, in His faithful character and matchless love. We can have no home for Him without His presence sustaining our lives.
We are clothed in priestly garments: The building of the tabernacle included detailed instructions for the garments of the high priest, Aaron. Yahweh declares His people to be a ‘kingdom of priests, a holy nation’ in Exodus 19:6. Peter reiterates this in I Peter 2:9 for all who trust Jesus, saying, “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” Our garments are perfection and can never be taken from us. They were bought with the exquisite, unfathomable price of the life of God’s own Son. As we continually acknowledge this truth, we can minister as living intercessors for the lives of others with both confidence and humility. Whether in intercessory prayer to our Great High Priest, Jesus, or through being in relationship with others as His hands and feet, our homes radiate gorgeous light from the holy of holies of God.
Wherever you are, I pray you feel hope and encouragement to stay the course of building a home for God. You may feel far behind where had you hoped to be in some areas of construction. But rest assured that as you allow your light to shine, you represent to the world our beautiful Immanuel, ‘God with us.’
Somewhere between the 1,100-mile move and the wheels falling off (not literally, but figuratively) of our family’s parenting vehicle, I asked the question:
‘Is it possible for me, as a career missionary, to parent well?’
It seems I crucify myself between two thieves: Fear and Self-Doubt. And there are probably a million other places I can go which defeat me as a parent.
But, fellow cross-cultural parent, I am not writing this for any of us to stay in places of shame or defeat. I believe God has a fresh word for all of us amid the uncharted waters of loving our kids in new spaces, both figurative and literal.
When we were first considering a dramatic ministry change, I called a friend to pray over me and my family. She saw a picture of me trying to protect my kids from what this new call and accompanying relocation could do to them. As I released them, they were in scary places I had no control over, and they were shaken. Yet, my friend’s word of encouragement was that without this ‘shaking up’ they would never establish themselves in their own unique relationships with God.
Whether you are in transition, or simply in the throes of what missionary journeys can do to us as very human parents who still struggle, may I offer this same word to you for your children?
It is easy to chastise ourselves for what the calls to ministry in new places and often countries and always cultures can do to our kids. And while we consider their desires and preferences, sometimes a transition happens despite our children’s deep desire to remain in a specific place.
A little over a year ago, this was my story.
This is not a post about knowing all the answers. I am far from a place of confidence along the parenting journey. We have walked through some excruciating experiences in the past year.
However, I’m choosing to be vulnerable and share some universal parenting truths that are currently keeping me and guarding me as a parent. Perhaps there is some daily bread for you too, in this offering.
There Is Divine Strength to Parent: Missionary or not, it is a hard thing, at times desperately hard, to be a parent. From the moment our children come to us so needy for our love and care, we feel out of our depth to meet those needs. What starts as the newborn phase of physical exhaustion moves rapidly to the deepening emotional and spiritual needs of growing people. This past year has felt like the most exhausting in my fifteen years of parenting, yet the promises of God remain, ready for me to grasp and embrace. These three Biblical promises alone, remind me of the truth of sufficient strength for my every need:
“But those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.” (Isaiah 40:31, NIV)
“He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young.” (Isaiah 40:11, NIV)
“But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (II Corinthians 12:9-10, NIV)
2. Comparison Leads Us to Futile Places: We can learn much from parents further along the road, as well as from our peers. But, when our ‘learning’ becomes construction of standards by which we compare, there is only the wilderness of dry rivers and dust-eating attempts to find nourishment. This is true primarily because there is a whole story that goes with each family. There are places we cannot see — especially those places that are far from social media — that tell a different story than the external. This is not to dampen the joy of those who are experiencing places of genuine flourishing as parents, but there is not a parent on this earth who has never struggled. We are all co-journeyers on this long road home, none of us having it all together.
3. As You Press into the Heart of God, He Will Teach You How to Parent Well: Truly, the best thing we can ever do is to learn the manifest heart of our Abba Father. As we learn His heart, this is the place from which we learn to parent. His love is infinite, always seeking us, pursuing us. We see how he has loved his covenant people though they strayed time and again. This gives us the grace to continue to love our kids when they do not love us back and ultimately when our hearts break in big and little ways. We remember that yes,
“The Lord disciplines those he loves, as a father the son he delights in.” (Proverbs 3:12, NIV)
But, He also is a God whose kindness is intended to lead us to repentance. (Romans 2:4, NIV)
God never stops being our Abba, for we are in Christ Jesus. Therefore, He gives us the strength to know His heart FOR US in our brokenness, mistakes, and sin. Then, we too, can give that same heart to our children.
4. He Who Has Called Us Is Faithful: As I have felt the guilt of following God and therefore causing my children to enter hard places, I have had to remember God’s faithfulness. Just as he called me to be a parent, so he calls me to do this as I am His child, surrendering my life to Him. My oldest son just began high school. It is his ninth school. I would not have chosen this for his story. Yet, God. He is the ultimate Author, and He chose our journey as missionaries to shape our children’s lives too. I think of all of the ways my son has needed to trust God in new things. I trust our journey as his parents has been for his good. And I can trust that for my other two children. No matter their current struggles or strengths, it is God who owns them and the entirety of their stories. The final chapter of completion is His to write. I could desire nothing more than that their journey would lead them to His arms and that we would dance together in that great and Final Day at the Wedding Feast of God.
There is much more that could be said as parenting is incredibly profound. What I offer here is meant to encourage the brokenhearted, the struggling, the doubting, the fearing among us. If my own journey is any indication, that will undoubtedly be you in one or many parenting seasons.
And the truth is that, though we are deeply imperfect, we can parent our children from the strength, hope, and heart of God. This is the promise of Christ in us.
“We now have this light shining in our hearts, but we ourselves are like fragile clay jars containing this great treasure.” II Corinthians 4:7 (NLT)
Recently, I had the chance to hear from a missionary couple. As they shared about their truly beautiful work in a foreign land, instead of rejoicing, I felt things I didn’t want to feel about my own journey and about my own worth as a missionary. Failure. Inadequacy. Shame. Although the thoughts were not of God and His Holy Spirit, they came marching into my heart and mind. This experience gave me much to think about as I continue to heal and make sense of my overseas journey.
Although it’s been more than seven years since we had to leave our home in Budapest, Hungary, I still feel the sting of crushed dreams and the wounding of how I was viewed by others as we left. And I wonder if you, friend, have felt this in your journey overseas, whether current or past.
I love how II Corinthians 4 frames the entire journey of our calling to live this life with a treasure, the light of the risen Christ shining in our hearts. And we have this beautiful reality of Christ in us as clay vessels, which means that the light is in our very selves.
In the truth of our shared humanity, I believe on some level, no matter how ‘successful’ any of us may appear to others as a missionary, we can still feel the same things as we look truth in the face and know we are clay, know we can be broken. Therefore, I know so many of us need the words of healing and promise over our lives which God offers through His Word to us, the ones made of clay.
So, looking at this image of clay vessels, what kinds of things can we see about ourselves?
Simplicity: Jars of clay are used to hold valuable things but are made simply and of the earth. In the beauty of their simple creation, they can do great things, as can we through the hands of the Great Potter.
Fragility: Jars of clay are susceptible to breaking easily. It is part of the nature of their material. There is a specific correlation between this and our own hearts and minds, which break all too easily.
Ability to be put back together: While they are fragile, earthen vessels of clay can be re-bonded, although their appearance is forever changed. Our Great Potter is also the Great Mender of broken things. He especially delights in mending us, His children.
Cracks mean a continual pouring out: The process of putting the pieces back together creates a vessel which will be continuously poured out. Even if it’s from a leak, what is released through us into our environment reveals our vulnerability and is a type of pouring out of the truth of our brokenness. The undeniable nature of how we are redeemed to bear our unique, broken, and mended selves, is both a natural pouring out and an encouragement to all the broken ones.
A never-ending supply for our vessels: Because we are made by the Infinite One, even though there are cracks and leaks in our brokenness, God promises continually to fill us with all we need to be useful in His service.
Light comes through our brokenness: Not only do broken vessels pour out through the cracks, but that’s also where the light breaks through. As we put ourselves before that Light which shines in and overcomes the darkness, the light refracts and streams through in a beautiful design unique to our brokenness.
II Corinthians 4 goes on to say that beyond our brokenness, there is the reality of living in a fallen world and following Jesus amidst it. Though we are pressed, we are not crushed. We possess a resilience in our earthen vessels which cannot be destroyed. Even if the mending of the cracks happens a million times, it will only provide more opportunities to be vessels of pouring out, of light streaming through.
Friend, I pray this truth finds you today in the brokenness of this journey of entering other cultures and knowing great trials, of being pressed in mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. Take heart, our God is the mender and no matter how your journey or my journey has looked, He is putting us back together, healing our brokenness in beautiful ways that only make Him more beautiful in us.
It’s been seven years now since the tragic days when I had to enter the mental ward and later the ICU of a Budapest hospital. It is nearly six years since my second hospitalization. Both were for manic episodes related to bipolar disorder.
Although the tragedy I experienced led to a necessary surrender of our lives as overseas missionaries, I came to understand that my story was far from over. God wove new callings into my life, new ways to touch immigrants and refugees while maintaining the stability of a life in my passport country.
And I want you to know that my story of tragedy to triumph can be yours too. Whether your tragedy is from mental illness, like me, or the debilitating effects of chronic illness, or broken relationships, or any other thing, you can live as an overcomer. Whether your tragedy has led you to leave your overseas dream, as I had to, or you are fighting the battle while still overseas, or your dream of a missionary life has never gotten off of the ground because of your struggle, you can know real, holistic, victory.
I know this can be true for you because God has healed and renewed my strength, giving me a resilience I never knew possible.
In sharing my story, each chapter of my new book makes a perspective shift from something defeating towards something that leads to triumph. I move from weakness to strength, despair to hope, endings to beginnings, exile to homecoming, isolation to intimacy, shame to freedom, fear to love, sorrow to joy, war to peace, suffering to redemption, closed to open and finally, defeat to triumph. While there remains a tension within each of these movements, I have seen real victory in my mind, heart, spirit and soul through shifting my perspective — my skies — toward the truth and love of God.
As I pondered the meaning of the light of that Sunday morning, I was abruptly moved out of ICU and back to the mental ward. I breathed a sigh of relief as we moved past the eight-bed room where I had been before the ICU. I was wheeled to a smaller room with two beds, and I was the only inhabitant. The old, dusty linoleum and white walls began to blunt the hope of that morning. I was beginning to sense a heaviness around me and in me.
Questions haunted me. What next? How will I get through this? How much damage did I cause my family?
The clock ticked and tocked as I tried to endure the day, eagerly anticipating the gift of my husband’s daily visit. Jared brought my favorite cookies, Csoki Zab Falatok, oatmeal cookies with one side covered in chocolate. He brought my favorite meal, too, a pita filled with the fresh goodness of cabbage, cucumbers, a good sign that I wanted to eat again. I had lost my appetite in the sleepless nights of my episode.
Even more welcome than the food was the hope my husband ushered in to my mental wardroom in a heavenly way. After I ate, I lay on my bed and listened to the calm cadence of Jared’s voice as he read from the Psalms. His voice reached my ears as a rich, poetic lyric with a profound melody I could feel in my bones.
As he read, the promises lifted from the page and anchored me in a faith I had cherished for nearly all my forty years of life. Each word felt weighty, beautiful. His voice stilled me as he read from Psalm 84, a passage beloved by my grandparents:
How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts! My soul longs, yes, faints for the courts of the Lord; my heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God. Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, at your altars, O Lord of hosts, my King and my God. Blessed are those who dwell in your house, ever singing your praise! Blessed are those whose strength is in you, in whose heart are the highways to Zion. As they go through the Valley of Baca they make it a place of springs; the early rain also covers it with pools. They go from strength to strength; each one appears before God in Zion. (Ps. 84:1–7 ESV)
When he read of the “highways to Zion” and traveling from “strength to strength,” I felt the tiniest hint of courage to trust for more. Then, I closed my eyes and I rested. As Jared continued to read, I felt sweet repose wrapping around me, and I fell into a deep, dreamless sleep. I slept for only a few minutes, but oh, when I awoke! There was something solid in me. It filled me with emotion—substantive and real. It also gave me its name, sweetly, yet stronger than gold. It said, “I am hope.”
And I knew. I just knew everything would be okay. There was yet a grand plan and purpose for my life. For Jared and me together. The knowledge called to me, told me to cling to this gorgeous, full-bodied thing: hope. It came to me so beautifully in that anything-but-beautiful Hungarian hospital. It came with its defiant nature, a resolute champion of my story. It came in my size and shape, a reminder that the God of hope could be trusted as he had made me and knew me intimately, fully. It stood tall, telling me I could stand tall in the face of the tattered pieces that my life had become.
Before my manic episode, I had so many dreams that I believed I was ready to achieve. In the consuming despair, those dreams had looked like a tiny pile of ash. But here in a Hungarian mental ward, through his beloved Word, God spoke resilience and purifying fire and a victory in hope.
Later in this same chapter, I show the continued movement from despair to hope:
When we struggle with mental illness, or any hardship, we struggle to keep hope alive in our thoughts, and the battle is often close. In ordinary moments of life, my insecurity bubbles up as I worry about the possibility of imminent attack. Then I hear a lie: “You are not enough to live your life.” Or “You don’t deserve love.” Or a thousand other wretched calls that threaten to darken my thinking.
What do we do?
We must cling to our hope. Let it be that warm ember within our heart. Let it meet the promises of God calling it forth. Let the melody of song raise it to new heights. We don’t combat the darkness with our mental fists, punching out the would-be attackers of lying thoughts. No. We fill ourselves with the substance of our hope—Jesus. He is the all-sufficient one, the light in all the darkness, and he cannot be overcome.
As Advent begins, I think about my current cross-cultural work of loving refugees from all over the world. I think about you loving the peoples and cultures of your host country. I think about all of us loving our neighbors wherever we are in the world.
But mostly, I think about Jesus.
He bridged the chasm between heaven and earth. In him, there is every bit of the fullness of what we need to love across cultures.
Here are some of the most beautiful ways Jesus teaches us about Boundless Love:
Love Requires Emptying: For the journey to even begin we must empty ourselves of all of the riches of our own competency, at times our material wealth, and most of all, our desire to control our lives. We must become vulnerable. But here we see the beauty of how Christ models this perfectly. As Philippians 2:1-11 so clearly states, he became as nothing in order to love this world. With supreme grace, He endured the culture shock of the ages. Yet, the great secret is that we find in Him more than an example: we find the once-and-for-all incarnation of God alive in us to live as He did.
Love Looks into the Eyes: Can you imagine even one interaction which Jesus had that wasn’t eye-to-eye? His words were firm in truth and rich in grace, but his eyes sealed all the love of Heaven to each person who beheld him. Whether healing the sick, teaching his disciples, preaching to the masses, or delivering the hard word, He met the eyes of others with the intensity of Immanuel, God with us.
Love Honors Our Shared Humanity: When I think of honoring humanity, I think of the marginal whom Jesus touched. The lepers. The blind. The outcast. The stranger. In each of these situations, he did not patronize. No, He advocated with his very life, aligning himself with the uttermost of humanity, becoming one of us in all the fullness of which that means. Whether a demon-possessed person, a prostitute, or a member of the religious elite who visited in the night, he humanized and equalized each image-bearer. And through this, each one was forever changed.
Love Never Gives Up on Anyone: There were the Pharisees over whose city he wept, longing to carry them tenderly in his arms. There was the bottom rung of society that the whole town had relegated to filth. There were the earthy fisherman, deemed unworthy of status. And there were more. In each impossible case, Jesus said, ‘No more lies of unworthiness! You are valued and loved just as you are, and you are tenderly held by God.’ His was and is that tenacious love that will not let go, wishing none to perish, but ALL to come to the saving knowledge of what his coming was all about.
Love Walks in Stride: At the end of our lives, it will likely not be the spiritual highs or lows which define us. Rather, it will be the everyday living out of our faith. Jesus took the posture of a servant, and that dictated his interactions with everyone. He was the one who learned how to walk in this world by laying down his power, his full right to be worshipped by all. So we walk like him. We lay down things like our privilege to live comfortably, whether materially or within our native culture. We walk among other lands and peoples, showing them that Love walks more than it talks. Love’s scope is universal, and at the proper time it will call all the children of God, of every people, tongue, tribe and nation, Home.
Be encouraged, dear friend. There is no uncomfortable, alien circumstance of being the foreigner where Jesus has not gone before. He was tried in all things and all ways, yet without the sin of ethnocentrism — or any other sin.
And He’s holding out those enveloping arms. He’s saying, ‘Beloved, rest here in Me for a while. I love your heart for the nations, for it sings that ancient song of Love, the one I created over all humankind. Well done, faithful one, I delight in your surrender and sacrifice for My Name. Now, you, rest in my love beloved.’
It’s been six and a half years now since we moved back to the States from living overseas. I know many who read the articles here have been on a similar journey to us, of finding ‘normal’ back in the States.
But is there really, truly a ‘normal’ once we have invested our hearts overseas? Just this past summer I lost my father and almost twenty years ago, my mother. I know a piece of me left this world with each of them, and I will not get it back until I am with them forever.
It is similar when we grieve the ending of our time in another country. We will no longer be living amidst its beauty — mostly its people but also its culture. Whether God calls us to another country or place overseas, or we return to the States, we must acknowledge that a piece of ourselves will remain in that ‘lost home.’ It will be lost to us until we experience full healing and the new life of the new heaven and the new earth.
So what do we do with the pain of this separation? How do we deal with this cutting away, this stripping bare of a place we have so deeply loved? Amidst other things, we learn to enter this pain as we embrace our lives as sojourners.
Because of my mental illness journey, we left long before we were ready. And there was an appalling lack of closure in our relationships. The door closed to returning long-term, and a visit has not even been possible.
But even if we could go back, it wouldn’t be the same. Our beloved flat would no longer be ours. Many of our friends would be gone, and the life missed together could not be returned to us. The reality of that place no longer being our home is an aching thing, a gaping wound, and we have to embrace this truth.
This processing our grief is one which involves much grace given to ourselves, as much grace as is needed. We cry when we need to, we ache inside without stuffing the discomfort of this, we ask the ‘why’ question to our God. And we learn to live with the silence.
We are sojourners who are forever cut off from our first home–Eden. All of humanity either remains hopelessly lost to home or learns to embrace the life of a sojourner headed to our true Home. I love C.S. Lewis’ reflections of this in The Weight of Glory, available in its entirety here. He says:
“The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”
The people we have loved, the place which has been our home, reveals our longing for a perfect world which we will never leave. And if held incorrectly, our longing for this home or any home we have known can shatter our hearts, our very selves. Thus, we must learn to embrace the sojourners that we are.
There isn’t a step-by-step blueprint marked out for us. We each must learn to chart our own way, even as we reach out to other grieving sojourners — spouses, children, brothers and sisters of all kinds. In so doing, we find our way to great visions of life forever sharing in the stories of all the saints. It is the life we missed, redeemed and regained.
This embracing of a sojourning life also paves the way for the life yet before us. For my husband and myself, we have been led to uproot our comfortable, re-settled lives to join a ministry that resettles refugees, asylum seekers, and immigrants. In now choosing this life, we did not settle for a “sort-of overseas experience” since we are working with those from overseas. No. It is the pure gift of our sojourning identity. We have learned to see the imprint of our own journey as strangers in another land, and through it we welcome the strangers to the country in which we now live.
In speaking of this embracing, I know I have not arrived yet at my destination, at the perfect knowing of my forever home. As long as I draw breath here, I never will.
And neither will you. The deep pain of loss is with us until our every tear is wiped away in the arms of the Redeemer of All. Yet we enter those arms bit by bit and step by step, as we release our white knuckling of home here. And in this, we receive the light of perfect love which will overcome the darkness of our grief, every time.
Friend, I pray God breathes hope into your sojourning life right now. I am asking our God of grace to shine his face upon you and comfort you in the pain of loss from any home you have known in this world. I am listening to the quietness of an Eden, a perfection, and its promise to be fully restored. Even more, I hold onto the deeper promise that this perfection will never be lost again.
As I drove around in my very new neighborhood, I recognized a few things. I was a minority ethnically. As I shared with people about where we’d come from, they couldn’t warn me enough about the change in weather we’d experience between Orlando and Chicago. (Many of our neighbors in Florida had called us ‘crazy’ for making such a change.) And I desperately missed ‘normal’.
I know this blog is about living overseas and I’ve lived that life, making a couple of those transitions. It was hard, so hard. And it is hitting tough places again as I come to this place of a thousand mile domestic transition to somewhere I have never lived. The reality is that our surrender to change costs us, and in many ways, it doesn’t get easier no matter where we are. Although, I am not learning a new language and completely new culture, in some ways, this change is harder. My kids are older and hurting in ways they didn’t when they were little. I am not as young or resilient as I was before. The sense of adventure is less, and the hard times of the past can haunt.
But, I am here, showing up afresh in the midst of great upheaval. Because no matter where we are in our lives, we can experience the solidarity of our common humanity and the nature of change. We can reach out and remember we are not alone in feeling how we feel. And together, we can remember the truth that we are deeply, truly, fully loved in all of the ups and downs of tumultuous times.
The following are some of the most basic truths to remember in the midst of change. They are not earth-shattering principles. However, maybe, just maybe if we remember them together we will make that collective jump in a stuck elevator. We can, this time, see the doors open as we all walk into a new world.
Changes come and go but God never changes: As I am right in the middle of fresh change, this means more than ever. Not only am I navigating a major transition, my father–a rock to me–is gravely ill. I am also knee-deep in edits for a coming book. Often these days I struggle for that anchor. And I am led right back to the God who is the same, yesterday, today and forever. There is nothing better for the storm-tossed waters of change, than this anchor, this hope in an unchanging God.
Grace must be abundant: If I were given the chance to re-do my overseas transitions, I would add lots and lots of grace. I realize in a certain sense I have been given another chance to walk a major life overhaul and I know that I know that I know I need grace like the air I breathe. Grace for me, my husband, my precious children. Grace for new colleagues, friends and neighbors who will surely disappoint me in their inability to completely meet my needs. Grace to meet each day and receive its new, sunrise-laden mercies.
Kindness is the great equalizer: Amid other cultures whether in the U.S. or abroad, nothing replaces the simple kindnesses we can give to others. Patience with the logistics of living a new life and the attendant at the window who is helping us complete this never-ending task. A smile for a stranger of another race no matter how awkward it feels. A helping hand for a new neighbor even if we hoped they would be the first to reach out. The kindness of God is ever leading a broken world to repentance, a turning back to his goodness which heals.
Humility is an ever-present guide: Whether we are entering another culture of have been present in our current one for many, many years, we are called to be lifelong learners. There is no substitute for humility. There is no joy-killer more potent than complaint about the way things are different in a new country, city or workplace. God has a plan to make us like himself. This buffing out, uncovering the glory, far outshines the seeming glow of perfection in our most competent, comfortable ways of doing life. And most poignantly, he is ever close to the meek and lowly of heart. We are called to learn his rhythm, his way of navigating the constant change. He knows transition like no other ever has for he experienced it all in his journey from heaven to earth and among the earth.
Learn how to be yourself again: This one can be so hard for me. Right now I feel very, very white in my current context. And I can overthink all of my actions towards those of other ethnicities. I become someone stifled, and completely other. I am experiencing this in a humbling way in a great new friendship. In keeping with all of the above, I must trust an unchanging God who gives abundant grace and calls me to kindness and humility. But, the results of each interaction, and the depth of each relationship, are God’s to hold and not mine. The best I can do is live out my unique personality for his glory. In whichever situation I am in, living out the Gospel as his special beloved child, will make a beautiful way for me to simply be myself.
I hope you don’t hear me saying this is easy, without pain or somehow formulaic. Rather, I hope you hear that you are not alone in your struggles with transition. It is a part of our legacy this side of Eden. A fallen world is not a welcome place to go through many of the changes we experience. But, a good God is ever with us, upholding us and this whole vast universe. In all of the shifting ways of this life, he is calling us home to his unchanging heart for us and his plan to hold us and hold us forever.
It was a balmy Fall day in Budapest, Hungary. Cars whizzed by my kitchen window, up and down the hill in the neighborhood known as Gazdagret. My youngest son, nearly two, napped in the early afternoon.
My phone rang. It was my oldest son’s iskola teacher, Aniko. She told me that they were getting ready to go to their, regular, jégkorcsolyázás, or ice skating, class and my son did not have his necessary winter clothes. My heart skipped a beat as I thought of the fleece-lined pants, coat, hat and gloves sitting in our entry way.
All I could think about was how brave my son had been since starting Hungarian primary school in early September. He spent long days completely immersed in Hungarian while having the courage to try new foods at lunch, play foci, or soccer, after school, learn cursive writing, and do his homework with his teachers after class.
He had been so so brave and now, so must I be brave.
I had no time to change, do make-up or hair. They were leaving. I had to get to his school at the top of the hill and I had to get there now.
I grabbed his ice skating clothes and left our flat, carefully locking the door. Thankfully, my youngest had about two more hours of his nap and couldn’t yet climb out of the crib if he did awake. At the rate I planned to truck up the hill, I’d be gone only a short amount of time.
“Truck up the hill” is a good way to describe what ensued. My husband had our car so driving wasn’t an option. There was a bus that went up the hill, but it wouldn’t come soon enough. I looked at my fluorescent t-shirt, khaki shorts and flip flops and realized I just needed to go for it.
I crossed the street and found the inner walkway which went almost directly to my son’s school. I began to run on this warmish, yet still, fall day. I ran by pedestrians with dark colors, dressed as ‘normal’ people dress in Budapest on fall days, with their coats and scarves.
I ran and I ran. I ignored the looks at my bizarre attire and wild running ways. I had to get my son what he needed, and by golly, I would!
Finally, completely out of breath, I made it to the school. I ran to the entrance, spoke something in broken Hungarian to the security guard and reached the receptionist. Thankfully, his classroom was close. But when I got there, they were gone. Gone! Noooo!
I frantically asked where they were, finding out they were in the bus outside. So I hurriedly began to run again, locating the huge passenger bus leaving the parking lot. Leaving the parking lot!
Having lost all sense at this point, I started to run straight toward the moving bus, waving my arms up and down, up and down like rapid windshield wipers. Thankfully, I got the driver’s attention. I came to the door of the bus and saw my son’s teacher coming down the steps. I handed her the priceless flimsy grocery bag full of clothes and remembered to step aside as the bus continued its intended exit of the parking lot.
The ensuing sigh of relief was both real and comical and inspiring? Yes, that’s exactly how I felt. Inspired. I had just done twenty things or more I had been timid to do before, in my life in Budapest. I’d stuck out like a fluorescent chirping canary all up the streets of Gazadgret and in Csikihegy Iskola. And I’d done it without a second thought, because my son needed me.
I don’t need to tell anyone who has lived overseas, how hard it can be. I, especially, struggled to fit in, or at least appear competent, as a mother. But, on this day, fitting in was the least of my thoughts. My son needed something, and that something was me. He needed me to be brave for him, and, for once, it was the most natural thing to be.
So, I am offering you that same bravery today. You can do this life you are called to. You can be comfortable in your own skin and live the kind of way that uniquely meets the needs of another. You can be like Jesus, and not fit into the crowd, because you are infinitely loved and there is a whole, wide, broken world in need of that same love.
I will never forget the moment I pulled away from the hotel entrance. I had just met new friends of my husband, and now they were mine. Kat* looked so frail, bone-thin, with dark circles under her eyes. Ron* had a champion smile on his face as he secured their belongings in the back of my gold van. They had been able to afford a hotel for a few days, but now it was back to the streets. So we were keeping their duffle bags of things.
My heart sank, hot and heavy, with the weight of their situation. My husband had met them outside of our local library, a couple committed fiercely to each other. Kat’s seizure disorder, hypertension, multiple sclerosis and other health concerns, made it impossible for Ron to leave her alone. Thus, he had given up working. Their veteran’s and disability benefits only took them so far.
It felt heartbreaking and wrong as I left the hotel, amid a torrential downpour. It felt heartbreaking and wrong as I left them to find shelter. I asked myself, ‘how can I go back to my large house with its guest bedroom and leave them on the streets?’
So, I decided that I wouldn’t.
I told my husband how I felt. He knew my heart, but still, it was such a big undertaking to bring in virtual strangers to our house with three young children. (Kat and Ron had raised five children, and loved kids. We never believed they would hurt one of our children.)
We didn’t know what to do.
But when Kat was on the verge of another seizure, which could be lethal as a homeless person, we did what, in that moment, we could not not do. We invited them into our home.
What followed was a major lack of boundaries and nearly a year of sheltering Kat and Ron. It was one of the hardest seasons of our lives, yet it was keeping them off the streets. That had to mean something, right?
It wasn’t only hard because of the inconvenience. It was hard because of others’ responses. They didn’t understand us and questioned what we were doing. In their protectiveness of us, they often thought the worst of Kat and Ron. It was hard, so hard to hear these concerns and still try to do the right thing.
I don’t fault our friends and family for loving us, how could I? But, the desire to care for ‘the poor’ is a good, God-given desire, isn’t it?
So how could obedience to God’s heart bring so much strain and struggle. I thought it would bring joy. And, at first, it did. It did, also, in moments along the way. But, the joy was often overshadowed by worry, doubt and a strong sense of being out of control.
As we sheltered Kat and Ron, I often felt the words of Isaiah 58:7 course through my mind. ‘Bring the homeless, poor into your house…’ as part of acceptable guidelines for a holy ‘fast’ and the kind of worship God wants. And again, I absolutely believe that to be true.
However, after almost a year, we finally had to give a very clear date when they needed to leave our home. It was hard, so hard, because they hadn’t found anywhere else to live. But, we knew we had done what we could.
So again, the questions. ‘How could a year of having them in our home, make seemingly so little difference in their situation?’ And yes, in guilt, I would ask too. ‘How could we let them back onto the streets?’
Yet, there was a measure of peace, because it was okay, and important, to let them go, surrendering them fully to God. My husband and I would often remind ourselves that what we did in caring for them, we ultimately did for the Lord. And we had to trust Him for the results of that caring.
At times I wondered if I operated out of guilt of not doing more when we lived in Hungary. Homeless people lined the parks and downtown streets and it all became so overwhelming. And I felt it. That callousness, of needing to not do anything because each of their stories, their needs, could easily pull me in, in tangled-up, caring-too-much ways.
In the end, I was so humbled in the journey with Kat and Ron. And I have so little to say, but that it is so very messy. Not only caring for the poor or homeless, but knowing how to truly be obedient and follow Jesus in hard places. The only true sin in the journey is to let ourselves become callous and closed to the needs of others. (And, I want to be clear that much spiritual wisdom and discernment is needed in any steps we take.)
My sweet husband helps me so much in this. He is often reaching out, not to every person in need, but to the ones put especially on his heart. Since Kat and Ron, we learned it is too much for our family to house those in need long-term. But, he is often approaching someone in need to ask if he can get them a meal. Just recently, he took a homeless friend to get warmer clothes for the cooler nights coming.
In the end, though the journey with Kat and Ron was really hard, God brought so much life from it. He grew our family, making Kat and Ron a part of it. I will never forget their all-day cooking, on the Thanksgiving Day they were with us. They made a feast for us.
Eventually, they found an apartment, and we were all thrilled. We helped them with the move, gave them some furniture and did what family would do.
But more, we have come to feel for them what family should feel–a deep, abiding, indestructible love.
I don’t know what needs are around you, but I want to encourage you beyond the callousness which can so subtly creep in. If you desire to do something close to God’s heart, no matter the journey, you will find just that, His heart.