The Temporary Intimacy of Expat Life (and my search for rootedness)

It’s not hard for me to put down roots in a new place. Roots are all I want. That may sound unconventional coming from a Third Culture Kid, but Army life was unsettling, and even small tastes of stability were tantalizing to me. I’m always searching for roots.

Specific places can be very healing to me, but I almost wonder if the place itself doesn’t matter as long as the place seems permanent. I could settle anywhere as long as it’s forever. I know this need for stability points somewhere. It points to a longing for a forever home. A hunger for the new city. A desire that can’t be completely fulfilled in this sin-tarnished world.

So whenever I move to a new place, I pretend it’s a permanent home. I decide I never want to move away. I give myself, heart and soul, to this new place and to this new people. I make plans for future years, future decades even. I tell myself that I will settle here and live here forever. I imagine everything in the future taking place in this place.

While some TCKs want to move places frequently, that hasn’t been my experience. I don’t want to leave a new place after a few years of living there. I don’t become unsettled at the thought of settling somewhere. Sometimes I tell myself that this desire I have for roots is good. I tell myself that it means I’m stable and secure. But then I have to ask, if I’m so stable and secure, why would I become so unmoored by goodbyes?

A desire to move frequently can be unhealthy, it’s true. But it is equally true that this insatiable desire I have never to move homes or see life change can be unhealthy too. For see, God is the God who is doing a new thing. And growth in Christ never happens without change — sometimes painful change. So I sometimes live in denial, for this overseas life is not, and can never be, permanent. I will have to move eventually. My friends, the dear people with whom I live my life and to whom I’ve pledged my undying love, must also move at some point.

I long for the kind of lifelong friendships I read about in books. I long for the kind of small town community my grandparents experienced in rural Iowa. I want roots, and not sky. And I will put in the time and energy, dog-gone-it. I will pour into friendships as though they were going to last forever. I want to be able to trust these relationships. I want them to become the structure of my life and of my heart. Always niggling at the back of my mind, however, is the fact that they can’t be. That this marvelous intimacy we create with fellow expats is at best a generation’s length: no one stays on the field forever.

We often lament that people in our passport countries don’t fully understand us. Neither do the people in our host countries. But with our fellow expats, the friendship goes deep, fast. These friendships are deep and strong, yes, but alas, they remain short. They are not forever. The very thing that draws us together – our mobile lifestyle – is what pulls us apart. We move. Someone else moves. And the friendship is stretched taut. It was good, it was deep, it was real. And it was temporary.

Because one day all that precious intimacy goes poof. It evaporates. It dissipates. Not that we won’t keep in touch – in this internet age we probably will – but that our daily and weekly fellowship will be severed. Love may not wane, but shared life must and will. This small, tight-knit community is practically perfect, except that the closeness isn’t here to stay. It’s not long-term in real life the way it is in my imagination. And for now, this is a tension I carry with me in all my non-familial relationships.

I live with the unwanted understanding that this place cannot be my forever home. I can’t settle here for all time. I know I must leave someday. I must say goodbye to the people and the place and I don’t like it. Not one bit. In these times I tell myself it’s ok. That all I really need is my relationship with God.

But that attitude tends to isolate me from others. I retreat into my protective shell and cut off life-giving relationships. But doesn’t God set us in physical places, all the way from the Garden to Canaan to southeast Asia to the new heaven and earth? Christ is central to our rootedness, yes, but physical places and physical people are important too. Fellowship and space-time were His idea, after all.

So where does this leave me, unable to settle permanently in a space, unable to live continually with the same people, unable to depend solely on Jesus for companionship? It leaves me in a place of temporary intimacy with people and temporary settledness on the map. It leaves me in a place of desiring more permanency than I can currently claim. And it leaves me waiting for a better day and a better country, for a time and place when temporary fades away and I’ll be given eternal roots.

This Is Who We Are

Who are we over here at A Life Overseas?

As editor-in-chief of this blog collective, I’d like to give you my answer to that question. A Life Overseas is an online space where writers and readers show up to tell their stories. We share stories of wounds and stories of healing. We share stories of loss and stories of hope. And sometimes, we share stories that don’t yet have a label.

Our writers meet here from all across the denominational spectrum. Each of us is a different permutation of cultural and intercultural and cross-cultural experience. Yet we all show up here once a month, or once every few months, to connect across feeble lines of prose and shaky lines of code — and sometimes even shakier lines of internet cable. But we keep showing up anyway.

Why would we do such a thing? Well, we do it because we love you, and we don’t ever want you to feel alone in the life you’re living and the joys and challenges you’re facing. More than that, though, we do it because we love Jesus. We show up because there is something so compelling about this Christ-Man that we cannot help but speak about Him.

So we show up to worship this God-King of ours. When I say worship, I don’t just mean the songs we sing when we gather together as the Body of Christ on Sunday morning or Sunday evening or whenever it is we gather together. Rather, I mean that we are here to collectively proclaim His goodness and remember His power and hope for His return.

That doesn’t mean we’re all the same. Our readers and writers have lots of denominational, cultural, and personality differences, just like the global Church we represent. But we can experience an incredible amount of unity among diversity when our sole focus is Jesus and His healing, saving, forgiving power. When everything else is stripped away – our abilities and our doctrinal differences and our shadow comforts and even our heart languages – Jesus still remains.

Christians from all over the world and from every faith stream gathered together this past Sunday to worship this Jesus, the Risen King. Jesus brought us together this week and truly, He is what brings us together every second of every day, regardless of our other differences.

Jesus the One and Only is the only one who can define us as a people. We are the people who belong to Him, and we are the people who believe in Him. We are the people who are cherished by Him, and we are the people who are redeemed by Him. We are the people who daily lift up His name, and we are the people who are waiting for Him to make everything right again. That is who we are.

 

The following four songs express our relationship to Christ and recall the deepest foundations of our faith. May they remind us, the people of God, who we really are.

 

“We Believe” from Newsboys.

“This I Believe” from Hillsong.

“Even So Come” from the Passion conferences.

“Even Unto Death” by Audrey Assad, written in response to the execution of 21 Coptic Christians in 2015.

Regarding Burnout (and some ideas for avoiding it)

Last year I flirted with burnout. I was camping out along its edges, and I didn’t even know it. Only after some conversations with my husband and with a spiritual director, did I recognize what was going on and how I’d been complicit in my own spiritual sickness.

These are the things I’m doing to carve out rest and Sabbath in my life and to move farther and farther away from burnout. I’m no expert, and this is by no means a comprehensive list. They’re just things that seem to be working in my life. Some are deceptively small and simple; others are larger and more extreme and took more courage to do.

[Note: This post contains the whats, not the whys. For some of the whys, you can read my husband’s articles Please Stop Running and margin: the wasted space we desperately need.]

 

1. In the midst of the chaos, choose to breathe.

God formed us from the dust and breathed the breath of life into us. There is life and peace in our breath. Why then do we go about our days neglecting this very curative gift God gave us?

In fact I’ve described breathing as a “free drug” before:

Some drugs are free.
Like breathing.
I love breathing. It’s my favorite.
I recently announced this to my kids.
Some of them thought I was crazy, but one agreed.
It’s true though. I just love breathing.
Pause.
Inhale, exhale.
Breathe in, breathe out.
Release, receive.
When I stop to close my eyes and breathe deeply and slowly, I immediately calm down.
My body relaxes.
My thoughts stop swirling.
My emotions stop pressing.
So take a deep breath. Maybe take three.
And remember, some drugs are free.
If only we will use them.

 

2. Open my hands in surrender.

Even better than simply taking some deep breaths is to sit in a quiet place, place my hands in my lap, and open them up to God. As I do so, I release my hurts and concerns to God. I give Him my frustrations and trust Him to keep all of them, because I’m too weak and tired to hold onto them anymore. I’m not as consistent in this practice as I want to be, but when I participate in this small act of surrender, it makes a huge difference in my day.

 

3. Grab hold of awe and wonder in ordinary moments and days.

I’m inspired by the idea of Ordinary Time, which I first read about in Kimberlee Conway Ireton’s The Circle of Seasons: Finding God in the Church Year. Ordinary Time encourages me to ask, “Where is the glory of God hiding in my life right now?”

If I can cultivate a sense of wonder and joy in the everyday things of Creation, then I find miraculous little moments hidden in my ordinary days. When I purposefully take the time to notice these things,

I can explore space-time with my son and delight in a sunset with my daughter.

I can drink in the clouds and rooftops from a 4th floor downtown city window.

I can breathe in the blue sky on my way to a dinner meeting.

I can be captivated by a bright yellow full moon.

I can delight in a downpour so strong the palm trees are engulfed in white gauze.

I can inhale the heavenly fragrance of the frangipani flower.

I can marvel at our daily game with gravity, at the blue-scattered sky, at a photosynthesizing palm tree.

I used to think I needed long periods of time away in order to truly rest. In truth, little mini-Sabbaths are often available to me. But they only happen if I’m willing to stop rushing around and pay attention.

 

4. Fast regularly from technology.

I fought this practice for a long time. I believe I have what is called a “soft addiction” when it comes to the internet. I go to it for comfort — though comfort can’t be found there — and I have a hard time turning it off when I’m tired or overwhelmed.

Last year I began by fasting from the internet during family vacations and team retreats. I was sensing God’s invitation to fast from technology on Sundays, but I ignored it for several months. When I finally started obeying a couple of months ago, Sundays suddenly became much more restorative. Now I read, sleep, or spend time with my husband on Sunday afternoons. My relationships are better, I’m more rested, and I avoid the “computer haze” that starts to set in after too much time zoning out in front of a screen. This practice makes me much better prepared for Monday.

Additionally I try to keep technology out of the bedroom on weeknights, turn off the screens by 9 pm, and keep the computer closed until after I’ve talked to God in the morning. I often pray for strength to resist the pull of work before I even get out of bed.

 

5. Get creative with Sabbath.

When you’re in ministry, Sundays are often too intense to be considered restful. But Sabbath doesn’t have to happen on Sundays, and it doesn’t have to be a full 24 hours, either. Creativity in carving out Sabbath is especially important if you have young children, and you may have to alternate childcare between parents and only take half days at a time.

My husband, for example, takes Wednesday mornings off. First he takes a child out to breakfast, and then he takes a few hours for his own Sabbath. After lunch he comes home to do office work so that I can get out to a coffee shop to work on my own creative projects. My Wednesday afternoons are not, strictly speaking, Sabbath, but they provide the space to write and think and be separated from the never-ending needs of our home. Too often last year, I let these precious pockets of time slip through my fingers, and I felt the strain. Now I try to guard them much more carefully.

 

6. Get brave and quit something.

This took me a long time to do. I could not bring myself to quit any of the ministry activities I had committed myself to. I thought each and every one of them was essential and all-important, and I was afraid I would let people down if I quit. But in the end I realized I was so overloaded I had to do it — and it really was hard to do. I had to accept both that the ministry would go on without me and that my identity wasn’t tied up in those particular ministries.

But getting brave and quitting things isn’t just about ministry. It’s about social gatherings too. Where I live, there are so many invitations. So many good things to do. And so much fear of missing out — on community, on friendship, on educational and recreational opportunities. It’s still hard to say no and miss out on wonderful opportunities, whether they’re for myself or my children. But I simply can’t do everything, and I’m getting more comfortable with the fact.

 

7. Participate in regular confession, repentance, and worship.

Tears cleanse the soul and make space for God. I don’t know why this is true — and I almost wish it weren’t — but it is, and it’s the way God has designed us. We are created to humble ourselves before Him and others and admit we are wrong.

When I’m running too fast and seeking solace in false comforts, my heart hardens, my tears dry up, and I become deaf to the voice of God. But I find rest for my soul in confession, repentance, and tears. My most recent experience of this was at an Ash Wednesday service, but I’ve told similar stories in Angry, Mean, and Redeemed and When Your Husband Calls You a Shell of a Woman.

 

8. Be faithful in caring for body and soul.

Last year I knew I was distant from God and that I wasn’t taking care of my body. Why is it that when I’m too busy, the first things to go are exercise and time with God? Those are the things I need the most. But in times of stress, it’s all too easy to sleep in and skip talking to God altogether, or to get up and start working during that sacred morning hour instead. And when I’m tired, it’s all too easy to eat junk food, watch Netflix, and skip exercising. But after I started cutting stuff out of my life, it became easier to stress-eat less, to exercise more, and to approach God more honestly and more consistently.

I like to call these things “soul care” and “body care,” because even after all the “self-care” propaganda we have, that term still sounds selfish to me (and a lot of other women I talk to). But soul care and body care? That’s worship. That’s stewardship. It’s taking the soul God gave me, and reconnecting it to its Creator. It’s taking the body God gave me, and moving it and nourishing it so it can feel better and give more. So don’t forget to take care of your soul and your body.

 

9. Seek counseling or other outside help.

At the beginning of this post I mentioned my meetings with a spiritual director. I knew 2016 had been brutal; I just didn’t know why. My counseling sessions helped to pinpoint the motivations behind some of my poor choices and prompted me to begin to making better choices. We missionaries can be really “driven,” unhealthy people sometimes, and counseling can help us figure out both why we are so driven and how to move forward in health.

 

10. And finally, take a longer break.

Sometimes you need a longer time away from regular life. After taking pretty much no breaks during our first term, our family now takes a two-week Sabbatical in the middle of each two-year term. This extended time is for getting into nature, getting away from work and technology, nurturing our family relationships, and getting debriefing or counseling.

I know it’s not always feasible to get away for longer periods of time, but if you can, it’s great preventive medicine. And if you find yourself drained so low that you can’t continue living life the way it is, taking a longer break may be more of an emergency measure. Just don’t be afraid to take that step.

 

What about you? How do you find rest for your soul?

Further reading:

Crazy Busy: A (Mercifully) Short Book About a (Really) Big Problem by Kevin DeYoung

Leading on Empty: Refilling Your Tank and Renewing Your Passion by Wayne Cordeiro

For the times when you ask, “What good is that?”

The feeding of the five thousand is such a familiar story to me, it seems like I’ve always known it.

Jesus sees a huge crowd of people coming to look for Him and asks Philip, “Where can we buy bread to feed all these people?” When Philip only answers that they don’t have enough money to purchase food for everyone, Andrew points out a young boy with five barley loaves and two fish. “But what good is that with this huge crowd?” Andrew asks.

But what good is that??

What good is that?

This is something I repeatedly say to God.

“I offer you this, God. My life, my heart, my all.”

And then I turn around and faithlessly say, “But what good is that, with 7 billion people on this planet?” It’s nothing, not good for anything. You’ll never do anything important or valuable with that, I tell Him.

But Jesus is never in a quandary about how to use His created resources. When He spoke to Philip, “He already knew what He was going to do.” He already knew He was going to provide for the people. He already knew He was going to use a small sack lunch to feed the hungry crowd. He already knew He was going to perform a miracle and blow their minds yet again.

He already knew.

He knew He didn’t need much from the boy, only a little bit. He knew only a meager offering was required, because God Himself would multiply it.

And after He multiplies it, and everyone has eaten as much as they wanted, Jesus instructs them to “gather the leftovers so nothing is wasted.”

So nothing is wasted.

First He takes next-to-nothing from one of His followers. Then He multiplies it, filling empty bellies. And then — oh then — He scoops up the leftover bits of His miracle-working, and He wastes none of it. Not a single scrap.

So when I mourn over my offering to God, grieving that it’s not enough, perhaps I should dry my eyes. Perhaps I should remember instead.

Remember that He is the One who gave me my loaves and fishes in the first place.

Remember that when I offer my daily bread back to Him, He will use it as He sees fit.

Remember that He is the One who will multiply my small sacrifices for His own glory.

Remember that He is the One who uses even the leftovers of His miracles.

Remember that He is the One who will never waste my worship.

So when I tell Him still one more time, “What good is that, God,” perhaps I would be better served simply to still my mouth, to quiet my questions, and to wait. To wait, and keep watch for Him to use even the crumbs of my life for Himself.

Which is all I really want anyway.

adapted from here

“Fernweh” and “Heimweh” — words for the one who’s far from home

I found a new word on the Facebook profile of a missionary writer, and it’s the best new word I’ve heard in a long time. It’s called fernweh, and it’s a German word that means “a longing for faraway places.”

The feeler of fernweh carries a desire — whether met or unmet — to travel to distant countries, to visit new places, and to have new experiences. Its nearest English equivalent might be the idea of “wanderlust.” When transliterated, fernweh means “farsickness,” in much the same way that heimweh means “homesickness.”

Fernweh and heimweh: these sister words draw me in. Ever since I found them, I cannot get them out of my head, for I live in a faraway place.

At least, it’s far away from the Europe and North America in which I grew up. It was far away, but now it’s near. I find now that the faraway place has become home, and home has become the faraway place.

The sense of home I get when I see a palm tree is so deep that I think the Maker must have inscribed it on my heart when He made me. For me there is both longing and fulfillment in a palm tree.

I travel through the city in a tuk tuk (open carriage), and I pass by a wat (temple). This Asian architecture seems so familiar now and not far away at all. I crave these sights. I want to see them my whole life.

The place I live is both far and near, and somehow I have fernweh and heimweh all at once.

But how can something be both foreign and familiar at the same time?

It is this way for all of us global nomads, I suppose.

And perhaps, in the kingdom of God, fernweh and heimweh are really the same longing. Whether we ache for something new, or whether we ache for something known, all our aches point us to God.

All our longings — even the unholy ones — are for the true Water that quenches our thirst and the true Bread that satisfies our hunger.

So when I desire this place, it’s really God I’m longing for. And when I desire another place, it’s God I long for there, too.

Jesus, the One who formed us from the dust and breathed the breath of life into us, knows this about us. That’s the reason that, right before He dies, He tells His disciples to “Make yourselves at home in my love” (John 15:9 MSG).

So whether I am at home, or whether I am longing for home, what I really want and what I really need is my true Home in Christ.

And when I feel fernweh, or when I feel heimweh, can I find in these yearnings the God who created them in the first place?

Can I truly find my home in His love?

 

How have you experienced “fernweh” (the longing for faraway places)?

How have you experienced “heimweh” (the longing for home)?

How do you respond to these longings?

*****In this post I’m simply responding to newly encountered words and the emotions they evoke in me. I welcome input on these words from the German speakers among us.*****

*****Many thanks to Amy Peterson, whose Facebook profile inspired this post.*****

If your year has been a flop

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For the past several years I’ve chosen a “word for the year.” Each word is meant to serve as a rudder for the year, a way to focus my attention and direct my inner life. Sometimes I very specifically sense God’s leading in the word; such was the case of “Listen” in 2011 and “Encourage” in 2013. Both of those words started with quiet whispers from God that were continually confirmed throughout the year. Words — and years — like that feel very successful.

But other times I’ve chosen words that simply seemed to fit my spiritual needs at the time, as has been the case for the last two years. In 2015 I chose the word “Peace,” mainly for the warm fuzzy feeling it gave me. I just wanted a little bit of rest. Some peace and quiet. But throughout that year, God peeled back the layers of my illusory peace and revealed relationships in my life that were not actually at peace. My year felt like a failure until right at the end, when relational reconciliation emerged as an eleventh-hour gift from the Father.

Maybe that year wasn’t such a flop after all, I thought. It gave me the confidence to choose a word again. So in 2016, I chose the word “Steady.” I wanted to have steadier emotions no matter the amount of stress I was under, and regardless of which day of the month I was on. I thought this was a great goal. I wanted to be like Caroline (Ma) Ingalls – wise, calm, and gentle in all circumstances.

Basically, I wanted to be perfect.

And it was a complete flop. Right from the very beginning of the year, my emotions were more volatile than ever, and my emotional stability was rather, um, nonexistent. I wanted to cheat and switch words halfway through the year, but instead I chose to ignore the fact that I had ever chosen a word. I went about the second half of my year attempting to survive over-scheduled weeks and power-outaged days, emotional instability and all.

I so skillfully forgot about my dreams of steadiness that when I began processing this year at the beginning of December, I couldn’t initially remember what my word had been. I racked my brain a while and then remembered: Steady. That’s what it was. I had wanted to be emotionally steady. A rock, a foundation, a cornerstone for my family. Always cheerful, happy, and helpful. I’d wanted to be, you know, perfect.

But I was, disappointingly, more unsteady than ever. At least, on the surface I was more unsteady than ever. When I paused to look deeper, I was surprised to see aspects of my life that had stabilized:

  • My belief in the Bible as God’s Word.
  • My participation in truly life-giving community.
  • My commitment to homeschooling as the right choice for our family.

I didn’t ever manage to perfect myself as I had hoped. I’m still an emotional train wreck. (Though perhaps emotional perfection was too unrealistic an aspiration?) I tried and failed to tread water at the surface of my life, but throughout the year God was working to give the deeper structures of my life more strength and support. Looking back now, I learned — and am continuing to learn — so many things this year, but chief among them is this:

When we fail to measure up, God is sufficient.

And when we waver, He still stands firm.

I don’t know if your year was a massive failure or a grand success. Perhaps you had a bit of both. Or maybe your year was somewhere in between those two extremes. No matter what your year held, what I want all of us to remember as we enter this next year is that Jesus Christ is sufficient. He is the foundation upon which our faith rests. He is the Person in whom we live and move and have our being.

So will I choose a word for this coming year? I don’t know yet. What I do know is that whatever this coming year holds, the Christ, the Son of the Living God, will be in it.

 

Did this year feel like a flop for you?

What has been your experience of choosing a “word for the year”?

I’m Not Very Good at Gratitude

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I like to think of myself as a content, happy person: my life is good, and I lack for nothing.

At least I used to think I was content and happy. That was before I realized — to my horror — that my prayer journal was filled with lament. Not thankfulness, not appreciation, but lament, through and through.

I have an everyday journal where I like to complain to God — er, pray. And I have an extra-special journal where I record the lyrics to my favorite worship songs. But until this year, I didn’t have a place to chronicle my gratitude.

I thought perhaps this was a problem for me. That maybe it’s one of my incongruous places: a place where my orthodoxy doesn’t match my orthopraxy. A bottle-necked area of my life. A cramped space in my soul that needs expanding.

Like many of you, I’d read about the importance of practicing gratefulness, of writing in a dedicated gratitude journal. Ann does it. Crystal does it. Good heavens, even Oprah does it. So I thought I’d try it.

And you know what I discovered? I’m terrible at it. I couldn’t think of specific things to be thankful for. I kept running into trouble thinking over my day and looking for the blessings. I couldn’t always find good things. All I could see was stress — and that very fact troubled me.

I could think of general things; I’m a very thankful person in the general. I’ve written all about my general love of creation, my general love of Cambodia, my general love of the church, my general love of worshiping, my general love for my husband. And those generic things were the only things I could think of when I started this venture. They are the things I kept recording on the pages of my pretty, pink journal.

Now don’t get me wrong, gratitude in the general is GREAT. But I’d like to inscribe more specifics into that journal of mine. I’d like to flex my gratitude muscles. I’d like to learn how to reflect on my day and see the “patches of Godlight” in it.

And I’m starting to. I’m noticing the little things and memorializing them. I’m seeing the small joys and giving thanks. But I’m a novice, a beginner. I haven’t yet learned gratefulness in the particular.

Then again maybe that’s what the gratitude journal is all about.

Do you struggle with gratitude, either in the particular or in the general?

How do you cultivate contentment in your heart?

What are you thankful for lately?

originally appeared here

How Buddhism Taught Me to Love My Neighbors Better

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This month I didn’t like my neighbors very much. We have new neighbors, and they play their music loud, blasting it out of their apartment with the door open. Sometimes for hours at a time.

This causes problems for me. I teach my children at home, and we need an environment conducive to learning. But sometimes this month the music was so loud it prevented their little brains (and mine!) from functioning.

Now, we are no strangers to noise during the school day. There’s loud traffic. Always. And we’ve endured months on end of the pounding of homemade pile drivers while new buildings are being constructed. Once it was next door, and the other time it was across the street.

The metal shop two houses down from us sometimes starts screeching by 6 am. And then there’s the demolition of old tile and brick in the walls, floors, and bathrooms that accompanies new neighbors. They want to (understandably) clear out the old (possibly moldy) tile and personalize their new homes.

Once the drilling got loud enough that we had to leave the house and go to a coffee shop to study – a decision which was rather cumbersome with four children and their books. But my kids were sitting right next to me, and I was shouting at them, and they still could not hear what I was trying to teach them.

Music or karaoke, however, is different from these things. It’s not about people settling in to a new house or building a new house or even, as in the case of the metal shop, providing employment and incomes for people. It’s just some guy listening to his music way too loud.

It’s loudness on purpose, for no discernible economic purpose. I was annoyed. Angry, too. The noise interfered with my job as home school teacher. It interfered with my mental stability. And thanks to the anger and irritation issuing forth from my mouth and from my heart, it interfered with my self-perceived holiness.

As in most cases when we don’t quite know how to handle neighbor issues in a culturally appropriate way, we asked our landlord what we should do. His answer was most enlightening.

He told us that maybe our neighbor was working through something hard, and that we could build up merit by being patient with him and letting him blast his music. But, if the music really was too long and too loud, then our neighbor could gain merit by being more sensitive to everyone around him and turning the volume down. (For context, our neighbors generally don’t blast their music.)

Our landlord was speaking from his own Buddhist background, a background and belief system I don’t share, but he had something to teach me.

The first thing he taught me is that I need to be more patient and long-suffering – gracious if you will. If Christ lives in me, then I can certainly offer patience and mercy to a neighbor. I can refrain from getting angry at him. The life of the neighborhood doesn’t revolve around me, anyway.

The second thing my landlord taught me — or rather, reminded me — is that there’s a kernel of truth in every belief system. Like my Buddhist neighbors, I also believe I should show patience to people who behave in (what seem to me to be) annoying ways.

Certainly, our motivations aren’t the same: I show patience not to build up good merit, but because Jesus has shown me such great mercy. In showing patience, I am merely passing on the patience I have already received. I am giving grace because I have been given grace, not, as in the dominant belief system in my country, giving grace in order to earn grace.

But all grace comes from God, and grace was present in our recent conversations. I found a divine thread running through a very works-oriented system. Do I believe in karma, merit, and reincarnation the way many Cambodian Buddhists do? No. Did I need and appreciate the reminder to treat others with kindness? Yes.

My landlord’s Buddhist teaching was a mirror for my soul, and that soul had some nasty stuff in it. It was unloving and unreasonable and un-Christlike. If my landlord can offer grace in an uncomfortable situation, how much more can I, who claim to follow Christ, offer grace to the people next door?

Later I would sit with God in the not-so-quiet and let Him remind me of His great love for all people — annoying neighbors included. And I would remember that God’s great love for my neighbor is the same great love He has for me. I would remember that, truly, I am no less annoying than my neighbor, and I would realize that I hadn’t been obeying the Jesus I say I love and believe in, because I wasn’t loving my neighbor as myself.

So does my neighbor still play loud music with the door open? Yes. Does it still disrupt our concentration? Yes. And is it still annoying? Yes. But do I offer more grace and love in my heart than I did before? Also yes. And does the same angry, anxious feeling rise in my chest like before? A resounding no.

I may not believe Buddhism holds absolute truth, but there are slivers of truth to be found here, slivers of truth thick enough to instruct a stubborn, self-centered Christ-follower like me.

How have your neighbors taught you how to be a better neighbor?

What elements of truth have you found in the local religion(s) where you serve?

Conflict and Our Dustlikeness

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Conflict. If you’ve been in church work for long, you know what it’s like. People abound, and conflict happens. Then there’s the big blow up or the cold exit or, even scarier, the explosive exit. I’ve been in church work for a decade and a half now, and big blowups and bad exits seem to be the default setting for church conflict. I don’t like this kind of conflict. I run away from it – and from the scary people who cause it.

Kay Bruner likes to say that there are difficult people on the field. I say yes. Yes, there are difficult people on the field, and sometimes, they are ME. Sometimes I’m difficult, and sometimes conflict comes because I am difficult. Not because I mean to be, of course – but my good intentions don’t remove my propensity to offend.

I have a hard time fessing up when I offend, and my reason for this is two-fold. First, I don’t really like the fact that I’m still not perfect and that I still sin against others. The acknowledgement is still so cumbersome to me. But secondly (and perhaps more importantly), I fear I won’t be forgiven. Oh, I know God forgives me; I have full assurance of that. But I still don’t trust God’s people to forgive me. I’ve been in too many relationships where people said they would forgive, but they never really did.

Lately, however, I’ve had ample opportunity to seek forgiveness, and God’s people are proving me wrong. They are forgiving me and showing me the love of Christ in tangible ways. Receiving their forgiveness and their assurance of committed love is an almost sacramental experience. It’s a direct connection with my Savior: someone is sticking with me. Someone is forgiving me, giving me a second chance. That is Jesus in bodily form.

Receiving compassion for our dustlikeness helps us to be more compassionate towards ourselves – and towards others. It helps us to forgive ourselves, and in turn, to forgive others. Unmerited forgiveness is a gift we believers give each other. It points other people to Jesus and is because of Jesus. And while the usual take on conflict and reconciliation is usually “humility,” I think if we focus on that, we are missing the point. The point is, God can forgive, and God’s people can forgive, and wherever you find restoration and reconciliation happening, the Spirit of God is moving among His people.

In this way, conflict can be a conduit for grace. The only catch (yes there is a catch) is that the forgiveness, reconciliation, and move of God that I’m talking about only happen in community. And I’m convinced that one of the bravest things we can do is to stay in that community. When it gets hard, when it gets uncomfortable, when conflict starts to escalate, can we stay in relationship with others? Not in pathological or dangerous relationships, but in regular, everyday fallen relationships?

All of our relationships will have a degree of unhealth, because all of our relationships have people. Our relationships are not going to be perfect, and our community will disappoint us. And sometimes our community will be unhealthy because WE are unhealthy. Other times we will make allowances for other people’s issues, because they – and God – make allowances for ours. Let’s not make a cold or explosive exit too soon, for unconditional love is only proved unconditional when we stay.

So the next time you’re in conflict with someone on the field, think of me, the difficult one, and be kind. Be kind to your difficult person. Show them Christ’s love, and give them another chance. Or a second or a third or a seventy-seventh. If they prove to you that they intend to be difficult or abusive, then by all means draw some boundaries and don’t give them limitless chances to harm you. But maybe by giving them a second chance, you’ll prove to them what God’s love looks like, and they, like me, will recognize grace and be grateful — and you will have won a brother or a sister over.

Have you ever experienced God’s love in the midst of conflict?

When your husband calls you “a shell of a woman”

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For months this spring I felt like a shell of a woman. I was empty and didn’t have anything to give. Oh, I was still doing all the “right” things. I was still getting up most mornings attempting to connect with God, and I was still relatively consistent with my commitment to exercise.  But I felt dead inside and couldn’t figure out why.

My husband noticed. Where before him once stood life and life abundant, he now saw a shell of a woman. He even suggested another round of counseling. I knew something was wrong, but I didn’t know what to do about it or even what it was. I was unhappy in life and unmotivated in work. Was it depression? Burnout? What???

I felt especially dead at church. That was a strange feeling, because corporate worship has always quenched my thirst and nourished my soul and made my spirit come alive. But I just buried that newly incongruous feeling and ignored it. I tuned it out and refused to listen to it. I ran to the nearest screen and numbed out on TV and Facebook and solitaire games instead.

There were so many times I wanted to go forward at church during prayer time and tell people I wasn’t OK. But how could I ask for help, when I didn’t even know what wasn’t OK? And besides, I told myself, people were watching. As part of the leadership team, I imagined all eyes trained on me, as though I couldn’t make a mistake, couldn’t make an admission of need.

Those thoughts are ridiculous, I know. Yet how many times have I done this to myself? Struggled in silence, forgetting to ask for spiritual help, forgetting to confess my spiritual neediness? Too many times. I hate the Christian practice of confession. I hate confessing my needs, my sins, my shortcomings. It’s embarrassing. It’s uncomfortable. And I avoid it if at all possible.

confessionBut I am here today to tell you that confession leads to spiritual breakthrough. That’s the very reason James and John instruct us to do it. And this photo from a recent women’s event is how I know it’s true.

I love that picture. Not because it’s a beautiful photo or because I look particularly beautiful in it (I don’t), but because of the beautiful moment it represents.  It’s a moment I got really brave and stood up and acknowledged my gaping need. It’s a moment I publicly confessed I wasn’t OK on the inside, no matter what I may have wanted others to see on the outside.

When the speaker asked people to stand in response to God’s call on their hearts, I knew I needed to. It was almost like God had backed me into a corner. He knew I’d been hiding, and this was my moment to step into the light and admit I didn’t have my spiritual act together.

Oh sure, I admit all the time online the ways I don’t measure up, the ways I’m lacking, the ways I’m seeking. But I can carefully control both the wording of my shared needs and the timing in which I share them (preferably with those needs and struggles in the past, so I can share victory, not process). The photo above shows a break from tradition for me.

When I opened my eyes, I found that every single woman at my table had stood up with me. They were admitting their own need along with me. We stood in a united request for supernatural aid. We stood with unified intention to reorient and rededicate ourselves to God. We held hands and prayed. It was a holy moment, and I almost missed it.

I could have let the call to public confession slide. I could have disobeyed God and pretended, in real time, that I had it all together. But I would have missed out on the bonding among women drawing near to God. I would have missed out on some much-needed humility. And I would have missed out on some desperately needed prayers for spiritual restoration. I’m glad I didn’t miss it, though, because right there in that moment, right there in that terrifying admission of need, is when the shell started cracking for me. 

We weren’t designed to walk around as dead, empty shells. We were made to live, to dwell, to thrive even. So if you are walking around like a shell today, remember that God has provided a cure for our communal deadness: it’s called confession. Confession is what makes space for God’s love, joy, and peace to entwine itself in our hearts. It’s what allows real life, true life, life abundant, to grow inside us. So let us confess our neediness, our brokenness, our spiritual barrenness. It might just save our lives.

7 Thoughts for Graduating TCKs

Dear Graduating Senior,

This spring I hugged you. I cried with you. I said goodbye to you. And then I looked into the faces of your parents as they said goodbye too. How can I express the depth of my love for you and your parents? I don’t know. All I know is that if we were sitting down to coffee again, these are the things I’d want to tell you.

They’re the things I’ve mostly stumbled across on my journey as an Adult Third Culture Kid, though they’re by no means comprehensive or applicable to all people. Much like every other human on the planet, I’ve had to sort through my childhood as an adult, and these are the things that have helped me along the way. I hope they help you too.

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1. IT’S OK (AND NORMAL) TO HAVE DELAYED ISSUES

When you were young, home was where mom and dad were (or perhaps where grandma and grandpa were), and most likely, you were almost always with one of those people or in one of those places. But TCK angst is something that tends to catch up to people later in life. That’s the way it was for me, anyway.

Issues of home, belonging, and identity are all higher level, more complex topics. And now that you’re launching out on your own, your old idea of “home” probably won’t be as accessible. The Third Culture world of your childhood will be out of reach, and these issues might come crashing down on you. All of this is OK.

Maybe you felt settled in life before, but feel unsettled now. Maybe you thought life was good or even great before, but feel lost now. Maybe you were part of a happy, healthy family as a child and now find yourself dealing with some thorny emotional issues as a young adult. Don’t worry; it doesn’t mean anything is wrong with you.

Or perhaps you’ve already experienced a lot of transition and upheaval in your life, and you’ve already had to grapple with issues of belonging, identity, and home. That’s ok too. You’ll probably still find that TCK issues pop up in your life over the next several years, often when you’re not expecting them. This is normal. It’s part of the process of growing up. I just don’t want you to be surprised by it.

 

2. SYSTEMS ARE A HELPFUL LENS

Growing up as a military kid, I didn’t have a vocabulary for what was happening in my life. For example, why was civilian life so different and so hard for us?? Answer: because we had suddenly exited a military system (or culture) and entered a non-military one. I didn’t know that back then, but I know it now, and the idea of viewing the TCK experience through the lens of a system has been very helpful to me.

This is one way to explain the idea: your parents made a conscious choice to enter a system (whichever system it was), but much of your TCK experience was then dictated by that system. Even graduating from high school and having to leave your childhood home — as painful as that can be — is dictated by the system you’re living in. You can even be part of more than one system. There’s your third culture system with other TCKs. Then there’s your parents’ organization’s system. And there are probably more.

Being able to see my life as part of a system (or systems) with a lot of moving parts has allowed me to look at some of the TCK issues I’ve faced as an adult without faulting my parents. Yes, the many moves were traumatic for me (and in ways I didn’t realize, feel, or fully understand until I was an adult), but I don’t see that trauma as being inflicted on me by my parents. Yes, they chose the military, but it wasn’t their fault when the military moved us mid-school year. It wasn’t their fault when kids at my new school didn’t accept me right away. Rather, it was a result of the system I was in.

The ability to have conversations without shame or blame is vital to moving forward. And the more we can understand the systems we’re in, the easier it is to talk about our experiences and make connections instead of disconnections. So remember that you’re living in (and have lived in) a system. Remember that accepting your TCK experience doesn’t mean you have to become estranged from your family. Admitting that you struggle to find belonging or to define home or self doesn’t mean you’re labeling your parents as “bad.” These things are results of your systems.

 

3. ALL PEOPLE ARE SINNERS, SO REMEMBER TO GIVE GRACE

While it’s true that you don’t need to blame your parents for the challenges of TCK life, it’s also true that they are human beings. They’re sinners, just like you and just like me. And they may have made some mistakes in life as well as in parenting. Forgive them.

There’s no way around the fact that human parents do hurt their human children: all humans hurt other humans. So while you don’t have to carry around some burden of thinking your parents “ruined your life” with their nomadic choices, you probably also need to forgive them for things. All children — mobile and non-mobile alike — are faced with this question.

I love my parents deeply, and they deeply love me, yet we still found it necessary to have these kinds of conversations. We avoided it for a long time, perhaps for fear of conflict or discomfort, but the healing never came until we did. So talk to your parents. Have conversations with them. Process through the painful stuff. Wade into the murky waters, and find healing and wholeness together. Your parents are invested in your continued health and healing, so let them be a part of it.

Your situation may be more complicated than what I’ve just discussed. Someone may have hurt you deeply, even abused you. In that case, you need more than simple conversations with your parents or other trusted adults. You also need to get some outside help. You need to find trustworthy, compassionate counseling. Both Lisa McKay and Kay Bruner have good insight on how to find a counselor in general and while living overseas. I pray you find someone to guide you through the healing process.

 

4. GET COMFORTABLE WITH PARADOX

As you pack up your boxes and your suitcases, there’s one more thing I want you to pack. That thing is your ability to accept and even embrace paradox. Most likely, your life has been neither one hundred percent good, nor one hundred percent bad. The truth is, TCK or not, no one’s life is one hundred percent one thing. So resist the temptation to spin the story of your childhood in only one direction, either all good or all bad. Don’t pit the good and bad against each other in a futile effort to discover which one outweighs the other.

You don’t have to minimize the bad in order to accept the good. And you don’t have to minimize the good in order to accept the bad. Simply hold them both in your hands and in your heart, and accept them together, side by side, as the things that have shaped you into the person you are and as the things that are continuing to shape the person you are becoming.

We can’t strain the bad out of the good or the good out of the bad; we can’t separate them like cream from milk. They’re a package deal, a paradox, the “and” of this life. So let’s agree together not to outlaw the good or outlaw the bad. Let’s accept all the parts of ourselves, even the parts that make us (or other people) uncomfortable.

 

5. GRIEVE YOUR LOSSES

About those negative experiences . . . I know this has been talked about before, but it’s so important I’m going to say it again: you’ve got to grieve your losses. List out your losses, and then mourn them. Grieve the hard things that happened to you.

Maybe it was leaving your passport country to move to your host country, or moving between host countries, or within the same host country. Maybe it was losing a close friend or teacher to transition or even death. It’s probably graduating and leaving your host country this summer. Regardless of the cause, there have been so many goodbyes in your life, and you need to acknowledge how hard they’ve been for you.

Grief follows us wherever we go; we can’t outrun it. So spend the time now, on the front end, to grieve your TCK losses. You need to learn this skill because you’ll have to use it again later. We live in a fallen world, and bad things will keep happening to you, whether you’re living cross-culturally or not. That means the need to process grief is ever-present, regardless of who you are or where you live.

Learning to grieve well now will help you for the rest of your life. And you might have to grieve some of your losses more than once. You may feel old losses cycling back around again, and you’ll have to stop and re-grieve them. That’s ok. Be gentle with yourself and grieve them again.

 

6. GET SOME OUTSIDE HELP: TCK COUNSELORS AND MENTORS

I personally used to think something was wrong with me. Why did I have all these problems fitting in? Why did I feel so rejected all the time? I thought the problem was me. Then — and this only happened a couple of years ago with a counselor who specializes in TCKs — I began to see that the trouble I had fitting in was a consequence of something that happened to me.

It wasn’t me that was the problem; it was all those moves and having to fit in someplace new over and over and over again. But learning how to fit in takes time, and there’s always a period of uncertainty before friends are made and acceptance is granted. I cannot even explain how much that realization helped me. I felt less like a broken object and more like a person who’d had experiences that shaped me but who wasn’t inherently and eternally screwed up. I had previously faced a lot of insecurity and social anxiety in my life, but when I started seeing their roots in my nomadic childhood and addressing them that way, the fear and insecurity stopped trailing me so doggone much.

Likewise, you may need a counselor who is familiar with the TCK world. In fact, in her book Belonging Everywhere and Nowhere: Insights into Counseling the Globally Mobile, author and counselor Lois Bushong tells us that a counselor who is not familiar with TCK issues may not know how to treat an adult TCK struggling with depression. In actuality, he or she is probably dealing with unresolved TCK grief, a completely normal response to a globally mobile childhood. (Incidentally Lois is also responsible for my understanding of systems.) So if you are in any way “stuck” in your emotional, mental, or spiritual life, consider finding a counselor who understands TCK life. 

Counseling has been massively helpful in my life, both for TCK-related issues and non-TCK-related issues, and I highly recommend counseling to all people who are breathing. But sometimes you just need someone to talk to, someone who will listen to you and empathize with you and even pray for you. Just talking to an older, wiser adult TCK whom you trust can be very helpful in sorting through your thoughts and feelings. In fact, I’ve done that a lot with Marilyn Gardner, fellow writer and editor on this blog. So if you do nothing else, find a fellow TCK friend to talk to.

 

7. YOU SHOULD PROBABLY EXPECT SOME FLARE-UPS

I can give you all the advice in the world — advice you might even follow — but you might still turn around one day and be taken by surprise at the intensity of your feelings of loss and isolation and lack of home and belonging. When this happens to me, whether it’s triggered by the yearly May & June goodbyes or by feeling the sting of some rejection, my husband usually asks me, “Is your TCK acting up again?”

Yes, I tell him. The answer is almost always yes. Yes that my TCK is acting up again. Yes that events from my childhood creep into my adulthood. Yes that from time to time issues I thought were settled and resolved feel suddenly unsettled and unresolved.

But simply naming it can take the edge off the pain. Then I can go back to the truths I’ve learned about myself and about God. And you can do that too. When you find your TCK acting up again, name it. Grieve what you need to grieve, and then remind yourself of the truths you’ve learned over the years. Be kind to yourself when this happens, and remember to give yourself some time to recover.

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Even though there was pain, I don’t regret my TCK experience. For me every experience (in the end) brought me closer to Christ. Though at times it might have seemed a wandering path, every wound was a road leading straight back to God. The relationship I have with God primarily because of painful TCK “issues” is something I wouldn’t give up for anything.

So take heart. If you let them, the questions of home, belonging, and identity that your TCK childhood has asked you to answer can take you deeper into the heart of God than ever before. If you’ll take the time to look for Him, you’ll find Jesus on the other side of every question you have. Only Jesus can help you live an unhindered life. His is the face of love, and He is the answer to every question you’ll ever ask. So go with Him: there is redemption on this road.

When the lights go out

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I want to do all the things. All the very good things there are to do in this world. So I overcommit myself. I don’t say “no.” I say “yes” instead, and spread myself too thin. Then my soul suffers. My work suffers. My sanity suffers. My family life suffers. My spiritual life suffers.

I suffer in silence, thinking I’m all alone. I’m the only one failing at everything. I’m the only one who can’t pull it together. I’m the only one who can’t catch my breath, who can’t catch up on work, who can’t catch up on school, who can’t catch up with friends, who can’t catch up with the God I say I love so very much.

And I, insecure missionary blogger that I am, am afraid to tell people.

To top all that off, the heat in Southeast Asia has been crushing me. The past two months have held record highs here, and we get a lot of power cuts. I echo Ramona Quimby in Ramona the Brave who shouted out “Guts! Guts guts guts!” when she wanted to say bad words. Instead, I yell “Cuts! Cuts cuts cuts!” and very nearly lose my mind.

After one particularly grueling 12-hour all-night power outage, something inside me broke — flat out broke. I lost my hope. I began to question everything. Why are we here? Why can’t we live in America? Why exactly do I serve this God of mine? And where the heck is He when I can barely sleep or even breathe in this heat?

I was struggling under the weight of all the expectations I had for myself: be a good mom, be a good wife, be a good home educator, be a good missionary, be a good team leader’s wife, be a good friend, be a good writer, be a good editor, be a good Christ-follower. And I couldn’t do any of it.

(If there’s one thing that overnight power outage taught me, it’s this: I am not nearly as good a person as I thought I was. Cuts cuts cuts: bad words all around.)

Finally, finally, I asked for prayers. I asked my closest friends and family in the States. I asked my teammates. I asked a few women in my organization. Then I confided my struggles to some other home school moms in my city.

I was met on so many levels by “me too.” I went from being alone to being supported. I went from drowning in my despair of cross-cultural servitude to feeling supernaturally upheld.

The next time the power went out in the middle of the night, I didn’t curse this land or this life or this electrical grid. I didn’t panic. I stayed calm and waited. I sang a worship song (which shocked even myself). I retained my sanity and my faith — something that could only have happened because people were praying for me.

The next day I remember waking up and thinking, seriously? Seriously? Is that really all I had to do? Ask for prayer? Why did I keep my struggles to myself for so long? Why did I think I had to hide? What kind of appearance did I think I needed to keep up anyway? Why did I think I couldn’t ask? Help came fast when I asked.

I spun my hopelessness wheels for too long. But I’ve learned again that I can ask. I can ask for prayer sooner rather than later — and so can you.

So today, if you’re spinning your hopelessness wheels, if you’re afraid to confide in someone or ask for prayer or even for practical help, can I encourage you to ask? Just ask. The God of the universe is here to help. The Body of Christ is here to help. Help is right here waiting, even when the lights go out and we find ourselves in the dark.

All we have to do is ask.