Where is God in My Grief Tower?

by Lauren Wells

A wise man who looks a lot like Indiana Jones (and also happens to be my father) once said that in moments of deep grief you’re faced with a decision: either cling to God and let him be your source of comfort, or run from him and wade through the grief on your own. 

You can’t make it through the expatriate life without experiencing the touch of grief. Grief is temporarily or permanently losing something that you loved. Living a life of high mobility, constant goodbyes, and exposure to big and little traumas causes griefs to steadily stack up along the way. I’ve written a couple of books on this metaphor, which I call the Grief Tower. 

For many expatriates and their children (Third Culture Kids), grief comes in consistent stones of varying weight stacking one on top of the other. On their own, each stone might not feel very significant, but together they create a tall, wobbly tower that will eventually crash if this grief goes unprocessed. 

When my company (TCK Training) debriefs families, we go through the process of writing out the family’s Grief Tower Timeline – putting paper and pen to the big and small hard things that have happened in the family’s life. Sometimes these butcher’s paper timelines are the length of the kitchen table. Sometimes they roll through the kitchen, down the living room, and out the front door. 

As we excavate years’ worth of grief, a quiet question often fills the room. Where was God in my Grief Tower? This life I was called to has created this tower of grief – not just for me but for my children, too!

Even when we trust God’s sovereignty and believe he works all things for the good, the waves of grief still hit us hard. And when this happens, we respond both to our grief and the grief of others with whatever internal narration we’ve come to adopt. Our personal storylines tend to subconsciously ripple into an assumption that God responds the same way to our grief that we as humans do. 

When people say, “Look at the bright side,” we think the right thing to do is to stay positive. We forget that God invites lament. When people say, “He works all things out for the good,” we forget that when it doesn’t feel good in the moment, God is still there to empathize, comfort, and acknowledge that this feels so hard. When people say, “You’re so strong for how you’re handling this,” we don’t remember that God doesn’t expect us to be strong. We forget that He is strong so we don’t have to be. 

At TCK Training, we believe that TCKs should feel and know the love and goodness of God in how they’re cared for. In these raw spaces of grief we have to remember that God’s response is not to “stay positive,” “toughen up,” or “look forward” — and neither should ours be (whether to ourselves or to others). 

Instead, He invites us to lament and ask, “Why?” 

He allows us to mourn deeply and to take time to focus on the grief. 

He reminds us that we don’t need to be the strong one because he is strong for us

When we work with TCKs who turn away from God in their grief, it is most often because they have come to believe deeply that God’s responses to grief are a pep talk, a “get over it,” or an “it could be worse.” I think, perhaps, their belief comes from how they’ve been responded to, and that perhaps how they’ve been responded to comes from the subconscious beliefs held by those responding to them. 

I encourage you to ask yourself the following questions: 

How do I respond inwardly to my own grief?
Does this influence how I believe God responds to my grief?
Does that belief influence how I respond to the grief of those around me? 

May we grow in our response to grief and learn to offer the compassionate heart of God both to ourselves and those around us.

Photo by Piotr Musioł on Unsplash

~~~~~~~~~

Lauren Wells is the founder and CEO of TCK Training and the Unstacking Company and author of Raising Up a Generation of Healthy Third Culture Kids, The Grief Tower, and Unstacking Your Grief Tower. She is an Adult TCK who spent her teenage years in Tanzania, East Africa. She sits on the board of the TCK Care Accreditation as Vice Chair and is part of the TCK Training research team focusing on preventive care research in the TCK population.

Where His Light Was: Remembering the Year in Light of Grace


We are at the close of the year.

For much of my life, this time was marked by introspection, by examens of conscience where I evaluated myself and my performance throughout the year. How did I grow? What did I accomplish? How did I change from last year? It was also one of the main ways to think about how to create resolutions and ways I wanted to keep growing and changing in the new year.

Recently, I was watching Little Women, the 1994 version (and naturally, a Christmas must-see every year). I was struck by Jo’s comment to Professor Bhaer about her family’s way of life: “With all this transcendence comes much emphasis on perfecting oneself.” That is probably my natural bent and also what I thought for the longest time was the aim of the Christian life — to be continually working to perfect myself.

But at the end of this year, I find myself trying an examen of consciousness rather than one of conscience. An examen of consciousness is an ancient practice, a review of where I saw the Lord at work, of how he showed himself near.

In her book Sacred Rhythms, Ruth Haley Barton describes the practice this way: “This is a simple discipline that helps us to become more God conscious, heightening our awareness that God is indeed with us when we lie down to sleep, when we wake up and in every moment in between.”

I have been practicing this examen in the evenings, and now at the end of the year, I try it too. I ask the Lord for eyes to see, for faith to perceive his hand. (I need his help even with this.)

I ask – Where did I see you this year? How did you move? How did you protect me? How did you meet me in your word? Where did your spirit prompt me?

This ancient practice of stopping to look back on my day, not primarily to introspect but to look upward, to recognize the presence of God, is helping me to reframe my thoughts around his goodness even on really hard days.

I may not have discerned his hand in the moment, but taking time at the end of the day and the end of the year is a way of re-remembering, of rewiring the memory to see more clearly what I missed earlier. When I was walking under the heaviness of a given burden, he was there giving joy to read Sammy the Seal to my five-year-old; when I was exhausted after nights up with my sick son, he was holding me as I slept; when I felt fear tightly gripping me, his Spirit helped me discern the root of the struggle and eyes to see him fighting for me; and when waves of triggers wanted me to think trauma was my ultimate reality, my Father was doing his rescuing work. He gave me Jesus’ joy in supernatural ways after exceptionally difficult moments.

My bent on perfecting myself keeps me from being able to discern or enjoy my Father’s presence by keeping my focus on what I am doing instead of what he is doing. And ultimately, it keeps me entrenched with a focus on what I, living by my own strength and ability (in other words, what I in the flesh) can do.

But this practice is training me to live by the Spirit, trusting all that Christ is and is able to do in me and through me. Only after our awareness of God’s love and work in our lives is awake are we truly ready to examine our hearts and let the Spirit show us where we need to repent and confess and trust Christ a little more.

I encourage you to try this practice not only at the end of this year but regularly — at the end of your days, weeks, and months. It will enable you to say, “I see your hand, Father, carrying me all of my yesterdays; I look forward to all of my tomorrows and all the grace rushing to meet me in them.

Looking back on “where his light was” will not only lead you to praise, but surely feed your hope. For his light is everywhere, if only we have eyes to see it.

Building a Home for God


I remember my Word of the Year for 2011. Home. It was the year we were preparing to move our young family thousands of miles from every home they had ever known. I knew I would need a way to define what home meant in order to stay the course of the lifelong calling of God upon our lives.

While our current calling is stateside with a ministry which resettles refugees, we remain a thousand or more miles from the other homes we have known. We are a year and a half into the process of our move, and I continue to ask what it really means to build a home for God which supports our family and welcomes others.

As the holidays approach, I think of the refugees we serve who desire to make true, life-giving, and sustainable homes in the U.S. They seek to do this even while they remain displaced and far, far away from many loved ones. And I think of you, similarly, seeking to build a home, ultimately for the living God, in places which are thousands of miles and oceans and cultures away from the homes you once knew so well.

As I ask myself this question, I ask you as well:

“How do we build a home for God wherever we are in this great, wide world?”

The answer is at once simple and yet complex. Building a home for God depends deeply upon finding a resting place of security and love which is ours in God. Yet this work must also be intricate and intentional as we live amidst diverse environments and cultures.

I was recently reading through the book of Exodus, and I found parallels between the Israelites’ construction of the tabernacle during their wilderness years and our construction of similar dwelling places for God in the places and spaces of our own sojourning. As we consider these similarities, we remember to keep holding the tension between this intricate construction of a tabernacle and the assurance of the veil torn in two which yields constant access to the presence of God.

So I offer to you some key elements of what it looks like to build a home for God wherever you are:

  1. We must build or obtain a physical home: For the Israelites, the first element was the construction of the outer curtains and their frames. Before there were inner elements, there were the outer ones. In our journey, we must find a physical place to live wherever we are. When we found our flat in Hungary after much searching, I remember taking a deep breath and thanking God for all of the elements which came together to find the right place for us to live. For many missionaries, this piece is crucial to thrive in the work of our calling. Furthermore, it is important enough to be a selective process. As we pray and give this element to God, we find that he will provide just what we need.
  2. The construction of a home involves skilled artistry: For the Israelites, they needed skilled workers who could find and sew together the right materials in the correct size and color. In addition, other artisans were needed to weave in specific designs. For us, this means that we remember that the unique gifts we have weren’t left in our home countries. We may be good at decorating or language learning or meeting new people, or some other thing. But we must remember that the specific abilities which make us special are needed for important aspects of the homes we will construct. As we manifest the ‘poema’ or poem of God’s workmanship through our lives (Ephesians 2:10), our home begins to take the specific shape of God in us.
  3. We must be prepared to sacrifice, but there is also space to grieve: In the building of the tabernacle, the next step is the construction of the altar upon which sacrifices will be made. Metaphorically, our building of homes for God involves costly, even perpetual, sacrifice on the altar of our lives. In worship to God, we give our love for our families far away, our existing friendships, our comfort, our status, and more to live where we are. However, there is also a spacious courtyard which surrounds this altar, allowing us space to commune with God in our grief and time to surrender these losses to Him.
  4. The oil of readiness must continually burn: The Israelites were called to prepare fine oil for the lamp stands of the tabernacle. Furthermore, Aaron and his sons were to make sure the lamp stands in the holiest place were continuously lit before the Ark of the Covenant. Similarly, our lamps must always be lit. In times of plenty or want, we are to be ever giving the light of the Gospel both to ourselves, as our own soul nourishment, and to all who experience the presence of God through us. Just as the central dwelling place of God in the tabernacle was the ultimate destination of God’s home, so with us we most centrally bear the light of God as we possess a living, vibrant home where we behold Him, in His faithful character and matchless love. We can have no home for Him without His presence sustaining our lives.
  5. We are clothed in priestly garments: The building of the tabernacle included detailed instructions for the garments of the high priest, Aaron. Yahweh declares His people to be a ‘kingdom of priests, a holy nation’ in Exodus 19:6. Peter reiterates this in I Peter 2:9 for all who trust Jesus, saying, “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” Our garments are perfection and can never be taken from us. They were bought with the exquisite, unfathomable price of the life of God’s own Son. As we continually acknowledge this truth, we can minister as living intercessors for the lives of others with both confidence and humility. Whether in intercessory prayer to our Great High Priest, Jesus, or through being in relationship with others as His hands and feet, our homes radiate gorgeous light from the holy of holies of God.

Wherever you are, I pray you feel hope and encouragement to stay the course of building a home for God. You may feel far behind where had you hoped to be in some areas of construction. But rest assured that as you allow your light to shine, you represent to the world our beautiful Immanuel, ‘God with us.’

 

Image credit via pixabay

A Past Voice from the Field: On Darkness, Light, and Skies of Brass

Zermatt, Switzerland

Today I’d like to share a post that connects two others I’ve written. The first one addresses the quotation “Don’t forget in the darkness what you have learned in the light,” attributed by Philip Yancey to Christian publishing executive and author Joseph Bayly. The second discusses the life and work of Lilias Trotter, British artist and missionary to Algeria.

I had read Yancey’s attribution in his book Where Is God when It Hurts? but more recently, it was while thumbing through Miriam Huffman Rockness’s A Blossom in the Desert: Reflections of Faith in the Art and Writings of Lilias Trotter, that I came across

Believe in the darkness what you have seen in the light.

While not exactly the same as the words of Bayly, Trotter’s are close enough to show a relationship in the idea and phrasing. And I knew that Trotter’s writing easily predated Bayly’s quotation, as she died in 1928, when Bayly was only eight years old.

Knowing that Rockness authors a blog about Trotter, I contacted her for more information. In response, she not only told me that Trotter had written the phrase in her diary in August of 1901 but also gave me some background on its meaning. Rockness writes that the diary entry came from a time when Trotter was visiting her brother in Zermatt, Switzerland, “taking a ‘break’ from the heavy load” she was experiencing in North Africa. While high up in the mountains, she wrote:

“Believe in the darkness what you have seen in the light” – That was this mornings “first lesson” – For when I opened my shutters about 5.30, there was a lovely clear happy morning sky above the grey gold rocks a[nd] glistening snow of the Weirshorn & Roth-horn. While a thick bank of white cloud lay below in the valley – Half an hour more & it had risen around us till there was nothing to be seen but a few dim ghosts of trees. Yet one knew having once seen that sky, that a radiant day was coming, & that the clouds could do nothing but melt. And me[lt] they did, the peaks glimmering like far off angels at first, & clearing till they stood out radiant & strong, with the fogs dropped down to their feet like a cast off mantle. All depended on what one had seen first.

Elsewhere in her blog, Rockness puts the quotation in more context, describing Trotter’s “heavy load”:

It is interesting to note that when Lilias recorded the above statement of faith in her diary, she was in the midst of an unprecedented and sustained period of challenge in ministry. After more than 3 years of political opposition  and spiritual oppression, their work had come almost to a halt. Activities in Algiers and itineration in Algeria were severely curtailed as they were dogged by the shadow of suspicion.  Even their most beloved Arab friends pulled away in fear of being identified with them.

In A Passion for the Impossible: The Life of Lilias Trotter, Rockness writes that the difficulties faced by Trotter included the investigation of English missionaries by the ruling French government and the targeting of young Algerian converts by sorcerers using poison and “black magic.” Also, a missionary family that had come to help in the ministry left after six months, unable to meet the demands of caring for their three children in Algeria.

Trotter wrote in 1897, again in her diary,

One literally could do nothing but pray at every available bit. One might take up letters or accounts that seemed as if they were a “must be”—but one had to drop them within five minutes, almost invariably, and get to prayer—hardly prayer either, but a dumb crying up to the skies of brass.

For Trotter, during difficult times, the skies could turn to brass and clouds could obscure the sun and envelop the world around her. But she had seen the “clear happy morning sky,” and she knew that a “radiant day was coming.”

“Believe in the darkness,” she learned, and passed on to us, “what you have seen in the light.”

If you’d like to know more about Lilias Trotter, you can watch the 2015 documentary Many Beautiful Things, featuring the voices of Michelle Dockery (Downton Abbey) and John Rhys-Davies (Lord of the Rings). It also includes insights from Miriam Huffman Rockness. The trailer is below, and the complete film is available free here.

(This post is adapted from an earlier one at ClearingCustoms.net.)

(Miriam Huffman Rockness, ed., A Blossom in the Desert: Reflections of Faith in the Art and Writings of Lilias Trotter, Discovery House, 2016; Rockness, in a comment (September 5, 2016) for “Lilias Trotter Symposium,” Lilias Trotter, August 17, 2016; Rockness, “Believe!” Lilias Trotter, July 28, 2012; Rockness, Passion for the Impossible: The Life of Lilias Trotter, Discovery House, 2003)

[photo: “Switzerland-55,” by Strychnine, used under a Creative Commons license]

Jesus, Take the Phone

My phone wouldn’t send a text message. It wouldn’t make a call. It wouldn’t even let me get online. And it had the audacity to continue not working even after I used the fail-safe method that cures all technology: turning my phone on and off again.

So I put my cell phone aside for the night. I’d already scrolled past 100 updates from 100 of my least favorite acquaintances. I guess I could go to bed an hour early, and it wouldn’t hurt too much. I figured the malady would surely be resolved by the morning– just another technological blip to annoy me.

Panic set in when my phone still wasn’t working the next day. Panic turned to anger after one online chat representative transferred me to another who kept telling me I needed to call the customer service line. How many times could I remind them that I didn’t have a working phone?

My shoulders were up by my ears, my jaw was clenched, and a barrage of ungrateful thoughts was running through my head . . . all aimed at the hapless employee who was absolutely not at fault for my non-working phone but had become an easy target for my frustration. I found myself apologizing, backpedaling, and stopping myself from treating this flesh-and-blood person as if she were as she appeared to me at that moment – three blinking dots on my computer screen.

The rest of the saga included borrowing a phone, 33 minutes on hold, four transfers, and two dropped calls. In the end, the phone company said they would send me a replacement part, which would take three business days to arrive. And today was Friday.

How would I survive?

I lost count of how many times I mindlessly picked up my phone and opened my email tab. When did life get so boring? Even though I had plenty to do, I was itching for my next fix. I needed a photo of a friend from junior high whom I haven’t seen in person for over 20 years. I was desperate to know what her lunch looked like! And surely I was missing out on all of the salient political points and religious insights being shared across all of my social media platforms. I felt so out of the loop! There was a whole world going on online, and I had been cut out of it. I felt like a 13-year-old who got uninvited to the sleepover.

These kinds of delays, breakdowns, and miscommunications were a normal part of my life when I lived overseas. I anticipated and accepted them as part of our crazy missional journey. I could even bring some curiosity into those experiences, wondering what they would reveal to me about the culture. But since returning to the U.S., my frustration fuse has shrunk. I want everything to work perfectly the first time, and I’m much less patient with my fellow Americans than I was with my Tanzanian friends because I’m always in a rush.

Case in point: within my first week of being home, I was using Google Maps, and an alert came across the screen letting me know that a better route was available. It could save me a whole three minutes! I literally laughed out loud at the ridiculous notion that getting there three minutes faster would matter. But it only took a few months before I was caught up once again in our go, go, go culture and happily accepting spare minutes anywhere I could find them.

Right before we returned to the U.S., God had started nudging me to cultivate silence in my life. So over the last 2 years, I’ve learned about meditation and contemplative prayer and found great solace in spending 10 minutes each morning soaking in God’s presence. But my recent phone-induced panic showed me that God now wanted to work on how I was filling the rest of my 23 hours and 50 minutes. As much as I didn’t want to admit it, the notifications on my phone and all of the apps and information it offered were filling my brain with far too much noise.

Technology is only part of this. Living on mission in any country can get real noisy real fast. There are always more demands for our attention and more problems to be solved than time to solve them. Like the insistent beeping of my phone, my desire to meet the endless needs of a hurting world around me can quickly wear me out and exhaust me if I’m not continually returning to God’s presence.

God has challenged me to give an honest accounting of how I spend my time. I’ve realized that whenever I had a free second, I was unconsciously reaching for my phone to fill the gap. It was easier to spend a few moments distracted by other people’s lives or witty memes than to reconnect with God’s presence or go to heaven in prayer or take a moment to say thank you. I had been enjoying my 10 minutes of quiet but not allowing the fruit of that time to spill over into the rest of my day.

So I asked for God’s forgiveness. I uninstalled some apps, put screen time limits on my phone, and asked for the Holy Spirit to intervene and turn my attention back to God when technology or anything else tries to steal it away. It’s a process of learning and unlearning. I’m hoping for progress and releasing any demands for perfection.

And I’m praying – Jesus, take the phone.


 

 

My Love/Hate Relationship with Living on Support

Lois was only a few weeks away from death when I visited her in a nursing home. Lois was a widow, and she supported our ministry in Tanzania at $200 a month as a widow. By the time I could visit her, she had developed cancer. I told her how grateful we were that she supported our family so generously for so many years. 

“It’s my pleasure,” she told me, her eyes bright with the energy her body lacked. “You know, I discussed this with my kids. They agreed that they didn’t need a big inheritance. They are okay with me giving away my money to missionaries.” I sat there dumbfounded, tears in my eyes.  

In Tanzania, we attended a church where we were often the only non-Africans present. One Sunday, the preacher spoke passionately about God’s call to cross-cultural missions. Afterward, an African woman I had never met approached me. She smiled and said, “Thank you for serving as missionaries!” She handed me an envelope containing about $75 – a considerable amount for many Tanzanians. My eyes gaped. My mouth gaped. I’m sure I looked like a codfish. All I could think was, She probably needs this more than I do. Yet I knew it would insult her to refuse, so I sputtered out my thanks and hugged her.

Our mission organization keeps a database of every donation we’ve received since we first moved overseas in 2001. Sometimes I look at the cumulative totals our donors have given us, some going back 20 years. They could have gone on a nice vacation with that money, I think to myself. Maybe an Alaskan cruise. That family could have remodeled their kitchen or bought a car with these donations. And in one case, They could have bought another house with that money. Not kidding. A whole house. 

When we knew we would relocate from Tanzania to the States in 2020, my husband and I started a job search. We cast our net far and wide, looking at schools, churches, and non-profits. There was one thing, however, that I was adamant about: whatever we decided to do next, I did not want to be in a support-raising position. No siree. I had been there, done that. No matter how cool an opportunity sounded, if it required raising support, I was out. I’d lived on support for 18 years. It was time to move on. 

But I have this wonderful friend, Alyssa, who has this habit of drilling into my soul. So when I told her my intention of finding a regular, non-support-raising job, she was not satisfied. “Why not?” she insisted. “What if God shows you the perfect job that is a perfect fit for you, but you have to live on support? Would you still say no?”

It’s so irritating when Alyssa is right. A couple of months later, God dropped that exact scenario into my lap, and I was forced to reckon with my resistance to living on support. What was my problem? God had always provided abundantly for us through the generosity of others. I loved the relationships I had formed with supporters. So why did I hate it so much?

I thought of Lois, and the woman with the envelope at church, and the people who could have bought a house with their donations. I realized I hated how their generosity made me feel so….humbled.

When you are trained in support-raising methods, they tell you that “the ask” will be hard. It’s challenging to look someone in the eye and ask if they will sacrificially donate money so that you can fulfill your calling. But you know what they don’t tell you? That asking may be hard, but receiving is even harder. 

After all, I’m a good, hard-working American with some hefty bootstraps. I don’t want to be dependent on anyone. I don’t want anyone to sacrifice on my behalf. I’d rather earn my keep. 

And therein lies my problem. Living on support feels like grace, and I don’t like grace. 

Those words fly out of my brain and through my fingers, and I instantly feel foolish. Considering that grace is the heart of Christianity, you could say this attitude is a problem for someone following Christ. 

The Creator of the universe lowered Himself to become dependent on mortals, so who do I think I am that I should refuse to depend on others? Is this not the Lord’s earth, and everything in it? Is it not God who provides for my needs, even when I try to provide for myself?

Daily I must release my independence. I cannot be self-reliant, and when God provides through others, I must lower my pride and receive it. I am not in control; I cannot spend my money as though I deserve it, and I am reminded that I am only a steward of God’s resources. Ironically, living on support teaches me how I should be living as a Christian. 

I surrendered and said yes to the perfect job that was a perfect fit, even though it meant I had to rely on support. I am ground to the dust in gratitude for the three churches and 76 households who faithfully continue to financially support me. But Jesus spent a lot of time in the dust, so I love the opportunity to identify with Him. 

Photo by Andre Taissin on Unsplash

Is Christ Still Worth It?

In 2007, worker friends of mine were martyred in a country in Central Asia. I was in my mid-twenties, single, and praying for direction for the desires the Lord had given me for his kingdom. I was so shaken by their deaths. I remember how, shortly after it happened, I was swimming furiously in the gym pool, praying to the Lord, ”Who will take their place? Please, send me.”

I couldn’t make it to the memorial in the US, but a pastor friend shared with me the eulogy he had given. One line has had a profound effect on me. After talking about all the challenges these worker friends faced, and their many adversaries, he said something like, “You may hear about all this opposition and all the difficulties they faced, and their lives may not sound appealing to you. But the truth is, their lives did not appeal to them either. They loved Christ more than they loved their own lives.

~~~~~~~

I remember when we were first getting ready to go overseas. My husband and I had the opportunity to share at a church together. I was passionate, convinced that Christ is worthy and that he is worth our sacrifice. I was so glad we were finally (at age 33 and 32) on our way to serve Christ in the Middle East for the rest of our lives. 

The first three years were exciting. We had a lot of adrenaline, and we were planted in really good spiritual communities. During that time we joined a team to help plant a church. We felt like we were finally living our dream life. Then the Lord called us to another ministry in another country. 

The last four years, since arriving in this country, we have faced many difficulties: significant health problems, a brutal treatment to catalyze physical healing, an excruciating language learning season, deep loneliness, unresolved trauma flaring up with intense symptoms and a need for additional counseling/therapy. A tragedy a year ago left us reeling, and we are still processing the shock of it. Our efforts in relationship building haven’t borne the fruit we hoped; right now the path doesn’t seem very clear. The ground at times feels shaky underneath our feet. What can we stand on? At times we feel like the wind in our sails is just…..gone. 

We have been overseas for seven years now. According to a friend, who is also a clinical counselor and who has done a lot of research about mental health in workers, we are right at the burnout period. And frankly, we feel it. Don’t get me wrong. There is a lot I love about our life here. I love where we live. I love the beauty around me. I am so thankful for the expat community we have started to get to know. Our kids are doing really well at school. But I don’t love how lost we feel right now, how very little we have to go on for ministry. We have dreams for the work here but struggle to find our place in it. 

We shared some of this with our church this past summer, asking for prayer. I wondered how they might hear what we shared. Did our lives sound as unappealing as the ones from my friends? We were definitely not sharing the glamorous, attractive stories that you sometimes hear from workers when they come home. We were not doing the best job at recruiting, if you ask me.

A question swirled in my head: What would motivate any of our friends at church not only to keep praying for us, but to maybe one day also go overseas? Is Christ still worth it?

Is Christ worth years and years of language learning? Is he worth the death of who we are in English for what we can be in another language? Is he worth our praise when we have more questions than clear answers from him?  When the ground doesn’t feel firm, and our confidence feels shaken, is he worth it? 

The thing is, Christ hasn’t changed. He is still the one who holds all things together (Colossians 1:17). He is still the one who knows the end from the beginning, whose footprints sometimes are unseen as he leads through the sea (Psalm 77:19). He is still the one who creates the visible out of the invisible (Hebrews 11:3). He is still the one whose arm brings salvation (Isaiah 59:17).

Christ is still the one who stoops low even as he has all authority on earth (Matthew 28:18-20). He is the one who gives himself to us so completely, so joyfully, so powerfully, so lovingly. The one who is our life — our only life!

This verse in a new song by CityAlight and Sandra McCracken captures why we can still love Christ even when we don’t love our lives: 

On the road that You walked
With the weight of the cross
All my pain and my sorrow You held
So to You I shall hold
You redeem every loss
For my Lord, You have given Yourself

Bless the Lord, for He gives me Himself
Bless the Lord, for He gives me Himself
And if I should remain in the valley today
Bless the Lord, for He gives me Himself

Yes, friend, in the valley the risen Christ is still worthy and worth it, because there we get Him – all of Him – forever.

Sing Along with Me: How Long?

broken mirror reflecting sky


Returning to the States after serving overseas was a hard time for my wife and me. We were grieving our losses and were struggling with the difficulties we’d already faced and those we saw ahead. We prayed and prayed but didn’t receive clear direction from God. In our spiritual malaise it was hard to slide back into a church service and cheerfully sing praise songs. So we often stayed seated while others stood, and prayed silently while others sang.

While we didn’t hear the audible voice of God in answer to our prayers, we did read the words of David in communion with our prayers:

How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart? (Psalm 13:1-2a NIV)

We still sometimes find ourselves sitting and praying during our church’s worship service, and we still sometimes call to God with the opening words of the 13th Psalm. So when I saw syndicated columnist Terry Mattingly’s post at On Religion last month, “Open Bible to Psalms: What Messages Are Seen There but Not in Modern Praise Music?” it caught my attention. And then as I read on and saw him quoting Craig Greenfield, a past contributor to A Life Overseas, I was pulled in.

In his essay, Mattingly discusses Michael J. Rhodes’ analysis of the 25 top Christian worship songs (from a ranking by Christian Copyright Licensing International). Rhodes finds that in their lyrics, justice appears only once, enemies “rarely show up,” and there is no mention of the poor, widows, refugees, or the oppressed, even though those are common themes in the Psalms. “Maybe most devastatingly,” he writes on Twitter, “in the Top 25, not a SINGLE question is ever posed to God.”

Craig, who has spent years living among and working with the poor overseas, responds by lamenting the lack of lamenting in our worship, the absence of mourning with those who mourn over the state of a world that’s “all messed up.” He writes, “Sometimes it’s a broken, evil place and His Kingdom has not yet come in full.”

The Psalms often express lamenting in blunt questions posed to God, questions such as “How long?” Are you familiar with the Irish rock band U2’s “40” from back in 1982? It opens with words taken directly from Psalm 40 and concludes with the refrain “How long to sing this song?” That’s a reference to another of their well-known recordings (from the same album), “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” decrying violence in the world, in which they sing, “How long, how long must we sing this song?” For many years, U2 closed their concerts with “40,” while the band members left the stage one by one and the audience sang, “How long to sing this song?” repeated again and again well after the stage was empty.

Psalm 13 isn’t the only place where the psalmist cries out to God, “How long?” And that’s not the only kind of question asked in the Psalms, either. There are plenty of “whens,” “whats,” and “whys,” as well.

I think, too, of another song containing an outpouring of questions directed at God. It’s Kings Kaleidoscope’s “A Prayer.” I was introduced to Kings Kaleidoscope when I listened to and wrote about the podcast The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill. The band and its lead singer, Chad Gardner, came through Mars Hill Church, where Gardner led worship until resigning. Each of the main episodes of the podcast opens with King’s Kaleidoscope’s “Sticks and Stones,” which tells of the band’s disillusionment with Mars Hill. (If you haven’t listened to the podcast, you might instead recognize the tune from a 2019 Lexus commercial.)

“A Prayer” opens with the question, “Will I fall or will I misstep?” It speaks of silence and anxiety, and transitions to an over-and-over-again “Jesus, where are you? Am I still beside you?” Then comes a “bridge” of no words and no music—in the version below, a full 30 seconds long. It’s a powerful moment and makes me wonder if this is what the psalmist’s “selah” might have sounded like. And then the quiet is followed by a solo violin and Jesus’ enthusiastic answer:

These are two song I can stand up for and sing, though I doubt I’ll hear them led from a church stage. U2’s “40” has been around too long, and the group is far from what most people would call a “worship band.” And when Kings Kaleidoscope released “A Prayer,” it came out in two versions: clean and explicit. The clean rendition is embedded above, while the explicit one contains the f-word, as Gardner uses it to describe the violent fear he’s experienced. Some laud his raw authenticity. Others consider it a sinful word choice.

One more thing, though: I don’t want to stray too far from Rhode’s original thesis. While I’m concentrating on the general absence of questions in our church singing, he emphasizes the scarcity of questioning in the context of addressing poverty and justice. I have to confess that my “How longs?” mostly concern my inner turmoil, rather than grieving the hurt occurring around our globe—the grieving and hurt that many of you live among and see firsthand. I, like the church as a whole, have a ways to go to align my thinking with the Psalms, to be able to sing with and for those who are marginalized and oppressed.

Shortly after his tweet, Rhodes, In Christianity Today, wrote,

We’re talking about a revolution in the way we sing and pray, a revolution driven neither by smoke machines nor by the theological flavor of the week but by the very scripts God has given us to use in our life with him. Sounds like a lot of work. But if we embrace it, we might find ourselves singing our way toward the justice that our God loves and our world longs for.

(Terry Mattingly, “Open Bible to Psalms: What Messages Are Seen There but Not in Modern Praise Music?On Religion, July 25, 2022; Michael J. Rhodes [@michaeljrhodes], Twitter, September 14, 2021; Craig Greenfield, “Worship Music Is Broken. Here’s What We Can Do about It.Craig Greenfield, September 17, 2021; Rhodes, “Why Don’t We Sing Justice Songs in Worship?Christianity Today, September 30, 2021)

[photo: “Broken Mirror on Mass Ave,” by essygie, used under a Creative Commons license]

Trusting God With What You Leave Behind

A few weeks after we arrived in Tanzania, Gil and I heard breaking glass in the middle of the night. Imagining the worst, we rushed downstairs to discover that one of our pictures had fallen off the wall. No big deal.

Except that the picture represented something that was a big deal. In it, Gil and I stood smiling on a park playground with a half dozen other adults and about 30 kids. We all wore navy blue Faithblast! shirts. This was a photo of the weekly kids’ club that Gil and I had started in Southern California. 

Gil and I barely knew each other when we started FaithBlast, and it’s how we fell in love. The ministry was our baby. We nurtured it for four years, and it blossomed into further neighborhood outreach. Our story was inextricably linked with that neighborhood, that playground, those kids. 

Knowing we were heading overseas, Gil and I had fervently searched for someone to take over the ministry when we were gone. But there was no one. When we left, the FaithBlast ended.

So when the picture fell off the wall and the glass smashed into pieces, it felt eerily symbolic. Fresh tears came. Why had we left a thriving ministry that was so dear to us to come to this unfamiliar and uncomfortable place where we had to start from scratch all over again? 

In the excitement of following God’s call to another country, it’s easy to underestimate the repercussions of your departure. Maybe, like us, it’s a ministry that falls apart. Perhaps it’s aging parents who don’t understand. Maybe it’s siblings in crisis or a beloved church in upheaval. Perhaps it’s hurting a friend whose wedding you can’t attend. Maybe there isn’t an obvious replacement for the role you filled, and you know you are leaving behind a burden on others.

When we say yes to God’s call to missions, we first think about the sacrifices God is asking us to make. We count the cost of leaving homes, family, jobs, community. But it’s our choice, and we walk into it willingly. What about the sacrifices we are asking others to make on our behalf? We are making that choice for them, and that burden can feel heavy.

Jesus said that everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for His sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life (Matthew 19:29). 

It’s a stunning promise. But what about those we leave behind? Can we trust God with them too?

This is tricky, and not just for those leaving for the first time. For those deep into overseas ministry, this question will haunt us for the rest of our lives – on both sides of the world. Do we fill the need at home, or do we fill the need overseas? Both choices leave projects unfinished, loved ones with empty spaces in their lives. How do we choose?

We must ask ourselves the hard questions and dig out our motivations. Am I going or leaving or staying because I’ve made an idol of family or position or comfort? Am I shirking my responsibility, or I am trying to take the role of God in another person’s life? Is it clear that it’s my job to care for this person, to mediate that conflict, to push that ministry forward? Or is God asking me to surrender that to Him? 

As the old song tells us, Trust and Obey. But in this case, Obey and then Trust. Walk forward in obedience, and trust Him with what we can’t do. 

In My Utmost for His Highest, Oswald Chambers wrote, 

If we obey God, it is going to cost other people more than it costs us, and that is where the pain begins. A lack of progress in our spiritual life results when we try to bear all the costs ourselves. And actually, we cannot. Because we are so involved in the universal purposes of God, others are immediately affected by our obedience to Him. . . . We can disobey God if we choose, and it will bring immediate relief to the situation, but it will grieve our Lord. If, however, we obey God, He will care for those who have suffered the consequences of our obedience. We must simply obey and leave all the consequences with Him. Beware of the inclination to dictate to God what consequences you would allow as a condition of your obedience to Him.

When we left California in 2001, we left behind FaithBlast. When we left Tanzania in 2020, my replacement was only temporary, and Gil’s position wasn’t filled at all. Once again, we had to trust God with what we left behind. 

Our ministry, on any side of the globe, always belongs to God. The people we love are in His hands. Where I see only a small piece; He sees the complete picture. When He makes it clear it’s time to leave, then I can trust that He knows what He is doing with what I leave behind. 

Where Did I Go Wrong?

When projects fail and goals go unmet, I’m quick to second-guess myself: Did God really lead me to this? Where did I go wrong? What did I miss along the way?

I wonder if that’s how the Israelites felt when they were wandering around in the desert, thirsty and lost. You know the story. When life seemed uncertain, their automatic response was to grumble and complain.

They demanded to know why Moses brought them out of Egypt to make their children and livestock die of thirst. They jumped straight from a dry mouth to a dead family. Fear made them believe that catastrophes lay ahead of them. They swallowed that lie and imagined it was true.

I’ve read these passages before and judged those silly Israelites. The Lord parted the waters for them just a few chapters before. How could they forget so easily? But when I read the story again today, I heard myself in their grumbling and complaining. Their question, “Is the Lord among us or not?” (Exodus 17:7), spoke to a deep uncertainty within me.

I’m in a wandering, wondering place right now. When I was sent home from Tanzania at the start of Covid, I left a trunk of my belongings with a dear friend. I assured her that I’d be back for them soon.

Somehow two years have passed. My friend has given away or used all of my carefully packed away things. I told her to because I don’t know when or if I’ll be back for them.

When the Israelites were wandering in the desert desperate for water, the Lord heard their cries. He provided water from a rock for the people to drink. I wonder if there’s a message in this miracle. Could God be telling the Israelites that He brings unexpected blessings from the hardest places? Could He be encouraging them to look for His life-giving presence in places that seem dead? Could He be teaching me the same thing?

Our brains have a built-in negativity bias. This means that we naturally pay more attention to negative experiences and tend to dwell on them more than positive experiences. So it’s pretty easy for me to look back over the last two years and tally up all my disappointments and frustrations.

But I know that God is the same yesterday, today, and forever. And if He was a God who brought water from a rock thousands of years ago, then He can do the same thing today. Rather than grumbling and complaining about my rocky path, I could start looking for the ways that He’s provided for me in the dry places.

This isn’t natural. I don’t want to do it. I feel like I’ve earned the right to complain. I’m sure the Israelites did, too.

With the Holy Spirit’s prompting, I opened my journal and I started writing. Ten minutes later I had a list of 14 ways that God had provided for me over the last two years. I saw water rushing out of rocky places and was amazed that I’d missed it before.

Then I started to wonder if the Israelites looked at rocks differently after this miracle. Did they wait expectantly to see if God might show up and transform the rocks into something else? Did they get excited about the possibilities? Did they see a rock and remember God’s provision?

Maybe this is another part of the lesson. God provided water not only out of a hard place but also out of something that He knew the Israelites would be walking around for the next 40 years. God could have made water appear out of nowhere. Instead, He used a rock. Water from the rock would not only fend off their thirst that day, but perhaps it could also provide the Israelites with an object lesson to remind them of God’s presence every day of their lives.

I started to think about what I see on a daily basis that could serve as a reminder of God’s loving presence with me. I chose pens. Over the last two years, God has provided me with a writing ministry. He’s given me the words to write and opened doors to connect with amazing opportunities (writing for A Life Overseas being one of the first and best of those open doors!).

I asked the Holy Spirit to remind me each time I pick up a pen that God is able to do unexpected and glorious things in the hardest and most trying circumstances. And just because I know my own stubborn, forgetful heart, I wrapped tape around some of the pens in my house and wrote “The Lord is among us” on them. 

Is the Lord among us or not? He is. He is most certainly among His people. He’s been with me for the last two years and all the years before that. He’s been with me through the failed projects and the unmet goals. He’s been with me through the disappointments and the victories.

And He’s been with you the whole time too. He’s been there through all the ups and downs of following Him across borders and into foreign cultures. He’s been there through all the ministry roadblocks that these last two years of covid have thrown your way. And He is with you right now.

God’s loving presence takes the sting out of dashed dreams and unmet goals. In His hands, rocks become water, wandering builds character, and failures get reformed. He is at work among us, now and always.

The Myth of the Ever-Happy Missionary

I don’t know if anyone has actually said it, but sometimes I feel it in the air: missionaries are supposed to be Very Happy. We are supposed to land in our host country and immediately love everything and everyone around us, floating on clouds of ministry bliss.

But sometimes we aren’t happy.

Sometimes as much as we love the people around us, they are also frustrating and hurtful, just like back in our passport country. Sometimes a cultural practice irks or disturbs us. Sometimes the relationships we left behind pain us, like a wounded foot that can’t quite heal because we keep walking on it. Sometimes we suffer from anxiety or depression or homesickness.

Maybe it’s for a season. Maybe longer. None of us wants to camp out in those places of heartache, but we do go there, sometimes for a while. Are the hurting missionaries less of a success than the happy ones? Where did these ideas come from?

With the advent of industrialization and modernity in the West, people’s lifestyles changed in ways that the world had never seen. Child and infant mortality decreased drastically; educational opportunities advanced; work was less tied to exhausting manual labor. These changes brought definite increases in quality of life and in what could be termed happiness. The right to pursue happiness is even tied into the major founding documents of the United States.

But the “right” to happiness has brought with it an expectation and a pressure: if we’re not happy, then we’re letting down ourselves and the people around us, who shouldn’t have to experience our unhappiness. The pressure can even come from a misguided attempt to be thankful for first-world advantages: if we’re not happy, then we’re not grateful enough for the benefits we have. The pressure is compounded for Christians and ministry workers: if we’re not happy, it’s because we’re not spiritual enough to “rejoice in the Lord always.”

The Lord calls us to contentment, certainly. We are commanded—and enabled—to have a deep-running river of joy in Christ, even in suffering. But we may be called to seasons of sorrow and pain, or at least discomfort and longing. Where is the mandate to be happy?

If humans hadn’t rebelled against God in the Garden, if the Fall hadn’t happened, then we would all be supremely happy, with nothing to detract from it and no knowledge that anything could. His creation plan included our ultimate happiness, satisfaction, and bliss in paradise with Him. A time is coming when God will wipe every tear from every eye, and yes, we will be nothing but joyfully happy for all eternity.

But during this in-between time, temporal happiness doesn’t come first. In this fallen world, He is bent on our ultimate joy as it coincides with his ultimate glory. And sanctification often hurts.

Being happy all the time is not the point. We aren’t Christians for that purpose, and we didn’t come to our host countries for that purpose. We came because God called us, because He has work to do here.

We can look at Jesus himself to see that the servant is not above the master when it comes to hard emotions. Jesus wept over Lazarus’ death (John 11:28-35); he was angry and even violent over the money changers’ sacrilege in the temple (Mark 11:15-19); he was grieved at the faithlessness of his disciples when they could not drive out a demon (Matthew 17:17). His negative emotions laid bare the gulf between what God designed for the world, and what it is. We are not sinless like Jesus; we cannot indulge personal anger and call it righteousness. But his example shows us the value of painful emotions.

Jesus himself—Very God of Very God—experienced and expressed anger and grief, and his Father was not disappointed in him. It did not mean he lacked self-control. It meant that he saw the broken situation rightly and longed for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in Heaven. Even more so, it meant that he believed in God’s coming, conquering Kingdom: he knew what should be, and he trusted that it was imminent.

Our negative feelings can point to the fact that this world is not conformed to God’s ways—that the Kingdom, while already coming, has not yet come in full. They point to the reality that there is much work to do in this world and that God has called us to be part of it.

Now, if we need counseling, medicine, or a variety of other helps, then we should embrace them. It’s a wonderful gift from God to have medication to help sort out our brain chemistry and relational help to help sort out our life experiences. Every part of us was broken by the Fall, so it’s no surprise when we experience difficult emotions; when they overwhelm us, we may need to put our trust in God by trusting his common grace of psychology and pharmacology.

If we let ourselves ride out the hard emotions, without catastrophizing them to signal the end of the world or heaping on guilt and shame, these emotions can clue us in to important things. Like how God is working in us, and how we are either cooperating or resisting. How he wants to challenge us, and heal us. They can help us work through loss and pain and be soothed by the peace of Christ. They can help us to know ourselves and others, growing our ability to offer empathy.

Our sadness and other non-happy emotions don’t have to destroy us or our ministry. They can be part of cultivating a life and ministry resilient enough to withstand brokenness and yet thrive. When we feel these negative emotions, we can go to the God who felt them too.

 

Originally published May 26, 2017.

When We’re Shaken {a poem}

by Krista Besselman

Author’s Note: I wrote this poem while trying to trust the Lord as I processed both the Ukraine crisis and an unexpected health challenge. I chose to focus less on me and how I feel, and more on God and Who He is, drawing comfort from familiar passages like Psalm 139 and Psalm 46.

You know everything I’m thinking,
All my words from first to last,
And the answers to the questions
I was too afraid to ask.

There are forces set in motion
I could never understand.
They’re so big they overwhelm me
But You hold them in Your hand.

Please remind us in the moment
That our greatest fear arrives
You are greater than the evil
That would tear apart our lives.

We can see both good and evil.
We rejoice and yet we grieve,
Taking comfort in Your presence
And Your promise not to leave.

Though Your love exceeds our knowledge,
Show its height and depth and length.
When our world feels like it’s shaken,
Be our refuge and our strength.

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

Krista found a heart for missions accounting in Papua New Guinea and still uses what she learned in her seven years there to support Bible translation from Texas. She writes poetry to process the ups, downs, and outright crises of life. Her favorite poems call herself–and others–to remember God’s faithfulness in every situation.