Hungry for the Restoration of God

A while back, my dad passed on an old steamer trunk to me. It was coated in layers of dust, the lock had been broken out, and any leather had long since crumbled away. That old trunk probably crossed the ocean with some great-great-grand relative, carrying only bare necessities plus a bundle of hope for a new life. It’s battered and worn, bearing the scars of its journeys and years, but when I look at it, I see stories and potential. I see it restored and repurposed. As much as I’d like to, I won’t get to that project on this furlough, though . . . maybe next time.

The idea of restoring a thing – a house, a car, old furniture – is fascinating. We’ll even sit and watch others do it (as long as the process is in time-lapse). We love to see old made new, broken made beautiful, original glory restored. I wonder if God’s not so different when He looks at us. He can see beneath the layers of grime, the callouses and scars, and the cracks in our souls; He sees instead our original purpose and our future glory. God is in the business of restoration, and I’m so glad He’s not restrained by time like I am.

The word “restore” comes from the same Latin root as the word “restaurant.” Apparently, the first eatery known as a restaurant was in Paris where Monsieur Boulanger sold restorative broths nearly 300 years ago. And now, millions of humans go to restaurants of all kinds around the world to sit, eat, and be restored. 

If you’ll continue to indulge me in a few more moments of word-nerdery, I would also like to consider two possible ways to split up our little friend, restore. Try the obvious syllabic break of re/store, for example. Re, meaning to do an action again, and store, meaning to gather or accumulate. We store up God’s goodness, grace, and love on repeat. Over and over again we forget, yet over and over again we can notice, give thanks, remember, and restore our souls in Him. 

Or, we could look at it like rest/ore. I must rest, or else my body and soul might just quit on me. Burnout, as we call it, is right behind us if we don’t learn to find regular and healing rhythms of rest.

Living in this broken world is damaging to our souls. First of all, we’ve got our own sin nature to battle, not to mention constantly rubbing shoulders with others’ sin and sharp brokenness. We face relational conflict, taxing decisions, health concerns, compassion fatigue, awkward team dynamics, and constant culture stress every day. We abide in that already-not-yet space of redemption and sanctification, and you don’t need me to tell you that the not-yet is painful. In addition to that, we’re attacked regularly by the enemy of our souls. We have an adversary who prowls about like a roaring lion, and being hunted is not fun.

While much of our pain and soul-damage is external, there are also the very real and deep cuts of costly obedience. These are the sacrifices we make for Christ, for the gospel. These are the 19,831 goodbyes. The embarrassment of fumbling around in a language not your own. The inadequate health care or educational system you choose to raise your family in. The sweat and ants or the darkness and ice. The visa runs. The foregone comforts you see your peers enjoying in your home country. The “no’s” to your children because you just can’t have that pet with your mobile lifestyle. The painfully long sermons in another language or the ones doubled due to translation. The foods you miss. The nieces and nephews you don’t meet until they’re two. The tears of your parents as you take their grandchildren to the other side of the planet. Again.

I feel the tenderness from the shards of it all. Are these self-inflicted wounds for an extreme cause? Or are they opportunities for true worship? Can we say, as David said to Araunah when buying his threshing floor to build an altar to the Lord, “I will not offer to the Lord my God that which cost me nothing” (2 Samuel 24:24)? Obedience is costly. We know that full well. And so, because of our sacrifice, our battles, and our brokenness, we are ever in need of restoration.

But remember the God who quite possibly loves a good home makeover show, too? He’s in the business of restoration, and He’s got His eye on you. In fact, He’s got a whole restaurant in His word, and He’s pulling out the chair, beckoning you in. Sampling a few verses of His promise to restore Israel in Jeremiah 31:1-4,9 is a good appetizer. Have a seat, friend. You look hungry.

I want to invite you to take your time to chew on and really savor these verses:

“At that time,” declares the Lord, “I will be the God of all the families of Israel, and they will be my people.”

This is what the Lord says:

“The people who survive the sword
will find favor in the wilderness;
I will come to give rest to Israel.”

The Lord appeared to us in the past, saying:

 “I have loved you with an everlasting love;
 I have drawn you with unfailing kindness.

I will build you up again…

They will come with weeping;
they will pray as I bring them back.

I will lead them beside streams of water
on a level path where they will not stumble,
because I am Israel’s father,
and Ephraim is my firstborn son.”

What words stood out to you? What phrases caught your attention? Is there a significant piece you want to talk to God about more or carry with you throughout the coming days? Jot it down and keep it close, because until these broken bodies and all of creation are renewed, we need all the restoration we can get.

Looking for Old Lady Hands

by Roberta Adair

During worship sessions at a retreat for missionary women in Japan, when I normally would have been looking at the projected lyrics or closing my eyes, I was instead searching the room looking for old lady hands.

I unknowingly felt desperate to see that they were still here. These older women who have experienced more losses and griefs, challenges and setbacks, betrayals and disappointments than I have, they’re still here. They are still lifting their wrinkly, veiny, boney hands in worship, still opening well-worn Bibles and taking notes with well-worn hands, and still trusting God in some really profound ways.

Before beginning our second term in Japan, I thought a lot about Jonah. I felt jealous of the clarity of his call, of his certainty regarding what God was asking of him. I was also sad for him. He hated what God was telling him to do, and I related to the impulse of wanting to run in the opposite direction. And I was amazed (again) by the craziness of his story. I mean, really, a dude swallowed by a sea monster?! Writing poetry inside said sea monster?! Brutal enemies hearing a message from a reluctant foreigner and then repenting in sackcloth and ashes?!

But the part that I have continued to struggle with over the last several years is the part with the vine. Jonah is hot, and God gives him shade. That is so lovely, so specific, and so hospitable. And so merciful as Jonah, after being vomited out by a sea monster, gritted his teeth and obeyed God by telling his brutal, cruel enemies a message of repentance. 

Then God sends a worm to destroy this gift, this blessing. The thing that made his ministry bearable – gone.

I know that any comparison to anything I’ve done or been asked to do by God is silly. But I have my own list of “vines” – things I felt God provided that made a hard season or decision bearable. And I have another list of “worms” – ways these signs of mercy and God’s kindness were yanked away.

My very partial list of vines and worms includes people whom I saw as God’s provision in meeting my loneliness. One example is an outgoing and bilingual young woman we met at our assigned partner church when we volunteered here briefly after the earthquake and tsunami in 2011. She and I video chatted several times before moving here, and, even as I struggled to get on the plane to move my body/life/future to northeastern Japan, thinking about this potential friendship helped. Yet days after arriving, during the same worship service when my husband Robert and I were introduced to the congregation, it was also announced that it was her last Sunday. I felt confused, disoriented, and disappointed.

Another time, when we moved back to Japan after a hard (and mildly traumatic) ending to our first term, I kept thinking on repeat, “But _____ is here.” I hoped and believed that she, a friend for four years, was God’s answer to my prayers for a ministry partner. Yet as Robert and I returned to church after our furlough, she met us in the entryway to tell us it was her last day and that she was moving several hours away. I felt blindsided, crushed.

Shortly after that, one of my closest friends and a member of our small group moved to Singapore with her family. We had become moms around the same time and had made a lot of effort to meet and encourage one another over four years. I felt gutted and a bit lost.

Then another close friend moved to Israel. A sweet friend in our organization whom I pictured spending decades with moved to the US. A gentle and delightfully available Japanese friend moved south of Tokyo. Then yet another dear family in our mission (safe, fun, inspiring, wonderful) also moved to the US. And the goodbyes continue.

To different degrees, many of these losses felt like literal punches to the gut – causing pain and making it almost hard to breathe. And I went through all sorts of messy, swirling cycles in the stages of grief. Maybe some people handle change and loss daintily. Me, not so much.

I recently read in the psalms, “God, you consume like a moth what is dear” (Psalm 39:11). It sounds so accusatory, and as I read it, I inhaled sharply, wondering: Can we really talk to God like that? Even as I type this, my eyes burn and my face is getting blotchy. I have absolutely talked to God like that, calling him a vine-destroyer, accusing him of not sustaining hard-earned and highly invested-in friendships that meant so much to me.

I grew up hearing the Tozer quote: “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.” I confess that sometimes what comes to my mind is an image of him dangling a carrot. “See, here it is! You know you want it . . . Come and get it.” Then yank! . . . it’s taken away. But is God really like that? Cruel and mean?

A former teammate frequently repeated the phrase, “God is not a trickster.” I sometimes struggle to believe that God is not mean and not a trickster, that he is not one who enjoys giving and taking away blessings to test, punish, and mess with us. Yet as much as I want to picture Jesus as gentle and humble – a bearded dude who rode a donkey and made broken people whole, dirty people clean, blind people see, people in bondage free – this image of him occasionally blurs, and then he reappears, leaning back with his eyes squinted and his mouth almost mocking: “Let’s see how she’ll respond to this one. Muah hahahahaaaaa.”

Which brings me back to the wrinkly, spotted hands. A big reason why worshiping and learning with people older than me is so important is that I get to see people who keep singing, keep showing up, and keep praying. I get to see them in yearly rhythms at these conferences, see others in weekly rhythms in our church community, and see teensy snippets into their daily rhythms of meeting with Jesus and choosing to trust and love him even when a lot of evidence could tug them in different directions. And these older people, they’re not the crotchety, self-pitying, easily-irritable ones. They’re people who have suffered and are suffering, yet also bear fruit of joy, peace, humility, generosity, gentleness, service, curiosity, humor, and love.

They’re still worshiping God even though they have experienced soul-crushing disappointment, darkness, despair, and loss – in their families, ministries, marriages, kids, bodies. And they have experienced, again and again, God’s protection and presence. They have also seen, again and again, his provision and peace. Sometimes tangibly; sometimes in wisps and shadows. But they keep trusting, praying to, and seeking him.

When I glance at my own hands, I see veins and wrinkles along with a new swollen knuckle on my right pinky that reminds me of my grandmother’s arthritic hands. I’m aware that I have a long way to go in consistently thinking rightly about God. Yet I hope that someday people will say of me, “Look at that tall lady with glasses and frizzy gray hair. And look at those old lady hands. Can you believe she’s still here?”

~~~~~~~

Originally from Pennsylvania (USA), Roberta lived in Kosovo for three years before getting married and moving to northern Japan in 2012. She and her husband partner with a Japanese church and have four young and energetic boys. She enjoys hiking, camping, and having friends over for average and boisterous meals.

12 Ways to Connect with God When Your Schedule Changes

If you’re anything like me, keeping a consistent quiet time during a transition (like the non-schedule of summer with kids at home or, worse, home assignment travels!) is incredibly hard. I struggle with this every time, but I have wrestled with it enough to discover ways to maintain God-time no matter what’s going sideways in the world around me. Here are a few suggestions that I hope both give you encouragement and freedom in how you can meet with Jesus this summer.

1. Enjoy God in nature.
In times of transition and changing seasons, nothing helps reorient our perspective quite like a walk. Leave your phone behind, head to a park or mountain trail, and let every scene of beauty turn your heart toward your Creator. 

2. Try a devotional app and rearrange your phone screen.
Your phone will likely be with you or near you most of the time, so how can you turn it into a tool that helps you draw closer to God rather than be distracted from Him? One way is to try an app designed to do just that, then rearrange your home screen so that the most distracting apps are a swipe or two away and the most encouraging ones are what you’ll see first. The next time you’re waiting somewhere with a few minutes to spare, instead of opening a game or social media, try one of these:

3. Establish a Bible reading plan before the change of schedule.
If you know a schedule change is coming, make a goal and start a sustainable Bible reading plan before it hits. For example, you might want to hunker down in the book of Philippians for a month. Plan to read it in its entirety every week, or pick a slow reading schedule, chewing on just a few verses each day. Whatever you choose, start it well ahead of the transition so you will have a clear goal and be in an established habit when change comes.

4. Involve the kids.
Kids might feel like the great enemy of a good quiet time, but finding ways to involve them can be enriching for both of you. Obviously, you can do structured family devotions, but we’ve found that spontaneous times of worship and prayer tend to be more enjoyable for all. Put some worship music with lyrics on the TV and initiate popcorn prayers in the car. Choose a family memory verse and have the kids help create hand motions to go with it. Read inspirational stories together and have heartfelt conversations about the struggles and joys of following Jesus. It might not be “quiet,” but it can still connect you (and them!) with God.

5. Go on coffee dates with Jesus.
And then there are those times when you just really need some quiet space out of the house, away from family. That’s real! So, find a library or coffee shop, bring your Bible and journal, and just have a good chat with your friend, Jesus, away from all the distractions of home.

6. Read a book with a friend.
Sometimes a little accountability can go a long way. If your Bible study or prayer group stops for a season or your new work schedule won’t allow you to attend, find a friend who will read through a book with you. I’d suggest setting regular meeting times for discussion and making a reading plan that you can both stick to. This can foster both your relationship with God (if it’s a book with solid spiritual content) and your relationship with a friend.

A few I’d recommend are The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry by John Mark Comer, Placemaker by Christina Purifoy, Soul Keeping by John Ortberg, the Sensible Shoes series by Sharon Brown, Journey of the Soul by Bill and Kristi Gaultier, The Furious Longing of God by Brennan Manning, Becoming Elisabeth Elliot by Ellen Vaughn, Relentless by Michele Cushatt, and Spiritual Rhythm by Mark Buchanan (or anything else by him). You could also check out Catch the Rain or Colliding with the Call by yours truly.

7. Set aside one morning a month for reflection.
Reflection is critical to growth. Take the time to answer a few key questions as you close out one month and start another, and you’ll be far more able to identify what is helping you grow the most spiritually. A few of my monthly questions are: What expectations were met/not met last month? What spiritual practices did I do the most? Is there anything I need to repent of? What is God inviting me into next? What am I most thankful for?

8. Join a service project or summer church program.
Sometimes we need to simply get our hands dirty or be stretched out of our comfort zone to find a fresh connection with God. It’s also one of the best ways to deepen relationships with others. What can you physically do to be part of serving even in the midst of a new season?

9. Write out a morning and evening prayer.
These can be as simple as short breath prayers (here’s a printable guide) or as long as you want. If you long to anchor your heart in a scriptural truth during this season, pick a verse and personalize it into a prayer. Lately, I’ve been taking the concept of abiding from John 15 and simply praying, “Make your home in me as I make my home in you.” Opening and closing your day with a rote prayer can be like having two solid bookends to keep you from toppling over.

10. Make use of travel time.
Plan for soul-enriching activities during travel, like encouraging audiobooks, podcasts, and music. Let the content that fills your mind be “true, noble, right, pure, admirable, excellent, and praiseworthy” (see Phil. 4:8). 

11. Set up a new quiet-time space.
Do you gravitate toward the back porch in the summer? Set your Bible by the door. Is your house noisy with kids and company? Create a quiet nook in your bedroom. If having a consistent physical space is important for you as you meet with God, do whatever you need to do to set that up for this season.

12. Embrace the change and prepare for the reset.
When life gets stirred and tilted, we tend to more readily recognize what really matters. Use this season of change to help you sift out the old routines that have become lifeless and bravely try some new methods of connecting with God. If you can look ahead, like to the end of summer break, and see your schedule return to normal, start to anticipate now what you want your time with God to look like then. It might be different from what it was, and that’s okay. Often a reset can do us good.

I think we put the idea of an hour-long, morning quiet time on a pedestal. Sure, it can be helpful to carve out an extended time to read the Bible, pray, and journal, but checking “quiet time” off your daily to-do list (even mentally) isn’t the goal. Abiding with Jesus is. In every moment, every breath, tethering your heart to His, turning your ear toward Him, resting on His strength – this is the goal. And there is certainly more than one way to get there. Maybe this shaking up of your devotional routine is just the beginning.

Article originally published at corellaroberts.com and reprinted with permission.

~~~~~~~~~~

Corella Roberts is the author of Colliding with the Call: When Following God Takes You to the Wilderness. She serves at an international school in Thailand with her husband and three kids—two biological, one adopted. She loves music, mountains, and walking with people toward soul restoration. Find out more at corellaroberts.com.

A Police Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What 7,300 Moons in Africa Taught Me

An outline of banana leaves framed the inky, glittering expanse that August night so long ago. My father raised his face to the moon and asked his father in heaven, “Lord, how many more moons will I witness in the African sky?” It was this farmer’s first night in Cameroon at the beginning of a Bible translation assignment that would span the next several decades of his life. With his homeland behind him, hundreds of moons would cross the Cameroonian sky before he would see an Iowa moon again. I was seven.

I have now witnessed over 7,300 moons in the African skies between my childhood and my adult life. Here are the stories I wish I could go back and tell that farmer the night he stared at the hollow moon and considered the cup he bore. 

“Dad, a few weeks from now, under this very moon, my brother will fall deathly ill from malaria, his feverish body folded in a wool blanket. Your desperate prayers will be driven by the crushing story of the two young sons your friends lost to malaria earlier this year. My brother will look small and skinny, and you’ll be scared. Take courage. God will heal your son, and Mom will nurse him back to health. God’s grace is sufficient for you.

“Under this tropical moon, Dad, my imagination will spring to life chasing tales and adventures across hundreds of pages in hundreds of books with the help of a kerosene lantern and a healthy diet of Vivaldi playing in the background. God’s grace is sufficient for you.

“The moon will be weak the night you lay your exhausted head down after pulling lifeless men, women with bodies broken open, and babies with legs twisted backwards out of a horrific taxi accident down the street. Brace yourself. It won’t be the last time you do this. God’s grace is sufficient for you.

“The light of this moon will peacefully fall on the volcanic mountain ranges around our home each night, and your children will close their eyes to the sound of your and Mom’s voices filling our cement hallway with humble prayers uttered from your room, over each child, each family member, each Cameroonian family member. God’s grace is sufficient for you.

“This moon will faithfully mirror the sun night after night from the first word you learn in Nooni till the day you write your first speech in the previously unwritten language. God’s grace is sufficient for you.

“By the haze of this equatorial moon, I will memorize the deeply furrowed lines in the faces of my Cameroonian mamas as they rotate roasting ears of corn by the fire of their mud brick kitchens for their white child. God’s grace is sufficient for you.

“The moon will light up the sky every Friday night when Mom lovingly folds pizza dough on her rickety kitchen table and us kids pick out our favorite movie. You’ll whistle your way out under the stars to fire up the generator for our weekly huddle of six around a 9-inch screen. God’s grace is sufficient for you.

“The moon will shine a little brighter in your world as you sit in your prayer chair and ponder the gift of Mom. You’ll burst with pride watching her skillfully raise a family in a foreign land, make excellent food from scratch, trek mountaintops in a skirt and boots, navigate impossibly rutted roads like a pro, and work with a people you’ll come to love to write the rules to a language that’s never been written. She’s pretty great, Dad. I’ll learn what a woman can do by watching her. God’s grace is sufficient for you.

“A sliver of this moon will dampen sad and heavy the night that our family experiences a Big T trauma that will forever shake our lives. Dad, the sun will come up the next day, but there will be a lot of hard moons after that. God’s grace is sufficient for you.

“The rays of this moon will pierce through a burglar-barred window the night that I will find freedom and love in Jesus Christ as a 16-year-old under your roof. God’s grace is sufficient for you.

“By the glow of this moon, a boy I met in geometry class will take me hippo-watching along the banks of a muddy river in the Central African Republic. Did you know that hippos grunt so loudly you can hear them a mile downstream? It will be amazing, Dad. You’re really going to like this boy. God’s grace is sufficient for you.

“Dad, a few years later, our trusty moon will cast light on a red clay path for that boy from geometry class as he steadies his shaky legs and musters up the courage to knock on your door. He’s going to ask you if he can love me forever. You’ll be glad you said yes. God’s grace is sufficient for you.

“This orb will pierce the sky with light and a never-ending message of hope through our family’s most tear-stained bitter nightmares and our sweetest toasted-marshmallow dreams. God’s grace is sufficient for you.

“This moon will dance like glitter the night the last verse of scripture is translated into the Nooni language, breaking open access for people to read God’s word in their heart language for the first time. They’re the same people who, four decades earlier, wrote a fervent plea in the language of colonizers for their mother tongue to be developed in written form. God’s grace is sufficient for you.

“Thousands of moons later, I will also look up at the unchanged luminous sphere, but this time it will be framed by the outline of macadamia trees on a farm in KwaZulu Natal. I will have just sung my own babies to sleep and herded my Irish Wolfhound to her blankie. I’ll think of you and Mom, and I’ll start my own mooncount on foreign soil as an adult. Oh, and Dad, the boy from geometry class is the best thing that ever happened to me. God’s grace is sufficient for me.

“Dad, whether it’s your first moon under the unpolluted Cameroonian sky or your eight hundred and thirty-first moon choked out by harmattan winds, you will find that God’s grace is sufficient for you. 7,300 African moons later, I came back to tell you that the moon at this angle is beautiful. It’s going to be an integral part of our family faith story. I’ve wrestled with the same moon, and I’ve found the same thing. God’s grace is not only sufficient, but lavish, for me.”

Beyond Reverse Culture Shock Part 2: A Case Study of the Three Seasons of Re-entry

by Shonna Ingram

In this second installment of our three-part series on Beyond Reverse Culture Shock (read Part 1 here), I will share a case study to explore the complexities of the three seasons of re-entry. To review:

Season 1 (Return) encompasses the nine months prior to departure from the field and the initial six months upon arrival in the home country.

Season 2 (Restore) spans approximately six months to two years after arrival and encapsulates the space between the overseas missionary experience and the transition to what comes next.

Season 3 (Rebuild) extends approximately from two to five years after returning and entails living out the next phase of one’s life and determining how to show up in this new reality.

Throughout this article, we’ll follow the journey of Sarah as she journeys through each of these seasons, and we’ll look at the challenges and growth she experienced along the way. 

Sarah’s Life on the Field 

Sarah and her husband started on their missionary journey accompanied by their four children, ranging in age from four to nine, and headed to East Africa. Despite Sarah’s background in social work and psychology, which led her to take on the role of on-field care facilitator for their branch, they encountered challenges soon after they arrived. 

In their daily work, these challenges included navigating the complex team dynamics of a young team and wrestling with a partnering organization. As their responsibilities expanded, it became increasingly clear that their primary mission was to hope and pray the new missionaries would return for their second term. 

Living four hours away from quality medical care, Sarah became proficient in managing frequent health issues like malaria and stomach illnesses. They grappled with regular water and power outages, in addition to dealing with multiple missing items which Sarah knew had been stolen. They faced the unexpected deaths of a few national team members and a house helper due to AIDS. 

The trust in any security that she once had no longer was there. It was all so draining. Despite receiving feedback from a missionary care psychologist who indicated the unhealthy nature of their position, Sarah felt compelled to continue, sensing that they had no other choice. Their hearts were burdened for the new missionaries, and they felt responsible for taking care of them.

Amidst these daily challenges were moments of success, such as helping their house girl start her own business and launching ten Bible translation projects.

Sarah’s Pre-departure 

As they approached the five-year mark, her husband said that it was time to go on home assignment and explained that they needed to decide if they were going to return to the field. Sarah found herself hesitant to leave, feeling they had only scratched the surface of their mission. However, it soon became clear that returning to the States was their next step. 

Since they knew in advance that they were leaving their overseas ministry, they followed re-entry book recommendations on how to leave well. They also secured new positions at their international headquarters in the States. Despite feeling somewhat broken yet functional and still in need of a break, they felt like they left the field well.

Sarah’s Arrival (Return)

The first six months started with navigating the housing market, including multiple failed attempts at securing a suitable home due to bidding wars and undisclosed issues. The season was full of stress. They had to find everything that a family of six would need to feel settled, like beds and a car that would hold them all. They made multiple trips to supporting churches explaining their new ministry and the need for more financial support because it was more expensive to live in America.

A few months after they started paying their mortgage, their largest church and individual supporter thanked them for their service in Africa and abruptly discontinued their support. This added to an already fragile state which put a strain on her marriage and her children’s attitudes. 

Reverse Culture Shock in many other areas of life set in and started a downward spiral of not being able to keep it all together. Sarah started having unexplained physical symptoms (beyond the normal perimenopause symptoms that most women feel during their 40s) which she knew were from unprocessed experiences from their time on the field.

Despite a year of fundraising efforts, disappointing results occurred, with discouraging remarks like “You work in the States now; why doesn’t your organization provide your salary?” and “Get a real job and support your family.” These experiences only added more questions about God’s presence, her identity, and her relationship with the church. 

Then one day they received an email from their organization stating that they didn’t have enough funds in their account to get a salary that month. After doing everything she knew to do, she was done with missions and very angry with God for not providing and protecting her and her family even as they tried desperately to do the right thing. They had given up everything to move across the world, and this is what they get? This intensified Sarah’s emotional and physical pain, culminating with bouts of pneumonia and eventually being diagnosed with an auto-immune disease.  

It became evident that their return season consisted of two distinct parts: While they managed the pre-departure phase fairly easily, it wasn’t until they arrived that they found themselves not being able to get out of survival mode, since they could not even get their basic needs met. 

Sarah’s In-Between Season (Restore) 

A few years later, as she continued to navigate a season of uncertainty, Sarah was introduced to the study of trauma. It was there she recognized its grip on her—feeling trapped in a constant cycle of fight or flight, numbing out, and being easily triggered by seemingly insignificant events. 

Her journey into trauma recovery led her to confront her heart wounds. She learned how to face loss head-on and to address feelings of disappointment and resentment stemming from past experiences, including things that happened before she went to the field. Engaging in the practice of lament over past hurts, she began the journey of forgiveness, extending it to others, herself, and God.

This shift marked the beginning of her path toward healing and hope, transforming her approach from merely doing work for God to partnering with Him. This part of the healing journey wasn’t a one-time event but a lifestyle change of healing and growth.

In addition, Sarah began healing her body through specific somatic exercises and nervous system regulation techniques. Furthermore, she learned how trauma impacts brain chemistry and how the brain can rewire itself. Armed with this knowledge, she navigated the connections between her heart, mind, and body, fostering a deeper sense of self-awareness. 

A few years later, looking back on her re-entry journey, she realized that if she had known this information earlier, her recovery might have been quicker. As she shared her story and spoke with others going through similar transitions, she found that many could relate. Seeing the value in her own journey of healing, she felt motivated to assist others on their path to recovery.

Navigating the phase “in-between” two life chapters often entails moments of feeling stuck and a strong desire for clarity, especially when struggling to fully adjust to either the overseas context or the passport culture. Nearly everyone I’ve worked with has experienced at least a few days in this in-between season, but some people get stuck in this season. Additionally, during this phase, questions about identity, purpose, and belonging may arise, prompting individuals to wrestle with their new realities and seek their place within their communities.

Sarah’s New Narrative (Rebuild)

Driven by her passion for helping others heal, she immersed herself in various trauma recovery trainings. Through those trainings, she noticed a significant gap in available resources for those in the church and missions world. 

At the beginning of 2020, she created a new post-traumatic growth program for churches. Later that year, she was asked to help her organization establish a re-entry program. Eager to contribute, she created new resources specifically for returning missionaries. Other organizations worldwide started reaching out to her as they saw what she was doing to help missionaries return well. This led her to create a new organization geared toward those on the re-entry journey. She is now able to impact more lives than she ever did while she was on the mission field.

The Rebuild Season signifies new beginnings, offering an opportunity to reevaluate our contributions to the ongoing narrative of ministry. It’s not a one-time event but a continuous journey of growth and hope, where we discover our evolving purpose and embrace the next chapter of our ministry.

If this story sounds familiar, that’s because it is mine. I am Sarah.

In the next article, we will look at trauma-informed care in each season of the re-entry journey.

~~~~~~~~~

Shonna Ingram is the founder and director of the Renewed Hope Approach, a program that provides a practical approach to post-trauma care. She’s been in ministry for over 20 years and spent eight years in Africa as a missionary. Shonna is a Board Certified Master Trauma-Informed Mental Health Coach specializing in career, self-development, and spiritual formation, and she has trained hundreds of people in over 30 countries to integrate mental health into a biblical framework. Her heart for people in the re-entry season led her to create her second series, Your Re-Entry Path, as a way for them to figure out their next season, whether inside or outside of vocational ministry. She is mom to four amazing adults.

Beyond Reverse Culture Shock Part 1: Trauma-Informed Care for the Re-entry Journey

by Shonna Ingram

As I stepped off the plane at Houston International Airport with my husband and four children between the ages of 9 and 14, my thoughts were all over the place. We thought we were ready for the next season. A little broken, sure. A little uncertain sure, but isn’t that what God called us to? 

We had read a re-entry book that guided us in ending our overseas service well, which led me to believe this next chapter shouldn’t be too difficult, since we had only been overseas for five years. However, the months and years that followed show a different story that I hope to never repeat. That was over ten years ago, and nothing has been the same since. 

Navigating the Changing Mission Landscape

The missionary care landscape experienced a significant change with the sudden onset of the pandemic, particularly impacting missionaries who had to unexpectedly return from their field. Missionaries found themselves forced to leave their country of service within 24 hours’ notice—a situation seldom witnessed in recent history, if ever. Even before the pandemic, there was a notable trend of missionaries returning home due to factors such as visa complications, burnout, or health issues affecting themselves or a family member. 

Additionally, there has been a noticeable shift in the duration of missionary service, with many individuals opting for shorter overseas assignments, deviating from the traditional model of long-term commitments. As someone closely involved in a Bible translation organization, where projects typically span several decades, this evolving trend has prompted concerns and reflections. 

I found myself pondering these trends. Are these changes viewed as failures or simply a natural progression within the missionary journey? These reflections led to further questions about the preparation and support available for returning missionaries.

Throughout this series, we will delve into the re-entry journey across three key seasons, exploring its impact on missionaries and offering practical insights for navigating this critical phase of the missionary sending process.

Defining Re-entry

At first glance, re-entry is simply the process of returning to one’s passport country after a period of overseas service, whether returning from a short mission trip or ending a lifelong career as an overseas worker. No matter how long you live overseas, it does something deep within you. However, for those who have at one time dedicated their lives to overseas Christian service, re-entry can be a confusing and complicated season.

It is also important to note that re-entry comes in two forms: planned returns and unplanned returns. Planned returns can often be marked by the completion of a project, retirement, or at least entering into the season knowing that they will be returning to their home country after a period of overseas service. It may entail celebratory send-offs and opportunities for reflective gatherings to honor the missionary’s service. Many resources are available to aid missionaries in this initial phase of re-entry, through books, articles, and checklists focusing on ensuring a successful conclusion to their on-field service.

On the other hand, unplanned returns are a different type of return. These unexpected departures can stem from various reasons, such as health concerns affecting the missionary or their family, marital crises, visa complications, or unforeseen global events like pandemics. Missionaries facing these unplanned returns require a different approach and guidance in navigating the re-entry process.

Regardless of the circumstances surrounding the return, the re-entry journey is not merely a physical relocation but a transition that affects emotional, psychological, and spiritual dimensions and can be a complex experience that demands careful attention and support. 

Understanding the Re-entry Journey

During the pandemic, I had the privilege of being part of an organizational think tank tasked with establishing a re-entry program. My involvement stemmed from my expertise in crisis and trauma support, career development, spiritual formation, and my own re-entry journey struggles. We wanted to comprehensively understand the journey of returning missionaries and identify strategies to facilitate their transition.

Our initial inquiries revolved around the difference in experiences among returning missionaries. Why do some navigate the re-entry journey more easily, while others find it profoundly challenging? We then conducted interviews and focus groups, soliciting feedback on what helped, what didn’t, and what could have been beneficial during different phases of the process.

Then I went one step further and took into account the SAMHSA definition of trauma, which states:

Trauma arises from an event, series of events, or circumstances that an individual experiences as physically or emotionally harmful or threatening. This trauma can have lasting adverse effects on various aspects of a person’s well-being, including their mental health, physical health, emotional health, social well-being, and spiritual well-being.

One glaring observation emerged: while existing resources predominantly catered to those experiencing expected returns, we were experiencing a significant number of missionaries facing unexpected circumstances around their return. Moreover, we identified a progression through a few distinct stages.

We distilled the missionary re-entry journey into five key phases which I turned into three key seasons:

  • Season 1 (Return) encompasses the nine months prior to departure from the field and the initial six months upon arrival in the home country.
  • Season 2 (Restore) spans approximately six months to two years after arriving and encapsulates the space between the overseas missionary experience and the transition to what comes next.
  • Season 3 (Rebuild) extends approximately two to five years after returning where they integrate their overseas time into their next life season.

Note: It’s crucial to recognize that these stages are fluid and not strictly bound by timelines. External factors such as marital issues or health concerns can indeed impact the progression through these stages, potentially causing delays or requiring additional attention and support. While we’ve outlined approximate timelines for each stage, it’s important to acknowledge that individual experiences may vary, and flexibility is key in navigating the re-entry journey effectively.

By reframing the re-entry process through the lens of these stages (which I prefer to call seasons), we gain a more nuanced understanding of the challenges and opportunities on the journey. This approach allows us to anticipate and address the unique needs of returning missionaries more effectively and to facilitate smoother transitions.

In the next article, we will take a deeper look at the three seasons of re-entry through the use of a case study.

~~~~~~~~~

Shonna Ingram is the founder and director of the Renewed Hope Approach, a program that provides a practical approach to post-trauma care. She’s been in ministry for over 20 years and spent eight years in Africa as a missionary. Shonna is a Board Certified Master Trauma-Informed Mental Health Coach specializing in career, self-development, and spiritual formation, and she has trained hundreds of people in over 30 countries to integrate mental health into a biblical framework. Her heart for people in the re-entry season led her to create her second series, Your Re-Entry Path, as a way for them to figure out their next season, whether inside or outside of vocational ministry. She is mom to four amazing adults.

Cultural Tug-Of-War

“This is not America” my colleague says under her breath as she rolls her eyes and walks past my conversation with another teacher, both of us caught up in a discussion as to how things “ought to be.”

“This is Liberia” is what another teacher says as he shrugs his shoulders and teases me in my frustration as we start yet another staff meeting 30 minutes late.

I grit my teeth and try to smile back; I don’t need either reminder.

When I left the US and came to Liberia, I traded my skinny jeans for flowy skirts and my cute workout shorts for baggy cargo pants. My sandwiches and salads for soup and rice. I traded my quick smile and wave greeting for a handshake and a lengthy conversation.

I’ve slowed down my speech, adjusted my grammar, learned new words, and adapted a new accent all for the sake of more effective communication. I’ve had to let go of my uncontrollable need for deadlines and structure and learn to wade in the waves of ambiguity. I’ve traded my watch for a bench and gotten used to passing the time rather than watching the time. I’ve learned to tame my desire to be independent and unique in an effort to belong and be unified with the larger group in harmony.

In the beginning when I moved to Liberia, I knew there would be things I would have to adjust to, but I didn’t mind. I’d been on mission trips and managed in a new setting for a few months at a time plenty of times before. Besides, there were so many things about the country that I admired. I was happy to adjust a few of my preferences and get rid of a few of my old habits. But then it all became too much.

Every single part of me, my clothes, food, dance, language, and rights, has been relinquished from my grip in some way or another. And still, it feels like this country keeps pulling and pulling and pulling on me, asking me to give up more and more.

Some days it feels like all I’m doing here is playing a constant game of tug-of-war. They pull me to become more Liberian, to talk this way, dress this way, and think this way. At times, I go along willingly, trying my best to please them or gain their adoration and approval, but other times I dig my feet into the ground and hold on tight, clinging to the American mantra of being “unapologetically myself” no matter what. I try to pull them towards me to see the worth of my American culture’s values like timeliness, efficiency, and independence. They look at me and shake their heads and laugh, leaving me to pull on the rope and falling back as they just simply let go, done with the game all together.

I never did like tug-of-war growing up, and I don’t like it now. And yet, I foolishly keep standing up, grabbing on to the rope, and tugging as hard as I can.

When will they will start bending toward me? When will they start loosening their grip as well? Haven’t I given up enough? Haven’t I let go of the rope and allowed them to tug me towards their side long enough? At what point do my needs and wants matter too? At what point will I stop being the American missionary and just be a friend, a friend worth changing just a little bit for? Doesn’t it go both ways?

Deep down, though, I know this is not what it’s all about.

Paul says in 1 Corinthians 9:22 that “I became all things for all people.” Why did he do this? Why did he give up his own rights and freedoms? Why did he give up his way of life? Why did he not dig his heels in and fight for what he believed to be right? Did he give up on the fight so that others would praise him about how well he was fitting in or how much he had sacrificed? Did he do it so he could make friends, expecting that others might do the same for him in return?

No, he did it for one reason and one reason only. He did it “so that by all means, I might save some (vs 22).” “We put up with anything rather than hinder the gospel of Christ (vs 13).” “I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings (vs 23).”

This cross-cultural ministry life is hard, and it is draining. It is life-altering and identity-shaping. There is a constant tension between who I was and who I am, and who I am and who I want to be. There is a constant tugging, stretching, and pulling.

My immediate tendency is to blame the ones I see in front of me for the pain and loss that this process entails, but I know that they are merely the pull of my Creator’s hands.  I feel the tension, and I attribute it to the horizontal tugging that I see between them and me, but in doing so I inadvertently ignore the upwards prying that is also at play as I wrestle with my own identity and rights.

Rather than pulling back and forth on this rope, sweat running down our faces and grunting and gritting at the other, what would happen if we instead directed our eyes to the center of the rope? It is there where I see God reaching His arm down and grabbing hold and pulling upwards. The further up He pulls, the closer we get to Him and therefore each other, and the further behind we leave our earthly identities and woes. I wonder, then, is this merely the pain of a tug-of-war between two cultures that we feel, or is it the deeper sanctification of our humanity?

The goal in our life and our ministry is not just a mere adaption or transformation from one culture or the other. Nor is it a total abandonment of culture altogether. But it’s also not a lifelong game of cultural tug-of-war where we pull each other from side to side endlessly.

It is neither my identity as an American or as a Liberian transplant that I should be grasping for the tightest; it is my identity in Christ. It is not the culture in which I was born into that I should be holding onto for dear life; it is my born-again identity in Christ which actually gives me life.

The goal for Christians is that we might pull each other more towards Christ, spurring one another upwards, not just tugging each other endlessly from side to side (Hebrews 10:24).

Rather than looking at our cultural differences as something that allows us to be pulled back and forth and side to side, what if we allowed them to instead be a rope that tugs us upwards, closer toward our Creator?

Rather than looking at all these cultural differences as things that God is doing to us, what if we looked at them as something that He was doing for us? What if those tugs on the rope were not from the host country nationals, but from God Himself? What if this tension was meant to show us where our priorities truly lie? Where we have been placing our trust and our hopes? Where we need to let go of some ground? What if instead of blaming one another and always trying to change one another, we thanked God for the gift of our differences and allowed them to instead be used as opportunities that can pull us closer towards Him?

I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of playing the same old game of cultural tug-of-war and falling face first in the dirt after fighting yet another losing battle against my host country. I don’t want to dig my feet in anymore and fight for my own rights when I could be using that energy to instead fight for the gospel. I can see the places where I’ve been digging in and wearing myself down for the sake of my own “freedom,” and I think it’s finally time to let go.

What Two Raw Vegans Taught Me About Sharing Jesus

A few months ago, I was talking with a Muslim friend about her beliefs.

“How do you know XYZ is true?” I asked. She stared at me for a moment.

“Because the Quran says it’s true.”

“How do you know the Quran is true?”

“I’m… not allowed to ask that question.”

“Okay. Here’s a totally different question. How do you know anything is true? If someone told you something, how would you verify it?”

“Oh. Well, I would research, and talk to people who knew, and try to find out.”

“Okay. So, would it be okay to do that with your beliefs?” She hesitated. Even though she answered in the negative, this way of looking at things shifted her perspective just slightly.

*

My friend isn’t the only one with religious baggage. I have it, too.

See, I really want to share the gospel without feeling like a used car salesman. But when I try to picture myself doing that, all these experiences come flooding into my mind: times I’ve tried to share, reactions people have had, the intense longing to obey God and to represent Him well, all the cheesy “witnessing instructions” I’ve heard, potential consequences for myself or others…

It’s complicated.

So, let’s just set that all aside for a moment. Let’s change the camera angle and take this from a different perspective.

What if there were something else I wanted to share? Something important and life-changing, but not spiritual? How would I share that thing?

*

I once met a couple who were raw. Like, they had discovered Raw Veganism, and they were like, into it. Yes, they sounded like walking infomercials for a $500 juicer. But they meant what they said. And they weren’t getting a commission.

“Like, ever since finding Raw, we’re like, so healthy, and my skin glows, and I just feel amazing.” This is the type of thing they said every five minutes. They were seriously satisfied customers of the Rawness movement.

So I googled going raw. I wondered how one goes raw, and what it entails. How to cook if you are raw. Where Rawness came from. I wondered if I had to go all in, or if I could try being “rawer” than mac and cheese and egg McMuffins. I began to explore. 

I didn’t convert. But we do eat a lot of salad now.

They say the best salesperson is a satisfied customer. These people were “selling” raw veganism with a capital RV.

Which leads me to ask — are you a satisfied customer of the gospel?

*

I once knew a guy who had a special talent for selling stuff. “D” was such a great salesman that my college psychology professor once brought him to class to do a demonstration about sales psychology.

Seven people in our class bought what he was selling.

Other than being a brilliant salesman, D always does one thing. He always chooses a product he, himself, truly believes in and uses. He is 100% confident in the product. If he wants to sell magical car wax, he scrapes his car and tries out the wax, and keeps a tub of the stuff in his glove compartment, and tests it, and has his friends test it, and in general, makes sure it works in his own life.

In our witnessing journey, is it possible to get into the headspace of a satisfied customer without sounding like a used car salesman? And is there anything we can do to make sure we are satisfied and ready to speak?

I’m not suggesting that we turn sharing our faith into selling a product. So let me bring it back into a spiritual context.

*

I have a friend I’ll call Meg. She was a member of my home church who consistently invited me into her world. I tagged along when she picked up day-old bread from the bakery to give away for free from the church porch. I helped when she cleaned the home of a depressed friend. When, because of extreme circumstances, she adopted her sister’s children, I saw her rearrange her life to love them.

But the very best thing Meg did for me was share her faith in real time. She would share scripture songs she’d written. She would tell me why she’d written them, the story behind them, why she needed God’s word so much, and how it changed things for her. She’d ask me to pray with her for her children, that she would concentrate fully on following Jesus herself, whether or not they chose to follow. She’d tell me, every time I saw her, something God had taught her that week.

Meg talked about Jesus like He sometimes stopped by for a slice of apple pie. Like He’d told her to say hi to me if she saw me. Meg was satisfied in the presence of Christ. And she told me what she saw Him do.

Meg is one of the (many) reasons why I write what really goes on in my heart. Because seeing her walk with Jesus is still a model for me.

Now I am asking God to show me how to share my faith in real time in a place very different from the town where I grew up. Instead of apple pie, there is bitter mint tea and semolina cake. Or, sometimes, when we’re back in India, there are chapattis and chai.

But God is still the same. So maybe authentic witness still begins in the same place: in my experience of God, in relying on Him, depending on Him, learning of Him, following Him, going through stuff with Him, seeing how He works, being changed by Him, enjoying His goodness and grace.

Right in front of people, out loud, in real time.

Lord, teach us how.

 

A version of this article first appeared on Abigail’s newsletter, Whatsoever Thoughts.

Can I Find Belonging in the American Church? {Wrestlings of an Adult MK}

by Jessi Bullis

As an adult missionary kid (MK) who grew up with a fairly mobile childhood, “home” and “belonging” have been tricky for me. I remember being as young as five years old and responding to the question “Where are you from?” with deer-in-the-headlights style anxious sputtering. 

As I’ve grown, I’ve spent oodles of time processing how each different country I was raised in has impacted who I am as a person, and I’ve learned to weave them together to make up the mosaic of my personal cultural complexity. Nowadays, I have a ready-made answer for the “Where are you from?” question. But just because I’m prepared to answer doesn’t mean that internal confusion and childhood longing aren’t sometimes set off. 

Over the years, digging into scripture and falling even more in love with Jesus, I came to know Him as my true Home. And since Christ’s bride is the Church, I desperately wanted the Church to be my earthly home.

Afterall, that was the one consistent “location” in my life. In England we attended a church with 300 members, while in Turkey we went to a house church that fluctuated from 20-30 people depending on the week and in whose apartment it was held. Visiting Tanzania, we worshiped in a mud structure, and in Germany church was held in the school auditorium. Each might have looked different, but the underlying feeling was the same.

So when I returned to the exotic, frightening, and magical land of the United States of America for college, my hope was that in the midst of my hardest transition, I would find a home-ful belonging in the Church.

However, while there was hope, I’ll admit there was also a bitter pessimism. 

The American church has often felt like an unsafe place for me growing up. As a child, whenever we would return to the U.S. on home assignment and enter the church circuit, raising support felt like a job requirement to be filled rather than a place to be known and loved.

I felt like a hidden immigrant in the church — misunderstood, but also laden with high expectations to be “the perfect MK.” It was assumed that I would know all the ‘right’ answers to any biblical questions thrown my way, while at the same time I was confused by the jokes and cultural references made in conversation. I learned to play the part, but internally I felt like an outsider.

I also noticed that it sometimes seemed like American patriotism and Christianity were intertwined. 

While my passport country is the United States, and I am legally a citizen, I have struggled to wrap my head around what that means. For many of my mono-cultural friends raised in the U.S., this has meant that the American flag elicits an emotional response, and July 4th comes with life-long traditions of celebration and reverence for American history. Because America was born from the drive for religious freedom, for some it seemed that being patriotic was the most Christian thing they could do.

I, on the other hand, didn’t know the words to “America the Beautiful” or even the Pledge of Allegiance. Whenever I attended sporting events (which I’ll admit wasn’t often), I moved my mouth around hoping it looked like I was saying the same thing as everyone else. 

So when I attended churches where I heard pastors talk from the pulpit about how “America is the best country in the world” and where church members discussed how great a blessing it is to be American, I felt like an outsider. Many cultures have informed my faith, and the global perspective I have impacts how I read my Bible. I love that about myself and my story, so hearing words of American patriotism in the church feels to me like a sucker punch. Suddenly the separation between me and my fellow American believers seemed even wider. 

In these church sanctuaries I found myself questioning: If I didn’t “feel” American, would I be fully accepted as a sister in Christ? Are we not brothers and sisters in Christ first – before our cultural backgrounds? If I voiced concern about patriotism and Christianity being conflated, would my character and faith be questioned? 

In the New Testament, I saw that Jesus spoke with Gentiles as cultural equals. On days when the fear of not belonging has felt strongest, I’ve turned to Philippians 3:20 for comfort (“we are citizens of heaven”). And I always drew hope from Revelation 7:9, where we see people from every tribe, tongue, and nation worshiping together in blessed harmony. 

As I considered these scriptures, I began seeing my own assumptions and prejudices arise. Sometimes my own religious comfort has been built from my cultural experiences, and I have had to repentantly unwind them at the feet of Jesus.

Culture impacts how we interact with God and how we worship. Sometimes this is beautiful and glorifies God in the diversity of His creation. But at other times culture becomes an obstacle to the true message of scripture. I have learned beautiful things about God, His creativity, the depths of His love, and so much more from every culture I’ve worshiped in — including in America. 

I write this article not as someone with all the answers, but as someone who has so very many questions: for myself, for my fellow believers, and for the American church. Questions like:

  • How does national culture play a role in my relationship with God? And with my fellow believer?
  • Do I have opportunities to view Christianity from different perspectives and cultures? If not, do I need to find them?
  • Could I have blind spots towards my faith due to my national culture? 
  • Do I feel closer to a believer from a different country than to an unbeliever from my own country? 

It’s important for all of us to consider questions like these. I pray that each day we, the Church, become more and more like the Bride of Christ that will meet God at the shore of eternity.

“…there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people, and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb…And they cried out in a loud voice: ‘Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.’” (Revelation 7:9-10)

A great resource on navigating God and culture is the Perspectives Course, and if you’d like to know how to support missionary kids in their walk with God, I recommend Tim Sanford’s book I Have To Be Perfect, along with this training for Churches Supporting Missionary Families.

Photo by Josh Eckstein on Unsplash

~~~~~~~~~

Jessi is an Adult MK who grew up in Singapore, England, Turkey, and Germany. She has a heart for TCKs and the unique struggles they face. She received her undergraduate in psychology and a seminary degree in counseling for the purpose of caring for TCKs well. Jessi loves getting to walk through the repatriation journey with Adult TCKs, as this season can be especially difficult to navigate. Her deepest passion is for TCKs to know and feel the love and goodness of God.

Boundary Lines and Haikus

by Roberta Adair

I spent many years wondering in the back of my head if being called to Japan was divine punishment for a flaw. To improperly use fancy Christian lingo, I wondered if God was sending me to Japan rather than other places I was willing and eager to go in order to sanctify me. I believed something like, “God loves me but needs to sandpaper and scrape a lot of Roberta away…and Japan is the sandpaper.”

In grad school I even wrote in my journal, “Lord, I’m willing to go anywhere — just not Japan,” yet now I view this country I said I’d never move to as one of the Psalmist’s “pleasant places.” I get teary as I consider God bringing me here for my good, not in a gross kale kind of way but in a warm, corner brownie kind of way.

In 2019 I attended a day of training with a more experienced missionary. She discussed some of the metaphors that people use to describe adjusting to Japan: feeling like a child, being in a dark tunnel, climbing a mountain. She talked with us about the importance and power of metaphors and led us in a few exercises to help us discover insights for ourselves. For years I had used phrases like “square peg, round hole” (not fitting well) and “like a little kid in a new school” (incompetent and unknown) to try to articulate what living here feels like.

One image that I hadn’t been able to verbalize but had felt over and over was the idea of feeling trapped and tied down – like having a rope wound around and around my arms and not being able to breathe freely, much less move. For a long time, I looked at “Japan” (written in quotation marks as I’m referring to it more as an idea than as a place or a people) as restricting, trapping, binding, and controlling.

There are so many rules: when to bow, when to use honorifics, how long to admire a business card that you received respectfully with two hands (“Always receive with two hands!”). If someone gives a gift, it is appropriate to give another gift at 30% of the estimated value of the original gift.

I found all of these rules exhausting, along with all of the formality, ceremony, and appropriateness (I generally like informal, spontaneous, and mildly-to-wildly inappropriate). There were rules about eye contact, precise expectations about what to wear to different ceremonies, and even how to laugh (many women cover their teeth when they laugh and maintain control, while I love to belly laugh with both friends and strangers). I found all of this overwhelming and exhausting and grating and tedious and irritating.

I know people who are drawn to Japan specifically for the same reasons I had prayed “anywhere but.” They like that it’s predictable, orderly, safe. They are the “learn the rules, and you’ll do well” type of people. I think perhaps this is one reason why my engineer husband adjusted to Japan years before I did.

At the training, as an exercise to start and end our sessions, we were asked to write haikus. I hadn’t written one since middle school, yet I was able to spit two out really quickly. 5-7-5…boom.

They weren’t amazing, but they were written quickly and lightly. I didn’t get bogged down with a gazillion possibilities from a more open-ended prompt like, “Write an essay. Draw a picture. Describe a situation.” The haiku was so simple. I think this exercise marked the beginning of my understanding that too many possibilities isn’t freedom; it’s exhausting.

Ever since that post-retreat time, I’ve tried to notice more of this limitation-as-freedom thing. Rather than feeling restrained, confined, and trapped in Japan, I’m trying to reframe that limitations can contribute to my freedom.

For example, the train. Although we have a car, I like to ride the train to the library. I prefer the boundaries of time with trains. There are consequences to trying to finish “just one more thing” (needing to wait for the next one), and knowing the train pulls away at a certain time helps me focus and get stuff done. It also gives me 10 minutes to check out on the ride home.

Then there’s our newsletter. I wrote freeform email updates during my three years living in another country. They were usually quite long. I didn’t like my husband’s suggestion a decade ago to pick a newsletter format and stick to it. I still occasionally struggle with the constraints of space. If anyone ever thinks, “Um, this paragraph is missing a sentence,” yes it is, but I simply deleted it to make it fit. Using this formula means we can make them faster than we could if they were more freestyle. Two articles with three to five pictures (2-3-5…boom).

Or consider our small house. I’ve seen these literal boundaries and limitations lead to freedom. I have a lot of new-to-me opinions about the lightness connected to having a small house and next-to-no yard. Perhaps this not-chosen-by-me minimalist lifestyle isn’t forever or for everyone. That said, I’ve experienced a lot of joy connected to exploring and playing that I simply wouldn’t have had time for if I had more space and stuff to manage and maintain.

Boundaries are helpful with anything related to reducing decision fatigue. I know this is a trendy topic, but it’s why I like restaurants with small menus, prefer the neighborhood veggie man over a larger grocery store, and have jumped from team self-expression to being a big fan of uniforms (very common for students and workers in Japan). It’s also why we’ve happily adjusted our wardrobes to our small closets. Our four boys share two chests of drawers with seven drawers between them. It works, and it’s (mostly) really good. I have the smallest wardrobe of my life, and (most of the time) I love it.

I think about limitations when I think about having kids. Oh, the laundry, dishes, cooking, time constraints, and adjusting so much of my life and schedule around them. Yet these little balls of Big Energy and Big Feelings also bring so many possibilities. They’ve opened the door to many deep friendships, and they’ve expanded my understanding of the world, people, and God.

These are just a few examples of the ways I experience the expansiveness of limitation. I’m finding that the boundary lines aren’t confining or trapping but instead have allowed me to more fully experience “pleasant places.” And for that, I’m grateful.

~~~~~~~~

Originally from Pennsylvania (USA), Roberta lived in Kosovo for three years before getting married and moving to northern Japan in 2012. She and her husband partner with a Japanese church and have four young and energetic boys. She enjoys hiking, camping, and having friends over for average and boisterous meals.

Send Help. My Husband Believes in Me.

My husband Joshua has the annoying habit of believing I am capable and strong, like some kind of Wonder Woman, except with a super-modest, incarnational wardrobe instead of a metal corset. He is always encouraging me and pep-talking me and going on about how I can do anything and change the world and blah blah blah. 

A perfect example of this was on our second day in our current country of service. There was a birthday in the family, so we piled into a taxi and went to one of the more interesting markets in our town, with its labyrinthian, Technicolor alleys.

Slatted wooden roofs kept the narrow streets cool, and we walked and walked and walked, past kaftans and brass lanterns, leather shoes and round bean bag chairs, stray cats and fresh juice and French pastries and fake scorpion fossils and hippie-dippie beaded jewelry. Four or five languages, along with the beeps of motorcycle horns and the lazy fluting of snake charmers, filled the air with sound. 

Next, we rode camels on a sidewalk. From atop my camel, whose name was, ironically, Madonna, I looked around. Traffic lurched and sped, then stopped suddenly for a wave of pedestrians. The white lines on the road made feeble suggestions that everyone ignored. How did people cross the street in this country? How did they drive? More importantly, how would I drive?!

I had driven in India. But we’d been in a rural mountain village, and there had been one road. I had never had to leave third gear.

But here we were in a new country, in the city, with all kinds of roads to take, “lanes” to drive in, and speed limits to adjust to, each representing a decision I must make in a fraction of a second. I told Joshua I would never, ever be able to drive in this country, so don’t even ask, because it ain’t happening, honey. Especially not a stick shift, which we would soon acquire.

“You can do it, Abby,” he told me, oozing with faith, hope, and love. I wished Joshua could just get in my head for five seconds and understand my anxiety on a visceral level. How it’s like being stuck in an endless game of whack-a-mole at a pizza joint. The second you conquer one anxiety, another one pops up. Sometimes you just want to go find a cabinet to crawl into where you can close your eyes and hug your knees and stop fighting the little varmints.

“You don’t know what it’s like,” I said.

“I know you can do it,” he said. 

I had been hoping Joshua would offer to drive me around for the rest of my life, like my grandfather had done for my grandma. Or like Richard did for Hyacinth in Keeping Up Appearances. Was that so unreasonable?

I examined Joshua’s face. He was so cute and eager, like a puppy who has just heard the word “walk.” All hopeful eyebrows. I even detected the hint of a little happy whine, as though he was imagining me going out in my cape and conquering the world. 

Later, I got a piece of scratch paper and wrote a couple of prayer requests on it: “1. Find a home in the country that can be the backdrop of the kids’ childhood. 2. Learn to drive here without feeling anxious.” I knew that last one was impossible, but I put the piece of paper in my Bible and told God He was going to have to pull out His Red Sea stick, His pillar of fire, and His spat-upon dirt. I needed a miracle.

*

“We’re moving,” I told my family one afternoon. “God provided a place!” And so we packed up our stuff and moved 45 minutes away from the city center to a house in the countryside.

Our kids were already enrolled in all kinds of activities that city children are involved in. Soccer, gymnastics, etc. Someone had to drive them there. Conveniently, or perhaps conspiratorially, my husband’s schedule would not allow him to be the chauffeur. 

I don’t remember the first time I transported my fragile young children in our smashable metal vehicle. Nor the second. Maybe it’s a traumatic memory buried deep in my amygdala, who knows? What I do know is that over the course of several months, a miracle happened. I got comfortable driving.

At first, I would literally talk to myself. The kids in the backseat would hear their mother say, “Water. We’re all just flowing like water. This intersection is a bend in the river and we’re just all flowing around it. Aaaand we’re flowing. We’re flowing.” 

Then I began to learn. I learned that people don’t drive in the right lane because there’s too much going on there—taxis stopping, motorcycles passing each other, carts peddling sweets. But they don’t move fully to the left lane because then they’d never get back over to make a right turn. 

Left turns are even more interesting. If you want to make a left turn, you have to swing your car as far into oncoming traffic as possible, and then complete your turn when enough other cars have built up in that area, or the oncoming lessens.

There was a road culture in this new place, with rules, just like a normal culture has. It seemed like chaos, but there was a system to it. And I had cracked the code. I felt like a feminine, slightly more mentally stable version of Champollion, the guy who figured out ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. I felt capable.

*

Sometimes Joshua’s faith in me can be tiring. If I’m honest, sometimes I would rather my anxieties be accepted as unchangeable. I would rather be coddled. To be helped down from tall buses, to sit helplessly a fair bit of the time. I would rather not be expected to keep whacking moles every day, rather not be expected to keep putting on my cape and showing up in situations where success will most certainly require miracles. 

But I am finding that what I want today, in this moment, is not the same as what I want for my life. Today I may want to hide in the cabinet. But for my life, I want a Wonder Woman story. I want to see miracles. I want to drive across town, to write, to share Christ, to sing, to pray aloud, to climb mountains, to laugh at the days to come.

I guess God knew that about me when He put Joshua in my life. 

Here’s to many more years of miracles.