Sheila Walsh tells a poignant story of her son wanting to leave home at the tender age of six. Evidently he set out with his backpack and jacket, heading toward a pond near home. She, wanting to allow freedom but aware of his young age, kept a watchful eye from a window where she could ensure safety as well as give him his independence. After a short time he was back at the door, offering no explanation other than a six-year-old going on sixteen response of “It’s good to be home!”
Later that night as she was tucking him in, she brought up the adventure and asked him about it. His response was matter of fact “I would have gone farther but my backpack was too heavy.”
As I listened to her, I was overwhelmed by the truth in a child’s simple comment.
I would have gone farther, but my backpack was too heavy.
These days, I feel like this child. My backpack feels so heavy, the things I carry too weighty. My adult kids and their lives; friends I know who are aching from pain, some that can be spoken and other that can’t; patients and family members struggling beyond believability; worries and fear about the future and regret about the past – a backpack so heavy I can scarcely move.
It’s all mixed together with the good stuff so I’m not always sure what the good stuff is. Sort of like my kids backpacks used to be at the end of a semester, where a mashed up moldy sandwich, an apple, and crushed chips are crumbled up together in what used to be a brown lunch bag, but mixed in with this is a perfectly good juice carton and packaged granola bar. Instead of sorting through, I throw all of it away.
I’ve always thought that the primary lesson to this story was the obvious one – a heavy backpack preventing a child from the joy and distance of the journey. If I just lighten my load I would go farther, make more of an impact, be freer to serve. And to be sure, this is critically important. But dig deeper and the symbolism goes farther.
This little six-year-old knew exactly where to go to remember who he was. and where to drop off his backpack. He knew the way Home. He knew that Home was light, and love and Mom. He knew that there would be no condemnation, just warm chocolate chip cookies, cold milk and a listening heart. He knew that at home he could rest and move forward, his burden gone. He knew home was a place to be reminded of who he was.
As I think about the times I turn around because the backpack is too heavy, I hope I have the sense of a six-year-old who goes back home, and drops off his back pack. I hope I can go back to Jesus, the source and author of love, where condemnation is erased and the load is lifted, replaced with his yoke, his burden. Back to the Church, where I can be reminded of who I am, back to the Author of all that is good and holy and right.
I don’t know where in the world you are today and what things in your backpack make it too heavy. It may be transition and displacement. It may be loss of place. It may be the burden of betrayal or feeling like you’re wasting your life. It may be a struggling marriage or longing for a life partner. It may be the sorrows of your children and their needs that keep you up at night. It may be chronic illness, depression or anxiety. It may be the death of one you love.
I do know that whatever it is, home and rest are waiting. Not home the place, but Home – the person and presence of Jesus.
Yesterday I unexpectedly found myself by a lone bench on an empty ocean front. A boat was just off the shore, solitary but securely anchored in the sea. I ached with the unexpected beauty, the symbolic solitude of the boat. I felt like this boat. Alone, aching, but securely anchored. As I stood there, I thought about the last two months and how a crisis can set off a whole new cycle of grief and loss.
Though seemingly unrelated, grief is grief, and loss is loss, and every time we experience another loss, buried past losses and griefs can end up resurrected. Like a dot to dot child’s book, grief and loss connect together creating a picture that represents something much bigger than just one dot.
In my first year of nursing school we played a game one day. It was a dramatic game of life. Tables were spread around the classroom with cards at each table. We all began at the same station with very little. We had a birth card and that was it. As we went through the game, we gained more, but it was far from fair. Some people gained a family card while others remained without. Some people got career cards, others got cards that said they were jobless and had to apply for benefits from the government. Still others kept on getting more and more money. About half way through the game, the rules and cards began to shift. We all began to lose things – both physical and material things. We began to lose friends and cars; jobs and eyesight. We protested loudly, as only eighteen year olds who understand all the things can. It was unfair. It was unjust. We hated it. Ultimately, all of us ended much where we had begun – with a single card. Then one by one, we lost even that card and they went into the graveyard of a garbage can.
I hated the game. It was rude and unfair, but I understand why our professors had us play it. How else can you help 18 year old students learn empathy for the patients they were caring for, for the losses they were undergoing as they faced illness? How can you give them a concrete way to experience loss? If the game was unfair, how much more so is life itself?
This I know – though I did not know it at 18: Whether we stay rooted to one place throughout our lives or we traverse the globe, the two things we can count on are loss and change. We might think we can control these only to have them surprise us with their insistent persistence.
While many write poetically about God being a God of grace and generosity, indulge me as I think about the God of loss, for loss and change are the two constants that humanity shares across the globe.
Is God the author of loss? The creator? The healer? If he is a God of grace and generosity, can he still be a God of loss?Some days I am not sure. If he is a God of grace and generosity, can he still be a God of loss?
In the paradox and mystery of faith a resounding yes to all these questions arises in my soul. A God of grace, generosity, loss, and ultimate love is woven into the whole, a mystical tapestry. Tapestries are made more beautiful by the stories that are woven into them and what would a story of gain be without loss beside it? What would a story of love be if we didn’t know what it was to not be loved? What would a story of grief be if we never knew joy? They are empty without their opposites. Without the resurrection, the cross is but a horrific, miserable death. With the resurrection, all of life changes, including loss and grief. My questions don’t have answers. Instead they are met with a person. Like Orual in Till We Have Faces, I cry out: “I know now, Lord, why you utter no answer. You are yourself the answer. Before your face questions die away. What other answer would suffice?”*
Though I seemingly quote this bravely, my honest desire would be to learn more of God without having to go through loss. I wish life didn’t have and hold so many unchosen crosses. But as I wish, I know that even as a little girl I began to know this God of loss and love. I first felt loss and his corresponding love in the cold steel of a bunkbed, a thin mattress separating me from the hard wires of the base. I felt deeply the loss of a mom and dad, the loss of a home, the loss of security. Even then, I knew this God of loss; a God who cares about loss and grief, who wraps us up in his love even as we shout out the grief of broken dreams and broken hearts. A God of loss who stretches out a strong arm to the lost. In my story, his strong arm led me from childhood to adulthood, a long journey of grace.
The grief and loss dots are connecting again during this period of my life and I feel his arm stretch out to me now, even as I run away, wanting to ignore it. Like the runaway bunny, whose mother will never give up, no matter where I run to, the God of loss always finds me. Though I may want to ignore him or accuse him of apathy and mistreatment, his light and his love push the shadows of loss away every, single time.
In the book Prayer in the Night, author Tish Harrison Warren writes this: “Here is what I am slowly stretching to believe: there is no shadow side of God; no hidden deception or darkness behind the God revealed in Jesus. The God we pray to is the God who loves us — endlessly, relentlessly, patiently, and powerfully.”
By his grace I continue to press into this, believing that:
“What’s lost is nothing to what’s found, and all the [loss] that ever was, set next to life, would scarcely fill a cup.”
A few weeks ago, someone who is moving overseas contacted me. This is her first time living overseas, she is going into the unknown, and wants to be as prepared as possible.
Here is what I said to her:
Dear Lucy (name has been changed)
Wow – I’m excited for you and not a little envious! This is an amazing opportunity, and though I know based on your email that you are scared, I think you may find this is one of those gifts that is given to you and your family for this time of your life.
That being said, you asked for practical, not philosophical advice – so here goes:
Learn the numbers as quickly as possible. You will find them everywhere and it will help you to tell time, understand the prices of items, and tell people how many children you have!
Learn the currency and don’t translate it into US dollars. If you do, you will either spend too much money thinking “everything is so cheap,” or too little money and thus, not get the things you need.
Take things that will immediately make your new space feel like home – a few pictures, candles, a couple of books. That way, even as you’re waiting for the rest of your household goods, you can begin to create a home.
Recognize that your children’s grief is real, real, real. Allow them to be sad without putting caveats on the sadness (eg “I know you’re sad, but think how much fun travel will be…”) Travel may be fun, but it will not give them back their friends and schools. Allow them to grieve, and grieve with them.
You are arriving in the summer, a time when expat communities dwindle, so it will probably take some time to connect with others. Still – limit the amount of time that your kids spend on social media, just as you would limit social media in your home country. You cannot, I repeat, you cannot live in two places at once. Believe me, I’ve tried, and it doesn’t work. So limit the time they spend, and try to get out and explore.
By the same token, don’t allow yourself to spend too much time on Skype, Facebook, or any other social media sites. It will be all you can do sometimes, to tear yourself away. But tear yourself away you must. This is not the end of your world, this is the beginning of a new world. Allow it to be just that.
Don’t be afraid to initially be a tourist. If you don’t explore the area, you may come to the end of your time and find you’ve not seen the world-famous sites there are to see. Use those first weeks to create adventure and have your kids journal about it.
Remember that your culture is just that – your culture. Others have different ways of doing things. They aren’t bad – they are just different. Learn cultural humility, a life skill you will never regret.
News flash: Life wasn’t perfect in your home country. It will be easy to think it was when you are faced with the newness of life and culture shock in its monstrous intensity. But it wasn’t. There are relationship problems, infrastructure issues, and just plain life wherever we live.
You take yourself and your family with you. You aren’t all going to change on the plane. Sure, this is a new start, but you are who you are. At the same time, you are also capable of change and being shaped by the country where you will make your home. Allow that shape to happen.
Have a high tolerance of ambiguity and be capable of complexity. The country where you’re going is dismissed in the western world with a few stereotypical statements. Those are not the complete story. If you allow yourself, you will be able to understand a more complete, and thus richer version of the story.
Give yourself grace. This move is huge! You won’t understand the impact until sometime later, so give yourself, your husband, and your kids grace.
Laugh.Laugh.Laugh. Laughter is a holy gift that will take you through culture shock and culture conflict. It will take you through the hard days and you will be able to look back on them with much joy. So allow yourself the holy gift of laughter.
Most of all, know that “He who began a good work in you, will be faithful to complete it!” God lives in other places. He is alive and well across the world, continuing his good work in the redemption story. You are a part of that Story and He is faithful.
I’ve included a picture here that I think you will enjoy! Print it out, and put it on your refrigerator so you remember these ten commandments.
Much love to you,
What would you add for Lucy? Please share in the comments and we will compile the comments for a new post!
In 1999, researcher Pauline Boss, introduced the concept of ambiguous loss with these words: “In the world of unresolved grief, there is a unique kind of loss that complicates grief, confuses relationships, and prevents closure. I call it ambiguous loss. It lies at the root of much depression, anxiety, and family conflict.
“While religious communities traditionally have comforted those who lose a loved one from death—a clear loss—less attention is paid to ambiguous loss. This is understandable as there is no official notice or ritual for such unclear loss. Yet, the trauma devastates people. Traditional therapies are insufficient because closure, the usual goal in grief therapy, is impossible. With faith communities so often the central support system for people who are suffering, knowing about this more nuanced and complicated loss is important.“
She goes on to say: “I do not pathologize. Depression is, of course, a symptom that needs treatment… in the case of ambiguous loss, the cause lies in the external environment. It is important for people suffering from this kind of traumatic loss to know that it is not their fault.”*
Ambiguous loss is believed to be the most stressful kind of loss. Death brings finality and closure and you are allowed and expected to mourn. Ambiguous loss brings none of those things. There are no sign posts. Instead, the grief process is frozen.
Ambiguous loss is unclear, traumatic, externally caused by illness/work/leaving (not by individual pathology), confusing and incomprehensible.
Ambiguous loss can freeze the grief process. People can’t get over it, they can’t move forward, they’re frozen in place.
I can’t think of a better description of the losses people are feeling during this worldwide pandemic. Quick pack-ups and overnight border closures, family separations and job losses, death with no or limited funerals, grieving alone – all of it has contributed to lack of closure and a prolonged and ambiguous grief process.
There are two types of ambiguous loss:
Type One: Occurs when there is physical absence with psychological presence. This includes situations when a loved one is physically missing or bodily gone. While there are catastrophic examples of physical ambiguous loss (including kidnapping, terrorism, ethnic cleansing, genocide, and natural disasters such as earthquake, flood, and tsunami) the more common examples of physical ambiguous loss are divorce, adoption, and loss of physical contact with family and friends because of immigration. This would be the most common type with third culture kids and expats. There is a physical absence, but you know the place you left, the friends you left, are still psychologically present. You see pictures of your adopted home, but you are no longer there. Your children see their school friends through social media, but physically, though the place remains, you are gone. You may never get to visit again.
Type Two: Occurs when there is psychological absence with physical presence. In this second type of ambiguous loss, a loved one is psychologically absent—that is, emotionally or cognitively gone or missing. Such ambiguous loss occurs from Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias; traumatic brain injury; addiction, depression, or other chronic mental or physical illnesses that take away a loved one’s mind or memory. Psychological ambiguous losses can also result from obsessions or preoccupations with losses that never make sense, e.g., some suicides or infant deaths.*
Identifying ambiguous loss is a huge step. I remember first reading about it several years ago, how just reading about it did something powerful in and for me. Realizing I wasn’t alone, that there was a name for my experiences, was a pivotal point in better understanding what I needed to do.
There were several steps to my process, and I write them here cautiously, knowing that there is not a one-size-fits-all approach to facing ambiguous loss.
Naming it as ambiguous loss was an important first step. Finding a name for what I was experiencing was huge. You can’t cope with something unless you know what it is. At six years old, I waved goodbye to my parents as they stood on the platform of a train station in Southern Pakistan. I strained my head to wave, crying the crocodile tears of a child that knows that they are leaving their primary source of security, but not having words to express it. I strained to watch my parents through the window until the platform was out of sight, finally succumbing to the comfort of kind adult chaperones. I knew that my parents weren’t dead, but their physical absence brought profound loss. It would be the same for all but two years of my childhood until I turned 18 and left home. Finding out about the concept of ambiguous loss was deeply comforting to me. I thought back to many childhood events like this one, realizing I had never grieved the losses because I didn’t think there were any. Naming is an edenic act, and when we name something we open up a door to understanding that is otherwise impossible. In this Pandemic year, it is important to name the ambiguous loss. If you had to pack up with little notice and no goodbyes, if you did not have time to build the RAFT to float yourself and your family, it is probably true that what you are experiencing is ambiguous loss. The place you left still exists; the work and your place within the work may still be there, but you aren’t. Soon, someone else will take your place because though people are not replaceable, positions must be replaced. Naming this is critical to moving forward. If you do nothing else but name it, you are still on a step toward healing.
Use both/and thinking. It’s not one or the other – it’s both. We have both the anxiety of no closure and the opportunity of unexpected change and relationships going forward. Absolute thinking is not helpful with ambiguous loss or the pandemic in general. F. Scott Fitzgerald said this, and it is perfect for thinking about both/and thinking:
“The test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”
This both/and thinking is important for us and for our children. We acknowledge the losses even as we begin to write our names in the land where we find ourselves.
Find meaning in the present. Not acknowledging ambiguous loss can cripple us to finding meaning in our present reality. What is the meaning in your present reality? Where have you found meaning that is unexpected? Perhaps you have found meaning in the act of waiting. Perhaps you have had unexpected time with aging parents. Perhaps you used to long for more time with your kids, feeling like their childhoods were on fast forward in the movie of life. Suddenly, all of life has slowed down and it feels impossible to dream, to look forward to anything. Maybe there is meaning in the impossible.
Reconstructing identity is a third step in facing ambiguous loss. Moving, death, job loss, changing friendships – all of this affects our identity and our perception of our identity. Who are we without what we had? Who are we when we are not in our adopted countries using hard-earned language skills? Who are we without the brother, mother, son, or daughter that we have lost to a country or place far away? Who are we apart from our friendships? Who are we when ministry is gone? All of these questions are a part of reconstructing our identities. Ultimately, in my faith journey I’ve recognized that identity is not about where I am, for that is too fickle and can change through pandemics, military takeovers, natural disasters, and job loss – indeed everyone of those things have affected my life at different points. Instead, my core identity has to be about being beloved by God and recognizing I am part of a bigger picture in His world.
Building resilience, not seeking closure. The goal is not closure, and we make a mistake if we think that is possible. That’s the thing with ambiguous loss – the goal changes from closure to building strength and acceptance of ambiguity. We may never get to say proper goodbyes, we may always wonder “What would have happened if we stayed?” We may always long for something that we can’t even voice. I’ve been learning a lot about being grateful for those things, for they are indeed gifts. We live in a world of displaced people and refugees; indeed that is the story of our time. It is a gift that we know what it is to grieve loss of place and people. Understanding ambiguous loss is in itself a gift. It allows us to enter relationships with hope but without the guarantees that we so long for. This is far more what our world needs than a security and belief that what we have will be there forever. This is true for individuals, and it’s true for a family. As a family adapts to change, stress, and ambiguous loss, it builds resilience and this becomes a part of the larger family story. The larger family story will have a pandemic chapter, but it’s not the only chapter. It’s one of many.
Discovering new hope. As we move forward, we discover new hope. Hope in a future that will continue to hold the hard and unknown, yet entering it with a greater reality of the presence of God. Hope in the words from the book of Hebrews that He who called us is faithful. We may never know the whys, but can it be enough to know Him? I speak truth when I say that some days it is enough and some days it isn’t. I cling to the days where it is enough, where He is enough. And I’m getting better at facing the days when He is not enough, where I pray the Jesus prayer all day long and into the night.
Lastly,God is far more concerned about who we are than about what we do and where we live. If we lose everything, He still loves us. Before He called us, He loved us. I’m sitting with that hard truth, praying that I will know it in my soul. I pray that wherever you are today, and whatever your losses, you may know this hard but glorious truth. He looks at you and He loves you – and though all around you may be loss and grief, that truth is a reality.
It’s a Monday and depending on where you are in the world, and in what time zone you woke up, you have most likely been assaulted by different headlines around the globe.
In Indonesia, divers are still searching wreckage for the tragic air crash that killed all those aboard.
Lebanon considers a tighter lockdown as Covid-19 cases surge
Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders are in Russia for talks
Snow and ice disrupt lives in Spain
China denies coercive birth control methods
And the United States is rumbling with the fallout of an insurrection that stormed the capital building, with resultant shouts for another impeachment of the sitting president.
No matter where you are, it’s a lot. All of these call for prayer and some call for a deep soul searching lament for the state of the world. And none of these headlines include our personal tragedies and sadness, our collective displacement and loss.
But this is the world we live in, the world we engage in on a daily basis. We can wisely shut off the news for a while, we can wisely disengage for a certain number of hours in a day and week. But we can’t escape our world, nor are we called to.
It’s within this context that I have been thinking a lot about “goodness” – that word that speaks to the quality of being kind, virtuous, morally good. What does it mean to grow into goodness, to grow beyond the childlike attribute of being “good” and grow into someone whose character makes you think of true goodness.
As children, many of us hear the words “Be good” on a regular basis. “Be good for grandma!” “Be good to your brother!” It is said so often that it sometimes loses both its meaning and its power. Perhaps the importance of how we can mature into goodness is also lost along the way, lost in a world that doesn’t necessarily reward goodness beyond childhood. Instead, being savvy, smart, intellectual, and quick-tongued and quick penned are what gives us an edge in many spheres.
As I’ve thought about goodness, I came upon the story of Bulgaria’s Jews in World War 2 as relayed in a book I am reading called The Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East. In this particular section, the author is telling the story of a Jewish family in Bulgaria who ended up in Palestine. Central to their survival in Bulgaria is the larger story of the Jews in Bulgaria.
A deportation order had been written that would deport all of Bulgaria’s 47,000 Jews. Unlike most of Europe, this planned deportation was never carried out. It wasn’t carried out because ordinary people and leaders found out about it. The Metropolitan and the Bishop of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church stood up for the Jews, approaching places of power and “imploring the king to demonstrate compassion by defending the right to freedom and human dignity of the Jews.” A member of parliament (Dimitar Peshev) publicly went against his government, gathering signatures and approaching the king stating that a deportation “would be be disastrous and bring ominous consequences upon the country.” Along with these, leaders of professional organizations and businesses, and ordinary people across the country stood by the Jewish population.
The deportation order was stopped temporarily in March of 1943, and then indefinitely in May. The Jewish population of the entire nation of Bulgaria did not die in gas chambers.
The author goes on to say this:
“None of this would have happened withough what the Bulgarian-French intellectual Tzvetan Todorov calls the ‘fragility of goodness’: the intricate, delicate, unforeseeable weave of human action and historical events”
Evil spreads quickly and virulently. Like a virus, it is hard to stop once it takes root. Todorov says that once it is introduced into public view, it spreads easily, whereas goodness is temporary, difficult, rare, fragile. And yet possible.
I have been thinking about this story and the idea of the fragility of goodness all week. Each person in Bulgaria who spoke up for the Jews, people who were their friends, their neighbors, their business partners, and their community members, is a chain in the link of goodness that ultimately preserved life and human dignity. While Tdorov speaks to the fragility and the “tenuous chain of events” that led to a stay in the deportation order, maybe it is not as tenuous as he supposes. Maybe what appeared tenuous and fragile was far stonger then he could imagine.
In my experience, goodness is far stronger than we know, far more powerful than it may appear. Its power is in its moral strength and its stubborn refusal to quit. That’s what I see, not only in this story, but in the small ways that goodness moves in, refusing to give up, determined that evil will not have the final word.
How can I chase goodness the way I chase beauty? When will I get to the point where I choose good without even thinking because it is so much a part of me? I don’t know. But it gives me hope when I think of ordinary people going about their lives in Bulgaria in 1943, deciding that they would speak up and out, never knowing that they would be a part of a chain called the fragility of goodness.
In all of this, I am reminded of Christ, the author of goodness, the one who strengthens the fragility of goodness making it into a force that challenges and destroys evil, for it is he who daily calls me, who daily calls all of us in this community, to chase after goodness, truth, and beauty.
a feeling of surprise mingled with admiration, caused by something beautiful, unexpected, unfamiliar, or inexplicable.
We put up our Christmas tree on Saturday. As empty nesters, it’s our tradition to either have any adult kids who happen to be in the area over to help us or, in their absence, invite a friend or several. This year we invited one of our dearest friends to help. Ava had never picked out or decorated a Christmas tree. As a Muslim growing up in Iran, this was something new. It was a delight to have her join in with this magical tradition.
Within an hour and a half the room was transformed from chaotic and crowded to sparkling brilliance. Shiny ornaments collected through the years reflected the white lights, while Christmas music played softly in the background. We sat back and sighed in wonder as we looked at the tree. The transformation of what had been a plain, partly frozen tree in a lot with hundreds of others was complete and it was a wonder to look at.
Every morning this week I have crept down sleepy-eyed and still in my pajamas and turned on the lights to the tree. The room fills with soft twinkle lights inviting me to stop, inviting me to wonder.
This year has been a year. Soon after the new year ushering in hope and promise we faced the tragic death of my brother in February, closed borders in March, death of an uncle in April, rising Covid cases in May, my brother’s long delayed funeral in July, two unexpected deaths of a cousin and a cousin’s husband in October, death of an aunt in November, and now…. the season of jolly good will? I think not! Like you all, I am exhausted with the year, exhausted with the telling people why I’m exhausted, and I’m sad. Just plain sad.
It’s more than this year though. When I look back at past Decembers, they have included death, hospitalizations, life-changing tragedies, and oh so many tears. The other day I said to my sister-in-law “I have begun to dread December!” Within the bright lights of Christmas is the realization that hard things still happen and the world is still broken.
But then I stop and I take a breath. I look at my tree in the early morning as the light is just appearing over the Atlantic Ocean a couple of miles away. I feel an invitation to step away from the broken and enter the timeless wonder of God become man.
I am invited into the wonder of the Advent Season, the wonder of the Incarnation, the wonder of the mysteries of my Christian faith.
Long ago on a rooftop in Pakistan, my mom had an invitation to wonder. She felt alone and forgotten, lost in a world miles from family and friends. That night she experienced wonder through unexpected visitors. In the midst of the Sindh desert in Pakistan our friends arrived from hours away and sang carols at our door, their presence an offering of love. It was the wonder of friendship that went the extra mile, offering hope and joy. Every year I stop and remember this story, for it too is an invitation to wonder.
If we stop for a moment, we realize that all around us are invitations to wonder. A sunrise, a sunset, a babies first cry in the world, a son’s engagement, a memory of love, a beautiful meal, laughter, an ever beckoning invitation into words and the Word.
Advent is not an invitation into a western Christmas magic that quickly disappears. It’s our invitation to listen, to watch, to wait, and to wonder.
We have an invitation to wonder at the mystery of the Word becoming flesh and making his dwelling among us, an invitation to see his glory. Will you stop with me for a moment in the midst of what has been a deeply discouraging year of untold sadness and loss, of transition and disappointment, of people and dreams dying? Will you accept our invitation to wonder from a God who loves us infinitely more than we can grasp?
Accept this invitation to stop and listen to this beautiful rendition of a timeless hymn:
Come, Thou long expected Jesus Born to set Thy people free; From our fears and sins release us, Let us find our rest in Thee. Israel’s strength and consolation, Hope of all the earth Thou art; Dear desire of every nation, Joy of every longing heart.
In our house we have a saying. “Don’t speak while I’m interrupting!” Other people don’t find it quite as funny as we do. We are a family of interrupters, none worse than me and my husband.
Sometimes I wonder if that statement is what God might say to me with a gentle grin as he upends my life with interruptions and changed plans.
A few years ago I wrote about my brother and his wife having an encounter with the Great Interrupter. In their case the encounter put them in a place of selling a home of over 15 years, leaving a church of the same, leaving a community where they have loved hard and were loved back, and leaving the only home their children remember. They embarked on a mid-life journey to begin a life in the Middle East. Like a train heading one direction only to switch mid-journey to another set of tracks, so was their interruption. Who needs a mid-life crisis when the Great Interrupter is in your life?
Seven years after their interruption, my husband and I had our encounter with the Great Interrupter. We ended up in the Kurdish Region of Iraq in a 2-year commitment at a Kurdish university that would end up being cut short after a year with another great interruption. While I loved the first interruption, despite the myriad of details and hard goodbyes, I hated the second. I cried every day for a month in Kurdistan and then more once we arrived back in the United States.
And the thing that made me the angriest was when people said to me “There must be some reason for this.” “Yes,” I would respond somewhat politely. Inside I was more honest – Don’t you think I freaking know that in my head? It’s my heart that hurts. Or the even more honest “Shut up!”
And then came a global pandemic and around the world we have seen lives interrupted. Our plans were all going so well! We had dreams and businesses, ideas that were turning into reality. Then just like that – bam! Borders closed and we left the countries we loved. Or we stayed, only to be housebound for weeks on end, unable to meet with people we had come to love, stymied at every turn. Even worse, some have encountered the death of those they love and that interruption feels unbearable.
The words “God’s in control” that are so easy to say when things are going well are suddenly impossible. Collectively we’ve been shown just how little control we actually have and it’s maddening. Out of one side of our mouths come screams of “NOOOOO!” and out of the other comes the socially acceptable “But God’s in control! God’s got this!” The war in our heads is brain crushing and headache inducing.
As a community at A Life Overseas, even before the pandemic we knew intimately about these encounters with the Great Interrupter.When your life seems to be heading one way, the trajectory clear, and then in a slow but steady encounter with the Great Interrupter you realize that your life is being disturbed. No longer can you settle comfortably in the familiar because the voice of the Great Interrupter is strong and powerful, compelling if not always clear.
These interruptions are not easy. How can we possibly do this? What should our next step be? Is this the end of our life overseas? When will I get to see my aging parents again? What do we do in the future? How do we worship? How do we move forward at all. These questions and more are part of our inner dialogue and our outer conversations. There are also the physical and emotional symptoms and feelings of being out of control. Sleepless nights, anxiety, a nervous stomach, checking our email, phones, and the news constantly, tears, irritability, anger, and depression are all the human parts of coping with these interruptions.
Can we, can I, believe that within this quite obvious lack of control, accompanied by our physical and emotional discomfort, there is a safety net woven by God to catch us? A safety net created with the deepest love and whispers, not shouts, of his presence? Can I believe that interruptions are not mistakes, rather they show us God’s care in ways we might never understand without them?
Throughout history God has interrupted people’s lives, moving them from comfort to the unknown and asking them to trust along the way. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses and more are in the ranks of those whose lives were interrupted and who walked in faith. To be honest, I’m less interested in them then I am in their wives. What could the untold stories tell us of these women and their faith journeys? What would they say to me, to you about trust? About faith? About God’s whispers in the hard parts of the night?
I don’t come to you with answers today. I come with these words, committed to memory many years ago, for these are the words that I hear whispered in the still of the night during these interruptions:
“I know that my redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand on the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him with my own eyes—I, and not another. How my heart yearns within me”*
What is the story of your interruption during this pandemic? How did your life change? Are there words you remember in the dark parts of the night? Words whispered in your heart? Please share them and know – You Are Not Alone.
Blessed are the language learners, for theirs is the gift of idioms and verbs, of words and communication.
Blessed are the visa holders, for they shall never forget what it is to live as a guest in a country.
Blessed are the homesick, for they shall know and understand longing and displacement, the themes of our time.
Blessed are those who weep for injustice, for they shall be comforted by a God who cries out for justice to roll down like the waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
Blessed are the culturally humble, for they shall see the world and faith through the eyes of curiosity and questions.
Blessed are the jetlagged, for they shall have time to drink tea and pray.
Blessed are the lonely, for they shall be connected to the pain of humanity and better understand the value of connection.
Blessed are those in transition, for they shall know more fully the joy and privilege of home.
Blessed are those who miss their fathers and mothers, their siblings and their friends, for they shall discover friends that become as close as sisters and brothers, and families that transcend blood and borders.
Blessed are the translators and the doctors, the businesspeople and the nurses, the developers and the diplomats, the farmers and the planters, the harvesters and the homemakers, the educators and the writers, the linguists and the administrators – for together they shall work to build God’s kingdom on earth.
Blessed are the visionaries and the dreamers, the builders and the plodders, the idealists and the realists, the wishful thinkers and the critical thinkers, the intelligent and the blessedly naive – for the Kingdom is made of such as these.
Blessed are you who know and love the God who invited you into his story; you who were created and formed, equipped and placed. May you know and love him a little more each day. May you delight in His story and rest in His love.
Blessed are those whose strength is in you, who have set their hearts on pilgrimage…..they go from strength to strength until each appears before God in Zion.*
It is mid-September and six months since borders closed, masks became mandatory, and life changed for people around the globe.
While fall is always a time of movement and change for expats and third culture kids, for TCKs transtioning to college, and for those who have tried to make transitions during the summer from their lives overseas, the tools that many of us have used and used well in the past are not necessarily helpful in this new world.
Many of us have seen and used the RAFT acronym (Reconciliation, Affirmation, Farewell, and Think Transition) developed by David Pollock and Ruth Van Reken, our iconic leaders on all things TCK related. In fact, I myself wrote an essay on transition a few years ago, citing their acronym and connecting the dots to my own experiences.
As I think about the acronym in the year 2020 and the unexpected chaos and uprootedness that a worldwide pandemic has caused, I think we may need another acronym that gives us a different tool for unexpected departures, virtual goodbyes, and long periods of waiting in the in between.
It’s with this in mind that I offer a few tips that I’m calling CRAFT, because a Crisis before the RAFT changes everything.
A full disclaimer is that I have been uprooted unexpectedly myself a couple of times, but never in a worldwide crisis like the one we have faced these past six months. I come at this from a public health nurse perspective, a writer, a TCK, and three times over expat. Though I have been through several difficult transitions, they are transitions that are far different than what I know many of you are experiencing. So keep what is worth keeping, and blow the rest away.
Crisis Management – First and foremost – Covid has been a worldwide crisis with a dominoe effect. There are three stages to crisis management: Pre-crisis or creating a crisis management plan; mid-crisis – the point where all hell breaks loose and you respond to what’s happening in the moment and try to put the plan into place; and post-crisis – where you evaluate how you, your family, and the team responded to the crisis and evaluate whether your plan was effective. This is the point where you refine and change your crisis management plan based on what you’ve learned.
Perhaps your organization never even had a plan to begin with and you were left trying to craft your own crisis plan with little support. Perhaps your organization had a well-defined crisis management plan, but it hadn’t been fully tested. This was the first test and leadership is reeling. Or perhaps your organization’s plan was comprehensive and well done, but hadn’t ever considered that there may be a worldwide crisis at the same time as the company crisis. There are all kinds of scenarios. But it is important to recognize that a crisis changes everything.
The general guidelines for phases of crisis management are to:
Understand the three phases of a crisis
Prepare as best as you can to handle each stage
Identify and focus on the most critical phase.*
By now, most of us are in the post crisis phase, but perhaps not. Perhaps a whole new crisis has come along with the crisis of COVID 19. Perhaps you are like my friend Mariam, who has had multiple crises along with a pending international move. Very few of us really understand crisis management, and it feels critical to have more information and understanding on this.
No matter where you find yourself in these three stages, know that this is a very real crisis. You aren’t making it up. You aren’t making a bigger deal of it than you need to. You are simply doing what all of us do in a crisis. Trying ot figure out what is next.
Response& Resilience – This phase utilizes past experience. If in the past you have seen crises handled well, then your response may be far calmer than a colleague or friends’ response. As I’ve faced COVID 19 myself, I have faced it as someone who has never been risk averse, who grew up in the developing world with every year bringing another crisis. This is really different than some of my friends. In addition, I’ve faced it as someone who doesn’t have health problems. Those two realities have everything to do with the way I’ve responded. We go into any crisis with tools from our past at our disposal. The key is to remember those tools.
One of those tools is to initially focus just on the physical. The emotional pieces will come, but you don’t have the energy nor should you focus on them right now. It’s fight or flight, not fight or share your deepest feelings about what is going on. This may sound obvious to many of you, but I am an empath. The ability to empathize is a gift, but it has to be used in the right context. Someone who is bleeding out doesn’t need me to sit beside them and say “How are you feeling? How does that blood loss make you feel?” Rather, they need me to do everything I can to stop the flow of blood. Response means you respond to the immediate issue. Responding appropriately to the immediate issue builds resilience for later in the crisis.
Aftershocks – On October 12th, 1992 Cairo, Egypt experienced a 5.8 magnitude earthquake. The earthquake was considered “unusually destructive” for its size. We were living in an area called Maadi in a second floor apartment. It was 3:09 in the afternoon local time and I was at home with all four of the kids. The house began shaking as windows rattled and a major wall in our apartment cracked down the center. I thought there had been a subway accident and that the subway, a few blocks from our house, was headed our way. The noise and shaking were terrifying. I had no idea it was an earthquake, but gathered the three older ones to me. The youngest one, Stefanie, was 9 months old and in her crib taking an afternoon nap. “Kids, let’s pray!” I said in desperation. In a few seconds Stefanie began to scream. I ran in just as a picture flew off the wall over her head and crashed on the ground shattering glass. It was terrifying. Equally terrifying were the significant aftershocks felt even days after the earthquake. We would brace ourselves for the shaking and wonder if it was yet another earthquake.
So what’s my point? Aftershocks of a crisis can be as difficult emotionally as the crisis itself. Aftershocks come unexpectedly and set off previously felt trauma and feelings of shock and helplessness. COVID-19 has been a crisis similar to an earthquake and there are aftershocks that bring up all sorts of feelings. If you feel this, it is not you being weak. These are real and these are hard. Aftershocks can continue for days, months, or sometimes even years. The larger the earthquake, the larger the aftershocks.
So what do you do? You remain on the alert for aftershocks. They will probably come. Keep in mind that crisis management is the first step. Stay calm – this is a normal part of a massive crisis. Gather your kids to you and talk about what is going on. If you ask adult third culture kids what made the difference in making it through a crisis and building resilience, many will say that it was that their parents and other adults in their lives allowed them to talk about what was going on. Call people that you trust. You too need someone who will be able to actively listen to what you are thinking and feeling.
Forging aheadwith baby steps – People who have had spinal cord injuries have to learn to walk again. It happens step by painful step. This is a lot like what it is to forge ahead when you’ve been or are continuing in a crisis. There is the acute phase, then there is the maintenance phase. Forging ahead is the maintenance phase. What is the new routine? What can we put off, and what needs to be done today? What resources are around us that can help us with what needs to be done today? Gather your resources in a small notebook. Who are the people who can help with the practical pieces of setting up a new household or routine? Who are the people who can help with the emotional pieces? Those who won’t tell you to count your blessings, instead listening as you pour out your heart and by listening help you move forward. Who are those who can help with the details with this life that you least expected? Who can help with the logistics of car shopping? Insurance coverage? Healthcare? All the details that go into setting up a new life. Forging ahead in baby steps sometimes just means knowing who to call for what.
Time – The last word in the acronym is ‘time.’ In the expat world, we are always looking ahead. Part of this is the nature of the work and experience. We have to look ahead. The task of living outside our passport countries forces us to look at future actions that may include visa or residence permit expirations, transtion times, future plans, ages of our kids as we make moves. Suddenly the pandemic has put everyone in the world in stop mode. We go from being future oriented to not being able to plan for tomorrow, let alone what will happen in a month, three months, or a year. All the careful plans we made have crumbled and the costs in money, time, and emotional health are impossible to quantify. We have to redefine our concepts of time.
I think recovering addicts have a tremendous amount to teach us about this time. A recovering addict knows that all they have is the next hour. It comes and as they face it without drinking or doing drugs or doing whatever it is that they are addicted to they know that it is a baby step in the right direction. They feel like they are climbing the walls. Their skin crawls. Their heart beats faster. And then, the hour is over. A sigh and on to the next hour. The hours turn into days, the days turn into weeks, the weeks turn into months, but they will never forget that all they have is today. All they have is the next hour. Recovering addicts are our teachers in this moment. Do what we must in the next hour. Then when the next hour comes, do what we must.
All we know is that we have the next hour. Maybe not even that – maybe all we have is the next second, the next minute. So we breathe. Because a minute is all you need right now. An hour is all you need. You can redefine time – don’t let time define you. Expect to be like the recovering addict – climbing the walls but making it through. In the words of an addict “Over the past 23 years, I’ve worked to trick my brain into staying in the moment, and not dwelling on the future or the past.”**
As I’ve spoken with family members after the death of my brother it has come up time and time again the wonderful days and hours preceding my brother’s death. By all accounts, he had a joy-filled month with joy-filled minutes turning to joy-filled hours. The death that took him shocked all of us, none more so than those closest to him. But each day of the month preceding his death seemed filled with abundant life. He did not know he would die and we did not know he would die. It seemed he had learned to live each moment, and in doing so find great joy.
I don’t know, but I do know that when it comes to time, all we really have is now.
Even as I write this I know that for someone in the midst of all of this transtion, reading this could be annoying. We can have all the tools in the world, but still struggle. One of the things I love about my faith tradition is that we honor the struggle. There is life and growth in the struggle. So I leave you with that: Honor the struggle.
What about you? Where are you in the CRAFT? How do you CRAFT a way to move forward? What would you add? What would you subtract?
In all my years of coming and going, of moving and transition, I’ve never experienced anything like the transition and confusion that the last months of pandemic chaos have brought into our world. Its impossible to quantify the amount of grief and loss that people around the globe and in this community have experienced. I wrote this piece eight months ago when I was living, breathing and eating transition and the impossible decision making that goes with transition. I hope it helps some of you during this time.
The other night I woke up to fierce wind and rain. On the right side of the house an alley way created a wind tunnel and I could hear the wind howling through it. This house is still new to us and the sounds are unfamiliar. I lay listening for while, thinking of the fierce wind, of storms, and of the comfort of my bed within the storm. There is something deeply comforting about feeling safe during a storm. It is a privileged comfort.
I don’t always feel that way. There are times when storms make me feel deeply afraid. But not the other night.
For those who have been following along with me, my journey and the sometimes storm of our transition continues.
During this time I’ve found it difficult to make decisions. It makes sense. We made a massive decision a year and a half ago that included many smaller decisions along the way. Then in May, a decision was made far above us that changed our lives. This resulted in us making another massive decision and smaller decisions along the way. The result is that I have felt trapped in decision making.
When I am feeling low, the questions are heavy and unrelenting. How do I know what decisions are right? How do I decide what to do next? Our lives were turned upside down two years in a row. What does that mean? Did we make the wrong choice even though it felt so clear at the time? Or did we make the right choice, and nothing and no one could have predicted what came next? Asking too many of these questions is not healthy. It spins your head and your heart and you end up not trusting yourself with any decision.
One of the ways I have chosen to walk through this season is by reading Emily Freeman’s latest book The Next Right Thing. The subtitle of the book is “A Simple, Soulful Practice for Making Life Decisions.”
Before Freeman even addresses decision making, she introduces some foundational concepts that are key to being in a place where you can make good decisions.
Her first concept is to become what she calls a “soul minimalist.” Clear clutter and create space for silence. It’s this that sets a foundation for making decisions. “The world is run by worn-out people, and our soul is often lost beneath the piles of our everyday life.”
“Good decisions require creativity and creativity requires space. This space is necessary for you to speak out against the injustices you see in the world, the problems you know you can help solve, and the beauty you long to deliver.”
Emily P. Freeman in The Next Right Thing
Her second concept is the powerful practice of naming the narrative. Naming those hidden things that are affecting our decision making. This has been a hard, painful process for me. Naming grief, disappointment, dead dreams, and anger are not easy, but the process of doing this and being honest with my emotions has been significant.
Freeman’s third foundational concept is examining our beliefs about God, discovering the disconnect between what we say we believe and how that works out in practice. This is an eye-opening exercise. While many of us say we believe and trust in God, our daily lives are more like those of practicing atheists. Inside we are a bit like two-year-olds convincing ourselves we can “do by self,” while on the outside we choose the right words and phrases to make our beliefs about God sound good and safe. What happens when we are honest, and we admit the disconnect between our actions and our beliefs?
Reading this book and taking an in-depth look at these concepts as I move forward in decision making has pushed me to grow in meaningful ways.
“Just because things change doesn’t mean you chose wrong in the first place.
The Next Right Thing by Emily Freeman
When we left for Kurdistan, we had no idea that we would be back here a year later, trying to make sense of a dream cut short, of a closed door. It would be easy to look back and accuse ourselves of making the wrong decision in the first place. But I don’t think that’s true. I think we made the right decision.
I’m think we made the right decision for a lot of reasons – probably the most significant being who we became as a result of going. From learning more about empathy and incarnational living to being humbled by all the areas where we fell short, it was an important process in who we are and in who we are becoming.
I’m convinced God is less interested in where we end up then He is in who we are becoming. Whether we’re employed or unemployed, encouraged or discouraged, filled with vision or fumbling in the fog. More than anything, our Father just wants to be with us.
The Next Right Thing by Emily Freeman
I have read and reread the words above – “Whether we’re employed or unemployed, encouraged or discouraged, filled with vision or fumbling in the fog. More than anything, our Father just wants to be with us.”
In closing, I think of an episode of the new season of The Crown that we watched last night. In this particular episode there is a tragedy that takes place in a mining town. Many have died, most of them children. The queen is slow to make the decision to go and there are many reasons and excuses as to why. When she finally does decide to go, it’s clear that people just want her to be with them, to bear witness to the pain they are going through, to sit with them in their sorrow.
“Our Father just wants to be with us…” No matter our decisions, whether they are big or small, whether they will change lives or just our next hour, these are words to live by.
On November 14, 2012 Laura Parker, co-founder of the A Life Overseas blog and community space posted a “Welcome Video” to the site. That was the beginning of what has now become an online community thousands strong.
We are a diverse group linguistically, culturally and theologically, but we all agree that taking the step to live, work, and raise a family overseas takes our lives to places and into circumstances we could never imagine. In this community, life is definitely far stranger than fiction.
We exist to support those in cross cultural work. Whether you’re a business person, a diplomat, a humanitarian aid worker, an educator or all those above, but you are first of all a Christ-follower this community is for you.
Cross-cultural workers cram a life into a suitcase and begin a journey into foreign places, both geographically and spiritually. Assaulted by cultural stress, ministry challenges, learning a new language, and the trauma of culture shock, these workers long for community– a sense of connection, regardless of if they are the boiling water alone in an African hut or battling public transport in a crowded Indian city. No doubt, living overseas can be brutal — on a family, on a faith, and in a soul. But, there’s no doubt, too, that it can be one of the most depth-giving experiences an individual can embrace. Like all of life, though, our stories are understood best when we have a community to share them with.
About A Life Overseas
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I’m sitting at my desk in our guest bedroom when the bells from the church across the street begin to ring. They began at eight in the morning and they end at ten at night, giving us a full ten hours without being reminded of the time.
This is new for me. While hearing the call to prayer was a sound embedded into my childhood, I rarely heard church bells. These church bells also tend to peel out the tune of “God Bless America” a bit too often for my liking.
But this morning, as though sensing my despair, I heard the sound of “Amazing Grace.”
Amazing Grace – that hymn sung by believers and non-believers with its haunting melody and stunning truth.
Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound That saved a wretch like me I once was lost, but now am found Was blind but now I see
Most of us know the history of this song. John Newton’s past as a slave trader, his conversion, his stepping into grace and writing a song. But nothing is quite as simple as the short histories that we read, In fact, it took him three more slave trading voyages before he’d had enough. It took him even longer, 34 years longer, to write a “blazing pamphlet” called “Thoughts Upon the Slave Trade” – a publication used by John Wilberforce, a member of British Parliament, to put forward a bill to abolish the slave trade. Newton died six months after the bill was passed in 1807.
I relate with this history. We often take baby steps along our journey toward understanding better what it is to love our world and seek justice as Jesus would, only to look back in stunned disbelief that it took us so long. We look back at our excuses and they seem so pitiful.
And yet – Grace.
Most of us at A Life Overseas are deeply involved in organizations, projects, and with people around the world where injustice is a daily reality. I would submit that it is easier to face injustice in countries and places that we don’t legally belong to. We can see these and have an outsider’s view even if they are a daily part of our work. Turn the camera on our passport countries and suddenly it gets personal.
At least, that is how it’s been for me.
If you , like me, are mourning and longing for a better world; if you, like me are praying for your passport country, wherever it is, and the injustices you see there; if you, like me are longing to do more, longing to fight injustice wherever you see it, feeling guilty about not doing enough yet completely overwhelmed with all that life has brought you in the past weeks – displacement, death, sickness, loss of friendships, goodbyes, uncertainty, inability to plan for the future – I offer you this prayer today.
O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in your good time, all nations and races may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ our Lord…..
Grant, O God, that your holy and life-giving Spirit may so move every human heart, that barriers which divide us may crumble, suspicions disappear, and hatreds cease; that our divisions being healed, we may live in justice and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Book of Common Prayer – Prayer for the Human Family and Prayer for Social Justice
In closing, may you soak in these words from Eugene Cho:
“Chaos ensues. Anxiety rises. Lament is in the air. Yet, Christ is our anchor. Hold tight. Be steadfast. Resist the empire. Be compassionate. Pursue justice. Stand with the oppressed. Fight for the vulnerable. Seek God’s Kingdom. And keep pointing people to Jesus. “