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!)

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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.

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.