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?


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.

Power Dynamics on the Mission Field

Power is a dirty word for Christians who want to follow a life of humility, right? In church, it feels like we’ve been conditioned to not talk about power unless we are talking about the power of the Holy Spirit. To talk about power and how it plays out among mere human beings feels like a risky road to start walking down…almost like the one that James and John stepped on to as soon as they asked Jesus whether they could be granted the seat at the right hand of the Father (Mark 10:35).

But the reality is, we all have power, whether we admit it or not. Power is not just a position, but instead it is the capacity or ability to direct or influence the behavior of others or the course of events.

Power comes in many forms and many types. Power can be either visible or invisible and sometimes we are aware of it while other times we are not. Power is associated with many words such as “power over”, “power to,” “power of,” and “power with.” Power can either be used or abused. Power can lift up and power can crush.

Power itself is not inherently evil. Seeking opportunities to influence is not a bad thing. God gives us opportunities to influence and sometimes even places us in positions of influence so that we can direct or point people towards His truths and His ways. Pastors are placed in positions to influence their parishioners, parents influence children, and teachers influence their students. In their healthiest forms, power in these relationships is being used to empower others by influencing and encouraging positive behaviors, but at other times this power can be used to abuse or oppress those with less power. The study of how the use of power plays out in relationships of those with varying degrees of power is called power dynamics.

If power dynamics exist within the church, within the home, and within the workplace, it’s pretty safe to assume that power dynamics exist within our ministry field. And if they exist, then we should probably be talking about them.

When and if we talk about power dynamics and missions, our focus is usually on the relationship between the missionary and host country nationals. The importance of talking about power dynamics and the potential effects on relationships as we live out and share the gospel is generally recognized, given the economic conditions and sometimes colonial heritage of many of the countries we serve in.

How often though do we talk about power dynamics between missionaries who serve alongside each other as part of a team? Are we not also involved in relationships with one another? Even if we are coming from the same country, does that mean power dynamics are not also at play amongst us? What is the likelihood that we are all entering into these relationships with the exact same understandings about what power is, who has it, how it should be regulated, and why it’s important to talk about?

Given that one of the most common reasons cited by missionaries for leaving the field is trouble with their own team members, maybe we ought to begin a conversation about this.

WHY should we talk about power?

  • Creates a unified language about power. We may not all have the same definition or idea of power and how it relates to our relationships, our roles, and our witness so it’s important to establish some commonality in language so as to avoid misunderstandings and hurt.
  • It encourages self-reflection and self-awareness. By first acknowledging and then engaging in open and honest conversations about power and it’s origins and uses, we are able to reflect on our role and our use of power to determine whether we are honoring God with it or not. Power can be an amazing asset when used in the right moment and in the right context. But if we are unaware of the power that we are yielding, we just might end up walking around like a bull in a china shop, hurting and alienating those we love.
  • Helps create efficiency and ownership. Talking about power and who has it can help us identify areas where it needs to be either consolidated or distributed further. Consolidation of power can help when perhaps we are taking too long to make a decision because too many people are involved. Further distribution of power can serve as a tool for more people to feel ownership in decision making and the mission itself.
  • It can help to clarify roles and temper expectations. In talking with many missionaries, I know that one of the big challenges that comes along with saying yes to this job is the fact that often we don’t really fully know what we’re saying yes to! Nonetheless, we each come onto the field with our own expectations of what we will be doing and how we’ll be doing it. Although we may all have a shared mission, we have different ideas about how that will play out and how our power to influence should or shouldn’t be used which can lead to a lot of unmet and unrealistic expectations and bitter or resentful feelings when things don’t necessarily play out that way.

By being afraid or ashamed to talk about power or by denying it exists at all, we may be missing out on opportunities to equip our brothers and sisters in Christ to live out their purposes. Power is not just something to be wielded, nor is it something to be ignored. Christian author Andy Crouch asserts that power is a gift because “power is for flourishing.” Power, or postures of influence, is what allows us to be image bearers for Christ in a world that is looking for hope and a Savior. We can use our power as a gift from the Holy Spirit as God intended it, or we can hand it over to the devil and let ourselves become ensnared within the throngs of jealousy and pride. Because power is a gift, we are called to steward it and use it wisely.

HOW can we leverage the gift of power among our team?

  • Facilitate a conversation about power dynamics and the ministry. Talk openly together as a team about this reality and both the positive and negative implications it has on your relationships with each other, with host country nationals, with partners, with the board etc. Talk specifically about the factors that influence power dynamics such as differences in roles, age, gender, experience, race, denominational views, education levels, subcultures, personalities, and of course money. How money is spent (ie how this “power” is used to influence others for the sake of the gospel) can be a huge area for tension. Don’t allow the devil to take that and use it to create division. Instead, take hold of the narrative through open and honest communication. Talk about power dynamics if you are just now joining the team and you don’t anticipate any problems or whether you’ve been a team for years and you’re looking for ways to grow stronger. Talk about it with each other, talk about this with board, and talk about it with partners, donors, and funders.
  • Personality tests or spiritual gifting tests. Personality tests and spiritual gifting tests are tools that can better help us to understand not only teammates, but also ourselves. When an organization or a team leader knows the personalities of those on their team, they can better understand the values from which each person operates and the lenses through which they might view a situation. When we understand the strengths and weaknesses of the members of our teams alongside those personalities, we can uniquely position each member of our team into a position where their giftings can flourish and create maximum influence for the Kingdom.
  • Set up an organizational chart for your team. A chart that shows hierarchy or spheres of influence can greatly help to empower each team member in his or her area. This helps to set up clear communication lines and boundaries so that each person knows to whom to talk, defer, or delegate. When there is less confusion as to who should be doing or deciding what, you are limiting the potential for misunderstandings and negative feelings about control. It can feel “icky” to have conversations about control/power because it’s a blurry line between looking like you are in it with selfish pride verses just craving structure that might help you and others to thrive. A (flexible) organizational chart can provide a foundation for those hard conversations.
  • Develop clearly written job descriptions for each team member. This goes in line with the organizational chart as it will help to further clarify the responsibilities (or areas of influence) of each team member. I suggest having these written up before a team is brought together, but as we all know, things never seem to work out quite exactly how we planned so perhaps make a point to revisit these job descriptions together as a team as roles or projects shift.
  • Pray for each other daily. Pray that God would give your teammates opportunities to use the power that God has given them to influence people for His kingdom. When we are continually lifting each other up in prayer, this act will naturally soften our hearts towards our teammates and rather than praying about how we can deal with this other person’s perceived power complex? perhaps we are instead praying about how we can help that person and ourselves grow in self-awareness, wisdom, and love within the unique sphere of influence that God has placed us in?

Let’s start the conversation of power within our ministries and our teams. Maybe you can start by just subtly dropping this blog to their inbox as a hint, but I think it might serve you better to be a little more direct. There are tons of great resources online and books that can help us facilitate these conversations in a healthy and God-honoring way. Talking about power dynamics will not solve anything in and of itself. It can however serve useful as a tool or framework for helping us evaluate our roles on the team and ensuring that each person has opportunities to use the gifts and talents God has given them to glorify God and live out their purpose through the transforming power of the Holy Spirit.

Don’t Settle for the Search: The Path of Everlasting Life

In my previous job before becoming a missionary, my job was to identify problems for people. They would call my office in a panic, email me at all hours of the day, and even pop into my office, pulling tissues out of their purses as they walked in. It was my job to listen to their stories, look at what they had brought me, and try to piece together all the information to the point of being about to put a name to the issue they were facing along with a few recommendations.

No, I wasn’t a doctor and I wasn’t a therapist. When people came into my office with tissues, there were usually dead bugs, clumps of dirt, or decaying plant materials wrapped up inside (though a few times there were real tears too!). I was a county extension agent and my job was to “extend” agricultural information to the community. I’d go out in the field and teach, but a lot of days were spent behind the computer at my desk, a million tabs open on my browser and at least 3-5 books spread out on my table, helping a farmer or homeowner to identify the disease or insect that was causing harm to their plants.

I’d spend hours comparing photos of bugs and leaves online, asking a million questions of the owner to get the history of the plant. It was tedious, but I loved it. When I was eventually able to identify the problem, it was an incredibly satisfying feeling because it meant moving from a state of “unknown” to “known” and I don’t know about you, but my brain is inherently designed to like that.

Once the problem was identified, I would make a phone call or write up an email with further information for the owner about how to treat the problem. At the moment I hung up the phone or hit send, it was no longer my problem anymore. I put the books back on the shelf and closed out all the tabs on my browser. I was free. My job was done and this was the end of the road. It was actually pretty great. Unfortunately, this way of thinking and doing things is not too applicable in other parts of life….

As Christians, and particularly as cross-cultural workers, we are all faced with a great deal of problems and challenges that need solving or fixed every day. These problems range from purely physical issues like “Why is there suddenly an inch of water in my bedroom floor for the fourth time this year even after having 10 plumbers come look at the problem?” to deeper issues like “Why, even though I’ve known and lived and worked in this country for five years, does it still feel like no one understands what I’m really trying to say or where I’m coming from? Why can’t I seem to have a good relationship with this person?

Because of the messy combination of language barriers, cultural lenses, gender biases, distrust of foreigners, underlying value systems, etc., sometimes these challenges take quite a lot of time to navigate and sort through before a problem can really start coming into focus, identified and somewhat understood. I’ll spend days, sometimes even months and years pouring through books and blogs and talking to friends and other missionaries about a particular cross-cultural topic trying desperately to pinpoint the source of my tension or misunderstanding with my Liberian colleagues.

Adding to the mess in my head though, I often find that while sorting through what appears to me to be merely external cross-cultural challenges, God is also asking me to search my own heart as He strives to confront me with some of my sins that might also be at play in this situation. When it comes to these matters of the heart, I will again spend hours processing things verbally with friends, scribbling out pages of thoughts in my journal, and begging God to give me some clarity.

Sometimes, God reveals the problem right away. But other times, it hides itself as emotions that I can’t easily identify…something that gnaws at me or pricks at me over and over again over the course of weeks or months. Sometimes, all I really know for certain is that something is not right with me and God. I know sin is there crouching at the door like a lion ready to devour me (1 Peter 5:8), but I don’t know which sin exactly it is, and that bothers me. For some reason, I want the lion to have a name…as if that would make me feel better (haha!?). But instead, God repeatedly allows me to sit in this state of tension; of wanting to know, but not knowing.

In one particular case, I remember it took me a year to finally understand and accept that the bad feelings and continual miscommunication I had with someone in my life stemmed from not only cultural and personality issues, but also my own sin. At that moment though when it finally clicked and everything came into focus, I felt such a weight lifted. The problems I had been experiencing that were once “unknown,” were now “known.” Although the diagnosis was quite bad (pride strikes again!) it was still in a way comforting for me because now the problem now had a name, it was identifiable. I had prayed the prayer “Search my heart and know me, Oh God. See if there is any offensive way in me….” (Psalm 139:23-24 NIV) and the Holy Spirit had led me here.

But at that point, all I wanted to do was just sit back and turn off my brain, hang up the phone, hit send on the email, close the journal, pack up all the books, and walk away from all this. I was tired. Unlike Jacob who had wrestled with the Lord for only a night, it had been a long drawn out year of wrestling with God before he could break through all the cultural noise and stubbornness in my heart and identify the real problem of sin. And I really wanted this to be the end of the battle, not the beginning.

But, it turns out there is just a little bit more to that Psalm 139 prayer that David had prayed:

“Search me, Oh God, and know my heart;

     Test me and know my anxious thoughts

Point out anything that offends you,

     And lead me along the path of everlasting life.

(Psalm 139:23-24 NLT)

It’s not enough for us to just ask God to search us and point out our sins, but we must also be willing to go a step further and allow Him to then do the equally hard work of “leading us along the path of everlasting life.” Just because you give a problem a name, doesn’t mean it ceases to exist. A lion crouching at the door, named or otherwise, is still a lion crouching at the door! It needs to be dealt with.

It’s not the unknown parts or names of sin that should bother us and keep us awake at night, it’s the very existence of sin in our lives that should unsettle us to our core and bring us to our knees. If we are going to pray to God to help us identify a sin, we must also be willing to pray and trust that He will help us deal with it too! And that’s not a job we can just pass off to someone else to deal with, that’s really where the work, through the strength of the Holy Spirit, begins.

Because identifying sin is different than repenting of the sin and turning away.

Repenting of the sin is different than turning towards God and asking for forgiveness of the sin.

And asking for forgiveness is different than asking God to lead me forward in the path of everlasting life.

What are you asking God for right now? Are you content asking God for help just understanding your past and present struggles, or do you also want His help to carry you through all that is to come in the future too? Do you want a temporary enlightenment about your problems or do you want an eternal perspective in dealing with those problems? Do you want Him to merely to search your heart or to lead your heart? Is it enough for you to just be aware of your sin or do you also want forgiveness and freedom from sin? Are you good just searching for the answers to life’s problems or do you want life itself?

Keep doing the hard work of asking God to search you heart and point out your sins amidst the backdrop of this crazy messy life of overseas ministry. Find comfort and give thanks to God when these little moments of clarity finally arise, hard as they might be. But, don’t grow weary and let yourself fall into the temptation to stop there. We don’t just need God to search our hearts, we need Him to enter into our hearts, change them, and direct them. What good is it to know our sins if we also know we can do nothing about them on our own? Don’t just settle for the search. Ask God and trust God to lead you in the path of everlasting life.

In the midst of COVID-19, a message to those who stay and those who go

For the past few weeks, our minds have all been collectively spinning. Many of us have spent hours wondering and praying, either out loud as we lay in our beds or silently within our own heads, about what we should do. We’ve turned it over and over again in our minds, examining it from every angle possible, hoping to see something we hadn’t seen before that will finally make it all clear. 

But it’s been difficult. There’s been so many questions with answers that we just can’t predict with any reasonable certainty. In light of what is going on, what is going to happen to us? What will be the potential effects on my health or my family’s health? On our financial situation? On our ministry and those we have felt called to serve? What will people here think of us? What will people there think of us? Where is God calling me to be right now? 

Amidst this COVID19 outbreak around the world, should we stay or should we go? 

For many of us, that has been the biggest and heaviest question on our minds recently. For some, this decision still needs to be made. While most commercial flights are cancelled, situations are rapidly changing and last-minute government-operated evacuation flights are still popping up sporadically and forcing families to constantly re-evaluate. 

For most though, the decision has already been made and you are where you are for the foreseeable future. For some, that decision was yours to make. But for plenty of others, that decision was made for you…whether by your sending agency or home church, by airline cancellations, or by your host or passport country’s government policies that have kept you put where you are. 

Some are happy with the decisions that have been made. Some though are understandably upset that they were never given the chance to make a decision at all. Some are satisfied with where they’ve ended up and others are disappointed. Some consider themselves “stuck” abroad while others consider themselves “stuck” at home. 

Some people feel like others are overreacting, while some people feel like others are underreacting. People are getting angry and disappointed with the “others” for “not getting it.” 

Some people feel that those that are going back are living out of fear rather than faith. Meanwhile some feel that those who stay are ignoring the facts and living out of ignorance or misplaced confidence. 

Some people think it is selfish to stay (potentially putting extra burden on what is already an exhausted health care system in a developing country and extra burden on your donors if you do get sick) and others think it is selfish to go (placing your own well-being over that of another).

Missionaries who go back to their passport countries or are already stuck in their passport countries might wrestle with regret or guilt of feeling like they are leaving certain people behind or abandoning them. Meanwhile, missionaries who stay in their host countries, might also wrestle with regret or guilt from those who might want or need them to come “home.”  

What are we to do?? 

As always, let us all who hope in the Lord, first be strong and take heart (Psalm 31:24). There is no universal “right” answer here. In these types of situations, there is no choice but to respect one another’s decisions and extend grace to our fellow missionaries. Because either way, the decision was most assuredly not an easy one…no matter how it might have appeared outwardly. We can’t ever truly know anyone else’s entire situation (medical, financial, emotional, spiritual) and it is not our place to judge. We don’t know what God has laid on their hearts or what He has called them to do. We don’t know if they are obeying or disobeying the Holy Spirit’s stirrings in their hearts. We can’t see the future to know what was right for this family versus that one. Only God will ever know that. 

As Christians, we believe in the sovereignty of God’s Will and we can trust that God will use and work good in whatever decision that was made. Just as God calls some to literally “go” abroad into the mission field, He calls and also needs some to stay. Likewise, God has called some people to stay and some people to go. 

So to those who stay and to those who go…

Rest assured, that the same everlasting truths still hold true for us all. Remember that God is still the one in control. Remember that we are not prisoners of fear, shame, guilt, or regret. Remember that you are no less or no better than anyone else, we are all human. Remember that you are still called to serve and give generously, no matter your geographical location. Remember, now more than ever with our minds and worlds shaken and turned upside down and inside out, that we are called to show grace to one another and be patient in love. Remember to be kind. Remember to pray for and check in on each other, many of our friends are struggling. Remember that this is not the end, He is still bigger than it all.

Know that you are worthy and that you are loved by your Heavenly Father, no matter what and no matter where you ended up. Have confidence that He is still working in and around you, through you and in spite of you. No matter how you feel about where you are, your calling is still the same. Continue to lay your life down as a daily offering upon the alter and keep striving to use your words and actions to share the hope, peace, love, and joy that you have found in Christ. 

Most of all, remember that whether you stay or go, you still have a purpose right where He has you. 

The Hardest Thing About Living Overseas

People often ask me what the hardest thing about living in West Africa is.

Is it being away from family and friends? Is it the “strange” food, specifically the lack of cheese and bacon? Is it the bad roads? The unstable electricity? The lack of clean drinking water in your faucet? The lack of healthcare? The different languages? The snakes or the mosquitoes?

The truth is, it is none of those things. Don’t get me wrong, those are very real challenges (even the one about the cheese) but if you want to know the one thing that makes living in Liberia hard…the one thing that keeps me up at night and makes me question whether I belong here or not and makes me feel so tired and weary and like I just want to give up and go home…it is the gray.

Learning to navigate all the gray.

Growing up I used to be so confident in my view of the world, my opinions, my beliefs, the way things were and that was because I so clearly saw a lot of my world around me as black and white. There was right and wrong and there was good and bad and there was nothing, absolutely nothing in between for a rigid and “holier-than-thou” youth-group-going rule-follower teenager like me.  Everything had an explanation and everyone and everything about the world could be categorized, organized, explained, even God Himself.

Viewing the world as black and white is comfortable, isn’t it? It makes it so easy to understand things and so much simpler to process our experiences, to quickly and efficiently judge our actions and the actions of others (though I know this isn’t my business), to categorize people into little boxes, and organize our ideas and responses to certain situations … “if this is the problem, then this is the only option” or “if a person does this, then they are that” and so on and so forth. It allows us to escape thinking about how our outlook on the world may possibly be…incomplete…or dare I say, wrong!

As I grew up in the US, one of the most diverse countries in the world, there were obviously plenty of things to challenge my mindset and my understanding of the world every day, thrusting me into the land of the gray. But at the end of the day, I could always look around and find plenty of people who looked, believed, behaved, or thought just like me and if I tried hard enough, I could always use this bubble to escape the gray….entering back into the land of crisp lines and black and white. 

Being in Liberia, that’s just not the case. For starters, 99.9% of the people I see or meet every day are very different from myself in terms of looks, culture, beliefs, etc. I meet so many people here whose way of life and thinking are so different from my own. Their childhoods are wildly different from my own, their pain/suffering is much deeper than I can comprehend, and their values systems about family, money, community, gender, education, truth, and spirituality/faith are more complex than I can still explain. Every day I feel like I’m walking deeper into the gray. Everyday my mind is swirling and I am overwhelmed with questions like:

  • Am I missing something here because I am looking at this only through my cultural lens? How does their culture, religion, race, poverty, beliefs, pain/trauma, personality, background shape their values and thus affect their actions? How does my wealth and privilege and nationality affect my own?
  • Are my thoughts being influenced by underlying prejudices? Am I making assumptions about or devaluing someone because of their race, ethnicity, socio-economic status, or education level? If I am, why? And how do I stop?
  • How do I know when the tension we are facing/feeling is simply related to cultural and individual differences and not a matter of right or wrong (as defined through scripture)? 
  • Is what I’m doing truly out of compassion or my desire to control situations and produce tangible results? 
  • Should I give money to this person/situation? If I am giving money, why am I doing it? Because I trust God or because I don’t? Is there another way?
  • How many times do I watch someone fail rather than stepping in myself to help? Am I creating dependency by doing or giving too much? Am I becoming lazy/jaded by doing or giving too little? When should I say “no” and when should I say “yes”? 
  • How do I know when to adjust my behaviors/action to fit into and show respect for the culture when it’s ok to just be myself? At what point do I lose myself and my own identity for the sake of respecting culture, a culture that often undervalues my own voice as a woman?
  • Where’s the line between grace and justice? Where is the line between letting someone’s past experiences or poverty become a crutch and holding them to unrealistic expectations and setting them up for failure? How can I even know if I’ve never walked in their shoes?

Maybe you can relate? Maybe you’ve asked yourself some of these questions before in your own everyday cross-cultural experiences? Maybe you’ve even had to ask these questions as you navigate conversations with someone who on the outside may look just like you, but who comes from an entirely different cultural background? 

It can be so exhausting to enter into this gray area, the area where answers don’t always come or aren’t clear immediately. It can be mentally draining spending so much time turning these thoughts over and over again in my head, especially because more often than not it is during these times that I am also confronted with my own sins and misunderstandings of who God is and who I am in His Kingdom. 

The world is not what I thought it was, people are not always who society told me they would be, I’m a much bigger sinner than I had feared, and God’s love is so much deeper than I could have ever dreamed.

What someone does doesn’t always define who someone is. Just because someone’s opinions, ideas, or feelings are different than my own, does not mean that they are automatically wrong or that they as human beings are any less valid or valued by Our Father in Heaven. 

The more we get out of our comfort zones and intentionally engage, listen to, and get to know people who come from different backgrounds than ourselves, the more opportunities we will have to screw up…yes, that much is definitely true. BUT ALSO the more we will learn about ourselves, each other, and God…and that’s a good thing…a really good thing.

The world is so much grayer than I originally understood and I’m learning I learning to be ok with that. 

You see, I’m beginning to understand and even believe that the gray is ultimately where the sweetest parts of life happen. The gray is where we are stretched, molded, pulled, squished, smoothed, shaped, and changed. The gray is hard and painful, but it is where healing happens, where relationships form, and where barriers are broken down and prejudices torn apart. The gray is where the threads of our common humanity and our oneness is made clear and tangible, if even for the briefest of moments. The gray is where questioning/doubts/fears have the room to breathe.

The gray is messy, but the gray is exactly what Jesus entered into when He stepped down from Heaven to live among us in this fallen world. The gray is the area where God invites us in and promises to walk with us, revealing to us both the brokenness and beauty of His creation. The gray is where we are emptied of everything we thought we knew. It is where we realize our inability as created beings to know all the answers, thereby forcing us into the arms of the One who does. 

These days, rather than trying to run away from it, ignore it, or control it, I’m learning more about what it means to actually enter into the gray and embrace it for all that it is. 

May God grant us patience, grace, wisdom, and courage as we enter into and traverse the gray of life together.