You Are Going to Hate It

You know that country you’ve been dreaming about? The one that you have been praying over and researching? You’ve been talking about it endlessly these days, building a team who will support you when you move there. You are ready to uproot your family, your job, your entire life to pour your soul into the place you love so much.

Call me a party pooper, but today I’m here to tell you something important: Shortly after you finally arrive in that country, you are going to hate it.

It might take a few weeks, or maybe a few months, but at some point it’s going to happen: You will wonder why on earth you thought you would love this country. You will question why you enthusiastically raised support for so many months to go live in a place that you actually despise.

It might happen when you come to the realization that this doesn’t feel like a fun adventure anymore. The public transportation is claustrophobic and smelly. You are tired of eating baked potatoes and scrambled eggs and yet the idea of facing the grocery store again makes you want to cry. You feel like a frizzy, unattractive mess. The pollution is triggering your little girl’s asthma or your four-year-old has gotten malaria twice in two months.

It might be because the people you meet are cold and suspicious of you. Or in your face and critical. Or just in your face, all the time, peeking through your windows. You feel like a curiosity on display, or you feel like an ignored, cast aside monstrosity. You wonder why you ever thought you could love these people who apparently abhor you. 

Or maybe you find yourself spending all day every day learning the difference between a past perfect continuous verb and an intransitive verb. Your body hurts from sitting all day and your brain hurts from thinking all day, yet you know you still have 16 months of this same horrible task ahead of you. And you wonder why you uprooted your happy, productive, meaningful life so that you could spend all of your time looking at meaningless squiggles on a piece of paper. 

Maybe you’ll hate it because your team leader seems distant or your co-workers are too busy for you, and you feel very alone. Maybe it will be because you are a woman in a country that demeans women, and you’ve never felt so insignificant. Maybe it will be because you didn’t anticipate how this new country would change your family dynamics, and it’s so hard and so painful to try to figure out new ways of helping your children find joy.

There are a million reasons why you could hate it. But one thing is for certain: At some point, it will happen.

Yeah, I know, just call me a dream smasher. I can hear you imploring, Do you have a point? Do you even want me to move overseas? 

Absolutely. Stay with me. I’m going somewhere with this.

Here’s my point: I want you to know what you are getting yourself into. When you get to the point of hating your country and your life and your calling, you need to know that this doesn’t mean there is something wrong with you. Or with your country. Or with your calling.

There are three things you need to know:

Make your calling sure. Do this now, before you go overseas. Your calling to this country needs to be more than just a really strong feeling. It needs to come from hours of prayer, consultation with your pastor, soul-searching with godly friends. You need to know the reasons for why God is sending you to this country: What is the need? How are you uniquely qualified to fill that need? Write it down. Plaster it to your refrigerator. You will want to remind yourself of these reasons when you find yourself hating life. 

Make your faith sure. Do this now, before you go overseas. You must fully understand your worldview. Read a book on how to study the Bible on your own. Read a book on the theology of suffering. Read a book on the theology of poverty. Wrestle with the big questions before you go, so that when they hit you in the face and seek to destroy you, you will already be prepared. 

Perseverance is the whole battle. Not half the battle, not 90% of the battle. The entire battle. Do not give up. Do not give up. Let me tell you something: There will always be a reason to leave. Always. If you want to leave, you will find a reason, and it will be a good reason that will sound honorable to your supporters. 

I know, this is tricky. You are not going to live in this country forever; the right time to leave will come at some point, sooner or later. But make sure your call to leave has just as many prayer-filled, logical reasons as your call was to go. Because if not, then maybe you just need to persevere. Learn one more verb. Meet one more person. Go out your front door, one more time.

And here’s the part where I give you hope. You will not hate this country forever. I promise. Cross my heart; hope to die. If you stick this out and keep your heart open, a lasting love for your host country will sneak up on you. It might take 6 months, or a year, or even five years, but you will not hate it forever. There may be some things about it that you always dislike, of course, but your capacity to love this country will stretch and expand and deepen the longer you are there. One day, it will dawn on you that you don’t hate it, quite so much. And one morning, you will wake up and realize that you love this country. And you will never want to leave. 

Let’s Not Put Too Much Hope in 2021

I can picture the house I was in on New Year’s Eve 1999, but I don’t remember who it belonged to. Which is odd, actually, that I was willing to go to a stranger’s house on the night when we thought the world might end. I guess you do those kinds of wild and crazy things when you’re 23 years old.

We sat around the living room with our Doritos and sparkling cider (yep, wild and crazy) and watched the ball drop, and when 2000 officially jumped into existence, the lights didn’t go off, the aliens didn’t invade, and there was no mayhem in the streets. I think we all were a little disappointed.

In the same way that everyone waited for the birth of 2000 with fascinated dread, we’re all holding our breath that 2021 will be the opposite. When the clock strikes midnight, we wait in hopeful expectation that all of the disappointment, chaos, and isolation of 2020 will fade away, ushering in a year of prosperity, peace, and happiness. We deserve it, right? Surely the dumpster fire that was 2020 won’t continue for another year?

The chasing of new things seems to be ingrained in human nature. There’s something that dazzles about newness. The shiny new truck, the next new iPhone, even the latest vacuum cleaner. I have a young teenager who, for his birthday, predictably asks for the new version of his favorite video game every single year. We tease him relentlessly about this, since there isn’t much difference between the old and the new. But he remains resolute: He always wants the new one. 

We find hope in new things. There’s a thrill in seeing that new package, enveloped in its shrinkwrap, perfect and pristine. There’s an intoxication with the new relationship, dancing on the clouds, devoid of disappointment. Maybe this time will be different. Maybe this time the happiness will last.

We were created to love new things. Common grace gives them to us rhythmically–in the dependable sunrise, in the coming of spring, and every January 1st. Hope rises in the clear morning air, in the budding cherry trees, and in the clock that ticks past midnight.

But when the clock struck midnight, Cinderella found herself dressed in rags, holding some mice and a pumpkin. 

Let us not forget that the thrill of these new things are only meant to be symbols, shadows, road signs that point us to our true source of hope. They should not be where our hope lies. 

The problem with misplaced hope is that it is sure to disappoint us. After a few months, the new video game gets boring. The car gets scratches on the door and spilled soda on the seat. The clear spring air dissolves into the muggy heat of summer. And 2021 might not usher in the utopia we are longing for. It could, actually, be worse than 2020. 

If anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! 

And there lies our hope, firm and steadfast. In Christ, I am a new person. In spite of my circumstances, in spite of whatever kind of year 2021 turns out to be, my inner being is being transformed into something new. The world may fall apart around me, but it will not consume me.

Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope: Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail.

They are new every morning.

As a New Creation, I have a New Day to look forward to, which will be better than any new gift, any new morning, any new year. When the New Day dawns, it will never end. On that day, I will never be disappointed again.

But it might not happen in 2021. And until then, we wait with eyes turned upward. 

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed awayHe who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!”  

Scripture references: II Cor. 5:17, Lamentations 3, Revelation 21 

This Pandemic Can Help Us to Identify With the World’s Poor

I was always blown away by the number of funerals. During the years our househelper in Tanzania worked for us, I lost count of how many times she asked for time off to attend a funeral for a family member. She was my age, but during those years she lost her mother. Her mother-in-law. A sister. More than one uncle. Several cousins. What was the cause? I would always ask. Malaria, typhoid, or many times, no one knew why. Disease and death were far too common. 

Experts will probably be asking it for years: Why are some developing countries seemingly less impacted from COVID-19 than more developed countries? Is it because they just are testing less? Have a younger population, get more sunlight, have more built up immunity? I’m certain some of those factors are true, but I also wonder if a central reason is because the effects of this pandemic haven’t changed much about regular life for the poor in developing countries. What feels shocking and abnormal to us is simply the way they have always lived. 

I’m listing some of these ways below, and I want to be clear that this is not about inducing guilt in those of us from affluent nations. I’m not trying to minimize the grief and loss so many of us have experienced this year. Instead, my purpose is to help us have greater compassion and empathy with the world’s poor. This pandemic can help us to identify with them in ways we had never been able to before. 

What’s new for us is normal for them. Here’s how:

Normalcy of deadly diseases

Yes, COVID-19 is a new virus, but for many in the world, they are already dealing with much worse. Statistics tell us that one and a half million people worldwide have died from COVID. Yet that same number of people die every year from tuberculosis, most of them from India, other parts of Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa. Like COVID, tuberculosis is also an airborne virus. It may not be a pandemic, but it is most certainly an epidemic.  

In addition, malaria kills over 400,000 people each year, the vast majority in sub-Saharan Africa (and some in South East Asia). Most of them are young children. There’s also HIV, dengue, typhoid, and rotavirus. For many people in the world, having deadly viruses lurk around every corner, in every cough, in households and churches, is normal life. 

Familiarity with death

Statistics tell us that in Central African Republic, the life expectancy is 53 years. In Nigeria, it’s 54 years. In Afghanistan, it’s 64 years. In contrast, the life expectancy of someone in the United States is 78, the United Kingdom is 81, and Australia is 83. 

Of course, every death is tragic, even in affluent countries. But perhaps my generation has never before been surrounded by such a high death rate right in our own communities. Let us remember that this is real life for many of the world’s poor. 

Stretched healthcare systems

For every 1000 people, there are 2.3 doctors in Canada, 2.6 doctors in the United States, and 4.2 in Germany. In contrast, there are .05 doctors for every 1000 people in Chad, .62 in Myanmar, and .16 in Zambia. Crowded hospitals? Doctors who can’t give their full attention to patients? Many in the world were already used to this. 

Unpredictable government restrictions

Shuttered churches with unrealistic rules, mask mandates, forced closure of small businesses–all these are things that many of us would never have thought possible in our countries. On top of that, the regulations keep changing on a daily basis, feeling like whiplash as we struggle to keep up. As those of us from liberty-loving countries are dealing with a clamp down on our cherished freedoms, let us remember those from countries where this has always been their reality. Many of them are our brothers and sisters in Christ. 

Substandard education options 

Many Americans are faced with a difficult choice: Allow their children to receive a substandard education online, or pay for private school. For many in the world, this has always been their dilemma. Government run schools are often overcrowded and very poorly resourced, and anyone who wants their child to get a decent education must make huge financial sacrifices. Homeschooling isn’t an option for working parents in poverty, and in some places, it’s even illegal. They either pay dearly or their kids don’t get educated. 

For them, this is not temporary.

We are all tired of the upheaval, aren’t we? We are weary of the chaos, the disappointments that keep piling up, the changing regulations. Everything feels uncertain, unpredictable, and that’s scary. We want life to return to normal. Yet for those living in war zones, in refugee camps, under unstable governments, that kind of turmoil is their normal. 

Hopefully, one day, the worst of this pandemic will be over. This virus will no longer be a huge threat, the death rate will even out, the healthcare system will recover, public schools will open, and restrictions will ease. But for the world’s poor, they will continue to live life in pandemic-type conditions, as they always have. Will we think of them? Will we remember what it felt like, and use that empathy to pray and give and go? 

Continue to remember….those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering. (Hebrews 13:3)

Let us resolve to never forget. 

I Never Thought I Would Miss the Spiders

Earlier this year, my kids and I were still in Tanzania, and while driving home, we stopped at a roadside fruit stand. 

I asked for a huge bunch of bananas, handed the seller my money, and she passed the bananas through the window to my pre-teen son, sitting in the passenger seat. This was routine; we did it several times a week.

I pulled back onto the street and had driven just a few yards when I heard my son give a horrified yell. Alarmed, I looked over and saw an enormous spider, about the size of a silver dollar, crawling on top of the bananas in his lap. The yell turned into a guttural yelping, as my son stood up, dropped the bananas on the seat and proceeded to clamber over all of the seats and into the trunk of our minivan. 

Meanwhile, I was still driving, and meanwhile, the spider was also running for his life in my direction, so I joined in with the cacophony of noise in the car. The spider then decided that hiding underneath my seat was a safe place to get away from all the screaming. 

I gathered my wits about me and considered my options. I could pull over, but would I really successfully manage to find and destroy the spider while on the side of the road? Or I could drive home and pray that he decided to stay put until I got there. 

I chose to keep driving, tense as a turkey in November, while imagining a giant spider crawling up my leg. Thankfully he did not, and when we got home, I relieved my tension by emptying a can of bug spray under my seat. 

Last week, I was in the grocery store in my new home in California, and I picked up a bunch of perfect, spotlessly yellow, pristine bananas and plopped them into my shopping cart. 

Comparatively, it was a very boring experience.

After 16 years overseas, I’ve lived back in the States for several months now, and what I miss about Tanzania isn’t entirely what I expected. 

America is so convenient. I get a thrill going to the grocery store, and not just because the bananas are spider-free. If the recipe calls for pepperoncinis, guess what? I can buy pepperoncinis! If I have a hankering for chive and onion cream cheese or tzatziki Triscuits or Apple Cinnamon Oat Crunch Cheerios, there they are, just like that! In Tanzania, I would have actual dreams about American grocery stores–not just daydreams. And yet, convenience can quickly turn into monotony when there are never any surprises.

I miss how excited I used to get when I would find Root Beer on the shelves of my grocery store in Tanzania. Or that time I called my best friends to tell them to get down here really quick because there’s a bin of dried cranberries for sale! Sure, cooking here is much easier, but I’m also not as motivated to cook when everything is pre-made. I love how Tanzania pushed me to develop skills I didn’t realize I had. I love how it taught me to be grateful for small things. 

In America, the garage doors open by themselves. The dishes wash themselves and the clothes dry themselves. The electricity never goes off and the water is always hot coming out of the tap. 

But yet, there were many evenings in Tanzania when I would stand barefoot in my backyard, pulling clothes off the line. The palm trees would rustle, the heavy air smelled of the ocean, and the crickets would rhythmically trill. The dryer I now have in my garage is a lot easier, but it just doesn’t carry the same magic. 

America is comfortable. With a flip of a switch I can regulate the temperature. Almost everyone around me wears the same clothes and speaks the same language and shops at the same stores. All the streets are paved and everyone follows the rules on the roads. The sameness is comforting and predictable and stress-free. But it’s also not always interesting. 

In Tanzania I struggled through diverse relationships, where my co-workers saw life very differently than I did. It was sometimes stressful, but it opened my eyes to a broader perspective of the world. I often grumpily complained about poor internet or crazy drivers or constant humidity, but the discomfort toughened me. It made me stronger, more resilient, more flexible. It helped me find my satisfaction in God. I miss that.

I feel safer in America. My white skin does not make me stand out, so I can walk along the streets at dusk and not worry about getting my phone stolen. I never worry about men breaking into my house with machetes. I sleep better. 

And yet, I take my safety for granted here. I don’t pray about it as often; I don’t often call to mind my true Prince of Peace. In the realm of the sovereignty of God, I’m not any safer in America than I was in Tanzania. I just have a misplaced trust in my government to keep me safe. 

I knew I would miss the relationships, the beauty, the culture, and our fulfilling ministry in Tanzania. But I find it interesting that I also miss the very things that I was most looking forward to leaving behind. Like jagged glass that is slowly smoothed by the pounding waves, those things that grated on me, frustrated me, compelled me to browse the internet for cheap plane tickets–those things formed who I am. They made me a different person than if I had spent my whole life in America. I wouldn’t want to change that. 

For many years, if you had asked me what I would not miss about Tanzania, I would have assured you that spiders fit into that category. Now, I’m not so sure. After all, without them I would have always thought that buying bananas was boring. 

Leaving Early Has Complicated All the Complicated Emotions of Re-Entry

Haven of Peace Academy, overlooking the Indian Ocean

My youngest has been fascinated with finding places on Google Earth. He recently brought me the iPad and said, “Mommy, help me find HOPAC.” 

My son is in third grade, and Haven of Peace Academy is where he went to school for kindergarten through second grade. But even before that, HOPAC was always a part of his life. It’s where my husband and I ministered for sixteen years. The last three years, it was where I was the elementary school principal. 

I showed him how to type in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. “Here’s downtown, right?” I pointed out. I traced the main road that led to the north of the city. “This is Shoppers Plaza; that’s where we would buy chicken on Saturday nights; this is the White Sands roundabout. Then you turn right here, and see? There’s HOPAC!” 

Together we then traced the road down a little further until we could pick out the house where we had lived for ten years. We zoomed in on it, and a hundred memories rushed out. My eyes grew misty. My finger stopped, hovering there, suspended above our home. Ten thousand miles away, yet so close I could almost touch it.

“I like my new school,” Johnny tells me. “But I like Tanzania better.” Me too, Buddy.

***

I knew there would be grief in leaving. We had planned our departure a year in advance; we knew it was coming. We knew it would be hard. Tanzania had been our home for sixteen years.

But what I can’t figure out is what part of my grief is because we left, and what part of my grief is because we left the way we did. 

***

In July, we found ourselves needing to furnish our new apartment in California. We had very few possessions to our name, which meant we were looking to buy just about everything. Thrift stores, OfferUp, and garage sales became our new pastime. But our favorite were estate sales. There was something particularly thrilling about walking through an entire house, picking out the things we needed. 

Yet I couldn’t help but think about the strangeness of estate sales, this sifting through what felt like the entirety of someone’s life. “It must be so hard for the person that lived here,” I said to my husband, “knowing that strangers are haggling over everything they owned. It’s good that they can hire a company to sell all of this for them, and don’t have to watch it happen.”

And then it struck me: We had that exact scenario happen to us. But we did watch it happen. 

On March 20th, I had come home from my last time at HOPAC to find strangers in my house, opening my cabinets and looking for things to buy. We had been told to buy plane tickets at 1 am the night before, scheduled to leave because of COVID just four days later. Word traveled quickly, and eager buyers wanted to get a head start on the things we were selling. My husband had allowed them in, assuming I had sent them. I freaked out. “Get these people out of my house now!” I hissed. 

The next three days were a frantic whirlwind of sorting, packing, and selling. I sold the dishes out from under the children and the kitchen containers still filled with flour and sugar. We never did get rid of everything, leaving the house with a friend to finish sorting the chaos we had left behind.

At the last minute, I gave away all of my kids’ baby things that I had been carefully saving, taking pictures of them instead. I didn’t have time to overthink whether or not that was the right decision. Recently it occurred to me that I never took my curtains down. I don’t know why that bothers me; it’s not like they were amazing curtains. But I had looked at them every day for over a decade, so it’s strange not knowing what happened to them. 

The night before we left, I was in a tizzy at midnight, trying to find my only pair of closed-toed shoes, which I intended to wear while traveling. I tore the place apart, frantically looking for them. I finally found them outside in a garbage bag; someone had inadvertently thrown them out. I was relieved to find them, but nagged by the worry of what else had been accidentally thrown away.

When my husband’s birthday came around in August, I realized that our traditional birthday banner must have been sold accidentally. I mourned over that birthday banner, and then felt stupid for caring about something so silly. But even now, I get stress-filled nightmares where I’m trying to pack. And there’s never enough time. 

So I guess you could say we experienced our own estate sale. And yeah, it was strange. Traumatic, even. 

***

I keep thinking that I’m over the worst of the grief. We have so, so many good days right now. But then there’s a trigger.

Friends from Tanzania came to visit us last week. It did our soul good to see them. They brought us some things we had left behind:  Yearbooks, certificates from teachers, the name sign from my office door. Special things.

 The flood of memories, again.

I found myself awake at 2 am, tears rolling down my cheeks. Again. I pounded my fist on God’s chest crying, “This is not the story I wanted!” I did not want to leave that way. That wasn’t how it was supposed to go. How desperately I wish I could go back and re-write that story.

I can see God’s hand in it, of course. I can see how leaving early was the impetus for my husband getting the job he has now. That might not have happened if we had left in July like we planned. But sometimes, it doesn’t matter; I’m still just sad. It’s good, I guess, that the human heart is capable of holding both sadness and gratitude at the same time.

***

HOPAC started their first day of school at the end of August. I greedily stared at the pictures posted in the parent WhatsApp groups, craving glimpses of my students. A few days later, I reluctantly left the groups, knowing I needed to let go. 

I know how this works. I was the Stayer for many years, so I’ve watched many people leave. I know that it’s hard to be a Stayer and say good-bye, but that life goes on pretty quickly without the Leavers. It has to. So many leave in an expat community, every year, that you can’t sit and stew about it for very long. So now that I am the Leaver, I want to move forward, and to let the Stayers move on. 

Except, I didn’t get to hug those kids goodbye. “Moving on” feels like running in soggy sand when you didn’t get to finish well. There are loose ends dangling all over the place.

***

Whether I like it or not, the earth turns, the sun still rises and sets, the seasons shift. Each day pulls me farther away from that life, pulls me deeper into this new one. I can grieve it and yearn for it and wish that it didn’t end that way, but life continues to go on. 

Time is a healer, and that is a gift. Almost imperceptibly, the scars become a part of who I am. One day, some time from now, I will look back and not want to change the story. I’ve lived enough years to know that truth.

When God is Disappointing

The disappointments just keep piling up like dirty laundry in a teenage boy’s bedroom. We were required to leave our overseas home of sixteen years three months early. We didn’t get to say proper good-byes. We finished out the school year in front of screens, including my job as principal. We lived out of suitcases like vagabonds for several months. We didn’t get the chance to reconnect with most friends in the States before we needed to move into a new life. Now that we’ve begun that new life, we’re forbidden to connect here also. The pools are closed, the churches are closed, the schools are closed. Roadblocks are preventing us from all the avenues we usually use to join a new community. Of course, they say I could join an online Bible study (with strangers). That sounds positively dreadful.

I know I shouldn’t complain, and yet I do. This was never what I envisioned as our departure from a country we deeply loved. Now that life is going on without us, our wounds stay open. This is never what I envisioned for our entry back into our passport country. Isolation, a life on hold, waiting and waiting and waiting for the day when it will feel like our new lives have actually started. “Build a RAFT,” they say. “That’s how you transition well.” If transition is supposed to be a raft, then ours has leaks, and we’re not even sitting on it, but holding on to the sides for dear life as we are thrown down the rapids. And we have no idea where or when the end will be.

I know it’s good to grieve, but often it’s turned to bitterness. There’s a lot of finger-pointing going on these days, and I find myself jumping on that bandwagon. I look for someone to blame. Someone in authority over me is making bad decisions and deserves to be vilified. Someone needs to be fixing this mess. And before I know it, I realize that I’m actually blaming God. And then I feel smugly justified in feeling irritated with God because I am prevented from doing good things. After all, my plans for how I was going to love people in my new community were really great. What were you thinking, God?

Yes, I realize how stupid that sounds. Reminding God how much he needs me is a great way to recognize how arrogant I really am. 

There are many things God routinely has to teach me, but the One Big Truth that he keeps coming around to is his sovereignty. He is running the universe; I am not.  

I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come. I say, ‘My purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please.’

That means COVID was not an accident. Every single disappointment, from closed schools, to canceled graduations and vacations, to the roadblocks to ministry–all are meticulously ordained by a sovereign God.

I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the Lord, do all these things. (Is. 45:7)

Some say this belief means I think God is wicked. How can a good God allow so many bad things? Isn’t it obvious that human sin and supernatural evil are the causes of bad things? Indeed. But even evil must fall under God’s sovereign will. If it doesn’t, what would be the alternative? We would have a weak God who isn’t powerful enough to stop evil when he pleases. That’s not a God worthy of our worship.

Margaret Clarkson wrote, “The sovereignty of God is the one impregnable rock to which the suffering human heart must cling. The circumstances surrounding our lives are no accident: they may be the work of evil, but that evil is held firmly within the mighty hand of our sovereign God…. All evil is subject to Him, and evil cannot touch His children unless He permits it. God is the Lord of human history and of the personal history of every member of His redeemed family.’”

Some say this belief makes me fatalistic, that if God is calling all the shots, then where is human choice? Why would we work to make the world better? Why should we plan, vote, protest, strategize? But Scripture is clear that God’s sovereignty does not negate our responsibility. Yes, of course, we push back evil; we strive to extend grace; we fight to bring redemption. But at the end of the day, we rest in knowing that even when we (or those around us) mess up, fail, even destroy–even then, God has allowed it; God has a purpose in it. 

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord.

Sometimes we just need to remind ourselves that God is in control. It’s an easy platitude; we put it on t-shirts and coffee mugs. It can become stale and irrelevant if we say it and don’t mean it; if we write it and don’t live by it. Bitterness, complaining, and unrighteous anger are good indications that it’s time for another reminder. 

Living with the knowledge of God’s sovereignty means that when I’m disappointed, I can grieve the loss without becoming bitter. When I reach the end of my ability to change my situation, I can rest instead of fret. It means that when my plans go haywire, I can trust that God knows what’s best better than I do. He is master of my time, my money, and my health, so I don’t need to let the loss of those things cause me stress. And even when I am prevented from doing my version of good things, I can find freedom in remembering that God doesn’t actually need me. 

Elisabeth Elliot wrote, “You either believe God knows what He’s doing or you believe He doesn’t. You either believe He’s worth trusting or you say He’s not. And then, where are you? You’re at the mercy of chaos not cosmos. Chaos is the Greek word for disorder. Cosmos is the word for order. We either live in an ordered universe or we are trying to create our own reality.”

We Can’t Be Sure Everything Is Going to Be Okay

Since being unexpectedly wrenched from our Tanzanian home a month ago due to COVID-19, my family has been living as vagabonds in California, moving in with various relatives every couple of weeks. (It’s hard to shelter-in-place when you have no home.) This week we’re with some in-laws, and I’ve been walking the neighborhood daily.

Whenever I visit California, the perfectly manicured HOA lawns are always a shock to my system after living in a chaotic East African city. These days, the spring roses are bursting into bloom around me, as if in defiance of the pain the world is facing. And like spring flowers, popping up in neighbors’ yards are identical red cardboard signs that read: Everything is going to be okay. There are dozens of them, and they mock me as I pass by. How do you know everything is going to be okay? I silently yell at those signs. I just had to leave my home three months early, and we had four days’ notice. We lived in Tanzania for sixteen years, and since we were planning on relocating in July, this meant we got no closure, no good-byes, no tying up loose ends. Just grief and trauma. We don’t have jobs or a home. So please don’t tell me everything is going to be okay. I’m not in the mood. 

I walk, and I restlessly pound out my lament to God: How long, O Lord? How long before we can start a normal life again? How long before I know with confidence that the school, the friends, the community I left behind in Tanzania will be okay? How long before this knot of anxiety goes away, the weight of grief lifts off my chest? 

I love the stories of God’s deliverance in Scripture. The walls falling down, the giant conquered, the blind man healed. But I have this tendency to speed read through the Bible, focusing on the happy endings and ignoring the miserable parts in between. Yes, God’s people were dramatically rescued from slavery in Egypt. (After 400 years of back-breaking suffering.) Yes, they made it to the Promised Land. (After 40 years of death in the desert.) Sure, God promised them a “hope and a future”….but it would come after 70 years in exile. (That part doesn’t make it onto the coffee mugs.) The Messiah arrived! (After 400 years of silence from God.) 

Ever wonder what it must have felt like to live in the “in between” years before God’s miraculous deliverance? Probably felt pretty defeated, and isolated, and alone. Many, many, many of God’s faithful never saw his deliverance in their lifetimes. All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised (Heb 11). You could say that for them, everything did not turn out to be okay. That’s probably why amongst the miraculous stories was a whole lot of waiting and groaning and begging for redemption. 

My soul is in deep anguish.  How long, Lord, how long? (Ps. 6)

How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?

How long must I wrestle with my thoughts  and day after day have sorrow in my heart? (Ps. 13)

We are given no signs from God; no prophets are left, and none of us knows how long this will be. (Ps. 74)

How long will the land lie parched and the grass in every field be withered? (Jer. 12)

How long, Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, “Violence!” but you do not save? (Hab. 1)

How long, O Lord? How long? What if life doesn’t return to normal in months, or years, or even ever in our lifetime? What if things get worse? What if everything will not be okay? The truth is that if “okay” means safety, prosperity, and comfort, I might not get that. There is no guarantee. And judging from Christian history and the lives of my Christian brothers and sisters around the world, there is no precedent that God promises me those things. 

Perhaps one of the most important things I learned during my life overseas was in watching the lives of those who have lived and died asking, “How long, O Lord?”  She follows Jesus and her husband keeps cheating on her and he got her pregnant with a fourth child and she has only an elementary education and there is no government support and she works incredibly hard but nothing ever gets better. Oh, and even before COVID-19, there already were a dozen diseases around that could kill her or her children on any given day. Yet still, she perseveres in faith. 

I must remember that I am not promised that everything is going to be okay. In my lifetime, it might not be. 

Unless, that is, we’re talking about the very, very end. I am not promised heaven on earth. I am, however, promised heaven. That’s why Hebrews 11 ends with this: These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, since God had planned something better.

How long, O Lord, until everything will be okay? Maybe not ever. But I can be okay, because I am a foreigner on this earth. This is not where I belong. I can see Your redemption in the distance, and in the meantime, I long for a better country–a heavenly one. 

Why I Am I So Surprised When Crisis Strikes?

These days, I’m tired of being in crisis mode. Seriously, enough already.

My husband and I have spent the last two years fretting about visas. We’ve watched our team evaporate, one by one, due to visa issues. A couple of times, my husband got very close to needing to leave the country. For months and months we kept thinking, This is all going to work out, right? Doesn’t it always? And we were surprised to discover that actually, it doesn’t always work out. 

On top of that, the last few months have been some of the most stressful of my life. 2020 came in with a bang, with almost constant crises hitting me from all sides. Thankfully, my family is fine (crisis is different from tragedy), but I’m an administrator at a school where it feels like the next wave of problems comes rolling in before I can finish with the previous ones. Many days I am just gasping for breath. Taking the next step. Focusing on the dozens of tiny fires so that I don’t have to face the inferno that could be looming in the future. 

Anyone else out there feeling like that these days? With the recent trend of countries closing in on themselves and locking out outsiders, travel bans, tensions rising between nations, and well, that little virus that’s affecting an entire continent of billions of people….I’m guessing that many of my fellow overseas workers might be in crisis mode too.

And I sit here and I just want it to go away. Kind of irritated, actually, that God doesn’t just let up. Maybe because I’ve bought into the American dream or maybe because I’m just plain selfish, but I have this ingrained expectation that I deserve a little peace and quiet every once in a while. Like, I’ve met my quota for stress, God; you owe me an easy ride from here on out.

Why are we so often surprised by what’s happening in the world? Nations rising up against nations? Economies collapsing? Epidemics circling the globe? Plagues of fire and floods? 

What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.

Yet, we’re astonished when the crisis hits us. No wonder every generation believes they are living in the End Times. All of us think, Certainly no generation has ever faced what we have! Which means we probably just need to study more history. Or maybe live overseas for a while longer, observing the lives of our non-western brothers and sisters.

Peter wrote, Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.

We read this, yet still we are surprised. When pressed against the wall, in crisis mode for week after month after year, we think something strange is happening to us. No, God, my life is not supposed to be like this. Not for this long, anyway. Why aren’t you fixing it?

We are surprised because we are forgetful, aren’t we? We forget that Paul was in prison when he told his readers to Rejoice in the Lord always. We forget that Jesus told his disciples that the peace He gives is not dependent on life’s circumstances. We forget that this life is just a blip on the screen of eternity. Yes, one day all things will be made new, but until then, we forget that we aren’t supposed to find Heaven here on earth.  

The chaplain at my school, Sheshi Kaniki, recently exhorted our staff as we are passing through these times of crisis. He told us, “Nothing you experience will ever be worse than what you have already been saved from.”

Amen. Maranatha.  

Passages cited: Ecc. 1:9, I Peter 4:12, Phil. 4:4

How Equipped is Equipped Enough?

I recently read an article about a young woman who moved to Uganda at 19 and started a center for malnourished children. This ministry grew over the course of ten years. Some of those children died, and she is now being sued for deceiving parents into thinking she was a trained doctor running a medical clinic.

I considered this story with conflicting feelings. This young woman was extremely young to have taken on such a complicated problem as dying children. I don’t know all the details, but it does seem like this she crossed some ethical boundaries. It’s difficult to tell if she deliberately deceived people or if she just wasn’t wise about how she presented herself. It seems like she didn’t work hard enough to maintain proper licensing with the authorities. 

However, it does seem like the opportunity to care for starving babies kind of threw itself in her lap. She saw a need, and she wanted to fill it. She believed strongly that there weren’t better options available for these children. She did hire Ugandan medical personnel, and at least at one point, she was licensed by the government. So was she helping more than hurting? Was she wise to jump into this opportunity even though she wasn’t equipped? 

This story makes me think about several missionary friends who moved to remote African villages to do church planting or community development, but ended up doing medical work on the side. With very few medical options available in the community, people came to them to dress wounds or help a sick child simply because having a supply of antibiotics and Google made them more equipped than anyone else in the community. Should they have refused to help because they weren’t trained medical workers? 

And what about other types of service? Realizing that you are in way over your head is like a rite of passage in missions work. Wait, what? Your missions training didn’t teach you how to kill snakes? Or how to deal with the demon-possessed child foaming at the mouth on your doorstep? You weren’t trained in children’s ministry? Too bad, you get to do children’s ministry. You can’t carry a tune? Oh well, when the pastor asks you to lead worship, you get to do it anyway. You don’t know anything about eating disorders? Well, if there are no psychologists in your area, I guess you’ll be the one to help the girl in your youth group.

Gladys Aylward, the famous British missionary to China, was a housemaid from a poor family and had almost no formal education. A missions agency turned her down, saying that she wasn’t learning the language fast enough. Yet she went on to serve the poor of China for 25 years, save the lives of many orphans, advocate against foot-binding and for prison reform, and bring many to know Jesus. She once said, “I wasn’t God’s first choice for what I’ve done for China…It must have been a well-educated man. I don’t know what happened. Perhaps he died. Perhaps he wasn’t willing and God looked down and saw Gladys Aylward. And God said–’Well, she’s willing.’”

Don’t all of us who serve overseas think this sometimes….or often? Wouldn’t a person who learned languages faster be better at this job? Shouldn’t someone be doing this who has a seminary degree, or teaching experience, or who studied social work? Wouldn’t someone older than me be better at this? What missionary hasn’t felt like she was drowning in a sea of her own incompetence? Is there any cross-cultural worker who has moved overseas and felt truly equipped for what he ended up doing? 

Yet, at the same time, those of us who have had some experience in missions keep banging the same drum to those desiring to move overseas: Get equipped. Get trained. Stop sending people who don’t know what they are doing. Ill-equipped people often hurt more than they help. For every successful Gladys Aylward, there are a dozen others who burn out or burn others out….or get sued for doing medical work they weren’t qualified for. 

So how do we find that balance? How do we have high expectations of preparation for those who move overseas, while still recognizing that none of us can ever be fully equipped for what we will face? How do we honor the passionate hearts who are willing to say, “Here I am. Send me!” while remembering that saying “God called me” can be dangerous

Like so many things in life, I think that the answer lies right in the middle. I think we can say, “Get as equipped as you can” while simultaneously saying, “Recognize that you will never be fully equipped.” And remember that attitude is everything. If we go overseas with the notion that by simply being white, educated, or from a developed country makes us qualified to help people, we are setting ourselves up for disaster. We must be very careful to examine our motives, because the “white savior” mentality is sinister; it sneaks into our thinking very subtly. 

I asked a village missionary friend how she and her husband handled the issue of people coming to them for medical help. Yes, they would do what they could to help people. But they always insisted the person visit the local clinic first. Then they would look for ways to help if the clinic wasn’t able to meet needs. They also asked a qualified missionary doctor to start visiting the village a couple of times a month. They did everything they could to work within the cultural system and not usurp what was already in place. 

And what if you find yourself called to pour your whole heart into a ministry, but you aren’t qualified? Then get qualified. If you find yourself unexpectedly teaching Bible, take some online Bible courses and read some quality theology. If you realize your community needs medical help, then go back home for a nursing degree or get yourself trained in Community Health Evangelism. If you discover that what your village needs is agricultural advice, then look into getting trained through ECHO. Yes, God can (and will) use us despite our incompetence, but that doesn’t mean we should be satisfied to continue offering anything less than what could be our best. 

In the end, remember that an attitude of humility makes all the difference. Even if we already feel well-educated or equipped in the area where we are serving, we still need to recognize that we have a lot we must learn from local people in order to be effective. Asian or African answers to problems might not look the same as American answers. We need to earn the right to speak into those problems through listening, learning, and longevity. 

Should We Have Waited Until We Were Older?

Gil and I met at 21 years old, married at 23, and were living in Tanzania by 24. We had been married all of nine months before we moved overseas. We had gotten to know each other as co-leaders of a cross-cultural ministry in California, and our desire to be missionaries was one of the main factors that brought us together. Our mission organization had vetted us, interviewed us, and sent us to two weeks of training. I had spent half of my childhood as an MK, and both of us had spent several years in ministry during college. As far as we were concerned, we were ready.

2001

That didn’t keep us from crashing and burning. We were too outspoken about our culturally-insensitive opinions and therefore offended local friends. We over-committed ourselves to ministries that kept us apart from each other too much of the time, which strained our relationship. We naively expected too much change too quickly in new believers’ lives, which led to disappointment and disillusionment. After two years, we were depressed and demoralized

Many times over the past twenty years, we’ve seen many new missionaries arrive on the field who were older and more experienced than we were, and they didn’t seem to struggle nearly as much as we did. I’ve asked myself, “Should we have waited until we were older?” Would another couple of years of married life in the States have spared us from heartache? Would more maturity have kept us from making so many naive mistakes? Would we have known how to set better boundaries? 

Of course, there is no “perfect” age to move overseas for the first time, and there are certainly pros and cons to relocating at each stage of life. But if you are young, pursuing missions, and asking yourself, “Should I wait until I am older?” or if you are a parent or a church leader of someone who is asking that question, here are my thoughts.

Consider the advantages:

Our energy and passion gave us perseverance. I remember the first time I went roller skating when I was eight. I must have fallen a few dozen times, but I just kept getting right back up again. These days? I think just one fall would send me to the sidelines for good. There’s a God-given quality of youthful idealism that keeps us going when things get tough. Yes, Gil and I fell hard. Our most difficult years in Tanzania were definitely those first two years. If I had experienced them at an older age, I might have given up. But our youth gave us perseverance, and taught us and toughened us for the years ahead. 

We were more willing to be adventurous, try new things, and put up with hard conditions. Twelve-hour bus trip? No problem. All-night youth lock-in that included 30 hours of fasting? Sure! Back then we thrived on new experiences, crazy outings, and busy schedules. We didn’t have kids and had the freedom to follow every opportunity. Those first two years, my schedule involved getting up at 4:45 every morning and coming home 12 hours later. These days, I get tired just thinking about the stuff we did in those younger years. But now that I’m older, I love having young people on my team for their willingness and ability to do whatever needs to get done.

We built our family while we were already living overseas. It can be tough for women with young children to start their experience overseas as a stay-at-home-mom. Learning language and getting into the culture is a challenge with kids at home. And as an MK educator, I’ve seen the agony of parents relocating their children overseas. Gil and I were able to avoid that by building our family after we had already adapted to life in Tanzania, and I had several years to settle into life and be in ministry full time before I needed to devote more time to my family.

Minimize the disadvantages:

Prepare, prepare, prepare. Get a degree in an area that God can use to open doors for foreign visas–or at least pave the way for relationships. Get some Bible training–either at a college or through rigorous discipleship. Take a Perspectives course. Read books. Learn to manage your finances, cook, and communicate well verbally and in writing. And most importantly–serve. Serve in your local church and serve in your community. All of this can happen even in high school–so start now!

Don’t go without a mentor, and be humble enough to listen and change. This should be standard advice for any cross-cultural worker, but the younger you are, the more important it is. This doesn’t mean that everyone older than you is more right than you. This doesn’t mean that you won’t have any ideas to contribute–because I hope you do! But remember that experience usually builds wisdom. Slow down, listen, be a learner. Change takes time. Be patient. 

Be open to staying at least five years. Here’s where things get radical. In an era where two weeks is the standard commitment to missions, a year or two sounds positively eternal. Anything longer than that sounds crazy. For us, the first two years were like boot camp, so it would have been a shame to get through it and not stay longer. The longer we stayed, our impact increased exponentially. Life got easier and our mistakes were fewer. What started as an experience became life. Most mission fields desperately need long-term workers. Why can’t that be you? 

What to Know Before You Go

Let’s say you are boarding a transatlantic flight and hear, “Good morning, ladies and gentlemen; this is your pilot speaking. I’m 21 years old, and I’m excited to tell you that this is my first commercial flight! But don’t you worry; I’ve flown my Daddy’s crop duster at least a half dozen times. What I don’t have in experience or education, I make up with passion. I’m just about as willing as they come; my heart is practically bursting with willingness! Now buckle up your seatbelts; we’ll be off as soon as I find that user’s manual.”

I don’t know about you, but I’d be out of that plane faster than a fried egg off a Teflon pan.

Yet sometimes we approach missions in the same way. Willing hearts filled with passion are awesome, but they are not enough. So here’s where things get awkward: I’ve titled this “What to Know Before You Go,” when actually it should be more like, “What I Wish I Had Known Before I Went.” Because when I got on a plane to Tanzania almost twenty years ago, I was just about as bad as that pilot. Thankfully I didn’t completely crash and burn, but I learned the hard way, over and over again. Had I taken the time early on to do a little more study and a lot more wrestling, I could have spared myself a lot of grief, and certainly increased my effectiveness in those early years. Learn from my mistakes.


1. You need to have a basic understanding of worldviews.

This goes much deeper than a knowledge of world religions. For example, a person can call himself a Christian, but that doesn’t mean that his thinking, choices, and actions line up with the Bible. The same is true for those who follow other faiths. The religious labels people give themselves just scratch the surface of what they really believe. This is where a study of worldview comes in. If you are hoping to live, work, and have a gospel-impact on people of a different culture, that’s got to start with understanding their worldview–and your own.

Darrow Miller’s Discipling Nations: The Power of Truth to Transform Cultures should be required reading for any new missionary.

2. You need to know how to interpret the Bible on your own.

Most new missionaries have been nurtured in spiritually rich environments–strong Christian colleges and solid churches that often include discipleship, biblical teaching, and small groups. This is wonderful–but what happens when you end up in a city where there are no strong churches? Or those that do exist are in another language? What happens when you find yourself in a spiritually harsh environment with only a small team of other believers who can help you stay afloat?

Online sermons can help. Rich Christian literature can help. But at the end of the day, it’s going to be you and your Bible. Do you have the skills you need to interpret it without a pastor or small group leader’s help? Do you know enough about the various genres of Scripture, the historical context, and sound interpretation practices so that you can be confident of what it’s really saying?

The technical word for this is “hermeneutics,” or Bible study methods. Our family favorite is Living by the Book: The Art and Science of Reading the Bible by Howard Hendricks, but there are many other great resources out there.

3. You need to have worked out a biblical theology of suffering–or at least started to.

Of course, suffering can be found on every corner of the globe, in every social sphere. But any ministry that takes you up close and personal with the messiness of people’s lives, especially amongst the poor and disadvantaged, has the possibility of knocking you breathless with the depth of the suffering you will witness.

What will it do to your soul to see the blind child begging on the street corner? To be friends with the woman who lost her twins due to an unconscionable doctor’s error? To see the little albino boy whose arm was chopped off for witchcraft purposes….by his own uncle? If you haven’t already wrestled with God over the reality of suffering and the problem of evil, you may risk disillusionment, burn-out, or even losing your faith.  

Jerry Bridges’ Trusting God: Even When Life Hurts has had a profound influence on my life on this topic.

4. You need to know the theology of poverty alleviation.

What do you do about the beggars on the street corner? Or the constant requests by your neighbors for loans or favors? How do you assuage your guilty conscience when you go out to dinner or spend money on a vacation, knowing that people around you are hungry? Guilt will slowly strangle you unless you have already thought through how you will respond.

A theology of suffering answers, “How can God allow this?” A theology of poverty alleviation answers, “How should I respond?”

If you haven’t yet read When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor….and Yourself, now is the time. It’s an absolute must-read for any missionary (or any Christian, for that matter).

5. You need to know the history of your host country.

Are you able to identify the five most important events in your host country’s history? Do you know how the government is structured? Are you familiar with the nation’s holidays and why they are celebrated? What is every child taught? If you want to get to the soul of a people, then you must understand where they came from. Take the time find out.

All of these areas can be learned by dedicated study on your own. I learn best by reading, so I’ve given my recommendations for my favorite books. But I’m sure there are audiobooks, podcasts, or videos on all of these subjects. If you’ve got other suggestions, please share! Utilize the massive amount of internet resources at our fingertips, and educate yourself on these important issues–ideally, before you go.

When You Want to Want to Stay Longer

When living overseas, sometimes there’s no doubt that you need to leave. A denied visa, a medical emergency, a government coup, a burn-out, an unresolvable conflict.

Sometimes there’s no doubt you want to stay. You’ve adapted; you’ve found community, ministry, purpose, and most of the time, you’re loving life.

But what about when you think you should stay, but you really don’t want to?

When the need is great, and right now, you’re the best person to fill it. When you’ve received affirmation from local believers and leadership from home that you are a good fit for your role. When you are seeing fruit–or you can almost see it, just over the horizon.

But you are weary of this life. You are sick and tired of the long lines at government offices, of bugs in your kitchen drawers, of being misunderstood (again). The pollution aggravates your daughter’s asthma, and it takes you five hours to run one errand, and suddenly the price of milk doubles over night. Again.

And your old life is looking pretty great. Your friends’ lives on Instagram are looking even better.

You don’t really want to stay. But you’re pretty sure you should. You want to want to stay. How do you get there?

Maybe sometimes you just need a vacation. Or some counseling. Maybe you need to consider a new neighborhood. Maybe you just need to bite the bullet and buy that air conditioner.

But after fifteen years living overseas, do you want to know what has kept me here longer? Changing my perspective from This is an experience to This is my life.

What’s the difference?

An experience is temporary. It’s something that you check off your bucket list before going back to your “normal” life. You’re likely to expect fun and adventure. You’re likely to have high expectations of what you’re going to get out of it, and lower lows when you don’t.

Since an experience has a defined beginning and end, you also aren’t necessarily looking for the normal rhythms of work and rest. You might be thinking that you need to pack in as much as you can because you know your time is limited. And when you’re looking at your time overseas as an experience, when times get hard, you just dig in your heels and endure it. (Buy an air conditioner? Pish! I’m here to be tough.) The end is always in sight, and you are counting the days till it’s over.

When it comes time to decide if you should stay longer, it’s not even a consideration. The experience is over; so why should you stay? Your sights are already set on home; they have been for a long time. Staying longer seems unfathomable.

But when you enter your time overseas with the mindset that This is my life, then there is no end in sight. You realize that adaptation is key. Of course, this does not mean that you try to recreate your life back home. But it does mean that you are actively looking for that “new normal.” When times get tough, you aren’t counting the days until it’s over. Instead, you’re thinking about how you can make this work. How you can adapt. How you can either change your circumstances or change your perspective so that you aren’t utterly miserable all of the time.

What does this tangibly look like? Put pictures up on your walls. Plant a garden. Spend the extra money to get the couch you love, instead of someone’s old ugly hand-me-down. These are little things, but can help significantly with your mindset. Slow down. Watch TV sometimes. Don’t fret over “wasted” time learning language and culture, chomping at the bit to get your “real” ministry started. Watch. Wait. Listen. Learn. When the power goes out or you get three flat tires in a week, pay attention to your thinking. Are you telling yourself, “Just a few more months and this will be over,” or rather “How can I learn to live this way?”

You want to want to stay? Let me tell you something I’ve learned about contentment in this overseas life: The more you think about leaving, the more you will want to leave. The more you resolve yourself to stay, the more content you will be.

And one more thing: There will always be a reason to leave if you are looking for it. Always. If you want a reason, you will find it. So here’s my challenge: Instead of just asking yourself, Do I want to leave?, consider asking yourself, Is there a good reason why I shouldn’t stay longer?

Full disclosure: My family is in that place right now, asking ourselves that question. I realize that finding the answer is not simple, because it can be easy to mingle God’s calling with our own desires. Knowing when has been “long enough” can often become more complicated the longer you stay….because the experience has become life! That’s what’s kept us here fifteen years, and the depth of our friendships, the wealth of what we have learned, and the multiplying impact of ministry have made all of these years more than worth it. I pray it will be for you too.