What Two Raw Vegans Taught Me About Sharing Jesus

A few months ago, I was talking with a Muslim friend about her beliefs.

“How do you know XYZ is true?” I asked. She stared at me for a moment.

“Because the Quran says it’s true.”

“How do you know the Quran is true?”

“I’m… not allowed to ask that question.”

“Okay. Here’s a totally different question. How do you know anything is true? If someone told you something, how would you verify it?”

“Oh. Well, I would research, and talk to people who knew, and try to find out.”

“Okay. So, would it be okay to do that with your beliefs?” She hesitated. Even though she answered in the negative, this way of looking at things shifted her perspective just slightly.

*

My friend isn’t the only one with religious baggage. I have it, too.

See, I really want to share the gospel without feeling like a used car salesman. But when I try to picture myself doing that, all these experiences come flooding into my mind: times I’ve tried to share, reactions people have had, the intense longing to obey God and to represent Him well, all the cheesy “witnessing instructions” I’ve heard, potential consequences for myself or others…

It’s complicated.

So, let’s just set that all aside for a moment. Let’s change the camera angle and take this from a different perspective.

What if there were something else I wanted to share? Something important and life-changing, but not spiritual? How would I share that thing?

*

I once met a couple who were raw. Like, they had discovered Raw Veganism, and they were like, into it. Yes, they sounded like walking infomercials for a $500 juicer. But they meant what they said. And they weren’t getting a commission.

“Like, ever since finding Raw, we’re like, so healthy, and my skin glows, and I just feel amazing.” This is the type of thing they said every five minutes. They were seriously satisfied customers of the Rawness movement.

So I googled going raw. I wondered how one goes raw, and what it entails. How to cook if you are raw. Where Rawness came from. I wondered if I had to go all in, or if I could try being “rawer” than mac and cheese and egg McMuffins. I began to explore. 

I didn’t convert. But we do eat a lot of salad now.

They say the best salesperson is a satisfied customer. These people were “selling” raw veganism with a capital RV.

Which leads me to ask — are you a satisfied customer of the gospel?

*

I once knew a guy who had a special talent for selling stuff. “D” was such a great salesman that my college psychology professor once brought him to class to do a demonstration about sales psychology.

Seven people in our class bought what he was selling.

Other than being a brilliant salesman, D always does one thing. He always chooses a product he, himself, truly believes in and uses. He is 100% confident in the product. If he wants to sell magical car wax, he scrapes his car and tries out the wax, and keeps a tub of the stuff in his glove compartment, and tests it, and has his friends test it, and in general, makes sure it works in his own life.

In our witnessing journey, is it possible to get into the headspace of a satisfied customer without sounding like a used car salesman? And is there anything we can do to make sure we are satisfied and ready to speak?

I’m not suggesting that we turn sharing our faith into selling a product. So let me bring it back into a spiritual context.

*

I have a friend I’ll call Meg. She was a member of my home church who consistently invited me into her world. I tagged along when she picked up day-old bread from the bakery to give away for free from the church porch. I helped when she cleaned the home of a depressed friend. When, because of extreme circumstances, she adopted her sister’s children, I saw her rearrange her life to love them.

But the very best thing Meg did for me was share her faith in real time. She would share scripture songs she’d written. She would tell me why she’d written them, the story behind them, why she needed God’s word so much, and how it changed things for her. She’d ask me to pray with her for her children, that she would concentrate fully on following Jesus herself, whether or not they chose to follow. She’d tell me, every time I saw her, something God had taught her that week.

Meg talked about Jesus like He sometimes stopped by for a slice of apple pie. Like He’d told her to say hi to me if she saw me. Meg was satisfied in the presence of Christ. And she told me what she saw Him do.

Meg is one of the (many) reasons why I write what really goes on in my heart. Because seeing her walk with Jesus is still a model for me.

Now I am asking God to show me how to share my faith in real time in a place very different from the town where I grew up. Instead of apple pie, there is bitter mint tea and semolina cake. Or, sometimes, when we’re back in India, there are chapattis and chai.

But God is still the same. So maybe authentic witness still begins in the same place: in my experience of God, in relying on Him, depending on Him, learning of Him, following Him, going through stuff with Him, seeing how He works, being changed by Him, enjoying His goodness and grace.

Right in front of people, out loud, in real time.

Lord, teach us how.

 

A version of this article first appeared on Abigail’s newsletter, Whatsoever Thoughts.

Send Help. My Husband Believes in Me.

My husband Joshua has the annoying habit of believing I am capable and strong, like some kind of Wonder Woman, except with a super-modest, incarnational wardrobe instead of a metal corset. He is always encouraging me and pep-talking me and going on about how I can do anything and change the world and blah blah blah. 

A perfect example of this was on our second day in our current country of service. There was a birthday in the family, so we piled into a taxi and went to one of the more interesting markets in our town, with its labyrinthian, Technicolor alleys.

Slatted wooden roofs kept the narrow streets cool, and we walked and walked and walked, past kaftans and brass lanterns, leather shoes and round bean bag chairs, stray cats and fresh juice and French pastries and fake scorpion fossils and hippie-dippie beaded jewelry. Four or five languages, along with the beeps of motorcycle horns and the lazy fluting of snake charmers, filled the air with sound. 

Next, we rode camels on a sidewalk. From atop my camel, whose name was, ironically, Madonna, I looked around. Traffic lurched and sped, then stopped suddenly for a wave of pedestrians. The white lines on the road made feeble suggestions that everyone ignored. How did people cross the street in this country? How did they drive? More importantly, how would I drive?!

I had driven in India. But we’d been in a rural mountain village, and there had been one road. I had never had to leave third gear.

But here we were in a new country, in the city, with all kinds of roads to take, “lanes” to drive in, and speed limits to adjust to, each representing a decision I must make in a fraction of a second. I told Joshua I would never, ever be able to drive in this country, so don’t even ask, because it ain’t happening, honey. Especially not a stick shift, which we would soon acquire.

“You can do it, Abby,” he told me, oozing with faith, hope, and love. I wished Joshua could just get in my head for five seconds and understand my anxiety on a visceral level. How it’s like being stuck in an endless game of whack-a-mole at a pizza joint. The second you conquer one anxiety, another one pops up. Sometimes you just want to go find a cabinet to crawl into where you can close your eyes and hug your knees and stop fighting the little varmints.

“You don’t know what it’s like,” I said.

“I know you can do it,” he said. 

I had been hoping Joshua would offer to drive me around for the rest of my life, like my grandfather had done for my grandma. Or like Richard did for Hyacinth in Keeping Up Appearances. Was that so unreasonable?

I examined Joshua’s face. He was so cute and eager, like a puppy who has just heard the word “walk.” All hopeful eyebrows. I even detected the hint of a little happy whine, as though he was imagining me going out in my cape and conquering the world. 

Later, I got a piece of scratch paper and wrote a couple of prayer requests on it: “1. Find a home in the country that can be the backdrop of the kids’ childhood. 2. Learn to drive here without feeling anxious.” I knew that last one was impossible, but I put the piece of paper in my Bible and told God He was going to have to pull out His Red Sea stick, His pillar of fire, and His spat-upon dirt. I needed a miracle.

*

“We’re moving,” I told my family one afternoon. “God provided a place!” And so we packed up our stuff and moved 45 minutes away from the city center to a house in the countryside.

Our kids were already enrolled in all kinds of activities that city children are involved in. Soccer, gymnastics, etc. Someone had to drive them there. Conveniently, or perhaps conspiratorially, my husband’s schedule would not allow him to be the chauffeur. 

I don’t remember the first time I transported my fragile young children in our smashable metal vehicle. Nor the second. Maybe it’s a traumatic memory buried deep in my amygdala, who knows? What I do know is that over the course of several months, a miracle happened. I got comfortable driving.

At first, I would literally talk to myself. The kids in the backseat would hear their mother say, “Water. We’re all just flowing like water. This intersection is a bend in the river and we’re just all flowing around it. Aaaand we’re flowing. We’re flowing.” 

Then I began to learn. I learned that people don’t drive in the right lane because there’s too much going on there—taxis stopping, motorcycles passing each other, carts peddling sweets. But they don’t move fully to the left lane because then they’d never get back over to make a right turn. 

Left turns are even more interesting. If you want to make a left turn, you have to swing your car as far into oncoming traffic as possible, and then complete your turn when enough other cars have built up in that area, or the oncoming lessens.

There was a road culture in this new place, with rules, just like a normal culture has. It seemed like chaos, but there was a system to it. And I had cracked the code. I felt like a feminine, slightly more mentally stable version of Champollion, the guy who figured out ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. I felt capable.

*

Sometimes Joshua’s faith in me can be tiring. If I’m honest, sometimes I would rather my anxieties be accepted as unchangeable. I would rather be coddled. To be helped down from tall buses, to sit helplessly a fair bit of the time. I would rather not be expected to keep whacking moles every day, rather not be expected to keep putting on my cape and showing up in situations where success will most certainly require miracles. 

But I am finding that what I want today, in this moment, is not the same as what I want for my life. Today I may want to hide in the cabinet. But for my life, I want a Wonder Woman story. I want to see miracles. I want to drive across town, to write, to share Christ, to sing, to pray aloud, to climb mountains, to laugh at the days to come.

I guess God knew that about me when He put Joshua in my life. 

Here’s to many more years of miracles.

How to Sing Hope Over the Wounded Heart of a Child (and a song for you, too)

Here’s how I wanted to start my book about our years in India:  

“We didn’t have to be perfect. But Joshua and I, we were going to be happy. Our house would always smell like pumpkin pie spice, and our windows would cast bright, clean squares on the carpet. Our future children would go on hay rides and tell knock-knock jokes and build forts in cherry trees. Our inner lives would be as stable as the big red barn at the Bar-Double-O ranch.

“Nobody would need Prozac.”

This potential first paragraph — which I didn’t end up using — is light-hearted. But it hints at my hopes and dreams and fears, too. Despite my desire to give my kids that lovely, pumpkin patch-filled, rural American existence, we followed God’s call to India before they were even conceived.

Eleven months into our service, my daughter was born. She weighed just five pounds, a consequence of less-than-ideal medical care and hyperemesis gravidarum. But it didn’t matter. She was so beautiful, so surprisingly alert, like a little bird in my two hands.

Until that moment, India had felt like an adventure. We had gotten ourselves lost in alleys, ridden down mountainsides on the backs of rickety trucks, and had established almost no boundaries in our little apartment so that we knew nearly everyone in our village and could communicate with them.  

Now I had a daughter. The world’s scariness increased considerably. But she was with me 24/7. She couldn’t even move from one place to another without my arms. And that felt safe.

I threw all my creativity and love into parenting, often feeling either she or the mission were getting less of me than necessary, trying to balance things as all mothers do. I had another child and soon realized that my kids were TCKs — and they would always be TCKs. There was no do-over, no alternative universe. We were no longer reading about TCKs as theory; we were living that life. And I saw a lot of value in that life.

Until my kids saw something very bad happen to someone they loved.

Although I won’t share specifics about what they saw, after last week’s pieces on witnessed trauma, I decided to share about the aftermath – in particular because, over the years, I’ve come to realize that I am not alone among young, college-educated Western mothers in my fear of trauma. I once spoke to a Millennial mom who was so afraid of damaging her childrens’ psyches that she felt completely paralyzed when it came to discipline. Other mamas express how worried they are that hardships will damage or ruin their children and that it will be their fault.

I can’t tell you how angry, disappointed, hurt, and full of spiritual doubt I was when I realized that trauma had entered the scene. The amoebic dysentery, the giardia, the worms, these were difficult, frustrating—but, thanks to modern science, there was medicine to take, a specific pill or syrup for each illness. And each illness had a set of diagnostic criteria. In addition to pills, I knew all kinds of helpful home remedies. So I always had options.

But when it came to trauma, I felt I had no options. In fact, the sickness itself wasn’t even clear. That feeling of helplessness almost destroyed me. I wished my life had a section at the back of the book, like in those Encyclopedia Brown mysteries. What was the answer? Was there even an answer? What was I supposed to do now? 

Our sending organization had a policy about families and trauma. Thankfully, they had prepared us well in advance for what we should do. Like robots on autopilot, we called them, and they prayed with us. Cried with us. Flew a counselor out to help evaluate. Sent an older couple to be with us for a couple of weeks. They provided resources. And when I say “resources,” I’m not talking about pamphlets and phone numbers. I’m talking about money and time. Although this particular missionary care procedure was brand new to our small organization, it worked.

When God led us to leave India, our organization gave us jobs in the home office. When we eventually healed, they were more than happy to accept our plan to relaunch to a different location.

Before I write about our personal experience, let me say one thing: if you have any influence on any sending organization, child protection policies are not an extra. They are necessary. And they work. Give your missionaries the time, money, and professional support they need to recover in cases of trauma, addiction, or relationship issues. You may just find yourself with a healed family who is forever loyal to your team – and kids who grow up to fulfill the great commission themselves.

But even with all that help, my organization couldn’t live my life for me. I still had to deal with the aftermath. After the initial shock lessened, I got to work. I found a beautiful, creative therapist my kids could work with. I spent hours learning about trauma, healing, and emotional intelligence and driving my kids to appointments. I worked on my own unnoticed childhood trauma, the secret reason behind my fear of Prozac. 

I made an “angry corner” in our home with a basket filled with playdough, music, bubbles, an emotional ID chart, a notebook, and crayons. And sometimes I used that corner myself. When my daughter had nightmares or was afraid or asked hard questions or wasn’t sure if she could ever cooperate with anyone again, I spoke hope over her. Over and over. In the middle of the night, I made up songs of hope for my little bird, praying she’d one day learn to sing again.

I have been told that trauma is like a heart wound. When we ignore it, it can fester and get infected. But that analogy gives us good news, too. Just like we’ve learned a lot about bacteria and have developed antibiotics, we’ve also learned a lot about how our hearts and minds work. People can and do heal.

It’s not easy, and it’s not fast, and it isn’t low-commitment. But the time and effort you expend on your child, whether he has cancer or low self-esteem from being bullied, whether she has a broken leg or a broken heart, is worth every second.

I promised hope to my kids, but sometimes I wondered if I had been deceived, hoping in Someone who just wasn’t coming to save us. What we don’t often talk about is that parents can receive their own heart wounds when they see those under their care hurting. My journey wasn’t just about my little ones. It was about me. About my relationship with God and what I believe about the world. Now, on the other side of this event – even though I still live in a world full of risk, illness, and heart wounds – I can say that hope didn’t disappoint me. 

Although these experiences will always be a part of us and our children, we learned to hope together. And some days, when I wonder, when I grieve afresh, I hear them singing to Jesus in the night, and I know that it’s going to be okay.

The following is a song I wrote about this situation. May it bring you hope and healing, whatever you are going through.

Morning Comes Again

by Abigail Follows

The day she was born, she didn’t cry
Just looked at you with wondering eyes
You held her like a baby bird,
Close to your heart as a seed to the earth
When she lost her song, she looked to you
So you sang her yours to get her through.

Morning comes again
The night and the darkness end.
There is singing and soaring beyond the bend
When morning comes again.


She learned in the dark to sing of the light
And every morning proved your song right
She found her voice and made it strong,
Left trembling branches to wake the dawn
When you miss her there, beneath your wing


Just listen for her singing

Morning come again
Let night and darkness end.
There is singing and soaring beyond the bend
When morning comes again.

When you shiver against the cold
When the world scorns your hope
When you forget the words
Listen for hers.


Morning comes again
The night and the darkness end.
There is singing and soaring beyond the bend
When morning comes again.

When morning comes again.

The Myth of the Ideal Childhood

via Bing Image Creator

God created me with a strong aesthetic sense. That’s probably why the book We Help Mommy appeals to me. This idyllic Little Golden Book features illustrations by Eloise Wilkin, who was so intent on capturing the cute idealness of childhood that she worked 20 years on sculpting the perfect baby doll. (The chubby, lifelike doll was finally produced by Vogue in 1960.)

Wilkin’s own aesthetic sense oozes from the pages of We Help Mommy. Each scene is perfect. There are quilts on every bed. The children have smoochable little angel faces and are shown being kind and helpful to their mother in the midst of their minimalist-but-heirloom-quality homes.

I remember reading this book to my toddlers, cuddled under blankets beside the tandour. I would imagine (and hope) that this book would inspire them to domestic greatness. Then they would run off to play and make mischief. Once, when it got very quiet, I went to find them, following a trail of my daughter’s perfect curls to where she sat holding a pair of scissors. Another time, I left the kitchen to answer the phone. While I was gone, she added an entire cup of baking soda to the cornbread.

“I help Mommy!” Indeed.

Somehow, the aesthetic of all the Little Golden Books dug itself deep into my subconscious, even to my soul. My expectations were affected. I expected that good mommies have quiet, clean children who help them like adorable, sinless little boy Jesuses. 

So when my kids made (and ate) mud burritos or brought me a family of baby mice they found wriggling in a corner or tried to baptize each other in a trash-filled ditch, I wondered. Was I doing this wrong? I looked around my house at their toys scattered across the cement floor. It didn’t quite look like the neat, tidy pile of blocks atop a quaint carpet that Wilkin had drawn. 

Okay, so they’re normal kids, with tangles to comb and timeouts to take. No problem. “Life doesn’t have to be perfect to be beautiful,” reads a modified quote by Annette Funicello, which I have memorized like a Bible verse. But what about all the external things that threatened our beautiful lives? Things more serious than normal childhood escapades?

I worried about our house, our neighborhood, the hospital with its dark corridors. This crazy job choice of ours. Trauma. Oh, trauma. To me, trauma was worse than death. Even death can be beautiful, noble. But trauma? I knew all about trauma. I watched Sybil in my Psych 101 class in college. The message was clear: trauma creates psychopaths. It damages people forever. It’s irreversible. It is the enemy of a beautiful childhood. 

And my children needed a beautiful childhood. It was a compulsion. Maybe it’s because I’m a bit of an artist, so nothing is off limits. Creating art is what I was made to do, I feel it in my bones. Or maybe it’s a tendency to neurotic perfectionism. Who knows?

I would sometimes take life “snapshots,” thinking up my own Little Golden Books. But the titles were unpalatable, unmarketable. “We Get Dysentery” and “We Are Spat Upon by Prejudiced Neighbors” were not the aesthetic I was going for.

Recently, a woman visited our family who is a specialist in trauma and gospel movements. She travels around the world teaching about the path to recovery after trauma and how to support people going through it. 

I interrogated this nice lady with some serious questions. One was this: With all the instability and potential for trauma overseas, should people with kids go to the field as missionaries at all? 

“First of all, that’s a very Western question,” she said. “Let me show you a map.” She later sent me this link, which shows the areas of the world currently experiencing some sort of crisis or disaster. Notably, there are only a handful of places without any crises going on currently. One of them is North America.

I am torn. Between the quiet, idyllic life the Western world says my children need in order to stay out of prison and go to heaven. The sanitized grocery stores, the high-pile carpets, the obedient, expensively groomed pets. And the actual world that I live in, where thousands of children experience a childhood which is not at all like the one I associate with the word “normal.” 

That’s not to say I’m careless about protecting my children. We left our first host country because it wasn’t a good environment for them anymore. I’ve made my children’s psychological, emotional, and physical well-being my personal mission. My husband sacrifices some of his time so that I can do things I need to do. I sacrifice much of my time so my kids can be happy and stable. Families in the field need to do this. We have to help each other be okay. 

But the point is, we can be okay. 

Each of us has ideas about what “normal” or “ideal” childhood should look like, based on our upbringing and background. We should always include love, protection, care, togetherness, and community in our list of essentials for raising kids overseas. But the reality is, we all get colds and flus. Sometimes kids break bones. 

In the same way, disasters, traumas, and crises happen. They happen everywhere. We can think of a trauma as a “heart wound” – a wound that needs tending, otherwise it will get infected – a wound that can heal with the right treatment. Even though we don’t see illustrations of health problems or heart wounds in 1950’s children’s books, and even though we’ve seen heart wounds make people bitter or unstable in the past, it doesn’t mean that we have to make the world around us into a bubble of perfection in order to support the spiritual and emotional growth and development of our kids. 

Beauty in the Mud

Our current host country recently experienced a natural disaster. My family and I drove four hours to help a team providing needed relief.

We stepped out of the car to the smell of sewage — the village toilets drained into the parking area. My kids ran over to play with a group of local kids, blind to the sanitary pads and diapers dotting the hillside. I made a mental note to deworm. Soon.

After a couple of days there, it was time to go home. My son and I walked to our car. I watched him jump from rock to rock across the effluent-covered road. Albendazol and bleach, I told myself. Albendazol and bleach. Then I heard a delighted cry.

“Oh, Mommy, look!” I looked. My son perched on a rock, staring at something. There in the mud sat a mother hen, feathers ruffled, head raised in pride.

“Chicks!” my son said. “They’re hiding under their mom!” Sure enough, a large brood of chicks peeked out from under their mother’s protective wings. I looked up the rocky hillside to the people in that community, standing beside their young ones, covered in dust, waving goodbye, calling out thanks for the help.

“Why is she in the mud, Mommy?” I looked back down at the mother hen, then at my sweet child.

“That’s just where she finds herself, son,” I said. “She didn’t choose where she lives. But look how she cares for her children, anyway.”

There is value in living overseas, not just for those we try to serve, but for us, for our children. There is much to be learned in this huge world of ours, lessons about helping others, understanding and valuing people of other cultures, dealing with emergencies, setting boundaries and loving each other well, whether we live in the heart of Africa or the quietest, safest American suburb. 

Living in this broken world causes messes that don’t always make for quaint children’s book illustrations. But the art we’re trying to create is not still life. It’s improv. It’s performance art. It’s less like a colored pencil drawing of a cat on a rocking chair, and more like a dance – it must be entered, moved within, expressed over time. The beauty we aim for, the beauty of grace, love, creative problem-solving, and attentiveness to our families and our host cultures, takes time to bloom. 

Don’t miss that moving beauty because you’re waiting for the perfect snapshot, the magic scene that will guarantee your kids will be okay. Give yourself to your family, trust in your God as you do ministry, and let Him be the choreographer, the painter, and ultimately, the artist.

A Major Breakthrough in My Witnessing Journey

I once shared the gospel with a group of burly Arab camel tour guides whose camel bit me on the leg. (It’s okay. You can laugh.)

I also shared with my next-door neighbor over bitter mint tea and semolina cake.

But I’ve been finding it increasingly challenging to share with certain people over the years, and that bothers me. I’ve been asking the Lord to reveal my heart to me. Why is this so hard? 

Of course, it’s partially hard because, in the countries where I’ve served as a missionary, people could face serious consequences for following Jesus. But I have sensed there is something else going on. 

Finally, I think I know what it is:

I have believed that in order to share my faith with someone, I have to be either a stranger or a best friend. And while most of the world is a stranger to me, there are many people in that awkward area between acquaintance and best friend. That gray area is where my trouble lies.

But it is also the place of the most potential.

BFF?

My family has a VHS tape of me receiving gifts on my seventh birthday. Everyone is chuckling in the background as I screech with equal enthusiasm over the Barbie dolls and the new socks. But I remember being very concerned that each individual person felt that their gift was loved.

I still kinda feel that way, except it’s not about Barbies and socks anymore. Now it’s about friendship. How can I make sure everyone feels equally loved and cherished and special? 

The truth is, I can’t, because I’m not infinite.

I have a best friend I only get to talk to every few months. Maybe you have one, too. Life gets busy, but you always know you can pick up where you left off. And each time, it feels like just yesterday since you got together.

But for many of the women I’ve been privileged to know in other countries, people who talk every few months are hardly friends. This is a cultural expectation that has been difficult for me to manage. 

I have friends on the field who wonder why, when we talk like best friends about the deepest issues of our hearts, I am not in their kitchen every other afternoon, not sending WhatsApp messages every morning with identical inquiries about family and health.

Not only do I feel sad to disappoint people, I also really, really don’t want someone to feel like I’ve pulled a bait-and-switch on them. Like I only come over every few weeks, peddle some religion, and leave, without really seeing and appreciating them.

So I visit as much as I can, waiting for the time when I’ve built up this relationship enough to have the right to share Jesus. When I’ve finally “earned the right to be heard.” I’m ever waiting to become BFFs, while simultaneously feeling exhausted because I know I’m unable to meet the requirements.

This has always been an issue, but it’s only affected my gospel sharing in the last two years. Why is that?

A little over two years ago, a close friend of mine met a nice lady at a park. The lady told my friend, “I’d really love to mentor you. We could get together for coffee once a week, and I could help you work through what’s most important to you.” Although this is unusual for an American conversation, my friend is gifted in building community and investing in other humans, so she assumed she had met a kindred spirit. She jumped at this opportunity.

After two meetings, she got a pitch for an investment scheme. When she declined, the “mentorship” ended.

I think my friend’s experience may have traumatized me more than her. It rattles around my mind some nights. I never want someone I’m sharing the gospel with to feel like they’ve just spent time with a used car salesman or a multi-level marketer or anything else that doesn’t feel real. 

Maybe that’s a good thing. But in my quest to be genuine, I have slipped into black-and-white thinking: I must either be a stranger or a best friend to have the right to share my faith.

But what if I’m overly focused on relationship building? What if, sometimes, it’s enough to build rapport?

Rapport or Relationship?

“Rapport is defined as a friendly, harmonious relationship. There’s mutual agreement, understanding, and empathy that makes the communication flow well. Once you have built good rapport, there is an implicit assumption of positive intent between both people that makes your interactions easier.” So says Betterup.

In my observation, rapport is built through things like sincerely listening, showing genuine empathy, and cultivating a positive, adaptable attitude.

Thinking about rapport makes me wonder if I’m doing things backward. What if I’m trying to develop relationships with people and rapport with Jesus? Is it possible that I’m spending all this time trying to juggle relationships I don’t have time to nurture while I maintain a cordial acquaintance with Christ?

And what would happen if I switched that around? What if I focused on building my relationship with Jesus and my rapport with people?

Jesus, when He chose to be temporarily limited during His time on this earth, had a very close mentoring relationship with three people (Peter, James, and John) who went with him almost everywhere. Then He had 12 people he mentored on a daily basis. There were 70 others He worked with for a season. And then there were the crowds which He taught and healed. 

But the one He stayed up all night to talk to was His Father. And the whole point of His ministry, among the three, the 12, the 70, and the crowds, was to make His Father known.

I may not have what it takes to be everyone’s best friend or to rescue the world from loneliness. But I know Someone infinite, someone who does have what it takes. He is a far better friend than I. Like springs of living water, He is never exhausted. 

And I know how to introduce friends who haven’t met each other yet.

 

A version of this article first appeared on Whatsoever Thoughts.

Boy Without a Name

I can’t share many photos from our time in India because of security concerns, but the photo above, like the boy it features, is anonymous. I call it “Boy Without a Name.”

Everyone called this boy Chotu, which means “Shorty” in Hindi. It is a non-name given to child servants in north India.

This child was on his way back from depositing a load of trash in the river when he heard the sound of children’s voices. He wandered off the narrow path through town and stood on the very edge of the stage where a group of school children were giving a cultural heritage performance.

I could almost hear his thoughts when I snapped this photo: “What’s it like to go to school?”

These moments of connection and empathy happened often during my first few years in India. But at some point I began to experience something I only recently discovered has a name: compassion fatigue. WebMD describes it like this: “Compassion fatigue is a term that describes the physical, emotional, and psychological impact of helping others — often through experiences of stress or trauma.” The symptoms are similar to burnout. You get tired, numb, apathetic. You can’t concentrate. You withdraw.

In short? You lose hope.

I got overwhelmed when I saw how bad things really were. When I saw people betray their own. When I saw money meant to help the poor go in the pockets of the rich. When I saw people choose destruction over change.

Perhaps you can relate. Maybe you’re hearing an appeal for disaster relief, or counseling the hundredth addict in your practice, and you think, “Why keep trying? What I’m doing makes no difference.”

What do we do about that?

There are many wonderful tips out there, even entire classes, about how to recover from compassion fatigue. Things like taking breaks, having a support system, and practicing good self-care are all really important. And I tried them all.

But beyond these things, I needed a reason to hope.

And, ironically, I found one in the same place I lost it.

Another Chotu

Our landlords had a child servant they called Chotu, too. Although we call him by his real name in real life, I called him Chotu in my book to protect his privacy, so I’ll do the same here. 

Several years after the above photo was taken, Joshua visited Chotu in his hometown, far away from our project site. He was there to attend Chotu’s wedding.

There was very little food in Chotu’s house. It was sweltering hot, and since there was no electricity, the family found a boy with a big leaf to fan Joshua so he wouldn’t pass out. 

Things outside the house were busy. The village was trying to scrimp together money to help with wedding costs.

The next day was the wedding. But it was not a happy feast. It was a strained contractual arrangement between Chotu’s family and the family of a 14-year-old girl.

Nobody rode an elephant, shook their shoulders, or ate chicken biryani at this wedding. Nobody ate anything. The whole village walked home in the dark, hungry and unsure whether they’d done the right thing. 

These are two real families, with real pressures and real love for their children. People who notice the stars on dark nights and swim in the creek when it’s hot out and have favorite colors and favorite foods and bullies and best friends.

Because of Joshua’s visit, I learned that Chotu and his compatriots were sent to our area of India as much to keep them alive as to earn money for the family. If he hadn’t visited, we wouldn’t have known that Chotu’s 14-year-old bride was given in marriage not to uphold a tradition, but to protect her from potential rape. These parents didn’t choose between school and money or between an innocent childhood and child marriage. They chose between known hopelessness and unknown opportunity.

The lyrics from a song I heard in high school still resonate with me: “The bravest thing I have is hope.”1

Hope is not just a cute word that belongs in a cross stitch. It takes real courage to hope. Hope is the key left in the door, the crack in the cave wall, the way out of darkness. Hope is the intersection of two things: true risk and the potential for rescue.

I knew the risks all around me. But what would be my reason to choose hope? 

Finding a Reason

While Joshua was staying with Chotu’s family, he had the chance to visit with Chotu’s big brother and sister-in-law. Somehow, while Chotu was away, they had heard about Jesus and believed in Him. Around the same time we met Chotu, unbeknownst to us, his brother was praying for a Bible. 

When Chotu went back home, we sent him with an audio Bible he could listen to on his phone. So when he saw his brother again after so many years, Chotu had the answer to his brother’s prayers in his back pocket.

“Nobody smiled the whole time,” Joshua told me when he returned from the wedding. “There just wasn’t anything to smile about. But it was so striking, because Chotu’s brother and sister-in-law did smile. They seemed genuinely peaceful in the middle of all that.”

This couple knew that choosing the hope Christ offered them would not change their external circumstances. They knew that the brightness of His promises would make the darkness seem all the darker by comparison. And they chose hope anyway.

This is why I became a missionary. To give people hope. But what about me? Will I do the hard heart work of holding onto hope myself? When I am surrounded by pain and impossibility, will I hold onto His promises? Will I believe them?

It takes courage for us to believe in what could be, precisely because it could also not be. It takes courage to invest in fallible human beings who might not be okay, even if we spend our lives giving them the chance to be.

But hope takes courage for those in poverty, too. When those in power are corrupt, or when those in authority over you have not wanted the best for you, or when you see that humans can be creatively evil, it’s only natural to lose hope. Even to lose the desire to hope. 

“Hope disappoints,” I can almost hear someone say. They, like Chotu’s parents, must choose between known hopelessness and unknown opportunity.

Yet this “unknown opportunity,” this “unknown God” in a land of millions of deities, this hope, does not disappoint. The Bible tells me so. What a promise! What good news!

I cannot heal all the pain of the world. But I have something to offer. It’s something hard to hold, hard to give, hard to receive… but so worth the effort. To hold it, I must fight jadedness and compassion fatigue. To give it, I must trust God when He says, “That thing you’re giving out? It won’t disappoint them.”

No matter how many kids the world calls “Chotu,” God knows them each by name. And He offers them – and me – a hope that does not disappoint.

  1. From Daylight by braveSaintSaturn ↩︎

Celebrating TCK Mamas

 

“Your new baby is beautiful,” I said to my sister last week. “And I can’t believe you named her after me!”

“Wait,” my sister said. “Your name’s not Abigail.”

“Yeah. But my pen name is.”

“Oh. I forgot.”

“Yeah, but your subconscious knew. So maybe your subconscious named the baby after me.”

“I mean, I didn’t not name her after you.”

“I’ll take it.”

We’ve been on home assignment this summer, and I cherished every moment I got with my sister and her two little ones. Kay is almost two, and Abigail is just a few weeks old, and they’re both cuter than a baby bear holding a Precious Moments greeting card.

One afternoon I was giving Abigail a bottle when Kay high-stepped over and planted a sweet toddler kiss on her sister’s forehead. Something about that scene brought me back a decade.

It was like a flashback to the days when I had “littles.” I could feel what it was like back then. How incredibly long the days are. How it feels like someone is always getting the short end of the stick. How you wonder if you’re doing this mothering thing right. How you want to do ministry, but your kids are also your ministry, and you wonder if other people have figured out the secret to balancing that, and if someone is ever going to tell it to you.

I also remembered how beautiful and precious that season is, how fleeting, how full of wonder. The call to selfless love, the leaning on Jesus because you know you can’t do it alone. The way you read about the women bringing their children to Jesus to bless them and cry when they’re sent away… and again when He calls them to come because He’s not too busy or too important to bless children.

As I was pondering all this, my own children, now 9 and 12, walked in the room. How big they looked! How far they’ve come! Then I realized that I’ve come a long way, too.

See, I’ve spent a lot of my motherhood wishing I were doing better. Sometimes that’s been healthy, like when I reevaluate my priorities and commit to growing with God’s help. Sometimes it’s been less healthy, like when I wallow in guilt that I’m not the “perfect mom.”

But in that moment, as I looked at my kids, it dawned on me that God has been answering my prayers all along. He’s given me the strength to do “all things” through Him. He’s helped me to do things I never could have dreamed of. Things that make other people use words like “brave” to describe me, even though “brave” is hardly how I’d describe myself.

So, today I’m calling for an impromptu celebration of TCK motherhood. It’s a chance to thank God for the blessing of being a missionary and a mom to TCKs. It may not be our habit as moms to think of what we’ve done well, but today, let’s take a moment to recognize that in Christ, each of us is a “Proverbs 31” woman in our own unique way.

Here is a list of things I’m celebrating today. I hope you’ll create your own list. And I hope you can pass this idea on to other TCK moms in your life. Let’s celebrate each other!

Abigail’s List of Amazing TCK Mom Things

  • I birthed two babies in India.
  • I’ve traveled with children on more than 100 flights.
  • I nursed 2 infants in 6 countries. 
  • My son survived a habit of putting everything in his mouth in India. Some items on the menu included medicine without a child safety cap, a burrito made of mud and a leaf, and a single sheep dropping that looked exactly like a milk dud. (We went through a lot of albendazole.)
  • I homeschooled our daughter’s first grade year in three states, on two continents. (I followed the advice of a friend and stuck to the 3 R’s that year!)
  • I’ve been homeschooling for 6 years, and my kids have actually learned something.
  • I’ve made up a gajillion stories about two little mice named Ferdinand and Gertrude who have surprisingly similar struggles as my children, to help them process changes and cultural differences.
  • I helped my children through a traumatic leaving from our first mission field, along with the processing of a heap of emotions afterwards.
  • I sometimes chose to take pauses from my own interests and desires to invest in my kids.
  • …I also found ways to feed my interests and desires, so I could be a well-rounded person.
  • My kids like salad.
  • My kids sometimes remember whether to eat salad with a fork or their hands, depending on what country we are in.
  • I keep our home running and feeling homey when my husband is busy with ministry, and I trust my husband to care for and bond with our kids when it’s my turn for outside ministry.
  • Sometimes my kids get along…
  • …and when they feel bad for not getting along, they talk to Jesus about it.
  • I’ve read a lot of books aloud… and been tickled by my kids nearly every time for falling asleep while reading. 
  • I was privileged to be the one to share the gospel with my daughter, and to see her really understand and accept it on a grown-up level.
  • I’ve driven hundreds of miles supporting my children’s integration into our current host culture.
  • My kids have a relationship with their grandparents that I helped foster.
  • I’ve created Home and Stability out of unconventional materials in unconventional places. 

Celebrate your wins, fellow Proverbs 31 Mama. They are hard-won, especially when you are raising TCKs.

What’s something on your list? Let us know in the comments!

Life is Like . . . Fireflies?

 

I walk down the quiet halls of Grandma and Grandpa Follows’ house, lingering to examine the photos lining the walls. In one, a young Grandpa Follows stands by his new bride, smiling a smile I’ve seen many times. It’s the kind of smile that fills the whole face, especially the eyes. It’s the kind of smile that makes you wish “contagious” and “lights up the room” were not cliches. 

It’s my husband Joshua’s smile. 

This photo could be a photo of our wedding, except the bride is not me, and there is no color in the photo, and the groom is wearing a dark suit coat instead of Joshua’s white mandarin suit.

I stand there a long time, just looking. Then a strange feeling comes over me. Though the travel here took us 18 hours and felt like forever, suddenly life itself seems short as a breath. As short as an EKG printout, with its swift ups and downs. As short as the song the family was singing when Grandpa Follows breathed his last. As short as the phone call when we last spoke with him.

Grandma comes up behind me, walking softly and carefully. She smiles at the photo. I look at her, then turn back for a moment to look at her 70-years-ago face. In the picture, she seems on the verge of a laugh. Now all her smiles are sad smiles.

I’ve been thinking about life and death lately. This happens when friends and family die. It also happens when everything’s fine, if you’re introverted and contemplative and find poignancy in nearly everything. 

Sometimes life just feels like… fireflies.

Fireflies are an experience. Especially when it is very dark. Their lights go on and off, but in between flickers, they move. So, if you are watching them in a corn field, you can never quite see one. They go on and off, all around, in your periphery, and you never know where there will be a tiny dot of light or just more darkness.

A firefly brings such wonder and light, for just a moment. And then it is gone. And though you look, you can’t find it again. When I watch fireflies, I wonder if my little temporary light will make a difference to someone. If it will fill them with a little bit of wonder or joy.  And I wonder if that’s enough.

Grandpa Follows was a hard-working farmer. He and his shy wife could often be found with visitors from their rural community and beyond who loved their dahlia flowers and their pleasant company. Grandpa loved to joke with people. He had a special talent for whistling. And he was generous.

Grandpa was generous with his time, his money, his talent. And he was generous with his faith. He let his faith change him as much as possible during his few short years on this earth. He wasn’t perfect. But he was the kind of person who sent positive ripples into the ocean of people around him. His life–let’s be specific, his love and good choices–affect me now even more than the great smile he passed down to my husband.

He modeled diligence. Even as I write this, my husband, son, and father-in-law are out in the rain helping on Grandma’s farm. He modeled honesty.  Well enough that my daughter comes to me at night if she thinks of anything she has said that wasn’t true.

I remember our last visit with Grandpa. We were just about to send one of Joshua’s brothers to the airport. Someone struck up a song– a song we’ve sung many times before as a family:

You will see your Lord a-comin’
You will see your Lord a-comin’ 
You will see your Lord a-comin’
In a few more days.

I was standing in the back by Grandpa when I got that strange feeling that life is very, very short. I looked at him, and he looked at me. Then he put an arm around me. We stood there, not singing, fighting tears.

He passed away this spring, on Joshua’s and my wedding anniversary. 


I’m an ideas kind of person. I collect ideas like some people collect souvenir fridge magnets. I have more ideas than I could possibly do in one lifetime, too many to fit at one time on the canvas of my mind. 

I could start a computer club where local kids could learn English through apps. I could help my neighbor start an Etsy business making dolls wearing ethnic apparel from our host country. I could buy quail, because they’re quieter than chickens. I could garden—there could be trellises involved! I could quilt. I could start a book club in our city and maybe we’d talk about spiritual things. I could host afternoon teas at my house. I could host an exercise class like my friend Barb, even though in Zumba I’m always the one in the back who is three moves behind. I could redecorate, paint a giant mural in the living room, take my daughter to volunteer at the animal shelter twice a week, read more books, write more books, cook from scratch, and can peaches.

I wish I could bring these things to be, these lovely ideas. The problem is, all my plans and dreams are like water in a mason jar, and I have to pour from that jar through a funnel with a very tiny nozzle. For, although I can delegate and inspire others and catalyze great things, the truth is, I’m always only one person. And all I have is one minute at a time to live. 

As Joshua often says, “What will you say no to so you can say yes to this?” 

It’s good he says this.

Anyway, today I’m asking myself what really matters. I’m taking out each idea and holding it up to the light, asking myself:

Will this matter when my grandchildren and great-grandchildren look at photos of me on the wall and notice how much they look like me? Will it matter 90 years from now, when one of my relatives has that strange feeling that 90 years is very short? 

Then I ask myself another question. Is this idea worthy to pursue in light of eternity? Is my little light going to show the way for someone else to walk one step closer to Jesus? How about my family? Are they seeing my light?

I might think I can multitask, online or in real life, but studies show it just doesn’t work that way. So I sit down with my dreams, my to do list, my prayer list, my personal connections list. And I choose what to say yes to. And, more importantly, I choose what to say no to.

I’m thankful, though, that I don’t have to have all the answers. I know Grandpa Follows didn’t. In reality, though he wasn’t an overly emotional person, he cried every time we left for the mission field, thinking this would probably be the last time we’d see each other. Every furlough for almost 15 years. Despite his cheerful, joking, energetic personality, he had a strong sense of his own mortality. And, just like me, he couldn’t know when he would die.

But he never asked us to stay or to come home early. Even when it was quiet in the house and nobody came to visit because it was raining. He knew there were people out there who didn’t know Jesus, so he wiped his tears and sent us away. Then he turned and served his community with all his heart, did all his hand found to do with all his might. And God used his life, like one stroke in a giant painting, to work beauty and good in this world.

I don’t know all the answers. But I know Someone who does. So I’ll keep dreaming and narrowing down and doing, over and over. As long as there is darkness, you’ll find me running here and there, wherever He calls, blinking my little light. Maybe I’ll see you out there, and together we can transform the darkest night into something that reminds the world there is a God who loves them.

Dear Missionary, Are You Afraid of Success?

I have a friend who lives in darkness. Her giant house has armored doors. There are snarly dogs in her courtyard and a muscular, protective husband in her home office. She never leaves home unless covered from head to toe, and even then, only to visit her brothers.

Yet, when she opens the door and pulls me inside her home, where dark, high windows let in only a hint of sunlight, she lights up the darkness. She is like a treasure hidden in a field.

Oh, how I want to share Jesus with my friend.

Once, my husband and I were presenting about our mission to one of our supporting churches. I told them about this very special woman and posed a rhetorical question: “Who is going to tell her about Jesus?” To my surprise, someone in the congregation answered.

“You,” he said.

I swallowed a big lump in my throat, because I knew he was right. Other than a miraculous, supernatural visit, my voice was the only one she would ever hear speak the name of “Isa Al Massih.” If she hears about Jesus, it will likely be from my mouth, between sips of bittersweet mint tea with afternoon Arabic cartoons playing in the background.

It’s exciting.

And, if I’m honest, it’s terrifying.

Fear of Success

A few weeks ago, I was reading a book about listening well and asking great questions. I learned about a concept in psychology called self-sabotage. Apparently, some people are afraid of success. These people either consciously or unconsciously do things to hinder their progress toward a goal.

Here’s a made-up example. Let’s say a woman really wants to be a professional photographer, but deep down, she’s afraid of success. So she finishes projects late, gives up on submitting to contests at the last minute, and doesn’t bring her camera with her to events she knows will give her opportunities to take awesome photos.

Why? Maybe she’s deeply shy and fears that being a great photographer will get her unwanted attention. Or maybe she’s afraid a creative career will upset family or friends. She might even think she’s not worthy of doing something she loves.

Being a photographer is this woman’s dream, goal, and aim. But her subconscious fear of success is sabotaging her goal.

And she is self-sabotaging without even noticing it.

The book I was reading described all kinds of great things to help pinpoint and heal self-sabotage. But after the first paragraph, I stopped processing what I was reading.

Oh, Lord, I prayed as my eyes moved mechanically across the page. I am sabotaging my soul-winning. Heaven, help me.

A Conversation with Myself

That evening, I did a little research and a little soul-searching. Since I was learning to ask better questions, I opened up my journal and asked myself some.

Q: Why are you overseas?
A: Because I want to share my faith with others so they can have a saving, personal relationship with Jesus.

Q: What would success in this goal look like to you?
A:
People hearing and believing the gospel and beginning a journey of walking in faith and obedience to Christ.

Q: What comes up for you when you imagine that really happening?
A: A surprising amount of fear.

Q: What is frightening about your image of success?
A:
Did I mention the big, muscular husbands?

Q: Right. So, personal injury or death, got it. But that’s often a fear for you. What else?
A: I’m not the only one who is going to suffer. I probably won’t suffer at all, because things here are fairly stable. But it will be hard for my friends if they believe in Jesus.

Q: What might it be like for them if they believe?
A: They might be further restricted and isolated physically, or hurt socially, and that’s not what I want for them because they already have so little socially. There could even be physical consequences.

Q: What about that is difficult?
A: Well, maybe it shouldn’t be, because Jesus should be worth it. The apostle Paul counts all as loss compared with knowing Christ. Jesus is worth it to me, and my struggles and questions and pain and grief are so much lighter when He carries them. Jesus actually gives my trials meaning, because I believe God works all things together for my good. But I don’t want to be the cause of someone else having pain.

Q: Anything else?
A: I guess what I’ve given up seems like so little when I compare it to what they might have to give up. I wonder if it’s really fair to ask people to be willing to give up everything for Jesus. I think I’m willing, but I haven’t been faced with losing a marriage, a community, a child, or my life. Deciding to follow Jesus is a life-altering decision for a woman in this community.

Q: So, who gets to decide who follows Jesus?
A: Well, I believe humans have a right to decide that for themselves. So, I guess I’m called to share God’s story with people. They have to decide how they will respond.

Q: How does it feel, realizing that?
A: It’s not my place to decide for the woman in the big house whether she receives access to information about God. But I think it’s always been my “role” in life to prevent pain in people. I really hate it when people have pain – even though I know that sometimes pain is the only path to healing, like with a broken bone.

Q: So, your part is sharing. Her part is deciding. What do you need to do to fulfill your role?
A: I totally need to stop procrastinating, but my fearful heart keeps finding stuff to do, like rearranging furniture or overwatering the succulents. What should I do?!

Q: What do you think? What should you do?
A: Maybe I need to seriously pray against fear. Daily. And every time I visit her. And maybe I can ask my supporters to pray, too. And maybe other people who feel like I do would like to pray, too. We could pray for each other.

A Conversation with God

The other day, I was washing dishes and having a chat with God. Only this time the Holy Spirit was asking the questions.

So, what’s really your goal, Abby? What would success look like in this village? At first, my brain would only let me imagine something realistic. Two, maybe three women, hiding in corners in their homes, secretly reading the Word.

Too small. Think bigger.

So I tried.

“Two families? And maybe they could actually meet together?” I replied, thinking this felt scandalously unrealistic.

Too small. Think bigger.

“Um,” I thought. “I guess… a whole bunch of families… no, every family would hear, and believe, and follow Jesus. And the whole community would turn to the Lord, and they would determine to reach everyone around them with the gospel, and other villages would turn to You and they would find peace and community and truth and meaning and purpose.”

And?

“And they would reach their whole country, and the Arabic-speaking world.”

And?

“And now my heart is racing and I’m imagining legal consequences and social structure destabilization, and how much more suited I am to take up knitting than to change the world. Lord, I have so little faith!” 

I thought again about self-sabotage, about the times I’ve seen it in my life. The times I could have moved a conversation to spiritual topics but chose being agreeable at all costs. The times I had an opportunity to share Jesus but shared something easier instead, like a proverb or an Old Testament story. The times I could have visited someone in their home but didn’t—not because I legitimately needed some time off, but because, deep down, I was afraid of success.

“God, release me from fear. Heal my spiritual myopia!”

Planting Seeds

I’ve sometimes reassured myself that being nice is the only seed I really need to plant, even though God said it’s His Word–Jesus, the Word incarnate–which will not return to Him empty (Isaiah 55:11). Could it be that God is sending the rain, but I am not sowing the seeds, because I can’t control or predict the harvest?

It feels vulnerable to say these things. Yet I’ve spoken with a number of gospel seed sowers who want to share more, and like me, sometimes wonder why it feels so hard. I’m convinced that sharing faith involves deep heart work, whether you live in a hut under siege in a developing country or in a quiet, North American neighborhood where the most exciting thing that happens each year is the Fourth of July parade.

Whether we want to share with someone abroad or with someone in our own family, we need Jesus to help us conquer our fears and learn to share naturally and authentically.

And we need His help to leave the results in His hands. 

Interested in walking and talking together more about these things? I’ll be writing on the theme of authentic witnessing throughout the month of August over at my newsletter, Whatsoever Thoughts. I hope to see you there!

He also said, ‘This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how.’” (Mark 4:26-27)

Seeking Buddha, Finding Jesus (resources for ministering to Buddhist and Hindu people)

​There are so many amazing books about how God is moving among Muslims and Animists. And there are scores of useful gospel training seminars by former missionaries to these religious groups. But what about Hinduism and Buddhism?

When I worked with high-caste Hindu people in India, I often wished I had access to more true stories about Hindu background believers. I wanted to hear from honest, soul-baring Hindus about what it’s like to consider following Jesus. What they’re up against, why it’s difficult. What really draws them. How they handle the clash between the expectations of culture and Christ. I had read textbook definitions of Hinduism, but things looked so different on the ground. I often wished there was a Seeking Krishna, Finding Jesus. Or even a Peace Child or Bruchko set in the high-rise apartments of New Delhi.

Slowly, over the years, I’ve collected the names of a few insightful books. Eventually, I wrote my own. My adventures were far from those of Bruce Olsen, but I shared from my heart. I shared about what it’s like to wrestle yourself every day so that Jesus can lead you. I shared about the beautiful people I knew in India, why following Jesus there is difficult, and what we tried to do about that. And I shared about how our real God is meeting real people right where they are.

There’s so much more to reaching people in a Hindu context, but I hope my stories and experiences can begin a conversation about it.

A New Story to Tell

Last year, I was approached by a family friend who serves as a missionary in Cambodia. Her father is Cambodian, and he narrowly survived the Khmer Rouge genocide as a child. Sovath survived because, as he says, “I called on a God I did not know.” Eventually, he came to know that God when he saw a vision of Jesus in a refugee camp.

Sovath and his family asked me to write his story.

To say I felt honored and excited is an understatement.

In between interviews, I went online to find resources to help me understand Buddhism. I found precious few. Again, I wished I could read Seeking Buddha, Finding Jesus, or a Peace Child set in the rice paddies of Vietnam or the traffic-jungles of cities in Laos.

That’s when I realized just how important Sovath’s story is.

As Sovath began to unravel exactly why it was so hard to follow Jesus as the member of a Buddhist family, and why he chose to follow anyway, I was surprised. His explanations were not what I had predicted. My experience with Hinduism didn’t translate to Buddhism. It reminded me that picking up your cross to follow Jesus will look different from person to person – and from culture to culture.

I’m about to give you a list of books and resources I’ve sourced from A Life Overseas readers, colleagues, and from my own shelves.

But before I do that, I wanted to ask for help in bringing another book into the world.

It’s tentatively titled Great Unsearchable Things, and I’m praying for the grace and insight to make it a work of art that will help readers understand their Buddhist background brothers and sisters better.

How You Can Help

Firstly, I’ve set up a fundraiser to help cover the cost of researching, editing, and marketing Sovath’s book. You can read a little more about his story on the GoFundMe page. You can also read the first chapter of the book at this link.

Secondly, I would like to put together a team of beta readers who would be willing to read the first draft to offer insight and suggestions. I’m hoping to be ready for that step in Spring, 2024. If you’re interested, send me a note at abigailfollows AT gmail.com.

Thirdly, I want to encourage those of you who think you might want to write your missions story–or the story of a friend. If you were looking for a sign, I hope this article is it! We need to read these stories to help us understand and empathize with each other. We need people who have asked tough questions and listened hard to the answers to share what they’ve learned. Your story just might help someone lead a person to Jesus. So below the book lists, you’ll find a handful of resources for aspiring writers that will help you on your way.

On to the lists.

For Working with Hindus:

When learning about ministry among Hindus, it’s important to know that India’s relationship with Christianity is complex. Spend ten minutes looking at discussions on Quora or articles in Indian news outlets about Christianity in India, and you’ll quickly understand some of the major issues. As a result, many books, websites, and ministries are searching for the best, most authentic, least damaging way to reach Hindus with the gospel. Think of these resources as adding to the conversation, rather than as definitive “how to’s.” 

Living Water and Indian Bowl, by Swami Dayanand Bharati

The Camphor Flame, by C. J. Fuller

LearningIndia.in — Very practical, though not currently updated.

MARG Network 

Mimosa, by Amy Carmichael 

Behind the Beautiful Forevers, by Katherine Boo – Not a Christian nor a missions book, but Boo’s artful reportage will help you understand the social infrastructure of India like nothing else I’ve read.

William Carey Publishing’s list of Hindu missions books

I Am a Hindu, Why Should I Consider Becoming a Christian? (Article)

Following Jesus in the Hindu Context, by H. L. Richard

From Hinduism to Christ, by Raj Vimuri

From Hinduism to Christianity, Embracing the Journey, by Anjli Sharma

Hidden Song of the Himalayas, by Abigail Follows

For Working with Buddhists:

Change the Map Prayer Network

Seeking the Unseen, Edited by Paul H. De Neui

Leaving Buddha by Tenzin Lahkpa & Eugene Bach

God Spoke Tibetan: The Epic Story of the Men Who Gave the Bible to Tibet by Allan Maberly

From Buddha to Jesus by Steve Cioccolanti

William Carey Publishing’s list of Buddhist missions books

For Aspiring Intercultural Biographers and Memoirists:

Follow the Story: How to Write Successful Nonfiction

Storycraft, by Jack Hart

Telling True Stories, edited by Kramer and Call

Scrivener, a computer app/word processor/organizer that separates content by chapters and scenes. Great for writing out of order and keeping track of everything.

Our own Alyson Rockhold and Elizabeth Trotter are both book coaches and love helping aspiring writers figure out how to tell their stories.

Abby Emmons is one of MANY YouTubers who talk about writing. She focuses on fiction, but I found her analyses and insights to be applicable to story-based nonfiction as well.

 

Photo by Joshua Follows.

Why Missionaries Doubt (and what to do about it)

Alex and Anna

I’ll never forget meeting Alex* and Anna.* For me, it was like meeting Beyoncé or Michael Jordan. With admittedly fewer cameras and less bling.

Alex and Anna had served in Asia for ten years. My husband and I were in our early twenties. These people had been missionaries for nearly half our lives!

We’d read their beautiful, well-written articles. I’d fallen in love with the people of their host country. I’d prayed with Alex and Anna from afar, rejoicing when various friends were delivered from the fear of evil spirits.

Now we were actually meeting them.

We had so many questions—after all, we were about to launch as missionaries ourselves. But Alex and Anna seemed very… tired. Something was wrong, though I didn’t know what. 

Just a few years later, Alex and Anna left Christianity. In fact, they both chose to follow a new-age religion. One even became a practitioner.

How in the world had that happened?

I don’t know their whole story with doubt and faith. But today I wanted to share my story and shed a little light on a hidden topic: the doubts and questions missionaries battle every day.

Why Do Missionaries Doubt?

When I was a freshman in college, my mom converted to a non-Christian religion. This sent me on a quest to figure out what I believed and why. Specifically, I questioned the divinity of Christ. It was an intense search, mentally and emotionally exhausting. Hour after hour I searched the scriptures, praying for truth.

Finally, I accepted Jesus afresh as my personal Savior. Later, my husband and I launched as missionaries to India, determined to share our love of Jesus with the world.

Good story, right?

I had no idea that going to the mission field would bring up more questions than answers.

Now I’ve been in the field for over a decade myself. And I haven’t done any scientific studies to know for sure, but I have a theory that missionaries are more susceptible to doubt than many realize. There are four things I believe contribute to this.

1. Studying Worldview

Did you ever take a public speaking or debate class, and afterwards couldn’t listen to a sermon without analyzing it? Or how about an editing class, which left you unable to read a book without wielding a mental red pen? The learning we do in our professions changes how we see the world.

Missionaries are not immune to this. If we take classes in worldview, we learn to see worldview everywhere. We can’t watch movies without analyzing values, players, and tools. We become like amateur anthropologists.

All this investigation can make our beliefs, ideas, and worldviews seem like just another way of explaining life. As I delved deeper into my Indian friends’ worldview, I felt disoriented. If their beliefs stemmed from a human attempt to understand the universe, couldn’t mine, too?

2. Trauma

The next factor is trauma. You may find yourself wondering why God allowed XYZ to happen, to you, to your kids, or to your host people. Or why the peace that passes understanding is suspiciously absent from your life right now. You start wondering, even subconsciously, if you were right about God, after all.

I’ll never forget my moments of deepest doubt in India, kneeling on a hard mat on the ground, the smell of sandalwood incense floating in the window. Like Job, I could see only the mat in front of me—not the spiritual battle, nor even the entire physical battle. Like Job, I asked God why, and I waited a long time in the silence.

3. Asking Others to Question

At the same time we missionaries are analyzing worldviews and going through hard things, we are actively asking others to question what they believe is true–particularly church planters. We seek to do this in a life-giving way, and we do it because we believe Jesus is worth any price we may have to pay. That is the deep conviction that sends you to the field, right?

The thing is, when we ask others to question, we get in the habit of questioning. I faced an intense amount of cognitive dissonance in India. Was I asking others to question when I was not willing to do the same? Was I holding my own beliefs up to the same level of scrutiny I expected from others?

4. Spiritual Warfare

In the Biblical worldview, we do not wrestle against flesh and blood (Ephesians 6:12). Unseen forces desire to make us ineffective and faithless.

This became very clear to me when some of my doubts didn’t behave normally. I would find satisfactory or even great answers, but I still couldn’t shake residual unsettled feelings. I soon realized I needed heavenly help to move forward.

What To Do With Doubt

One of my colleagues lost a number of friends in a genocide. When she asked for prayer in her newsletter, a friend told her not to talk about such upsetting things.

After that, it was hard for my friend to know whom to ask for help. 

Missionaries face joys, traumas, and questions that might be hard for others to understand. Wondering if anyone will be able to relate can make it hard to ask for help.

Beyond that, missionaries often feel the pressure of being role models—like Alex and Anna, they realize they are their church’s Beyoncé or Michael Jordan. When I faced doubts, I would often remind myself that I had a responsibility to cast a vision for the unreached, to inspire people to sacrificial obedience of Christ. Why burden supporters with fleeting doubts? Shame, fear, and even the desire to be responsible can leave us feeling like there’s no one to turn to.

But I have come to believe that doubting on the field doesn’t have to be an emergency. Instead, it can be an amazing opportunity.

If you’re facing doubts or questions right now, I have three suggestions: confront your doubts, doubt with faith, and engage in spiritual warfare.

1. Confront Your Doubts

It takes time. It takes mental strain. It takes emotional space. And sometimes, we just don’t have those things.

At first, I tried to ignore my doubts. Because dinner needed made and babies needed burping, plus there were the unreached to reach. But ignoring problems sometimes makes them bigger. It magnifies them in our subconscious until they totally take over.

I couldn’t stay in that place of cognitive dissonance for long. So, I printed out a bunch of articles to read, and I prayed exhausting prayers. I knelt on the hard mat. I stopped avoiding it by surfing YouTube and got distracted by my Bible instead of my phone.

I believed that God should be able to handle my questions and that any faith worth believing should stand up to scrutiny. I put that belief to the test.

And God answered me.

2. Doubt with Faith

The first time you doubt, if you’re like me, you’ll panic and think all is lost. But I’ve learned to bring my doubts to Jesus quickly. And I’ve come to expect Him to answer. It’s not always instant, and that’s okay. I’m learning to surrender my questions because over time I’ve seen He always comes through. I’ve learned to expect that God will respond to me.

Along that same line, it’s also okay to take breaks during your search. When we believe we’ll hear from God eventually, we can laugh with our families, take vacations, and enjoy good books, even as we seek His face for answers. We can rest despite the discomfort of not knowing, because we count on Hebrews 11:6–that God is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him.

3. Engage in Spiritual Warfare

Though we wrestle with unseen forces, the hosts of heaven desire to see us victorious. I’ve learned various “tools” over the years: fasting; praying through the armor of God in Ephesians 6; rejecting bitterness by declaring forgiveness in prayer; doing prayer walks in my home; actively rejecting and resisting temptation; confession and repentance from sin; and singing hymns and spiritual songs. I’m also blessed to have a great prayer team back home and fellow workers who are men and women of prayer.

If you need an understanding prayer partner/team or new tools, I encourage you to do whatever it takes to fill those needs. 

For followers of Jesus, and especially gospel seed sowers, confronting doubts and engaging in personal spiritual warfare are critical elements of self-care. Just like our physical and mental health need nurturing and protection, so our need for assurances from God shouldn’t be ignored for too long. We might be tempted to delay asking our own questions in order to minister to others, but God desires to minister to us just as passionately as He desires to save the unreached.

Doubt Transformed

We give our personal testimonies all the time. I was lost, now I’m found. I was blind, now I see. We keep them succinct, which is important—but we can sometimes get the idea that our story with God is a one-time event, something linear and fixed.

But we are branches connected to a vine. Growing grapes takes time and skill. It requires the exact right amount of growth and pruning. The healthiest vines are in constant contact with a skilled vinedresser.

The truth is, our story with God lasts our lifetime. I love the lyrics to a popular Christian song: “If it’s not good, then He’s not done with it yet!” Since no one is good, not one, God is not done with me yet, either.

What a privilege that I can bring my doubts to Jesus, and He can transform them, one by one, into pillars of faith. 

What about you? How do you deal with doubt? Do you have a story of God meeting you in your doubts and renewing your faith?

 

*Names changed to protect privacy.

10 Things I Love About Being a Missionary

My Dream Life

I used to want to raise a tribe of kids on a big farm. (I know nothing about farming, but hear me out.) I thought I’d can peaches, attend church ice cream socials, and push my kids on tire swings. I thought life would be slow and sturdy as oaks growing by duck ponds.

Instead, I have made our home in cities during protests and dusty villages during droughts. I’ve lived in places with weird ice cream flavors and no churches, places where canning jars are unheard of and peaches are expensive. Instead of growing like sturdy oaks, my children grow like palm trees, flexible and accustomed to extreme and unpredictable weather. 

The funny thing is, even though it’s nothing like I dreamed or planned, I kind of like this life that God picked out for me.

Amy Medina once posed this question: “Missionaries are supposed to suffer… So Am I Allowed to Buy an Air Conditioner?” Lately I’ve been asking myself a similar question. Missionaries are supposed to suffer… So am I allowed to enjoy being a missionary? Can I like it? Love it?

Today I want to celebrate my crazy, unique, difficult, rewarding job. The missionary calling opens up so many opportunities for both blessings and challenges. Here are ten things I love about this life. 

Even Though…

10. Even though it can be hard when things change so frequently, I find the constant need to problem-solve mentally stimulating. My brain loves variety and learning new things, and in this job, I get both.

9. Even though it takes a lot of time to fundraise, I like leading our prayer support team, helping them to understand our host culture and to know how to pray for them. I love that I get to help others be a part of what we’re doing.

8. Even though parenting overseas sometimes feels as complex as sending someone to the moon, complete with the scary-looking math diagrams, I love that my kids get to grow up in a multicultural environment and learn a language other than English. I also cherish being the main one to shepherd them as they deal with various TCK challenges.

7. Even though flying in airplanes scares me, and we have to fly a lot, I love that plane tickets to neighboring countries are relatively cheap, so we can visit some of the places we read about in books.

6. Even though I’m an introvert, I like that this job pushes me outside my safe bubble. I love that I’ve met so many amazing people. I love that I am consistently required to look outside myself and understand those whose experiences and thoughts are different from mine.

5. Even though I always miss someone, I love that being highly mobile reminds me to cherish the moments I have with people. Interactions are all the more precious, and I am often reminded that it’s important to be mindful and present.

4. Even though being together a lot as a couple can drive us crazy sometimes, it’s also one of my favorite things about this job. Sometimes it feels like my husband and I have squeezed 30 years of marriage into 16, just by sheer hours spent together. Most of the time, that’s a good thing. Practice makes better!

3. Even though it’s hard when people come and go, I love getting to meet other missionaries. None of us is perfect, but so many of those we meet are trying their best to grow in loving and obeying Jesus, and they inspire me.

2. Even though I sometimes have to do things that I don’t feel like doing, I love seeing what God does with my bumbling, imperfect, hesitant obedience. I like knowing that He has a plan, and that I might actually get to play a tiny little part in that plan. I sometimes feel like I’m a smudge in a giant masterpiece He’s painting, and that thought both inspires me and helps me not take myself too seriously.

And the #1 Reason I Love Being a Missionary…

One of my favorite Bible passages is Isaiah 53, where the prophet Isaiah tells of the suffering of the coming Messiah. Verse 11 has been especially meaningful to me over the years. Here it is in the New Living Translation:

“When he sees all that is accomplished by his anguish, he will be satisfied. And because of his experience, my righteous servant will make it possible for many to be counted righteous, for he will bear all their sins.”

Perhaps, if Jesus were to make a list like mine, He would say, “Even though I had to be betrayed, to suffer physical and mental anguish, to bear the sin of the world and be separated from my Father, even though I was betrayed by my friend, even though I had to be tortured on a cross and die, I love that I get to spend eternity with the human beings I created. I love that I get to redeem people. I love that I get to transform pain into blessings, and ashes into beauty. I love doing miracles. I love loving people. I love changing the world.”

When Jesus sees the result of his suffering, He is satisfied. He loves what He does. He loves to take a vacant lot and fill it with treasure, a desert and fill it with flowers, a person like me and fill her with faith.

So, the number one reason why I love my job? Because I love watching what Jesus does with brokenness, and hardship, and difficulty, and doubt. I love being a coworker with Christ. Yes, some days it’s crazy hard. But being a part of something bigger than myself is an experience I wouldn’t trade–not even for canned peaches and ice cream.