Cultural Tug-Of-War

“This is not America” my colleague says under her breath as she rolls her eyes and walks past my conversation with another teacher, both of us caught up in a discussion as to how things “ought to be.”

“This is Liberia” is what another teacher says as he shrugs his shoulders and teases me in my frustration as we start yet another staff meeting 30 minutes late.

I grit my teeth and try to smile back; I don’t need either reminder.

When I left the US and came to Liberia, I traded my skinny jeans for flowy skirts and my cute workout shorts for baggy cargo pants. My sandwiches and salads for soup and rice. I traded my quick smile and wave greeting for a handshake and a lengthy conversation.

I’ve slowed down my speech, adjusted my grammar, learned new words, and adapted a new accent all for the sake of more effective communication. I’ve had to let go of my uncontrollable need for deadlines and structure and learn to wade in the waves of ambiguity. I’ve traded my watch for a bench and gotten used to passing the time rather than watching the time. I’ve learned to tame my desire to be independent and unique in an effort to belong and be unified with the larger group in harmony.

In the beginning when I moved to Liberia, I knew there would be things I would have to adjust to, but I didn’t mind. I’d been on mission trips and managed in a new setting for a few months at a time plenty of times before. Besides, there were so many things about the country that I admired. I was happy to adjust a few of my preferences and get rid of a few of my old habits. But then it all became too much.

Every single part of me, my clothes, food, dance, language, and rights, has been relinquished from my grip in some way or another. And still, it feels like this country keeps pulling and pulling and pulling on me, asking me to give up more and more.

Some days it feels like all I’m doing here is playing a constant game of tug-of-war. They pull me to become more Liberian, to talk this way, dress this way, and think this way. At times, I go along willingly, trying my best to please them or gain their adoration and approval, but other times I dig my feet into the ground and hold on tight, clinging to the American mantra of being “unapologetically myself” no matter what. I try to pull them towards me to see the worth of my American culture’s values like timeliness, efficiency, and independence. They look at me and shake their heads and laugh, leaving me to pull on the rope and falling back as they just simply let go, done with the game all together.

I never did like tug-of-war growing up, and I don’t like it now. And yet, I foolishly keep standing up, grabbing on to the rope, and tugging as hard as I can.

When will they will start bending toward me? When will they start loosening their grip as well? Haven’t I given up enough? Haven’t I let go of the rope and allowed them to tug me towards their side long enough? At what point do my needs and wants matter too? At what point will I stop being the American missionary and just be a friend, a friend worth changing just a little bit for? Doesn’t it go both ways?

Deep down, though, I know this is not what it’s all about.

Paul says in 1 Corinthians 9:22 that “I became all things for all people.” Why did he do this? Why did he give up his own rights and freedoms? Why did he give up his way of life? Why did he not dig his heels in and fight for what he believed to be right? Did he give up on the fight so that others would praise him about how well he was fitting in or how much he had sacrificed? Did he do it so he could make friends, expecting that others might do the same for him in return?

No, he did it for one reason and one reason only. He did it “so that by all means, I might save some (vs 22).” “We put up with anything rather than hinder the gospel of Christ (vs 13).” “I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings (vs 23).”

This cross-cultural ministry life is hard, and it is draining. It is life-altering and identity-shaping. There is a constant tension between who I was and who I am, and who I am and who I want to be. There is a constant tugging, stretching, and pulling.

My immediate tendency is to blame the ones I see in front of me for the pain and loss that this process entails, but I know that they are merely the pull of my Creator’s hands.  I feel the tension, and I attribute it to the horizontal tugging that I see between them and me, but in doing so I inadvertently ignore the upwards prying that is also at play as I wrestle with my own identity and rights.

Rather than pulling back and forth on this rope, sweat running down our faces and grunting and gritting at the other, what would happen if we instead directed our eyes to the center of the rope? It is there where I see God reaching His arm down and grabbing hold and pulling upwards. The further up He pulls, the closer we get to Him and therefore each other, and the further behind we leave our earthly identities and woes. I wonder, then, is this merely the pain of a tug-of-war between two cultures that we feel, or is it the deeper sanctification of our humanity?

The goal in our life and our ministry is not just a mere adaption or transformation from one culture or the other. Nor is it a total abandonment of culture altogether. But it’s also not a lifelong game of cultural tug-of-war where we pull each other from side to side endlessly.

It is neither my identity as an American or as a Liberian transplant that I should be grasping for the tightest; it is my identity in Christ. It is not the culture in which I was born into that I should be holding onto for dear life; it is my born-again identity in Christ which actually gives me life.

The goal for Christians is that we might pull each other more towards Christ, spurring one another upwards, not just tugging each other endlessly from side to side (Hebrews 10:24).

Rather than looking at our cultural differences as something that allows us to be pulled back and forth and side to side, what if we allowed them to instead be a rope that tugs us upwards, closer toward our Creator?

Rather than looking at all these cultural differences as things that God is doing to us, what if we looked at them as something that He was doing for us? What if those tugs on the rope were not from the host country nationals, but from God Himself? What if this tension was meant to show us where our priorities truly lie? Where we have been placing our trust and our hopes? Where we need to let go of some ground? What if instead of blaming one another and always trying to change one another, we thanked God for the gift of our differences and allowed them to instead be used as opportunities that can pull us closer towards Him?

I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of playing the same old game of cultural tug-of-war and falling face first in the dirt after fighting yet another losing battle against my host country. I don’t want to dig my feet in anymore and fight for my own rights when I could be using that energy to instead fight for the gospel. I can see the places where I’ve been digging in and wearing myself down for the sake of my own “freedom,” and I think it’s finally time to let go.

Unmet Expectations and Hope for the New Year

I didn’t expect it to be so hard.

I didn’t expect to feel so lonely.

I didn’t expect to still be struggling with the language.

I didn’t expect it would be so hard to make friends.

I didn’t expect that it would take so long to make/see a tangible difference.

How many of us who have lived abroad have had these thoughts? We went abroad with wide eyes and big hearts filled with the passion and the urgency to bring Christ to the world, only to have the world throw back at us some of the deepest and darkest sorrows and brokenness we’ve ever seen or experienced.

Usually, when we talk about expectations in missions, we are talking about all those expectations that missionaries carry with them to the field along with their filled-to-the-brim suitcases. What I don’t see talked about as much are the expectations that we might have upon returning back to our passport countries and how those expectations, when they go unmet, can be just as surprising and crushing as the ones we had for ourselves while we were abroad.

I’ve been “home” for exactly one year and two weeks now, and I didn’t expect that I’d still be wrestling with all this stuff. I read the books about transitioning home, and I knew I would be a different person, but I didn’t know home would be so different too.

I expected life back here would be easier.

I expected to understand the culture and the motivation behind people’s actions.

I expected not to be misunderstood or caught off guard so much.

I expected people to have, share, and respect the unwritten rules of society.

I expected rules to be more clearly and uniformly implemented.

I expected customer service to be more of a thing.

I expected to have functioning appliances and 24/7 Wi-Fi access.

I expected the grocery store would always have what I needed.

I expected boundaries to be valued and respected.

I expected to never cry at work again.

I don’t know if this is just my story of re-entry or the story of the world these last few years, but this was not what I expected at all.

What about you? Has this past year been everything that you expected? Or have there been a few surprises in there along the way? Were there things that you had hoped for and planned for that never came to pass? Or perhaps there were people you thought you could count on who let you down?

As the New Year begins and much of the world around me is making resolutions and creating new goals, I’m conflicted about what to do. I want to allow myself to look to the future and dream, but I’m also a little nervous.

How are we supposed to handle all these unmet expectations that we may have from the past year as we look forward to a new year? Are we setting ourselves up for failure by having expectations in the first place? Is it better to just live without any thoughts of the future?

I think the trouble for most of us is not the fact that we have and make expectations; it’s that we often make and set expectations about the wrong things. Reflecting on my list of both pre-and post-missionary life expectations, I see that many of my expectations were about how I thought things should be in the world around me (easier, comfortable), about things I thought I deserved (friends, success), and about how I thought others should be treating me (respect, kindness).

The trouble with all of these expectations? I have absolutely zero control over how society/culture has changed while I’ve been gone and absolutely zero control over how people will treat me on a day-to-day basis.

Expectations reveal how we think things should be, and because we often cling to them tightly and rigidly, the weight of expectations feels heavy and our happiness is often very much dependent on whether they are or aren’t met. Expectations that are dependent on mere human beings (myself included) or the fleeting and temporary things of this world are bound to let us down at some point or another.

Expectations that are dependent on an eternal, all-powerful, omnipresent, and good God, on the other hand, are a totally different story. When we place our expectations on Him and who He is, rather than on the specific outcome of a situation, we will never be let down again.

As Christians, we can and should expect God to fulfill the promises that He has made to us and all His people. This is what we call hope. Though we will still have trials and tribulations in this world, “hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us” (Romans 5:5). Hope says we will “fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:18).

So this year, rather than expecting things to go smoothly, expecting people to understand me, expecting man-made machines to work 24/7, or expecting to get a raise at work, I am choosing to hope in the Lord and His promises and expectantly wait and look for His presence all around me.

This year I will…

Expect Him to be listening and to hear my prayers (Psalm 66:17-20).

Expect Him to work all things out for my good, even when I can’t see it yet (Romans 8:28).

Expect Him to protect me and guard me from those that seek to destroy (2 Thess. 3:3).

Expect Him to provide all of my needs (Phil. 4:19).

Expect Him to give me strength and rest when I need it (Isaiah 41:10; Matt. 11:28-30).

Expect Him to grant me wisdom and lead me in the path everlasting (James 1:5; Psalm 139:24).

In Him, I know that I am secure. In Him, I know that I am loved, taken care of, protected, fulfilled, whole, and cherished.

Like every human though, I’ll probably still create all sorts of expectations for the New Year without even realizing it and eventually find myself inadvertently sitting motionless underneath a pile of all sorts of unmet expectations.

However, my hope this year is that rather than allowing these unmet expectations to continue to crush me and make me frustrated, depressed, or anxious, I will start to see them sooner for what they really are and instead turn my eyes back to the Lord with the same hope and expectations that I am filled with today as we start off in this brand new year together.

What about you? Who or what are you hoping on this year? Are you expecting anything from the Lord for 2024?

If I Weren’t a Missionary

If I weren’t a missionary, my life would be so much easier.
I’d find just one place to call home, which would be far superior.

If I weren’t a missionary, I wouldn’t feel the pressure of so many eyes on me,
But maybe that’s what I needed to finally allow You to set me free.

If I weren’t a missionary, I wouldn’t have to learn a whole new way to speak,
But maybe I also wouldn’t have learned what God says about the meek.

If I weren’t a missionary, I might feel more free to speak whatever is on my mind.
But I certainly wouldn’t have learned to listen, and I’d probably still be walking around blind.

If I weren’t a missionary, I wouldn’t feel so naked and stripped of all I once was and knew,
But I might not have uncovered all the lies I once believed to be true.

If I weren’t a missionary, I might still have a social life filled to the brim,
But would I have ever learned to find my identity in Him?

If I weren’t a missionary, maybe I wouldn’t feel so alone,
But maybe I’d still be marching around with a heart of stone.

If I weren’t a missionary, I’d probably still be eating every meal with a fork and knife.
But would I have learned to hunger so much for the bread of life?

If I weren’t a missionary, I wouldn’t always feel so inadequate and weak,
But perhaps I would never have realized how often you were inviting me to seek.

If I weren’t a missionary, maybe I wouldn’t feel so much like I’m on the outside looking in,
But I also wouldn’t have realized how quickly people I barely know can become kin.

If I weren’t a missionary, maybe I wouldn’t have to worry so much about money,
But would I have realized that His promises are sweeter than honey?

If I weren’t a missionary, maybe I’d feel like I actually had a place to call home,
But perhaps then I’d never truly know the pain of those who have to roam.

If I weren’t a missionary, maybe tears wouldn’t stream so often down my face,
But would I still know the real goodness of His grace?

If I weren’t a missionary, there might be a million struggles I never had to face,
But would I truly know the comforting warmth of His embrace?

If I weren’t a missionary,
I sometimes wonder what my life would be.

I like to let myself think that all of this is unique to being overseas.
But the truth is, it’s for all who answer the call to “Follow me.”

The call to missions isn’t just for a select few who get on planes and trains,
It’s for all those who bow down before His Name.

The ways He works to bring glory to His name may be different from place to place,
But the end goal is for people of every nation and race to seek His face.

When things are hard out here, I find myself looking around for somewhere else to be,
But every time God reaches down and speaks right back to me.

More of you and less of me, whether here or there, that’s how I want it to be,
Even if I had never become a missionary.

 

The Untold Stories of Returned Missionaries

You’ve been back in this country for a little less than three months and you’re just wrapping up another talk at one of your sponsoring churches. People walk up to you after the service and shake your hand to welcome you back. “You must be so happy to be home!” they proclaim with earnest and hope-filled eyes as they insert words into your mouth before you can even open it in protest.

Wait, protest? Protest and say what? How do you say all that you need to say while standing awkwardly up against the wall in the narthex five minutes following the service? No, that’s not going to happen. The truth is that deep down, you know that now is not the time for such conversation, and so you force the edges of your mouth upwards and nod in agreement as they continue to rain down accolades on you for a “job well done” and tell you how relieved and proud you must feel now that it’s over.

But what if it doesn’t feel like a job well done? What if you never got to see much of what you expected and hoped and prayed to see? What if you came back a little sooner than you were planning? What if the PowerPoint slides full of pictures from your last seven years don’t tell the whole story? What if instead of relief there is pain, and instead of pride there is shame? What if instead of joy there is anger, and instead of lightness in your heart there is a heaviness that is just too hard to explain?

I’ve been back in my passport country for six months now and this is my story, and unfortunately, I know that I’m not alone. Missionaries come back for many reasons other than a “successful mission completed,” and all too often, those stories never see the light of day in the wider church community. There is fear of being looked at like a failure, fear of not being tough enough, holy enough, dedicated enough. There is a fear of being misunderstood or labeled as “not a team player” or overly dramatic or charismatic or alarmist. There is guilt about those left behind and all the work that was unfinished. Also, there are just some things that can’t be talked about very easily in front of a crowded congregation, so they never get talked about at all.

And because they are never talked about, the church at large keeps on moving forward, thinking that their returned missionaries are ok, even when they aren’t. But we as a church can’t be ok with this. If we are going to put so much time and effort into sending missionaries well,  we need to do the same when it comes to receiving them well when they come back.

And so, for all the missionaries who are afraid or unable to speak up, I’m laying it all out for anyone who wants to hear because I know all too well how easy it is to keep quiet even when your insides are screaming out, looking for a soft place to land.

If you’re a sending church, here’s just a sampling of some of the things your returned missionary might be dealing with that they probably aren’t exactly comfortable sharing from a pulpit:

  • Doubt. While there is definitely more openness in our Christian culture these days for people to express and explore their doubts related to faith and God, I’m not sure the same can be said for those in full-time ministries such as pastors and missionaries. How would it look when your missionary comes home and writes a blog or does a sermon on all the ways they doubt God and the way He is working in their ministry? How are donors going to respond to that?
  • Culture. While they may fill their newsletters and PowerPoints up with pictures of colorful dresses, tropical fruits, and exotic-looking cities and creatures that make the culture look beautiful and inviting, there are probably aspects of the culture that wear on them more than they say. Perhaps the way women or children are treated day in and day out has worn down your missionary’s spirits. Perhaps a lack of privacy or a culture of secrecy and corruption has exhausted them to their core. Culture shock isn’t just for the first couple of months or years; it can grate on you 5, 10, 15 years into your life abroad and cause continual cycles of shock and pain, which can add up significantly over time.
  • Trauma. For many missionaries who are serving in underdeveloped nations where hunger, disease, and violence run rampant, the horrors that they have witnessed day in and day out may have grown to be too much. We all know that death and pain are a part of life, but when you see people, people you know and love, dying from easily preventable causes nearly every single week and you see bodies on the side of the road mangled to the point of being unrecognizable, your psyche is forever impacted and sometimes there are just no words.
  • Physical Sickness. When you become a missionary and you say yes to living abroad, you know that there will be many sacrifices, your health being one of them. Unfortunately, sometimes injuries, illness, or even just general climates abroad can do irreparable damage to your body, and you are left with the choice of using unreliable health care abroad, which could lead to more serious or more permanent damage, or returning back to your passport country for higher-quality treatment. Some sicknesses can’t be easily seen just by looking at a person in a church service, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t suffering.
  • Spiritual Abuse. Spiritual abuse can take on many forms, but it often looks like someone in authority using scripture or beliefs to embarrass or humiliate, pressure, or obligate, coerce or control the behavior or words of someone else. This spiritual abuse can come from teammates, board members, sending churches, or even partnering churches on the ground, and oftentimes when victims try to speak up or question what is going on, they are ignored, dismissed, ridiculed, or made to think that they are actually the ones with the spiritual problem, not the abuser. I’ve heard this story of spiritual abuse on the mission field far too often, and I hope it’s something more people start asking about, writing about, and calling out because missionaries can’t end this culture of abuse on their own.
  • Loneliness. Guess what? You can still experience loneliness even when you are married, even when you have a whole flock of kids around you. Why? Because we were made for relationships beyond just our spouses and our families. Loneliness is associated with increased chances of high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, a weakened immune system, anxiety, depression, cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s disease, and even death. But can missionaries really tell their congregation they came home because they were lonely? What if that loneliness continues or gets worse even after you are back as no one can quite understand what you’ve experienced?
  • Marriage Stress. This is one you’ll probably never hear a missionary admit to in their blogs or from the pulpit, but it’s one that I can almost guarantee you that your missionary couple is undergoing if they’ve been living abroad for anything more than a month. Moving abroad is hard for individuals, but for married couples, it sometimes also means adjusting to a whole new dynamic, particularly if one spouse who used to be working is now staying at home full time or if the cultural gender role expectations of your host country are the complete opposite of what you’ve been practicing.
  • Children’s Health. You might hear missionaries talk about how their children’s health has been affected by the move abroad as they ask for prayers in their monthly updates. Sometimes it’s easier to talk about them than it is about yourself and your own struggles. However, if the reason a family moved home was for a child’s physical or mental well-being, you might not hear that mentioned at all because parents might not want that child to feel a burden of guilt or shame for being one of the reasons their parents left the mission field earlier than planned.
  • Hidden Sin. Missionaries struggle with sin, just like everyone else. And while they may have been good at keeping that sin hidden from their spouse or their mission board for a very long time, the mission field has a way of bringing those things to light. A missionary and his/her family might make the decision to leave the field in order to seek help and healing for that sin, or a missionary might be asked to go home by their board without having a say in the matter.
  • Finances. Finances, or lack thereof, are another big reason missionaries come back home, though they might not ever talk about it because of the level of shame they could be experiencing from it. Why didn’t the church give more? Why didn’t God provide for us when he provided for those other workers? Were we not worth it? Was the mission not valuable enough? Did we mishear our calling? Did we disappoint God? Sometimes God uses a lack of finances to bring people home, not because the mission and the missionaries weren’t effective, but because He has His own other reasons for wanting them home. Still, finances can be hard to talk about.
  • False Accusations. Depending on the country your missionary lived in, they might have been dealing with some false accusations from the community that in the end became too much to handle. Foreigners can be an easy target for communities to blame when something goes wrong, and their lives may easily become at risk. Also, in very corrupt societies, foreigners are seen as a great source from which to try and extract extra funds. The relentless requests for bribes, threats of going to jail, or unwarranted searches can really wear an individual down.
  • Spiritual Warfare. While spiritual warfare is something that some church denominations may be comfortable talking about in the pews on Sunday, for many churches in the West this is just one of those weird things that the Bible talks about, but that we don’t really understand or want to discuss. Many areas where missionaries serve are full of overt spiritual warfare, demonic worship, and wickedness beyond what many of us can fathom, and this can take a toll on the soul that is hard to articulate or share with friends, let alone strangers. Missionaries know that God is protecting them and providing for them in these situations, though sometimes coming home is still where God is leading them. But will others really understand?
  • Teammate Conflict. Like it or not, this is one of the most common reasons missionaries come home, but you probably won’t ever hear them talk about it. To leave a mission field early because of personal conflict or differences with teammates, may seem trivial to some, but when you are continually in an environment where you feel unheard, disrespected, undervalued, silenced, or diminished this is not only damaging and degrading to you as an individual, it can also be confusing and disorienting to the community seeing this play out. Some missionaries are sent by and return to churches or organizations that still have people on the ground there, so how do you open up about that with your congregation? How do you mention or get help without going into details about those people or making it sound like you are just being petty or immature?
  • Burnout. Burnout is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. Missionary fields are environments of prolonged stress. Sometimes burnout looks like a mental breakdown, sometimes it looks like anxiety, sometimes it looks like depression, and sometimes it looks like an internal hollowness that cannot be measured. Whatever it looks like, sometimes your missionary might not even be able to realize it or acknowledge it until they are on the other end of it. And even if they do recognize it, they probably aren’t speaking about it to the congregation on Sunday morning.

Are these all the untold stories of our returned missionaries? Definitely not. But hopefully, this list can get the church started thinking about how we can better receive and support missionaries once their time abroad has come to a close, no matter the reason they find themselves back on this side of the world. Just because a missionary leaves the field doesn’t mean they leave their struggles and pains there. Some of these hidden pains and stories know no borders. As senders, it is our responsibility to care for our missionaries long after they come back from the field, to listen closely to the stories that they choose to share, and to pray for ways to support them even in the stories that they choose to keep close to their hearts for now.

 

A Letter to My Host Country

You are the reason I’m afraid to walk along the road with a single car driving by.

You are the reason I tense up when I see police officers.

You are the reason I don’t like going out after dark anymore.

You are the reason I am constantly on guard, even in the most seemingly safe of places.

You are the reason I have white knuckles every time I get on the highway.

You are the reason I can’t enter a grocery store without giving myself a five-minute pep talk.

You are the reason I look like a nervous wreck when I approach the counter at a fast-food place.

You are the reason I have a hard time trusting people in authority.

You are the reason I need so much alone time now and can’t handle social situations like I used to.

You are the reason my heart tightens in my chest when I get just the faintest of fevers or bumps.

You are the reason I started to grow doubts about God, faith, missions, and international development work and all the things I’ve ever loved.

You are the reason my husband and I thought about giving up on each other after 11 years of love and laughs.

You are the reason I can barely manage to produce a frown, let alone tears, some days when confronted with the tragedy of another death. I’ve seen too much.

You are the reason I feel overwhelmed and overstimulated around automatic doors, and sinks, and toilets, and lights.

You are the reason I can’t remember simple road rules like yielding to school buses and stop signs.

You are the reason I feel comfortable in a room of people who look nothing like me, but awkward as can be in a room full of seemingly familiar faces

You, my dearest host country, are the reason I have become this person that I am today.

When I’m at my lowest moments during this transition back to living in my passport country again, all I can think of is everything that you’ve taken from me. All the ways in which you’ve turned me into this overly anxious, fearful, and unconfident human being now navigating life back on this side of the ocean.

Beyond all the physical things that were taken from me during my years there, I feel like I’ve been robbed of who I was before I arrived. There are things about this person I see in the mirror that I don’t even recognize, things that others might not see, but that I feel deep within my soul.

You are the reason for so many of my sorrows, so many of my new quirks, and so many of my odd triggers.

And yet, would I change it if I had the chance? Knowing what I know now and having experienced everything I’ve experienced, would I do it all again? Would I quit my job and all things familiar and pack up and move my family across the world? Would I let you take all these things from me again? And for what? What did you give me in return?

And then I realize….

You are the reason my heart resonates so deeply now with the immigrant, the refugee, the foreigner, the lost.

You are the reason I stopped pretending to be someone I’m not and just let myself be.

You are the reason for the cracks in my type-A perfectionist nature that controlled me for so long.

You are the reason I can offer a safe place for so many weary souls in this world.

You are the reason I finally learned to trust God wholeheartedly with my finances after years of letting them have mastery over me.

You are the reason my heart was turned from stone into flesh, making room for more people in my heart than I ever thought possible.

You are the reason I’ve been able to stay in touch with so many of my friends from all my previous walks of life as we built a network of amazing supporters to carry us through.

You are the reason I finally laid my trophies down at the feet of that old rugged cross and let my strivings cease, after decades and decades of chasing after accolades.

You are the reason I finally understood and accepted my own weaknesses and truly allowed the strength and power of God to shine through, rather than around, that weakness.

You are the reason I know how to survive and take care of myself in some of the strangest of situations.

You are the reason I can stand up and give a full-on speech at a moment’s notice – thanks to all that unsolicited practice you gave me!

You are the reason for my new passion for creating opportunities for equity, access, belonging, and inclusion for ALL who wish to pursue healthier lives, relationships, and communities.

You may have taken my time, my joy, my sense of security, my confidence, and my very identity, but what you gave back was more than I could even measure.

I am no longer the same 24-year-old girl who stepped off the plane into the humid tropical air, ready to change the world. Rather than coming up with all my own plans all the time, I am eager to submit to His; they always work out so much better than what I had come up with. I no longer feel the need to rush through life, racing from one accomplishment to the next; what I crave now is His presence more than anything.

I’ve learned to listen, and listen with my whole body, not just my ears, and I like what I hear. I’ve learned to value people, not by what they can do for me, but by how God sees them and to love them as His own. I’ve learned that change takes time, and it can’t be forced or rushed, no matter how much I believe it can. I’ve learned that I can’t control people, particularly in matters of the heart, and that relationships are so much more satisfying when you learn to let go and just love a person where they are at.

There may still be days when I will curse you and resent you, but today I want to thank you. Thank you for embracing me and my family and showing us a whole other side of what it means to follow the Lord, of what it means to be human, to be truly alive. I may have grown slower and more awkward and timid and jaded than I’d like to admit, but I’m also more caring, patient, sincere, resilient, humble, obedient, and discerning than I ever would have been without you.

As iron sharpens iron, so a friend sharpens another friend. You, my friend, are the iron the Lord has used to both sharpen and soften my heart, and for that I will be forever grateful for the years we had together.

 

We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.
(2 Corinthians 4:8-10)

 

A Tribute to My Expat Friends

You invited me to your home for the holidays without ever having met me, having only messaged once or twice on Facebook. You didn’t know if we had anything in common or would have anything to talk about, but you risked the awkwardness and went out on a limb and invited me and even hosted me and my family anyways.

You shared, rather than hoarded or hid, your special imported treats that had just arrived in someone’s suitcase and gave me a little taste of home when I was feeling desperately homesick.

You offered to bring things over in your suitcases, even when you yourself were getting loaded down with your own stuff and requests from probably 100 other people.

You gently corrected me and my false assumptions when my understanding of the culture and missions was still very new and surface level and you helped me to think about things from a different perspective without condemnation.

You were a listening ear that let me share and vent my frustrations, hurt, anger, and confusion with absolutely zero judgment even when you were dealing with all of your own stuff too. You helped validate the massive swarm of emotions and words going on in my head when you would share a simple “yeah, me too.”  You encouraged me to seek and get help when I needed it.

You made me feel loved and appreciated when you would send random messages of “how can I pray for you today?” and “thinking of you” and you watered our vibrant little community of faith out of the ashes of loss around us.

You pointed me towards Christ in the way you loved and listened to me with a genuine desire to understand my hurt rather than just serving up platitudes of toxic positivity and telling me to suck it up and “be a good Christian soldier.”

You came when we called and showed up in the dead of night or the blazing afternoon sun to pick us up from the airport when we landed hours after we had expected or to pick us up from the side of the road when our car broke down or was compounded yet again.

You showed up with random gifts out of the blue. You cooked delicious meals for me and helped me clean and organize when I felt overwhelmed to do even one more thing.

You went out of your way to see us when we had some rare moments in the capital city and were running around like crazy to get all our errands done or you let us crash on your couch or spare room when you knew we needed a little refuge away from it all.

You laughed when I laughed and cringed when I cringed as I recounted my many language-learning woes, making the whole thing of learning this new way of speaking and communicating feel just a bit less intimidating.

You went on crazy adventures with me to mountains, waterfalls, or busy markets for shopping. You told hilarious jokes and sent me goofy videos and memes or played games with me until all hours of the night and in those moments, it felt like all the weight and the worries disappeared and I could just “be me” and laugh for a little while.

You shared with me all of your struggles and opened up about your failures and doubts, which made life a whole lot easier, knowing that I wasn’t crazy and that there were Christians out there dealing with the same things.

When I told you I was leaving, you didn’t just cut me out of your life as a form of self-protection and “move on to the next one” as I had so agonizingly feared, but you kept inviting me to things and messaging me as you leaned in harder to a friendship you knew was about to change and had yet another painful teary goodbye rapidly approaching.

Our time of living in the same country may be coming to a close, but our friendships and the bonds we forged here will not soon be broken or forgotten. Who I am today has been shaped ever so tenderly by your love, care, and generosity over the years here together in this foreign land.

As our time together comes to an end, the only thing I can really think to say is, “Thank you for being my expat friend.”

Toxic Positivity in Missions

What is positive toxicity? Is it something that Christians, and particularly missionaries, need to be wary of? What about our call to be light in the darkness in this troubled world?

Toxic positivity is not just an optimistic or hopeful outlook on life. It is the insistence that, despite the gravity of a situation or the depth of emotional pain one has experienced, one should strive to only feel and express positive emotions. It is an insincere or fake positivity and the oversimplifying or overlooking of complex emotions and situations as you put pressure on yourself or others to ignore negative emotions and artificially speed up the timeline of getting back to the “positive” as soon as possible.

Toxic positivity is a hallmark of our modern-day culture with its emphasis on the pursuit of happiness (fleeting as it may be) and its single-minded chase of “positive vibes only.” This culture has even seeped into some of our churches, leading many to believe a skewed theology in which “rejoice in the Lord always” means never allowing yourself to recognize or validate feelings of sorrow, discouragement, anger, frustration, fear, or anxiety.

For many, positive toxicity can be a form of self-protection. By refusing to acknowledge those negative emotions in themselves or in others, they are seemingly freeing themselves from the heavy burdens or thoughts that accompany those difficult emotions.

For missionaries, it’s easy to see how this could become a serious temptation. For newly arrived missionaries, toxic positivity may be a coping method that they use to try to manage the overwhelming effects of culture shock and to reassure themselves and others that they made the right decision upending their life for this. For seasoned missionaries who have likely had their fair share of betrayal, failure, trauma, or disappointment, toxic positivity can be a way of barricading themselves off from “one more thing,” or it may be deployed to, by their own might, chisel away at the heart of stone they might have noticed forming in their chest.

While there are certainly benefits to trying to have a more positive outlook on life, sometimes we go overboard or astray. How might toxic positivity manifest on the mission field?

  • Internally shaming yourself for ever thinking anything negative about the ministry or God
  • Publicly or privately shaming those missionaries who openly share their struggles with the culture or with host-country nationals and labeling them as “those of little faith” or “immature”
  • Imposing a timeline on someone’s healing (either your own or someone else’s) with suggestions that they should “just get over it” and move on more quickly from a painful or traumatic event
  • Over-compensation, an exaggerated attempt to overcome or diminish negative feelings (inferiority, guilt) by overworking oneself, using excessive flattery, or self-promoting
  • Using scripture out of context to minimize someone’s experiences or feelings by giving them a “new perspective” (i.e., “It could be worse” or “God’s got a plan”) before validating their feelings
  • Refusal to acknowledge someone’s hurt feelings by glossing over those parts of a conversation
  • Newsletters and social media posts that portray a one-sided view of the ministry in an attempt to convince partners, and possibly yourself, that “everything is fine” even if it might not be
  • Overlooking any criticism or critique of the ministry as just someone being “too negative”
  • Suggesting “quick fixes” or suggesting you simply “press on” in difficult or complex situations in an attempt to steer the conversation away from the hard reality that is being experienced
  • Blaming people for their own situations or struggles rather than first empathizing with them
  • Assertation of a very black-and-white interpretation of a situation rather than acknowledging the nuance and seeking discernment together

Have you found yourself believing these types of messages and doing these types of things to yourself or fellow missionaries? Have you been blindsided, hurt, shamed, or confused by someone doing it to you? What was the result?

Unfortunately, responding to hurt or difficult situations by ignoring these negative feelings and spewing out the positive has the potential to make things worse in the long run. Overwhelming the negative with positive may work in math and science, but it does not work in matters of the heart.

Toxic positivity can lead up to the buildup of emotions that are never dealt with, resulting in anxiety, depression, cognitive dissonance, overcompensation, and feelings of powerlessness, shame, or guilt. It can cause people to question their own experiences, and it can undermine one’s sense of reality, which can be very disconcerting, particularly for those who are already struggling to grapple with the disorientation of cross-cultural living. Toxic positivity leads to the breakdown of relationships and safe spaces and isolates people from each other and their support systems, making the chance that they might experience burnout even more likely.

Most importantly, toxic positivity does not reflect the heart of our God, who created the full range of human emotions and is able and willing to sympathize with us in our weakness and times of trouble. Toxic positivity is not how we shine a light on the darkness because toxic positivity is a reaction that stems from fear and shame rather than faith. It focuses on self-reliance to “power through” and create or shine our own light rather than calling us to step into the light through surrender to the one true God. Toxic positivity is a shallow substitute for the hope of the gospel and a genuine relationship with Christ.

How can we do better and avoid toxic positivity?

Rather than asking ourselves or others to ignore the messy, difficult, uncomfortable feelings of this life overseas, let’s use our words and our actions to point toward Christ, who alone can provide true healing and comfort in the midst of our weakness.

Rather than toxic positivity, let’s practice empathy, compassion, and authenticity.

Let’s be devoted to one another in love and be a safe space for our fellow missionaries to let go of their strivings and find peace as they are reminded that we and God are here for them, no matter what.

Let’s listen before we speak, acknowledge other people’s emotions as real and meaningful, give grace to those who are struggling (including ourselves), and bear one another’s burdens by mourning with those who mourn just as our Savior did.

Let’s remind each other that failure and sorrows are not the end, though they may be our reality right now, and that the negative things that we experience and feel are just as real and as useful in drawing us near to Christ as are the times of unbridled joy and celebration.

Can Missionaries Fire People?

Can Christians fire people? Can pastors fire people? Can churches fire people? What about missionaries? Can they fire people? I’m sure this question has been asked before, but it is worth asking again because my guess is that there are some individuals or teams out there who might be wrestling with this right now. So, can missionaries fire people?

Before we get into that exactly, here are some questions you might want to consider first:

What type of ministry are you doing? Are you serving in a local church, business, educational or humanitarian work, medical care, orphan care, translation, or something else? Are you putting someone’s life at risk by allowing this person to continue in their position at a hospital? Are you jeopardizing the livelihoods of others whose income might depend on this business? Are you jeopardizing the safety, security, or well-being of children in your care?

Is their behavior a result of personal decisions that this individual has made (sin) or poor management on my part to create an environment for them to succeed in? Meaning, how much am I to blame as a leader/manager for this person’s behavior? Did I fail to make the expectations clear? Did I fail to explain the task clearly? Did I fail to communicate the importance/urgency of this task? Did I assign a person to this task who never even had a chance of being able to complete it in the first place? Is this person a good fit for the job? As organizations grow and shift and transform, so do positions, and sometimes through all of that people end up in jobs that perhaps are not a best fit for their skills. What can be done then?

Have adequate warnings been given? People make mistakes. We are all human beings, sinners desperately in need of God’s grace. Have you given this person a chance to correct their mistakes? Are they adequately aware of what they’ve done and how they can prevent it in the future?

Is the firing of this person for your personal comfort or for the good of the ministry? This one is hard to reflect on, but it is necessary to help us identify our motives before letting someone go. Is the issue that you have with the person just that you don’t like them personally, or is it that they are doing something wrong or being defiant? What seems like defiance and rudeness is sometimes just another way of doing things, and discerning this takes some time and self-awareness and also understanding of the culture in which you are serving.

What do your fellow team members think? While many missionaries may work alone and have the decision to hire/fire solely in their hands, many of us work on teams, and that makes this decision even more complicated. What do your fellow mission partners think about this situation? How does that influence your decision? Do you trust/value their opinions in this regard? Which one of you ultimately has the final say in this decision?

What are the local laws regarding firing of employees? This one can take a lot of time to investigate and figure out, especially if those laws are confusing to read, difficult to access, in a different language, not well documented, randomly enforced, etc. If your host country is anything like ours, the government officials are always looking for any reason to fine or tax us heavily or even kick us out, so be very careful that whatever action you take is in line with local laws.

Can you still continue ministering to this person after they are let go? Missionaries may be reluctant to let go of staff because they fear that letting go of their staff member means that their relationship will end and therefore that opportunities to witness to them are over. They feel they are betraying themselves and their calling if they do this. But firing does not necessarily mean you have to end that relationship. There are many ways to continue to invest in that relationship by visiting them, calling them, inviting them over for dinner, inviting them to church, etc.

What are the consequences of keeping this person? What could be the result if you keep this person? What effect might it have on you, your team, your community? On the workplace environment? How are their actions affecting the overall morale of the organization and the other employees themselves? If other employees perceive that there are no consequences for certain behaviors, how will that affect their motivation to uphold the standards set for the group?

What are the consequences of firing this person? What could be the result for your ministry? What will it mean for your team if you need to quickly add or shift responsibilities around? What could be the result for your community? For their family? The answer to this question does not necessarily have to have any bearing on whether an employee needs to be fired or not, but it may have bearing on HOW an employee is fired. How many people are depending on this person for a salary? What will happen to them (most likely innocent bystanders) if this person is let go? Is there any way you can lessen the blow? Allow the family time or flexibility to figure out other solutions for providing for themselves? Switch the person to another position?

Are they representing your organization and ministering to others? Some ministries expect the people that they hire or work with to be to be their teammates as ministers of the gospel (i.e. professing Christians who intentionally work to shine the light of Christ in their day-to-day jobs as teachers, carpenters, nurses, evangelists, etc.).  On the other hand, other ministries are hiring people that they know are not Christians so that they have a chance to minister to them through their jobs. If they were hired to be ministers of the gospel in their jobs, are they intentionally striving to represent Christ in those areas?

What does the Bible say? Well, the Bible does not address this issue directly, so rather than take a couple verses out of context, let’s try to look at it from a wider view. The Bible talks about mercy and grace; the Bible also talks about obedience and standards. The Bible talks about forgiveness; the Bible also talks about consequences and discipline. There are verses that might seem to support the idea of firing and verses that might seem to reject it. So, what now?

At the end of the day, there is no one-size-fits-all answer. Can you fire people? I would say that yes, as a missionary, you can fire someone. Should you fire this particular person that you are thinking of at this specific time? That, I do not know.

There is no easy answer as each situation, each ministry, and each person is unique. PRAY. Ask God for wisdom and discernment and clarity. Ask that He would remove any personal bias or sin that may be lingering in your heart as you reflect on this. Ask that He would guide you with your words and actions and grant you the patience and grace that you need in those difficult conversations where you might need to let someone go. Ask that He would give you His heart in ALL situations, even and especially in something like this.

The Mission of Forgiveness

It felt like it was me against the world.

I was mad at the administration of the school for whom I was volunteering for giving me so much work to do even after I had told them it couldn’t be done. I was mad at my teammates for the choices they had made about which direction the ministry should move and how I’d felt unheard in the process. I was mad at my mission board for not stepping in more and coming to our rescue when things blew up.

I was mad at my students for cheating on their midterms, mad at my neighbor for spreading false allegations about me, mad at my coworkers for their unrealistic, unfair expectations and little jabs about still not having fully adapted to the culture. I was mad at those guys who harassed me with lude comments every day when I walked across the field to work. I was mad at the farm crew for leaving so many weeds amongst the corn that had just been planted.

I was mad at my friends and even my church back home who had seemingly moved on with their lives without me. I was mad at my husband for his quick and seemingly thoughtless reply to me that morning. If I’m being honest, I was mad at the whole entire country for the flagrant corruption in both the big city offices and the small rural homes that resulted in so many needless deaths day after day.

There was no safe place where I could go for a thousand miles that did not trigger bitterness, rage, or despair. Not the school, not the home, not the farm, not even the street. After five years, it had all finally caught up with me. I felt so alone, so hopeless. I felt like I had no one to turn to because the way I saw it, every single person in my life owed me an apology and I couldn’t seem to move past that.

When I first moved here, I had to learn how to do things that had been second nature to me in my previous life. I had to learn a new way to cook, a new way to dress, a new way to talk, a new way to drive, a new way to shop, a new way to greet people, a new way to express grief, and a new way to listen. But one of the hardest things I’ve had to learn how to do all over again is forgive.

We are missionaries, and we are Christians; we know what it means to forgive. We have been theoretically doing it our whole lives. So why all of a sudden when we move abroad, do we feel like we got automatically signed up for an unrequested and unending refresher course on this particular topic?

Yes, forgiveness does look and play out differently in different cultures, and that certainly took (and is still taking) some time to get used to. And yes, trying to reconcile what you know and believe about forgiveness while living in a country or community where injustice runs absolutely rampant, can wage wars within your soul. But I believe that there is something deeper, something even more obvious that we might have forgotten. This idea of forgiveness is itself at the very core of our faith and therefore our testimony.

Whether it was in high school youth group or an official pre-field missionary training program, we’ve probably all had some experience fine-tuning the verbal versions of our testimonies. You may have also had the opportunity to take any number of amazing courses that are designed to help prepare you for sharing that testimony in cross-cultural evangelism situations. There are thousands of amazing evangelism tracts, bracelets, crusades, revivals, dramas, games, movies, books, websites, study tools, and more that do a fabulous job of helping us to tell people the story of what Jesus did for us — and for them — on the cross.

No doubt, people need to hear these testimonies alongside of the Word of God, but they also need to see it and experience it for themselves. We cannot preach the good news of Jesus Christ on our mission fields, without also living it out as He did. What more compelling way is there to live out the gospel than to practice that same radical forgiveness?

Jesus didn’t just preach forgiveness; he forgave. Jesus didn’t just speak the word of God; He lived it. He didn’t just say that He loved people; He showed them by dying an excruciatingly painful and completely unjust death on the cross. John 15:13 reminds us, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

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

There are many opportunities on the mission field to hold a grudge or to build in resentment. I’m sure you already know that well enough. But the good news is that for every opportunity to plant the seed of bitterness in our hearts, we also have a chance to plant the seeds of wonder, of awe, of hope, of love in our hearts and in the hearts of others.

There is nothing that speaks to the goodness of God like the act of forgiveness. It was through His forgiveness of our sins on the cross that Jesus truly showed us what love is. For it was while we were still sinners that He died for us (Rom 5:8). What kind of love is that? It is the kind of love that leaves people in awe, the kind of love that makes them want to know more, the kind of love that we all want for ourselves but might not know how to find.

Forgiveness is our greatest form of evangelism. It is our loudest testimony to the goodness of God.

Forgiveness says that we believe God’s plans are good, even when our lives and society might seem to say otherwise. Forgiveness says that there is a power that can overcome the deepest and ugliest desires of my flesh. Forgiveness says to someone that they are worthy not because of what they’ve done, but because of who Christ is. Forgiveness says that we trust God to handle this in His way and His time. Forgiveness says that there is another way besides the prison of resentment, walls, bitterness, revenge, and rage. Forgiveness reaches across the divide and bridges the gap that is far too wide for us to cross alone. Forgiveness breaks the chains and grants freedom, and our ability to forgive, by the grace of the Spirit, is just as much our mission as any of the rest of it.

1 Peter 4:12 reminds us, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.”

In order for us live a life that magnifies and glorifies Him and speaks to the kind of forgiveness and freedom that is available through Christ, we must accept that there will constantly be things done to us and around us that will require our forgiveness. The fiery trials and tests are not merely the mosquitos and the food poisoning that plague us on darkest nights, but they are the pain and sorrows that will undoubtedly be inflicted on us by those we serve alongside and by the very people we are here striving to love. This should come as no surprise, because is that not also how it happened for Jesus our Savior? That the very people He walked beside every day and the very people He came to save were the ones who betrayed Him and nailed Him to a cross?

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Take some time and reflect. Have you experienced the same on your mission field? Are there people who have hurt and betrayed you in big ways? Or maybe for you it hasn’t been a series of major events, but rather daily offenses that may have seemed small and manageable at first but that have added up to an avalanche of resentment and bitterness? How is holding onto these offenses affecting you? Affecting your ministry? Affecting your relationships…with God, with your family, with your team, with nationals? What would it look like to forgive? What do you need to trust God with in order to forgive this person? How can you pray for this person? What is He leading you to do in this moment?

Pray and ask God to show you if there is any unforgiveness that is lingering in your heart, and ask for His grace and mercy to forgive. For it is not only your peace that depends on it, but also your testimony; not only your relationship with God that could be at stake, but also theirs.

For more resources on forgiveness, I highly recommend checking out Global Trellis’s courses on Forgiveness and the book “Choosing Forgiveness: Moving From Hurt to Hope.”

Are You Using Missions as a Free Pass?

A hand reaches out.

I can see it coming, and I wince and turn away. I resist.

It feels like it’s asking me for more, and I don’t have any more to give.

I am so, so tired.

I argue back, “Don’t you know that I’ve done enough? Look at where I am right now! Take a look around, how much more can you possibly ask for? I’ve already given up my house, my car, my clothes, my food, my comfort, my friends, my residency, my career. I’ve made sacrifices not many others have made.”

Yes, it’s true. As a missionary I’ve given up a lot of big things, some easily visible things. We all have. Things that people congratulate us for, pity us for, look at us with amazement for, applaud us for, idolize us for, and sometimes even bring us up onto stage and call us heroes for (grits teeth in uneasiness at the memory).

When I first moved overseas, it was easier to shrug off all the “hero talk” and see it for what it was: the Western church’s idolization of missions. Plus, I figured that I was still pretty fresh on the field in comparison to others and hadn’t yet “done” anything that warranted that sort of attention or praise (as if there were some sort of threshold?).

In the beginning, when I was new to the missionary field, these “sacrifices” didn’t seem like all that big of a deal. They came with the job title; they were part of the package. Don’t get me wrong, walking away from the home where my husband and I had begun our married life was hard. Giving up being close to friends and family stung. Letting go of the sense of stability that came from a steady job that paid the bills was downright frightening.

But the thing is, I’d known those changes were coming, and I’d prepared myself as much as anyone could. I was willing to give them up, and so I opened my hands in release. And in a moment, they were gone. I didn’t spend a lot of time looking back at everything that was behind me because there was so much exciting stuff in front of me.

But then came the reality of our life abroad, and with it came…

  • Loss of security, when we were robbed the first day in our new home in our new community.
  • Loss of competence, as I realized I couldn’t even do something as simple as buy groceries without feeling completely overwhelmed and lost.
  • Loss of closeness, as I felt isolated and alone on a campus of hundreds of people.
  • Loss of control, as schedules changed overnight and job descriptions that I’d once built so many expectations on were shredded before my eyes.
  • Loss of comforts, as I realized there was not a decent dark chocolate bar for miles with which to ease all my emotional woes.
  • Loss of respect, as I navigated being a woman in a more overtly patriarchal society.
  • Loss of identity, as I struggled to figure out how I fit into this new role.
  • Loss of trust, as I struggled underneath the weight of another gut-wrenching betrayal.

The more that I sensed I was losing on the field of missions, the more pain I felt, and the more I longed to find comfort and an end to all of the stretching and pulling, aching, crying, suffering, and grief. The more I lost, the more I began to agree with those church folks back home.

From an outsider’s perspective looking in, it all might seem very reasonable. In the world’s eyes I’ve done enough, more than enough. It certainly appears like I’ve given it all over to Him. But all of these things, the “big” ones that the world tells us are the “hard ones” to give up, the ones that make you somehow superhuman in the eyes of many of your fellow congregants? They are nothing in comparison to the silent war raging inside my heart. The world might be distracted by the collage of exotic looking photos I share in newsletters and the statistics that go into the annual reports, but He knows there’s still so much more to be done, so much more I have yet to surrender to Him.

He knows how I cling to my pride and how I let anxieties rule my thoughts. He knows my tendency to bow down to the opinions of others and how often I lift myself up as I cling to the law. He knows when I let my love for efficiency and being right win out over building relationships.

Yes, the Lord knows all that I still fiercely hold onto deep in the far corners of my heart. He knows ALL I have yet to surrender to Him, but He knows too how much MORE He has to offer me in return.

What He’s asking is not for me to do more for Him, but rather for Him to do more for me.

In our culture, it can be easy to buy into the lie that it is the outward sacrifices, the big grand gestures like moving abroad that mean the most, that make us worthy in God’s Kingdom. Amidst all the noise and fanfare, we can be tempted to hide behind the façade of heroism. We might actually start to believe that these extravagant works and acts of surrender might justify us before the throne and somehow serve as a free pass, exempting us from the work of sanctification that God invites every Christian, missionary or not, to be a part of.

When my heart is already hurting from the pain of losing things that my eyes can see and my hands can touch, all I can sense is a hand reaching down in an attempt to take something else away. And so, I resist, holding up the evidence of all that I’ve already done “for God” and then hiding behind it. I tell God “ENOUGH,” swatting His hand away.

But here’s the thing that I’m finally starting to realize. His hands are not reaching out to try and sneakily grab something away from me when my guard is down and I’m least expecting it. His Hands are reaching out so that He can give me something: more of Him.

It’s for me to decide if I’m going to let go of what I’ve been clinging to and instead reach back and take the gift He offers. It’s up to me if I’m willing to exchange the bitterness of shame for the sweet taste of abundant grace that God alone can give. Am I willing to trade my racing anxieties for never-ending peace and the chance to just be still in His arms; to trade my stubborn pride for the glory and majesty of the cross; to trade my piles and piles of dirty rags that weigh me down for robes of righteousness that flow freely in the breeze? The world may offer you a chance to be well-known as someone who is “greater,” but God offers you an opportunity to be truly known by your Creator. And nothing, nothing will ever compare.

Maybe you too are tired and weary, and you feel like there’s not much more left to give. You feel like you’ve done enough and that you can’t do any more.  But the good news is that God isn’t asking you to “do enough for Him.” He is asking for a chance to do more than enough for you. Will you let Him?

When Their Culture Becomes Your Idol

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is it a _________________:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Angry Missionary

Yet again, I found myself seething as I got up from the table and walked out the door. My heart was pumping fast, my hands were shaking, my jaw was clenched, and my eyes were bulging out of my head. Why was this happening again?

I think am an Angry Missionary. Maybe you are too?

Anger. It’s not something we like to talk about a lot. The imagery I’ve engrained of a missionary is someone maybe like Mother Theresa…gentle, kind, loving, quiet, patient, enduring, strong, docile. When I think of her, or any of the other iconic missionaries I’ve read about, I don’t think about anger. And yet, when I talk to other missionaries, here and around me now, this is what I hear:

“I used to be a nice person.”

“I never used to struggle with anger like this before.”

“This country is making me lose my testimony.”

“I don’t know who I am anymore, I feel so angry.”

“Everyone around me is angry and I just find myself falling into that too.”

Why might a missionary in particular struggle with something like anger? First let’s look at what anger is.

Anger, according to Christian counselor and author David Powlison, is the emotion we feel when we identify something that we perceive as 1) not right and 2) important enough to care about.

What types of things can cause anger to rise up within? A simple Google search pointed to a number of things that may occur throughout, if not define, the missionary experience.

  • We experience unmet expectations. We have expectations about what life would be like here, who we would become, how quickly we’d become that person, how much we can get done in a day, when we’d see the fruits of our labors.
  • We experience loss. Loss of friends as they transition in and out, loss of donors, loss of security, loss of careers, loss of schedules, loss of comfort and familiarity, loss of freedom, loss of control, loss of identity.
  • We experience stress. When the home office tells us to add just one more thing to our plates, when donors drop and needs keep rising, when we set foot in any government building to process paperwork, when we walk down the street and horns are blowing and people shouting.
  • We experience or bear witness to injustice. When we see murders and robberies of the material poor that go unsolved and untried, corruption that contaminates every aspect of life, people dying way too young of treatable diseases simply because of where they were born.
  • We feel unheard and misunderstood. When the people we came to love reject us and betray us, when we mispronounce words as we fumble through yet another greeting, when people assume they know who we are or what we want by nature of our skin color or passport, when sponsors back home ask, “How was your trip?” while we are back home on furlough.
  • We experience fear. When we think about what could happen if one of my children got seriously sick in this country, when our home and personal sense of privacy and security has been violated by a home invasion, when we don’t know what to expect any given day.

I laughed as I read through the list and realized that I’d experienced pretty much every single one of these triggers within the past two days. By nature of our lives overseas, we missionaries probably find ourselves living lives that are chock full of things that could easily set anyone off into a fit of rage or downward spiral of bitterness. While some might see those reactions as justifiable, is that really the path we want to take? Are we slaves to our circumstances or emotions or do they simply reveal what is already in our hearts? What does your anger reveal about you?

Think back to the last time you were angry. Why were you angry? What wrong happened? Who/what are you trusting in to right that wrong? How did you react? Why did you care so much? Which ones of your values were violated? Was your response to anger constructive or destructive?

In your anger are you placing anything above God? Your rights? Your will? Your feelings? Your plans?

We often hear in church about righteous anger. When I think of righteous anger, my mind always goes straight to the story in the Bible with Jesus flipping over the tables at the temple (Matt. 11:15-18). The market people had violated the sanctity of the temple, and Jesus came in and uprooted that sin while also preaching the truth to those present. So, what about me? Am I acting in righteous anger when I am red-faced, shouting and rolling my eyes at the man in uniform outright asking for a bribe along the road? 

While there might be a genuinely righteous reason for getting angry (i.e. corruption), often times what I find as I’ve allowed the Spirit to search my heart, is that there is usually also an element of my own sin coming through too. My soul was rightly grieved by the sin, but my flesh was also pricked. My pride has been offended, my feelings have been hurt, my ego has been bruised. I want what I want. Instead of being angry at the presence of sin, I tend to get angrier about how the sin affected memy plans, my day, my happiness, my sense of self. Rather than going after the sin itself, I sometimes get side-tracked and go after the person. At my weakest moments, I want to unleash a mouth full of sass and glare with ice blue eyes that have been likened to piercing daggers. I begin to plot evil against one of God’s beloved.

“For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against a spiritual wickedness in high places.” (Ephesians 6:12)

Jesus knew this and responded accordingly. He too experienced unmet expectations, loss, fear, stress, injustice. He too was most definitely misunderstood. And yet in His anger He did not sin. In confronting the sin of others, He did not allow himself to fall into the trap of committing sin himself.

Anger is an emotion meant to help us identify when things are not going right and to move us towards action to make it right. That is a big part of our role as created beings here on earth, to be His Hands and His Feet in bringing about the good and perfect and redemptive will of God. However, anger that reacts in uncontrollable, selfish, pitying, passive aggressive, self-righteous, bitter, and argumentative ways does not honor God, but man.

How then can we use our anger to honor God? In the same way that we lay our lives down before God, so must we do with our anger. Our anger must become a servant, bowing down before the God Most High. We are not to become servants to our anger, nor slaves to our circumstances. Only to God.

When we give our anger to God for Him to use in His ways and in His time, we will see that our anger becomes controlled, correctly motivated, and directed along the path of true justice. It isn’t supposed to just simply go away or get stuffed down in hard to reach places of our hearts, nor should it completely overpower us. In submissive anger we can show mercy for the sinner, just as God did for us, while still speaking truth about the wrong that occurred and taking actions to make it right.

Anger must point people towards God, not away. While it highlights and makes known the destruction that has been caused and how it has offended God, it must not destroy any more through words or deeds. Anger misdirected leads people down the path of despair. Anger submitted to the Will of God leads people down the path of hope and redemption.

To be an Angry Missionary is not necessarily a bad thing. It doesn’t have to be an oxymoron.

The wrath of God is inseparable from the love of God. There cannot be anger, if there is not first love. God’s anger is aroused when His love is violated by sin in the world. As missionaries, God has placed a heavy burden on our hearts to love the people of the nation where He has brought us. When we commit to loving His people the way He loves them, asking Him to break our hearts for the same things that break His, we will get angry. But it’s how we use that anger, for His glory and purposes and not our own, that will truly define our life overseas.