What I Learned After Visiting Scotland

My last name may not scream an ethnicity to you. Unless you are Chinese, and then when you see my pale face, sturdy bones, and slightly curly hair, the response comes from an ancient script passed down from generation to generation. Eyes widen, “You are not Chinese.”

Yes, I know that.

Growing up I latched on to the “Scotch” part of my “Scotch-Irish” heritage. I don’t know why I wanted to be Scottish so much more than Irish, but I did. Fostering this lovefest was the bag my great-grandmother brought through Ellis Island in New York. As a child it all seemed so exotic and exciting.

One of my dearest friends in college moved to Scotland after graduation and served three years as a cross-cultural worker in a small church. My first visit to Scotland was one year into her term.

I was going to walk the land of my ancestors! I was going to get in touch with my Scottish roots! I was going to find where a distant relative was buried! I was going home!

Except it turns out, that “Young” is an Irish name. My enthusiasm was met with blank stares. Even in the tourist stores where I was desperate to buy anything with the “Young Tartan” on it, there was a nary a thread to be found.

{Side note: A couple of years ago, when I visited Scottish friends I made on that first trip, “Young” has either been discovered in the Clan Annals OR the wise merchants wanted in on the action. Either way, I bought “Young Clan” coasters for the whole family.)

While I had a wonderful trip and fell in love with Scotland, I left with a profound sense that no matter how much I wanted to be Scottish, no matter how much I loved Scotland, no matter how many scones I ate or cups of tea I drank, I was an American.

It seems to be in vogue these days to either cling to a country or reject identifying with it outright. Are those the two options God gives us? As I considered what it is that God says about citizenship in the Bible, I noticed the following.

1. God has a soft spot for the alien; however, God’s soft spot for the alien seems more related to power than to citizenship. One of the few passages that directly relates to citizenship is the well-known “give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s” and is related to taxes. Other passages talk about our citizenship being in heaven and are almost all in Paul’s letter. Keeping in mind he was writing to people in the Roman Empire, they too were trying to figure out the boundaries of loyalty. This post is too short to go into the context of each letter, but if we had more time, I would love to explore what Paul (and a messenger for God) was saying. In short, the bottom line is not that citizenship and loyalty to a place are bad or to be denied, but they must not be supreme.

2. God gives a face to those who are rooted to a place. In the Bible God weaves the stories of the foreigners in with those who stay, those who are known in and for a place. God also lists other nations throughout the scripture. Outside of a few specific times the Israelites were told to destroy a people group or city, God preserves the different nationalities.

Those associated with a place (or at least not known for being a foreigner) who also modeled the tension of holding God above nationality:

Shunammite Woman
Elizabeth and Zechariah

When we compare the lists of those who were known for the foreignness in the Bible and this list, I love the Bible all the more. God includes both, inviting us to keep interacting with this tension.

3. This two-sided coin points to a bigger story. We see in both the Old and New Testament that variety, differences, and uniqueness will exist in heaven.

He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore. (Isaiah 2:4)

After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” (Revelation 7:9-10)

Amen and Amen!

I had coffee with a friend who recently returned to the US after 18 months in a poor area in India. She’s transitioning to another assignment. After explaining to her mom the analogy that many cross-cultural workers are from Circle cultures who live in Square cultures and in the process become Triangles. Her mom asked her to please be a Circle person again. She wondered if it was possible to return to being a Circle.

I laughed.

Her mom was asking the wrong question. Maybe we are too. There is nothing wrong with asking “Where do you feel like an alien?” or “How has your notion of citizenship changed?” In fact, these are good questions. But let’s use them to propel us deeper into the mystery and beauty of a faith that points to the Already/Not Yet of belonging in and to the Triune God,

Podcasts, Anyone? Let’s Serve Up a Smorgasbord

Some people scroll Facebook. Some YouTube. Some TikTok (at least for now). Some spend their online time on Pinterest or X or Insta or IG or Gram—and I’m going to stop there, before I pull a muscle.

If you can’t tell already, I’m not a big consumer of social media, but I do have go-to sites of my own. Most mornings I call up a collection of tabs for local, world, and Church news; sports updates; and several blogs. One site that I check daily is MinistryWatch, which helps readers make informed decisions about giving to Christian charities. A couple of weeks ago, MinistryWatch‘s editor, Warren Cole Smith, wrote about the recent online conversation concerning the drop in the number of American conservatives listening to NPR. He says that his “own experience reflects that change.”

“Part of the reason for these changes,” Smith writes, “is technological. The rise of podcasts means that we have a much wider variety of listening choices than we did even a decade ago. As recently as a few years ago, when I got in my car, I turned on the local NPR affiliate. Today, I plug in my iPhone and listen to a podcast.”

Some people listen to podcasts . . . but not me, at least not often. I have listened to season one of Serial (on NPR, oh, the irony) and The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill, but that’s mostly it. I don’t have an iPhone and my 2006 Honda CR-V doesn’t speak Bluetooth.

I know that many of you are fans of podcasts, though. So I’d like your help in crowdsourcing a list of them for your fellow ALO readers. What do you listen to? What podcasts do you tune in to to get your cross-cultural-worker information, insights, or inspiration? Maybe you host a podcast yourself. Let us know. Also, what podcasts not specifically in the cross-cultural-worker orbit do you follow—ones that tangentially speak into the CCW mindset and experience?

When giving podcast recommendations at his site, Smith notes the importance of moving beyond one’s own beaten path, writing, “If I am not careful, I’ll end up in an echo chamber of my own design.”

“[I]n media as in other areas of life,” he writes, “a balanced menu is the best approach.”

So let’s make our own menu. Normally, in a situation such as this, I’d prime the pump with my own ideas. But this time it’s all on you. I can slide in The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill for something tangential, but that’s really all I’ve got firsthand.

It’s up to you to provide your suggestions (with links or platforms if you have them) in the comments. Feel free to provide descriptions or plugs or caveats, but those aren’t necessary. My part is that I’ll compile the titles alphabetically into a list here in this post. I’m calling it simply “A Menu of Podcasts Recommended by Fellow ALOers.”

Thanks in advance, and bon appétit!

A Menu of Podcasts Recommended by Fellow ALOers:

[Warren Cole Smith, “Editor’s Notebook: Listening in on the World,” MinistryWatch, April 12, 2024]

[photo by Gil Medina]

Those Wordless Bracelets Might Not Be Saying What You Think They’re Saying

You’ve got plans to hold a VBS this summer in a cross-cultural or overseas context, and you’re feeling the challenges: How do you communicate effectively with kids who don’t speak English? How do you come up with activities that you can fit into a suitcase? Maybe you’ve got a limited budget or time constraints. Yet you have a sincere desire for your team to share Jesus during your trip. 

So maybe you are considering the classic go-to activity for sharing the gospel with kids from a different culture or language: the simple wordless bracelet.

You can order 12 kits for $5.99. They’re fun, they’re cute, and kids love them. Plus, the children now have a tangible reminder of the gospel, right there on their wrists, no language skills required. Perfect.

Maybe not so perfect. Sometimes cross-cultural communication is a lot more complicated than just a language barrier. This classic VBS activity might not be communicating what you think. 

Before you put wordless bracelets into your cross-cultural VBS curriculum, take a moment to consider the following thoughts.

  1. Many cultures in Asia, Africa, and South America have strong beliefs in the spirit world. In order to protect their children against evil spirits, they will often tie an amulet around their wrists. This will be a cloth, twine, or leather cord and may include a few beads. 

So when a group of religious foreigners arrive in their country and put on a children’s program and start tying bracelets around the kids’ wrists that have spiritual meaning…..

Unfortunately, you may have just given those kids a new amulet. 

  1. Languages divide up colors differently. For example, in English, we have a word for red and a word for pink (not light red!). But we say light blue and dark blue. Other languages might use the same word for blue/green or red/orange. And when a person doesn’t have a word for different colors, he might not see them as different. This is fascinating stuff – and something we need to be aware of.
  1. Other cultures assign different meanings to colors than we do. We may see green as representing growth. But in Indonesia, it’s associated with exorcism. In China, it can be associated with infidelity, and in South America it’s connected with death. White is correlated with purity in Western cultures, but in some Asian cultures, it’s a symbol of death. The children in your host culture may not understand the gospel story the way you intend to tell it if they are not making the same color associations. 
  1. Contemplate for a moment the implications of a missions team with lighter skin visiting a group of people with darker skin and telling them that black means sin and white means holiness.  
  1. The gospel presentation that goes along with wordless bracelets is grounded in a guilt/innocence paradigm, which may not be the best way for the message to make sense to the people you are trying to reach. If you are unfamiliar with what I am talking about here, check out this excellent 7 minute video on guilt/innocence, honor/shame, and fear/power worldviews. 

I realize that this list might make you feel a little uncertain about not just wordless bracelets but your entire VBS program. Because if something as simple as a colorful craft might be communicating something different than what you intended, then what does that mean about all of your other activities? So if you are feeling that tension, great! That’s a good place to be. That’s where learning and growth start.

So what should you do?

Start with some research. In the time you have available, your team needs to learn all they can about the history, customs, worldviews, and religion of the people you will be visiting. Hofstede Insights is a great resource for this. Remember–don’t assume that what works in your own country will automatically translate to another culture. 

Most importantly, before you set any plans in stone, run your entire program–teaching, activities, games, songs–past your missionary or local contact. Make it very clear that you want feedback and are open to change. Even better—if there is any way that a local person can do the teaching instead of someone on your team, make that happen! The best way for you to impact a community is to train others to do the program alongside you and then later—without you. 

For more reading about short-term missions, check out these links:

Have you considered how Your Short-Term Trip Should Be About You (And That’s Not a Bad Thing)? Perhaps what God wants to do in you during this trip is more important than the service project you are taking overseas. 

This one has a similar idea: 3 Quick Ways to Improve a Short-Term Missions Trip. How can you reframe your trip for maximum impact in your life and the team’s recipients? 

Also, Sarita Hartz’s What to Do About Short-Term Missions provides a comprehensive list of ways to prevent your team from causing more harm than help overseas. And Short-Term Missions: Is the Price Tag Worth It? offers some thought-provoking insights on ensuring we are stewarding our resources well. 

If you are an overseas worker who is hosting a team this year, then this one is for you: How to Host the Best-Ever Short-Term Team

Also, this excellent video series Helping Without Hurting in Short-Term Missions by the Chalmers Institute is extremely valuable for any church or organization that wants to prioritize short-term missions. 

You will not clear them away all at once

Deuteronomy has a good word for missionaries. You’re familiar with the setting, the Israelites were finally getting ready to enter the Promised Land after 40 long years.

In part, God said:

“No, do not be afraid of those nations, for the Lord your God is among you, and he is a great and awesome God. The Lord your God will drive those nations out ahead of you little by little. You will not clear them away all at once, otherwise the wild animals would multiply too quickly for you. But the Lord your God will hand them over to you. He will throw them into complete confusion until they are destroyed.” Deuteronomy 7:21-23

The wilderness was an in-between place for the Israelites. No longer in Egypt, God used their time in the desert to prepare them for what’s next. While you might not be in an in-between place right now, this passage contains reminders that are good to revisit.

1. Do not be afraid for the Lord your God is among you. 

God doesn’t start with the details, instead he starts at the deep heart level: do not be afraid. Why does he say not to fear? Not because what you’re facing isn’t scary, it may be very scary! You don’t need to fear because God offers the gift of his presence. You will not be alone.

2. The Lord your God will drive those nations out ahead of you. 

When you’re in an in-between place and getting ready for a new or next stage, it’s good to be reminded that you don’t have to do anything at first. Too often I think I have to go first and then God will come along once he sees that I’m “willing to do my part.” This is backwards.

3. Little by little. 

What? Little by little? What happened to great and awesome? But little by little rings true to my life and ministry. Far more true than the Hollywood version of change where there is one big, life changing moment and then the credits roll. Even for situations that seem more clear cut—I now pronounce you husband and wife, It’s a boy!, Welcome to your new cubicle—they do not, in fact come all at once. Instead they are little by little until deep roots are extended and the change has taken place.

When you enter the new phase, remember that at first, it all may feel overwhelming, unfamiliar, and even slow. But something is happening, little by little.

4. You will not clear them away all at once. 

Isn’t this phrase a relief? When we face an old temptation or think we “should” be further along than we are, God holds the long view in mind.

Why not move faster? (I’m a “faster is better person.”) Otherwise the wild animals would multiply too quickly for you. Who knows what wild animals God is protecting you from I admit that I can grow weary of a slow process, but when I think of the wild animals I am clueless about, I can lean into the slow pace with more gratitude.

This passage ends with two sentences using the word will. It will happen. You will enter a promised land. What is not promised is the how or the timing

If you’re in an in between phase, may these four reminders prepare you for the time after the in-between:

—God will be with you in the new unknown.
—God will go before you.
—The process in the new phase most likely will be little by little.
—The process may be slower than you would like.

What other scripture passages have helped prepare for what’s next when you are in a waiting phase?

A Leap Year Book Review

I was excited when I saw that you and I get to chat on this rare February 29th. A day that feels like a gift as the calendar catches up with the small moments of the last four years.

What, I wondered, would be an appropriate way for us to let the moments of the past catch up with us? How could be slow down enough to notice where we are?

And then it hit me, share with the book I’m currently in the middle of listening to. A week or so ago a friend texted me that she was listening to Karen Swallow Prior’s The Evangelical Imagination: How Stories, Images, and Metaphors Created a Culture in Crisis and wondered if I’d read it.

I hadn’t, and promptly looked to see if it was available on the Hoopla app. It was, both in ebook and audio format.

The Evangelical Imagination seems the perfect Leap Year book recommendation for three reasons:

1.  Whether you are an Evangelical or hate (hate, hate) the term, you’ll find yourself going, “I didn’t know that!” So much of what we see in religious experience and expression have roots in the Victorian age. I vacillate between being encouraged that our time is not that different than the past and saddened that our time is … not that different than the past. But through this book I am more aware of where Evangelicalism has come from and how it got to where we it is.

2. History is so interesting! If you’ve ever wondered how Christian bookstores and some of the art came to be, you’re gonna be surprised.

3. The breadth of topics covered that make up, in this case, Evangelicalism is a bit jarring. Currently, what is the main area that Evangelicalism is associated with? I don’t even have to answer because I can hear the choral response of everyone reading this: politics. Having listened to this book, I feel broader, more holistic as a person.

Since most reading this are Christians, you’ll understand yourself and either why you do or view things as you practice your faith. Or understand why you did not do something. The chapter on the history (and evolution) of the “testimony” was one where I realized why, personally, I have always been out of step with the Evangelical way of “give a testimony.” But before this book, I couldn’t have put words to it. Now I can.

Leap year is a slightly unexpected invitation to stop, and pay attention to the waters we’re all swimming, allowing for little bits of culture to catch up to our conscious awareness.

If you’ve always been a church history fan, you’re going to love this book.

If you’ve thrown your hands up whenever you hear the word, “evangelical”, you’re going to be surprised by this book.

If you’re looking for a fellow traveler who looks back to help us all move forward, this book is for you.

Get The Evangelical Imagination by Karen Swallow Prior.

When the “Perfect!” Fit Isn’t

There seems to be an awful lot of Perfect! going on these days, at least in my part of the world. I told my server at a restaurant that I wanted fries and steamed broccoli to go with my entree. “Perfect!” he said. A nurse read off my blood pressure. “Perfect!” again. When I offered 8:30 as a possible time for an appointment, I heard “Perfect!” over the phone.

And then I was at a hotel not long ago and saw an advertisement for “Perfect Pizza.” I really, really wanted to run up to the hostess and yell, Elf-style, “You did it! Congratulations! The perfect pizza! Great job everybody! It’s great to meet you!”

I know it’s just a trendy shorthand for “good” or “fine” or “sounds OK to me,” but Perfect! sure bumps things up a notch. It sounds so comforting, so . . . exciting. And while it’s not my go-to expression (“Great!” is my over-the-top adjective of choice), I still see myself hoping for perfection, and wanting to claim it when I think I’ve found it.

For instance, “Please, Lord, bless us with just the right apartment, in just the right quiet neighborhood, with just the right opportunities for outreach, with just the right distance from the preschool and bus stop, and just the right rent for our budget” is like something I might have prayed while we were looking for a new place to live overseas. And when we’d found a new home that checked all the boxes, we’d declare it a Perfect! fit and would tell our supporters as much in our next newsletter.

A Perfect! fit.

Pardon the detour, but have you heard of “wire electrical discharge machining”? At some point I came across videos of wire EDM, a method of cutting metal so precisely that it’s considered to have “zero tolerance.” Here’s an example. (I could watch these videos all day.)

I think this is often the kind of “basically air-tight” perfection that we’re looking for when we make our plans. But then our hopes are so easily dashed. The street in front of our apartment ends up being a popular parade route, the neighbors are distrustful of foreigners, the preschool isn’t taking new students, the bus line changes its route, or the rent goes up after the first month. It turns out that this isn’t the exact fit we were looking for. So instead of us and our surroundings going together like machined-metal puzzle pieces, we feel more like the proverbial square pegs in round holes.

But these pegs and holes aren’t made out of carbide, and that’s a good thing. While God can miracle rigid pieces together perfectly and instantly, that’s not been my experience or what I’ve seen happen to others. Instead, it’s a much more organic process than that. We’re more like branches, growing in a new environment, clicking, clacking, and rubbing against other branches—people, languages, expectations, customs, foods, climates, communities, schedules, traditions. . . . Over time, the bark wears off, a little from us, a little from them, and we’re smoothed into a fit that’s not Perfect! but beautiful.

It’s a beauty that’s revealed by accepting natural forms that twist and turn into each other, that sand down rough edges, that show scars and bends and gaps telling a wonderfully patinaed story. And the result of that story is a growing together that alters us and them, so that if we’re ever separated, someone looking on might wonder what brought about that strange shape in us, might ask what caused the odd changes where we were.

Now I’m not saying that we should give up on our hopes and prayers or that we should simply accept whatever comes our way. (Some things are not only imperfect, they’re simply unacceptable!) No, I’m suggesting that we hope and pray for something better than the Perfect! location, the Perfect! contact, the Perfect! connection, the Perfect! event, or the Perfect! method.

And in so doing, we’ll learn to hold our plans more loosely. We’ll learn to pray more “Your will be done.” We’ll learn to seek and assert less Perfect! and look for more God-blessed serendipity. We’ll learn that while that apartment will never be what we’d hoped for, it can become the place that makes us feel at home. Over time, we’ll learn to make more room for Unpredicted! and Wonderful! and Challenging! and Sufficient! and Flawed! and Lovely! and Unexpected! We’ll learn to find the splendor of God moving gracefully in imperfection.

[photo: “A few pieces are still out of place,” by Timothy Krause, used under a Creative Commons license]

This is What Courage Looks Like

Sandy was raising support, and she was stuck. She had exhausted all of her contacts – friends, relatives, acquaintances. She had contacted all of the churches where she knew someone, and had reached out to dozens of other churches with no response. Yet she was still far away from that elusive 100% funding goal. 

So she tried a different strategy. Each Sunday morning, she would pick out a church to attend – cold turkey – not knowing a solitary soul.  She would show up at this church where she knew no one, look for a friendly face, strike up a conversation with this complete stranger, and ask if this person could connect her with a pastor or missions leader. 

Sandy is an introvert. She is warm and confident but not the kind of person who especially enjoys entering new churches and striking up conversations with strangers. But she did it because she had to. She was determined to get to the country where God had called her and was ready to do whatever it took.

I was Sandy’s coach during her support-raising season. When she described this to me, my mouth gaped open and my eyes bugged out. All I knew was that I didn’t think I’d ever have the guts to do what she was doing, Sunday after Sunday. This took resolve. This took courage. 

I thought about my own support-raising journey. My husband and I would “divide and conquer” in our support-raising tasks. I wrote the newsletters and thank-you notes; he wrote the sermons. He fixed the printer when I was about to throw it out the window. And having him by my side every time I entered a new church gave me a measure of security.

I coach many single missionary women who are raising support, and they don’t get to delegate these tasks. If they hate public speaking, they don’t have a spouse to pass that off to. If they aren’t good at technology, they still have to figure it out themselves. When their pitch is rejected, there isn’t a partner by their side to share the burden. 

We laud the courage of single missionary women when they single-handedly figure out how to exterminate a rat invasion, stop the flood seeping into their house, or replace a blown-out tire. But we don’t often recognize the additional demands of everything they must do to build a support network on their own.

I realize that much of this could also apply to single men. However, I believe that single women often face unique challenges in earning others’ respect and attention – in foreign cultures, on their missionary teams, and in the churches of their home country. 

As I walk with these women on their journey to the mission field, I brim with tremendous admiration for their grit, perseverance, and resiliency. The truth is, most of these women would love to be married with a family. For many of them, it’s their deepest heart’s desire. Yet they are steadfast in obedience while they trust the Lord with their futures. 

This is what courage looks like. 

Do you have a single female missionary in your life? Probably more than anyone else, they need advocates to raise their support. Maybe that could be you. 

Could this cost me my “job?”

Friends, I (Amy) have been asked to present a workshop in late February called “Issues missionaries are dealing with that you’re not talking about.” In my description for the workshop I said, “Let’s talk about the things we normally avoid: sex, politics, and changing culture.” 

I could guess at some of this, but I wanted to ask you so that I can say, “Hey, here are real answers from real people.” I also like compiled results because it gives us a broader perspective than the little patch of grass that we each are standing on.

So far 170 people have taken the survey and themes are emerging, but I won’t dig into deeper analysis until the survey is closed.

Sometimes the way we tend our soul is by naming out loud what we fear or wonder about. These are not the type of topics that probably you can (or should) share publicly, but they do need to be given voice. Several people have commented that simply being asked these questions and given space to reflect on them has been helpful. That is my hope for you too.

This survey is 100% anonymous and open for a few more days; we will close it at the end of January. Thank you for sharing what you’re dealing with that maybe you haven’t been able to talk about out of fear for what might happen. I will share the findings with you and hopefully we can all learn from each other. Thank you, thank you. 

You can take the survey here.

Behold the Beautiful Tension at the End of a Year

Hello friend,

The end of a year can hold a beautiful tension, if we let it. Coming off of Advent and the annual reorienting to and celebration of Jesus’s birth, we enter muddied water. I call it muddied because of the minor clash of calendars: New Year (based on the Gregorian calendar) and Christmas Time (until January 6th and Epiphany based on the liturgical calendar).

Five years ago, I created a year-end reflecting packet for cross-cultural workers. (You can see it here.)

It has become a holy exercise for me (and others, but I am speaking for myself). I wish I had started doing it years ago because of the depth and space it creates in my soul. It turns out this annual practice mirrors that tension that we see reflected in the Bible: reflecting and preparing. 

How often is the phrase “The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” used? Or the call to remember? It’s as if God knows that left on our own, many of us would never look back. Likewise, how often does God reference the future generations, pointing to what’s coming next? God models how we can lean into the tension that reflecting and preparing offers us.

Though we live in this tension of the past and the future all the time, this is the time of year we are acutely aware of it. This holy invitation of reflecting has given me three gifts:

1. The ability to see themes and patterns in a year. Often in a day, week, or month, I might miss the bigger story. But when I step back, I can see things I forgot or hadn’t put together. Often, I realize that a little course correction in my thinking needs to occur. Perhaps the year wasn’t as bad, boring, or hard as I’d been thinking.. I notice God’s hand in meaningful ways.

2. The relationship between naming and honoring. Making a list or answering a few questions doesn’t seem that it would do that much. But for me, as I reflect on the year and answer questions about it, I picture myself like Adam and God in naming the animals. God and I name the good, bad, and ugly of the year. When someone says, “Hey, you” versus “Hey, Amy,” and smiles, it’s a small thing, that conveys honor. By naming my year, I’m honoring what happened (or didn’t happen) and the way God has used it to form me.

3. Processing, annoyingly, is important. I’m the kind of person that would rather not process because I don’t like to be slowed down from my doing. I love doing 😊. But here’s the paradox, processing is like preparing a field. If I just run around tossing seeds, the chances of a crop coming to life is slim. However, if I take time to pull out the dead plants, till up the earth a bit, and plant the seeds, guess what? More are likely to grow. So, for those of you who find reflecting and processing “not your thing” – tie them to what is your thing. Since I love doing, processing helps me actually do more of what’s important to me.

Herb Lamp said, “Without reflection, we lose the ability to see God at work in our lives. Without reflection, we lose perspective in regard to our lives and ministries. Without reflection, we lose the awareness that God is with us and not against us. Without reflection, we lose the sense of joyful delight that each day should bring.” 

(Journey with Me: Spiritual Formation for Global Workers, 57)

I titled this Behold the Beautiful Tension at the End of a Year because whether the Liturgical or Gregorian calendar, the beautiful tension is an invitation to reflect and prepare. If you’re interested in the Global Trellis packet, you can find it here. You don’t have to use year end packet prepared by Global Trellis, but I do hope you have a way to reflect this time of year.

With blessing,


Mom and Dad, Thanks for Letting Us Go without Letting Go of Us


My wife and I wrote this “open letter” nearly 19 years ago, in honor of our parents and the parents of other cross-cultural workers. We originally published it in our newsletter after my father died (and I later posted it on my blog). Nineteen years is a long time, so I thought about updating it, but I’ve decided to leave it as it is, with one exception. Apropos of this time of year, I’ve added the line “Thank you for missing us when we miss holiday gatherings.” I hope this resonates with you and yours.

Dear Mom and Dad:

Thank you for raising us to know about God and his love for the world.

Thank you for letting us go without letting go of us.

Thank you for forgiving late birthday cards.

Thank you for praying for us.

Thank you for giving up time with your grandchildren.

Thank you for your e-mails and letters and calls.

Thank  you for sending Barbie Dolls, Tic Tacs, Koolaid, socks, Reader’s Digests, and Lucky Charms cereal.

Thank you for your questions about our new home and work.

Thank you for being patient and understanding when we tell you how exciting it is to live in another part of the world.

Thank you for being patient and understanding when, two days later, we complain about living in that same place.

Thank you for not making us feel selfish for wanting to go.  Sometimes we feel that way on our own.

Thank you for listening to our stories about people you’ll never meet with names you can’t pronounce.

Thank you for being our ambassadors.

Thank you for sending clippings from our hometown newspaper.

Thank you for telling us about our neighbors, classmates, and cousins—all the stories that don’t make the news.

Thank you for letting our brothers and sisters stand in for us when we’re too far away to do our part in the family. (They really should get their own letter.)

Thank you for missing us when we miss holiday gatherings.

Thank you for loving us.

Thank you for trusting Jesus to take care of us when you can’t.

Thank you for being proud of us. We are proud of you.

We chose to be a missionary family, not you, and we understand that our move has meant many sacrifices for you. You are not only a part of our family but an invaluable part of our team.

With all our love,

Your children

[photo by Brant Copen]

Digging in the Dirt, a new book from Jonathan Trotter, is now available!

Hello, all!

I am so excited to announce the release of my new book! It’s called Digging in the Dirt: Musings on Missions, Emotions, and Life in the Mud, and you can find print and Kindle versions here.

Digging in the Dirt contains some of my most heartfelt writings, and addresses things ranging from depression and anxiety, to TCKs and what flying taught me about missions.

It addresses married sexuality on the field, as well as what to do when the thief steals and the power goes out. It’s got some poetry, some top ten lists, and some laments. It’s also got some seeds of hope, and it is my deepest desire that it would encourage and bless folks all over the globe.

I’ll post the text from the back cover and the preface below.

I’m so grateful for the community here, and I’m grateful for my editor, our very own Elizabeth Trotter! Have a wonderful weekend, and may the love and peace of God be very near to you and yours!

all for ONE,

Jonathan Trotter


From the back cover:

Welcome to ground level, to the dirt and the mess.

We like the mountain tops and the sunshine. We like green grass under a clear blue sky. We like victory and breakthrough and answered prayers. But sometimes it rains, the shadows deepen, and life turns muddy. Sometimes God seems quiet. What then? What happens when depression descends, or anxiety hangs like a sword overhead? What happens when loneliness suffocates, the thief steals more than stuff, and you get blood on your shoes?

In Digging in the Dirt, Jonathan Trotter delves into the disasters, the darkness, and the deluge, and he offers comfort, presence, and a gentle invitation to hope.

With humor and prose, with poetry and Top Ten lists, Jonathan welcomes us to the dirt, to the places where we actually live. He invites us to boldly see life as it is, with eyes wide open, and reminds us that even when the digging is scary, we are never alone.

To the ones who are dealing with devastation and distress, welcome. To the ones who need to uproot, to pull out, to clear ground, welcome. To the ones who seek desperately to plant seeds of grace and hope in once barren soil, welcome. To the missionary abroad and the believer at home, welcome. Receive the invitation, and join with Jonathan here at ground level, together.

Come, dig in the dirt.

From the preface:

Hello and Welcome!

I’m Jonathan, and it’s such a pleasure to meet you. I look forward to journeying with you through these pages. Together, we’ll delve into the dirt of life and relationships, of sorrows, pain, and loss. And maybe we’ll plant some things too.

Perhaps, along the way, we’ll see small, green stalks of life and hope begin to poke through, watered with the tears of the journey. Digging like this can be messy, but it can be good too.

These musings will meander from the hot dirt of Cambodia to the sticky mud of American politics. Some of these musings are inspired by international missionary life; some of them are firmly rooted in an American context. But whether you’re American or not, whether you’re a missionary or not, I hope that you find them all a blessing, an encouragement, and perhaps sometimes a challenge. I wrote them for you, and I share them with you with my whole heart.

Start reading Digging in the Dirt wherever you’d like, and feel free to skip ahead or go backwards. Are you a cross-cultural missionary? Start there if you want. Are you interested in developing emotional intelligence, or are you exploring whether or not Christians are allowed to have feelings? Consider starting in the Emotions section. Are you reeling from recent life events that have left you feeling like you’re choking on the mud and muck? First of all, I’m so sorry. Second, breathe a slow, deep breath, look over the Table of Contents, and start wherever you need to start.

Wherever you are, and whatever your story, welcome to ground level, to the dirt. It is here that the real work happens; the good, hard, sweet, healing work. It is my deepest hope that here, among these musings, you may find grace, peace, and a hope that just might be strong enough to crack through the crust.

All for ONE,
Jonathan Trotter


Check it out on Amazon here!

*Amazon affiliate links help support the work of A Life Overseas

It’s okay to be happy this Advent

I listened to the audio version of The Preacher’s Wife by Kate Bowler. While the book focuses on America and the “Precarious Power of Evangelical Women Celebrities,” I was struck by the pendulum swings of what worked in one era, sounded tone deaf in another.

In acknowledgement of our own pendulum swings, I find that currently most online spaces for cross-cultural workers emphasize the hard parts of being a cross-cultural worker. Which, I know, is in response to those hard parts not being given any space. This swing was a needed course correction. But as with many a course correction, the hyper focus on the hard parts of life on the field may not leave enough space for another story to coexist.

As I thought about my post this month, the book of Psalms came to mind. I love the richness of life represented by the different types of psalms and the variety of lengths.

So, in the spirit of Psalm 117, the shortest psalm, I remind us of this truth: life on the field can be confusing, disappointing, and hard. 

It is also true that on the field is interesting, exciting, and easy.

Part of happiness is comes from building pauses to that give space to notice. Here are a few options for cross-cultural workers to pause in Advent this year.

You do not have to hide your happiness. It is okay to be happy on the field.