A Police Story

I had an experience a few weeks ago, my police story, if you will. Among overseas workers, it’s one I could wear like a badge – because many of us have them, don’t we?

Without going into the specifics, I was stopped by a traffic officer, unfairly ticketed, and in the process, felt bullied and vulnerable. Very vulnerable.

After my husband and I climbed back into our car (with him now in the driver’s seat) and assuaged our children’s fears, tears started to roll down my cheeks. He quickly rerouted us from our way to church, correctly realizing that we were far too late anyway.

As my husband tried to comfort me, my mind raced. Why was I so upset? Was it the injustice of it all? Was it the bullying? The condescending way he spoke to me, or rather, to my husband about me? It’s okay, my husband said, this was a one in a thousand type situation, don’t worry about it. It won’t happen again!

It sure did not feel okay to me. It did not matter to me how unusual or rare this situation was, I just did not want to feel this way.

Are they going to arrest you? One of my children cried, in the car, as the officer beckoned me to step out and come over to him. No, I scoffed. At least, I don’t think so? I thought. What would I do here if he tried?

As the familiar scenes of our southern African town flashed by outside my window, I identified the root of what I was experiencing: vulnerability. This was not the vulnerability that I have practiced and prided myself on practicing: the honest sharing of my life and heart with those around me. It was not the vulnerability that meant willingness to show emotion or to allow weakness to be seen; I’m good with that kind of vulnerability.

This experience of vulnerability was the primary definition in all the major dictionaries: capable of being physically or emotionally wounded, exposed to the possibility being attacked or harmed. Ah yes, I most definitely felt exposed, keenly aware of the possibility of being harmed, either at that moment or a future moment when my husband may not be with me.

This was not the first moment I have ever felt this kind of vulnerability. Having lived in various countries other than my passport country for ten years, I am ever aware of the reality of being a foreigner, and a woman, in some difficult places. Of course, many of us have experienced the possibility of being attacked even in our home countries or have been in actuality.

But it was my freshest experience of this kind of vulnerability, and with my children as collateral in the car. For the next couple of days, I wrestled with feeling weak and defenseless, tears always close to the surface. I replayed the scenario, wondering how I should have been more assertive. I imagined future scenarios, making mental plans for the safety of my children and myself. But mostly, I shook my fist directly at the man who had threatened me and indirectly at God — until he spoke gently to my heart.

Maybe you have realized the obvious beauty in this story sooner than I had, but it finally hit me: this was the type of vulnerable that Jesus was. In his incarnation, in choosing to live and willingly suffer on earth, he subjected himself not only to the possibility of being harmed, but the actuality of it.

In my willingness to stay and live and work in a place where I am more prone to experiencing the potential of being wounded, I am identifying with Christ. He knows what it is to leave his home and to place himself in harm’s way – completely, fully. He experienced bullying and condescension, and the ultimate earthly wounding, death.

What was it that motivated him to such sacrifice? Love. The very love of Christ, which transcends height and depth and all earthly constraints, is what compelled him to offer himself so wholly, to subject himself to the ultimate worst of evil on this earth. So we, moved by the love of Christ, strengthened and carried by him, can offer our meager selves as we live and love in the places we find ourselves.

As tears streamed down my cheeks, I offered myself freshly to Christ, in this place he has brought us – my husband, myself, my children. Is it easy? No. Is it worthwhile, and good? Yes. Is he with us throughout it all? Always.

I hope I will not have another police story, but who knows? We still pray for safety and protection, and we seek to live wisely as strangers in this land. But we remember that Christ is our security. And we are grateful to walk in the footsteps of our Savior, through all the hills and valleys, knowing he has gone before us in perfect love.

On the Fringe

But once we have found the center of our life in our own heart and have accepted our aloneness, not as a fate but as a vocation, we are able to offer freedom to others. –Henri Nouwen

Cresting the hill overlooking the community where our campus sits, I hear the chatter of my daughters in the seats behind me. My mind, however, is miles (or kilometers, shall we say) away. I had just run into a few friends, whom we have known for many years now, and chatted briefly.

As I herded my children into my car, I reflected on the experience. Though it was good to run into them (was it, though?), it was also painful – a reminder, again, that we are the outsiders. These friends have a seemingly vibrant, interdependent community – one for which my husband and I have longed. For a wide array of reasons, we have succeeded in knowing a lot of people from a variety of communities, but we have not leaned in to just one. We’re “on the fringe,” we like to say, of a lot of communities.

There are definite perks to this; but tonight, I am just lonely.

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This past summer, we had a three and a half-month home assignment in the U.S. It was hectic, as they are. And I was keenly aware that my daughters seemed to have more friends in the U.S., where we have not lived for almost eight years, than they do in our ministry area, where they have essentially grown up.

I pondered this for some time. Was it true? Would they/we have these friends if we lived in the U.S.? There was of course the reality that we visited many different states and churches, nearly all the people we know stateside. In the end, I wondered, is it that friendships feel easier in their “home” culture, even though they haven’t grown up in the U.S.? Do they sense that we are “on the fringe” here too?

//

I have a feeling that you can relate. As cross-cultural workers, we can work alongside people all day, we can attend a vibrant church or co-op, we can be part of groups and workplaces, and still feel unknown. We can spend countless hours pursuing others, opening the doors of our home, building relationships, and have maybe one or two that takes off and goes deep – but otherwise feel like outsiders the rest of the time.

Seven years into international ministry, I am no longer surprised by this reality. It used to be a sharp reminder of our otherness; these days, it is more of a dull ache, a sense of loneliness. God has been gracious in the midst of this struggle for belonging. These are a few truths God has used to comfort me:

The longing to belong is a good, God-given one. This desire to know and be known is part of our human, image-bearing experience. This longing reflects our spiritual, emotional, and mental capacities for relationship and meaning. Any feelings of being ‘unknown’ are part of our experience in this broken world; alternatively, the joy of feeling “known” reflects the already-but-not-yet of Christ’s kingdom coming.

I am known, deeply. The truth is that each one of us is deeply known by God himself, more deeply than we know ourselves. While this may sound trite at times, I have found profound comfort in embracing the reality that the God of the universe knows me, on every level, through and through, and cares deeply for me. Nothing in my life is hidden from him; he knows the best and worst of me and loves me still. What a joy!

He knows what it is to be “on the fringe.” Christ himself came from the Father, to an earth which was not his home, in order to minister and serve and give the ultimate sacrifice for others. Though his “otherness” was different than ours, he is familiar with the struggle to belong. In his life, I find a model of living “on the fringe” which gives me a path forward in my overseas life.

I think of Jesus’ words in Mark 10, where he shares a simple mission statement for his coming to earth: “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (v. 45).

Jesus is our ultimate example of coming to a place, fully knowing he would not belong, and giving of himself anyway. When I put aside my own feelings of “otherness” and seek to offer my life for others, I am imitating Christ. When I accept the reality that I will not fit as I would ideally love to and continue to serve anyway, I am imaging Jesus.

So I continue to lean in and pursue others, but less for what they can mean to me, and more for how I can faithfully serve both them and Christ. I am working toward setting aside my own needs for belonging and living joyfully anyway. This is only possible because of the confidence we have in Christ. He knows me, he knows the ache, and he served in love still. Jesus, help me to do the same.

The Emotional Progression of a Home Assignment

The last four weeks leading up to our first home assignment were chaotic. It was our first return to our passport country after three years. Our to-do list was 38 items strong, some items as simple as “pick up extra cat food” and some as complex as “find a car.” By the time we had said all of the final goodbyes and boarded our first flight, the relief was palpable. We were finally on our way, and what was done was done. (And perhaps more importantly, what wasn’t done wasn’t.)

Our first day outside of our ministry location was blissful. I distinctly remember feeling as free as bird – and being slightly disturbed for feeling so very free. What exactly were those weights lifted that resulted in such a weightless feeling? At the end of our first week, I had identified three key cultural stress areas that had clearly been affecting me more than I realized, and the idea of entering back into those specific difficulties was more than I could bear. And so began the tumultuous emotional journey of our first home assignment.

Emotional resolution #1: I don’t think we can ever return.

Over the next couple of months, my husband and I talked extensively through these cultural stress areas. We also debriefed with our member care friend and with other close friends around us. Questions of calling began to arise. Were we serving overseas because we thought it was the most meaningful way we could serve God? Were we basically deceiving ourselves with a works-based mentality of earning favor with God? And, wow, if any of this was deeply true, should we even be doing this kind of work?

Emotional resolution #2: I don’t know if I want to be a mission worker anymore.

The ambiguity of our future increased because our return was uncertain for reasons outside of our control. And that caused us to question even more. Maybe we were not supposed to be living in that ministry area. Maybe we were not supposed to be involved in mission work anymore. We considered career changes, country changes, all of the changes. Maybe we should not be in ministry, maybe we are not qualified for ministry.

I began to tire of the traveling life of home assignment and of the lack of personal space for our family. I missed our friends and coworkers in our ministry area. All of the questioning and traveling and evaluating and discerning took a heavy emotional toll. And all of this transpired in the middle of seeking to honestly share about our life and work in our ministry area at churches, with partners and friends. The desire for my own bed and my own kitchen and my own routine was deep and strong.

My emotional resolution #3: I’m ready to go home…wherever that is.

We continued sorting through questions of calling. What did we even believe about God’s call on our lives? We talked more about God’s sovereignty and our own selfishness in making decisions and how God works in spite of all that. We talked through what we felt we were gifted at and what we liked to do. We sorted through the many needs that faced us and tried to discern where best to focus our time and energy. We began to feel renewed and rested, spiritually and emotionally, and refreshed in our roles as parents, as spouses, as mission workers. We began to regain the smallest sense of passion for the work we had been doing.

Emotional resolution #4: I think maybe God has called us to this ministry area.

Where God leads, he also provides sustaining grace. Had I not experienced so very much of God’s good grace over the last three years? Had he not sustained our family so well despite stresses and hardships? Our understanding of God’s calling matured, and our desire to serve him in ministry was refreshed, not from a place of owing God or working for him, but rather from a place of surrender of our lives, of committing to be part of the bigger kingdom work. All work is God’s work, and our role is to be faithful with the work he has given, where he has given it to us.

Emotional resolution #5: I am ready and willing, Father; use me as you see fit.

With some level of excitement, we anticipated our return, less than a month away now. The ambiguity of our return remained, but we felt confident God would bring us back to this work.

As God would have it, we received visas and the green light to go ahead back to our ministry area in March 2020. We arrived three days before our country shut its borders, with Covid enveloping the world.

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Our family has just returned to our ministry area after our second home assignment. We have now lived and worked in South Africa for over seven years, and there’s a sense of rootedness that comes with time and investment. Even still, I am grateful to have realized that there will always be an emotional progression on a home assignment. We will always need to do deep emotional work while away from our overseas home.

And while this second home assignment did not look exactly the same as our first home assignment, the stages were remarkably similar and had a sense of familiarity about them. Oh, I’ve been here before, my heart could say. In hope, I could look forward to God bringing my heart back around to willing service and obedience. And with gratitude, I can say that he did.

Isn’t My Sacrifice Enough?

Some days, I wake up feeling very good about myself. My family and I have been serving overseas for seven years now, weathering our own personal share of storms and difficulties. We’re still living and working in a place to which we feel God has called us, even on the hard days. This is what faithfulness looks like, is it not?

I recently began to question my self-analysis as I reread Corrie ten Boom’s classic, The Hiding Place. In the book she chronicles the story of how her family’s downtown watchmaker’s shop and home became the main hub for underground activity in their city during the Nazi occupation of Holland. Corrie’s beautifully written story of pain, hardship, and ultimate love, is a treasure for the world — one of courageous and selfless sacrifice for others.

Page after page, tears stung my eyes. Corrie’s heartfelt account revealed a deep love for Jesus and others. What I did not expect to feel was conviction, particularly at how regularly and thoroughly she and her family put the well-being of others before their own.

Surely I am already a master at sacrifice. Look at my life! I have left everything – okay, most things – in order to live and work overseas. I have left family, most painfully, and I only get to see my loved ones every few years. We have chosen to live on a ministry salary, without the option to buy a home or get a promotion in our company/organization. Surely we know what sacrifice is all about!

Especially now, as we traverse the US on home assignment, it is clearer to me than ever all that we have given up for Jesus. What, Holy Spirit, are you trying to tell me?

And yet, as I’ve let my heart settle into the familiar current of conviction, I hear the gentle whisper: But there’s more. This is true, I must admit. We still live and function from abundance, even on a ministry salary. We still live in comfort, even in another country. And while neither comfort nor abundance are an evil by any means, have I become dependent upon them for my joy and contentment?

It can be easy to dismiss the amount of sacrifice and hospitality the ten Boom family demonstrated as necessary for wartime survival, due to extenuating circumstances. Surely if we were in a similar time, we too would keep soup simmering on the back burner and not turn away anyone in need. But, notably, this was the hum of their home long before the Nazis invaded Holland. Their mother kept the coffee warm and their father lent his open ear even in peacetime. Their sacrificial lifestyle during a worldwide crisis was an extension of their humble routine for decades before.   

Or perhaps we can dismiss their sacrifices on the basis of a context differential. Living in Africa, the needs are endless, the asks are frequent, the need for wisdom on these matters constant. Surely there couldn’t have been as much need in Holland; surely my situation requires more nuance than the ten Boom family’s did. But truly? They continued to minister in their context and historical moment, knowing full well that imprisonment was a likely outcome and perhaps even death.

Let’s face it: we are often quick to dismiss our missionary predecessors for their ‘ministry to God above all else mindset,’ often at the expense of their families, children, and their own well-being. But perhaps our critical focus has dulled the voice of the Spirit in our lives; perhaps we have been caught up in our own cultural moment as well, where our own selves are at the center, where self-care is utmost, where comfort must be ensured for longevity.

I am not the one providing any answers here. I am only asking the questions, primarily of my own heart, and if you can resonate at all, of yours as well.

When I am facing a heart of fresh conviction, it is helpful to fix my eyes again on Jesus. Looking at him, I see the kind of ultimate love that motivated his selfless sacrifices all throughout his life, even to death. And so, gratefully, painfully, I can ask of the Spirit again, what would you have me do? And we trust, again, that he will give us the grace and strength we need to continue to live sacrificial lives, growing up into Christ more each day.

“And so, dear brothers and sisters, I plead with you to give your bodies to God because of all he has done for you. Let them be a living and holy sacrifice—the kind he will find acceptable. This is truly the way to worship him.  Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect.” (Romans 12:1-2)

How Liturgical Living is Helping Me Grow Roots in a Foreign Land

South African Plectranthus, or Spur flower

In the bleak midwinter…frosty wind made moan…the mellow tune rang out from our living room speaker. I sat on the couch, my feet up on the coffee table, the fan blasting high around the room. Outside my children were squealing in the sprinkler, the hot sun high overhead. I tried conjuring Christmas vibes in this week before Christmas in our Southern Hemisphere, African home. But try as I might, my heart felt lonely, and a little lost, and a little bleak, in spite of the bright summer and impending celebration of Christ’s birth.

What is it about the holidays that evokes such a strong sense of homesickness in us? I have spent many a Christmas now far from family, far from the Wisconsin snows of my childhood, and yet I still wrestle to embrace Christmas without the cultural and seasonal rhythms I have long associated with it.  It absolutely does not help that the vast majority of resources are designed with a Northern Hemisphere audience in mind. Even in our efforts to adapt to a more culturally relevant celebration of holidays, there is the cultural stripping of ourselves.

In light of this, a few friends and I began a seasonal “Liturgical Living Club” this year, where we are seeking to be intentional about observing the liturgical year in a way that is consistent with our Southern African seasons. To say it has been lovely is an understatement.

In preparation for Lent this year, we looked at how autumn is approaching for us; the days are shortening, the weather cooling. There are no bunnies hopping around, no snow melting, no spring coming. Instead, our trees change color, and our spur flowers and Tibouchina bloom in shades of purple and pink. There’s a nip in the air as cooler nights descend upon us, and the air dries out after our long, rainy summer. My friend curated a playlist of songs relevant to our season and included some punchy African artists.

As Easter approached, we did some of the usual Easter things: decorating eggs, filling and hiding Easter baskets, and telling the story with our resurrection eggs. We also created a special Eastertide candle for the darkening evenings. We dried and strung a garland of orange slices, as citrus is now coming into season for us. We lit our first fire of the season and basked in the crackle and warmth and the beautiful truth that Christ has risen! He has defeated death and darkness and brought light and life into the world!

These meaningful, seasonal adjustments to our liturgical celebrations have rooted us further into home here, in our uncertain, overseas life. This kind of intentionality has deepened our sense of belonging and helped us to curate celebrations that make sense in our context, while still honoring those that have been lifelong.

Deeply grateful, I am finding this blending of our cultures, of our seasons, of our lives, to be enriching in the deepest sense. We are understanding new truths about Christ’s resurrection when we celebrate it during the onset of autumn. How there is no life without death first! How light is breaking into darkness!

And we are owning this eclectic life of ours, where we are here and there, on different continents and often seasonally confused. This life where we ask where is home? and where do we belong? Where we seek to remind ourselves of our someday home, and where we build the practices which will turn our eyes toward it again and again.

Living liturgically through the seasons has been an unexpected gift this year; a small adjustment in the vast pool of expat challenges, but one abounding in grace.

 

I Lost My Margin. Again.

I hung up the call. Dread hit me deep in the gut as I realized the level of commitment I had just made on another work project. A week later, I sat in a meeting and found my head nodding silently to a speaking engagement while my mind screamed, no! A week after that, the email came: “Would you offer two sessions for the upcoming conference?” Within a couple of weeks, my well-established level of margin had evaporated. And I was floundering . . . again.

In his book Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial, and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives, Richard Swenson writes: “Margin is the space between our load and our limits. It is the amount allowed beyond that which is needed. It is something held in reserve for contingencies or unanticipated situations. Margin is the gap between rest and exhaustion, the space between breathing freely and suffocating.”

When I read this several years ago, we were in a place of wearying overcommitment. We were verging on what Swenson aptly describes as suffocating. I had unexpectedly begun homeschooling, which was necessitating more time and energy than I had anticipated, and we had full-on become involved in a new church plant, in addition to our weekday ministry life.

Margin was exactly what we were craving, and what we needed for any sort of longevity in our life overseas. “Hurry,” Dallas Willard famously wrote, “is the great enemy of spiritual life in our day. You must ruthlessly eliminate hurry from your life.” (John Mark Comer wrote a needed book on this topic with this very quote as inspiration.) At that point in time, gratefully, God gave us the wisdom and discipline to reject hurry and to build in margin; shortly after, we also began a weekly Sabbath practice.

Building in margin was highly restorative. Some weeks, we felt we had extra capacity and could offer hospitality more freely. Other weeks, we scaled back on further commitments, holding space for that margin for the personal and familial challenges we were facing. We have, over the years, purposefully limited our children’s extracurriculars, our own social commitments, and our work and ministry projects, not because we would not enjoy it all or because the need has been filled, but because at what cost? The destruction of our peace? The unavailability to respond when a need arises, whether inside our home or beyond its walls? The deprivation of rest deep in our souls?

Recently, however, familiar doubts crept back into my heart and mind. Am I doing enough? Will this read impressively in my newsletter? Is our ministry fruitful enough? And from this lowly place of insecurity, doubt, and discouragement, I forfeited my margin.

Sure enough, within a week of all those commitments colliding, the strain hit me. My mind felt in a constant place of hurry; my responses to the ordinary demands of my children were short and tinged with resentment; my unanswered calls to family members were piling up; my spiritual life felt anemic. What had I gotten myself into, and how do I back out again?

Let me tell you: not easily. Our counselor wisely told us, “It is much easier to say no before a project starts than to pass it off in the middle.” So true, I thought. In the middle of my hurried, overcommitted stretch of a few months, I tried to formulate a plan to pass some projects off, but to no avail. I was stuck; I had to finish it out. I had made my bed, yes, and I was lying right in the middle of the enormity of it.

Once I realized the inescapabilty of my situation — and after wallowing in shame for several days — I began to ask God for glimpses of margin, for restorative moments in the middle of my overcommitted present. Graciously, he gave me the eyes to see them.

Margin was in the early predawn minutes when I climbed out of bed to sit silently, alone, until the creak of the children’s beds alerted me that precious little bodies were descending.

Margin was in the little moments of homeschooling, when I must put aside all other work commitments in order to give my undivided attention to these little budding minds and hearts under my wing.

Margin was in the early morning forest walks with a dear friend or in the afternoon campus walks with my husband when the children rollerbladed around us, interrupting every few minutes with their essential declarations (they are all essential, you know).

Margin was at the dinner table, when the cooking and tidying was mostly finished, and we could gather with thanks for provision and lively chatter about the day.

Margin was in those sleepless nights, those restless midnight hours when although I would rather my body sleep, He could grant my mind rest.

These small moments of margin were many; moments to pause, to acknowledge the beauty around me, the goodness and grace of God in the in-between places. There were as many moments in a day as I needed, if only I had the eyes to see and the heart to receive.

In other words, margin is where God sustained me.

//

The overcommitted season has mostly passed. A few more weeks, and my plate will be filled with the usual amount of commitments again, and I am eagerly awaiting. The pace of my hurried mind has gratefully slowed; my mental state is no longer a flashing billboard of work commitments at lightning speed. My capacity for the ordinary demands of life and my children has improved, my soul can more readily sense the presence of God, and I do not plan to forfeit my margin again anytime soon.

Although God can meet us there in that messy middle, I do not believe it is where he wants us to stay. Rather, we make a habit of building margin so that we are available to the purposes of God. Regarding rest, a foundational part of margin, Swenson writes that it “is a self-weakening unto God-strength. It is a self-emptying unto God-fullness. It is the rest of full surrender.”

What if we were to put aside our ill-conceived, worldly perspectives on success and productivity? What if we rejected the false narratives of self-importance and worth based on accomplishment? What if we, like Christ, “self-empty” ourselves unto God? “What if,” writes Swenson, “instead, we were to begin measuring our progress not by our wealth but by our virtue; not by our education but by our humility; and not by our power but by our meekness?”

This is the margin I am committed to building, for the sake of my soul, for the health of my family, for the glory of Christ.

You Can’t Cross the Ocean on an iPad

by Beth Barthelemy

“My mom lives near where your Grandma lives,” my friend told my youngest, who looked up at her with her head tilted to one side. “No,” my two-year-old daughter said, “my grandma lives in the iPad.”

My friend looked at me, tears filling her eyes, because she lives motherless on this continent too. Because she had a two-year-old daughter too, who likely also does not understand her grandma as a real, full of hugs and love kind of person.

Without fail, one of the most common consolations I am offered when I share this hardest part of living an ocean away is the well-meaning, “Well at least you have technology these days.” Which is always said in love, with compassion. And which I always receive with inward tears, knowing its insufficiency.

Technology reminds us constantly of what we are missing, of what we are lacking. At the risk of sounding ungrateful, let me explain.

If my family had boarded a ship sixty years ago, we would have said our goodbyes knowing full well we may never see our families again, or at least not every person in them. The grief would have been intense. We would have arrived in a new country and built a new life, acutely aware of all that we had left behind. It was a different time, and I am not wishing for it. I don’t know if I could do this life sixty years ago.

In the 21st century, leaving looks like never fully leaving; we have a foot in each continent. We have double the relationships, double the lives. We build a new life while maintaining the old one, and we live in a perpetual state of grief, never fully saying goodbye. I don’t know that it is a better way to do life overseas; it is simply a different way.

When my daughters do crafts with Grandma over FaceTime, I am so grateful for her presence. I’m also aware that her hands are not here to guide theirs. I can acknowledge the joy that my children have a relationship with her even as I mourn that this relationship is one-dimensional on a screen. When I see my mom on the screen in front my daughters, or my dad strumming a song for them, there is joy and grief, every single time.

After the past couple of years, perhaps it is easier for others to relate than it would have been before. We have all found ourselves fatigued with online church, with yet another Zoom meeting, yet another voice memo instead of a chat over coffee. Not a single non-family member crossed the threshold of our door for many months. We have all been immensely relieved that life has begun to return to normal, to in-person church and meetings and coffee dates, and to friends physically entering our home and lives again.

Are we ungrateful to mourn the losses in this century of advancement when we live far from family and friends? What is there to do when we feel the insufficiency of technological relationships?

Technology is a gift; it also reminds us that we are not made for one-dimensional relationships. We are meant to look deeply into each other’s eyes, to exchange prolonged hugs, to hold hands, to interpret body language and hear all the intonations in each other’s voice. We are meant to live with those we love, those with whom we are in community, just as God dwells with us, not in some abstract, intangible way, but in spirit and in truth, and in flesh through Jesus.

As we do in so much of life, we can mourn and rejoice at the same time. I miss my mom and am grateful I can hear her voice over the phone, and I’m also grieving because I could use her warm hugs. My children know and love their cousins — and also there is no good way for nine children under ten to play well over Facetime. We are created for personal, tangible, physical relationships; one-dimensional technology-based relationships are a poor representation of the lives we are meant to live with those we love.

And yet. It really is not ungrateful to feel sorrow during a video chat. We know that our times together, fully together, are that much sweeter for all the time lost. And we can gratefully look forward to a time when we will live forever with those we love, in the presence of Christ.

My youngest has since felt the touch of her grandma’s hug, seen the smile in her eyes, and knows that she does not, in fact, live in the iPad after all, but in a real house. She has also had the gut-wrenching experience of saying goodbye for a long stretch of time, of delayed hugs and holding of hands and cuddling on her lap. We will enjoy talking to her over Facetime tomorrow, and we are counting the days until we are really truly together again.

(38, for those interested. Only 38 more sleeps!)

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

Beth Barthelemy is a wife, mother to four young children, and cross cultural worker. She and her husband, Ben, have lived and worked in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, for the past five years. She has an MA in Christian Studies from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. You can find her online at bethbarthelemy.com and on Instagram as bethbarthelemy.

Searching for a Sense of Home

by Beth Barthelemy

“The word home summons up a place—more specifically a house within that place—which you have rich and complex feelings about, a place where you feel, or did feel once, uniquely at home, which is to say a place where you feel you belong and which in some sense belongs to you, a place where you feel that all is somehow ultimately well even if things aren’t going all that well at any given moment.”  –Frederick Buechner, Longing for Home

//

I sat around our school table, looking into the mostly eager faces of my daughters, though one face was less eager than the rest this morning. A single candlestick flickered in the middle of the table. My hands rested around my coffee mug as I sat back from our morning’s Bible reading, once again having veered off topic.

“South Africa is our home. We barely even remember living in America. This is where I have mostly grown up and where the cats are,” simply stated the black-and-white-thinking, animal-loving child.

“I just don’t know where my home is,” stated the more pensive daughter. “I mean, I love America, that’s where I was born. I think that’s my home.”

The third-born just snuggled on my lap, listening carefully as she always does but saying nothing this time. The youngest was singing in a loud voice on the carpet beside us.

Inwardly, I sighed. I did not feel up to having this conversation this morning, to steering their hearts toward the truth that I myself was desperately seeking. I knew well the significance of this conversation for my children, who live an ocean away from where they were born. My heart was fragile, had been fragile for some time after a devastating family tragedy a few months earlier. I resonated deeply with my daughters’ rationalizations about home. Our life and ministry was here in the deep south of the African continent, yet my hurting family and missing loved one was across an ocean, back in the place where I had grown up. Even in the move five years before, I felt the sore splitting of my heart; it had not healed over time, no. In fact, that splitting was deeper and sorer than ever.

I took a deep breath. I shared that I too struggle with this question of home, and that isn’t home where we are all together? We reflected on the little farmhouse where we had briefly stayed years ago, and how that indeed felt like home, if only for that single month. “And,” I added, “I think there is a part of us that will never feel completely at home anywhere in this world. We will always feel a bit split between the people and things we love here, and the people and things we love in America, because neither of these is our true, forever home.”

The girls sat silently nodding, knowing enough to understand the true, forever home to which I was referring. That seemed to satisfy them well enough, for just then they were off to another subject. I still stared out the window, however, trying once more to imagine a home where I would never again feel this splitting, this longing. A home where the shadows of this world would never darken.

//

Buechner has similar conflicted feelings about home, though unique to his own life just as my feelings are unique to mine. As he does in many of his works, he connects his own story with many of ours; he has weathered his fair share of storms and is well acquainted with the dark shadows which follow for the rest of our earthly lives.

“I believe that home is Christ’s kingdom,” Buechner writes in The Longing for Home, “which exists both within us and among us as we wind our prodigal ways through the world in search of it.”

Both within us and among us. This is the beauty of the gospel breaking into this broken world; it is transforming our individual sinful hearts and the larger world in which we live. We see our need for home met in the coming of Christ’s kingdom, in that “here but not yet” reality. Yes, Jesus, you are here in my heart and life, and I long for that day when I will be fully at home with you. And, yes, Jesus, you are alive and at work in this dark world, and I am looking for the ways your kingdom is breaking through. I want to see.

As the years fly by in my life — I’m now in my mid-thirties — I am learning that much of my daily work is to see properly. Many days, the shadows of the world threaten to overcome the good and the inherent light. As those of us old enough know, we have little control over the shadows. And if it’s not the shadows, the distractions are endless, the worldly pulls ever strengthening their grip. What I can do, and what I can help my children to do, is to look for the light, choose to see the good, and foster our imaginations for our true home. This is the work of living as children of God in this world, wherever we may find ourselves.

And even as the shadows lengthen, even as we feel the splitting in our hearts, we keep looking for the places the kingdom is breaking in, we keep longing for home. It’s coming.

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Beth Barthelemy is a wife, mother to four young children, and cross cultural worker. She and her husband, Ben, have lived and worked in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, for the past five years. She has an MA in Christian Studies from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. You can find her online at bethbarthelemy.com and on Instagram as bethbarthelemy.

4 Reasons Churches Should Visit Their Missionaries

by Beth Barthelemy

About a year ago, we had our very first visitors since arriving on South African soil (about a year before that). After months of anticipation, our pastor and friends from our U.S. church arrived to spend a week with us.

They did not come as a short term team, with a particular ministry focus. We had no projects lined up for them. They did not come to “check up” on us, to make sure we were worth their investment. They did not have a list of questions with which to assess our effectiveness or success. They came with a simple purpose: to be an encouragement to us.

Throughout their visit, both my husband and I wondered, “Why aren’t more churches doing this?” We have friends whose churches give generous financial gifts but offer little other support. After just a short stint on the field, we see our deep need for all kinds of support from sending churches. Long-term missionaries need you, beyond your monthly check and prayer. They need you to visit them.

Here are four reasons why.


1. It is a major encouragement to the missionary.

The very night they arrived, I told my husband, “I already feel so encouraged – it’s like such a lift to my spirit.” They didn’t have to actually say anything – just the act of planning the visit, making the long trip, and arriving at our door, was a gift in and of itself. They could have turned around and left and I would have been so thankful.

But then, over the course of the week, we were able to have meaningful conversations — about our family life, about how our kids were doing, about my husband’s classes and his students, about how we’ve struggled this year and how we’ve grown this year. Being able to share all of that, to hash it out with people who’ve known us and invested in us prior to the field, was huge.

 

2. It enables the church to see and experience the ministry.

Before our pastor and friends arrived, we lined up a handful of experiences which would give them insight into our ministry. They attended classes with my husband, and we hosted a dinner with students that evening. They met our coworkers at the college and from our organization. They spent hours in our home and played with our kids. They took a tour around our city. They attended our church and chatted with our pastor here.

At the end of the week, they expressed how valuable it was for them to be able to put faces to our ministry here. It’s not just numbers anymore, but peoples’ lives, stories, hopes. It’s not just a vision for ministry anymore, but a tangible experience of that ministry. And we’re not just a picture on their wall, but a family whose life and work they intimately got to be a part of for a week.


3. It reminds the missionary that the ministry isn’t just about them.

While we were fundraising in the States, we were regularly encouraged by the excitement and support people provided. It was obvious that this discipleship ministry in South Africa, this raising up of Christian leaders, wasn’t just about us or God’s leading in our lives. It was about so much more – about many individuals who were joining us in this ministry and churches who were behind this mission. We truly felt like Paul when he wrote, “I thank God in all my remembrance of you… because of your partnership in the gospel” (Phil. 1:3, 5).

After being removed from our churches and circles of partners, however, it became easier to forget that this was indeed a team project. On hard days, especially for me at home with kids most of the time, I found myself asking of the Lord – “Why am I here again? Did we make a mistake, coming to South Africa? Is all of this sacrifice really worth it?”

Over the week that our sending church visited, I was reminded in a deep and meaningful way that this ministry was never about just me. Sure, we are the face of this work, but we could not be here without our churches behind us, without our amazing base of partners, all who have affirmed God’s leading of our family in this direction and expressed desire to be a part of this ministry. Tearfully and humbly, I have thanked God multiple times for his goodness in sending our church to us so that He could remind me that it’s not all about me. I needed that reminder, and he gave it to me in a powerful way.

There is no price tag you can put on that kind of encouragement.

 

4. It’s an investment in your long-term missionaries.

You may be thinking, “Isn’t it really expensive to send people just to visit?” Yes, it is. Many churches are sending multiple short-term missions teams out every year, some with great effectiveness and others without. There may be great value in redirecting some focus onto the effectiveness of long-term missionaries. After all, they are the ones who are with locals day in and day out, for years, developing relationships, training future leaders, and have potential for a more lasting impact.

Additionally, there is great value in just “being” with people. We are prone to believe that unless there is tangible achievement or numerical results, nothing has been done and our efforts have been wasted. This is simply untrue. Sending people for the primary purpose of encouraging your missionaries is indeed doing something very valuable. It is practicing the ministry of presence. Being with people is encouraging, rejuvenating, and motivating.

In general, churches would be wise to consider their investment in their long-term missionaries — and I mean beyond the financial investment. Long-term missionaries need much more than just your money every month. We need your prayers, your emails, your intentional connection, your teaching, your accountability, your resources, your care. Sending a few key people to visit your long-term missionaries is an investment in them and in that ministry. Our church ministered to us in profound ways, by simply showing up at our home and being a part of our life for a week. And we are so thankful.

originally published here

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Beth Barthelemy is a wife, mother to three young children, and cross cultural worker. She and her husband, Ben, moved to South Africa in 2016 to be involved in teaching and discipling future Christian leaders. She has an MA in Christian Studies from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. You can find her at www.bbbarthelemy.blogspot.com and www.instagram.com/bethbarthelemy.

CULTURE SHOCK! (yes, it still happens at 6 months)

By Beth Barthelemy

It’s been almost six months since we stepped off the plane and onto South African soil. Six months of glorious new experiences, of meeting new people and trying new foods, of seeing new sights and relishing (mostly) sunny weather… and six months of that dreaded companion known to all cross-cultural workers: culture shock.

This is how it looks for me right now.

I thought our new dryer was broken, so I called the store we bought it from and they sent out a repair man. He looked at me like I was an idiot when he explained that there is nothing wrong with this dryer – it’s working perfectly fine. “It’s supposed to stop and start like that, the whole cycle?” I asked. “Yes, that’s how it works,” he said. “Oh. Well, why does it run for three hours when I set it for a 40 minute cycle?” I prodded further, still thinking something was wrong with it. “Because it will stop for 5 minutes when the cycle is finished, and if you don’t stop it, it will start the cycle over again,” he explained, eyeing me. “Oh” I said again. I have done hundreds of loads of laundry in my life, maybe thousands, I thought, I’m not an idiot! I know how to work dryers… in my country.

One morning, I see beautiful pictures of the first snow back in Chicago. Here, it is beautifully warm, and I’m trying to be so thankful for the lovely weather, but really, I just miss snow, because it’s February, and I’ve always known snow in February. My oldest daughter has been asking when it will snow, and when she can make a snowman, and when she can go sledding, and where her snow pants and snow boots are, because she loves snow. I’ve told her it probably won’t snow here, and together we shared real disappointment. So I close Facebook and Instagram for now, because it’s just hard to see. And I miss snow. (I know, call me crazy.)

If I am out and about with the girls, especially the little ones, people will randomly come and pick them up. At first, this scared the living daylights out of me, as you can probably understand. Now I know it’s just sweet ladies being affectionate and loving on my kids. If the littlest one is happy, they may even walk her around the store while I try to shop and keep an eye on where she is.

It could be another 21 days before our internet gets hooked up, they said on the phone. Oh, we say, this is another one of those TIA (This Is Africa) things. I take deep breaths.

I cannot, for the life of me, figure out how to keep the girls’ clothes clean. I have tried several different kinds of stain removers here, and nothing seems to work, and there is so much mud. Their clothes are getting ruined, but they are only clothes, so it’s okay, I think? But I wish I could just drive to Target and buy some OxiClean, because, for us, that always worked. But it’s only clothes.

Why don’t the light bulbs sit solidly in the lamps? Every time I open my dresser, the light flickers. Am I doing something wrong here?

In the grocery store the other day, we had all the kids, who were squirrely because it was almost dinner time, and I kept walking up and down the aisles, looking for… beef and vegetable broth. I could not find it. I stood in the soup aisle, and tears filled my eyes as I tried to read all the labels to figure out what these boxes were full of. Finally, I just grabbed something, and am hoping it will work. I think maybe I need to make my own broth.

A few months back, it was American Thanksgiving, and we saw so many great pictures of our friends and families celebrating. I knew the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade was about to start, and I heard it was chilly, so I thought about warm sweaters and crackling fires. It was 81 degrees here, and we had a full day of all the normal language study activities, and I had an appointment late in the afternoon. It’s a holiday in my home country, I thought, like a secret I was carrying. Very late in the game, we invited our fellow American coworkers over for roast beef, and I threw together a pumpkin pie in a cake pan with butternut squash, and we had a meaningful time together. I’m so glad we did.

My daughters are, for the most part, adjusting so well to their new environment. Partly, I think, this is because they are so young, and honestly, do not understand all the losses. So we are helping them with that. But yesterday, I thought, if they talk about their plans to go to Moriah’s house and Micah’s house and Grandma and Grandpa’s house one more time, I’m going to fall apart. I tell them, “Yes, we will, it will just be quite awhile. Do you remember how we had to take three airplanes to get here? We will have to take three airplanes back to see Moriah, and Micah, and Grandma and Grandpa, and all the other people we love in the US.” They understand, sort of, and are not sad, because for them, “quite awhile” could be just a week, or a month or something. They don’t know it will be years. I just carry that for them.

Anytime I see a little girl with her grandma, I look away quickly, but my eyes fill with tears. Anytime I see a mom with her adult daughter, I have to start deep breathing exercises. Anytime I see friends having coffee together, I feel incredibly lonely.

Basically, culture shock right now feels like I do not know how to do quite a lot of things here that I could do well, without evening thinking about it, in my home country (like getting stains out of and drying clothes!). I am like a child, here, in this culture, learning how to do life all over again.

We recently had a truly lovely day, with windows wide open and a nice breeze and warm sun – it was perfect, for July. I knew it would be a challenge to change my internal seasonal “clock” and it is. It will come, I know it will. Day by day we are learning more about how to not just survive, but truly enjoy our new life here. We remind ourselves to be patient.

I remember what Jesus says in Matthew 18:3-4: “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” Here I am, more like a child than I ever wanted to be, more dependent and fragile and unsure of myself than ever — and though not really out of choice, more humble too. Yet in all these things, I thank my Lord, for they lead me more and more to rely on Him each day.

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Beth Barthelemy is a wife, mother to three young children, and cross cultural worker. She and her husband, Ben, moved to South Africa in 2016 to be involved in teaching and discipling future Christian leaders. She has an MA in Christian Studies from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. You can find her at www.bbbarthelemy.blogspot.com and www.instagram.com/bethbarthelemy.