It’s the Week Before You Move Overseas. What Are You Feeling?

It’s the week before you move overseas. What are you feeling?

Everything. You are feeling everything. 

Excitement: This is finally happening!

Fear: What was I thinking? I can’t do this!

Guilt: Every time my mom looks at me, she starts crying. How can I do this to her?

Focused: If I put more books in my carry-on, I can squeeze in an extra five pounds of chocolate chips. Let’s do this.

Worried: What if I oversleep and am late to the airport? What if I lose my passport? What if my bags are too heavy at the airport and they make me rearrange everything? What if I throw up? I really might throw up.

Stressed: Fourteen friends stopped by today to say goodbye, but all I can think about is that I need to buy my daughter one more pair of sandals in the next size. Oh, and this suitcase is hovering at 52 pounds. Something’s got to come out, and it might send me over the edge. 

Peaceful: I’ve never been more sure of anything in my life. I’m fulfilling my calling!

Sad: Every time I look at my mom, I start crying. How can I say goodbye for two years?

Grumpy: My children keep asking for lunch. Don’t they know I have to find room for these chocolate chips? 

Exhausted: I woke up at 5 this morning with a racing heart. After I fell asleep at midnight with a racing heart. 

Overwhelmed: That’s an understatement.

When that country was but a dream in your head, when you went through the application process, raised support, even applied for a visa – it all was hypothetical. But when it gets down to those final weeks and days, this is when it really gets real.

You sell your house and move in with your parents. You put your life’s memories out on the lawn, and you watch strangers carry away your furniture and your wedding presents. You hand over your house key, your work key, your car key, until all you have left is an empty, lonely key ring. You read the church bulletin and realize that you won’t be participating in that upcoming women’s retreat, that prayer meeting, that picnic. Life will go on without you, and suddenly, you feel as empty and lonely as your key ring. 

Pieces of your life crumble away around you as you squish the remnants into four 50-pound suitcases. It feels as if your life has become very small, and the foundation is gone, and you might as well be flying into outer space. 

The reality of leaving the people you love becomes tangible. Whether your family is supportive or not, you’re absorbing their grief. If you have young kids, they may be throwing fits or bedwetting or stuttering or acting more whiny than usual. But your mind isn’t stuffed full of just emotions, but also details. You can’t sit and process your feelings because you’ve got to think about visas, packing, tickets, covid tests. If the intensity feels extreme, it’s because it is. 

Don’t be surprised if you fall apart, finding yourself weeping under the covers. Don’t be surprised if you just go numb, completely overwhelmed to the point of being unable to feel anything. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself overly angry, overly anxious, overly nauseous. 

Having been there many times myself, this is what I want you to remember:

Don’t be surprised. The intensity of the emotions you are experiencing is normal, and will likely continue to intensify until you get on that plane. But it will have an end. Hang in there. It will have an end. 

Breathe. Make lists. Ask for help. 

Ask someone else to occupy your kids, preferably away from the house. The last thing your kids need is to be in the middle of the packing chaos and emotionally charged air. Get someone to take them to Chuck E. Cheese. Everyone will be much happier. 

Prioritize who you spend time with. Rank your friends. (See #6 of Jerry Jones’ tips. Actually, all of his tips are great.)

Give yourself grace. Give your kids grace. Give your mom grace. There’s no easy way through this; you just have to plow forward. It doesn’t get easier the second time, either, or any time after that. The only thing that gets easier is that you will know what to expect, and you will know it’s temporary. 

Breathe. God led you this far; He’s going to see you through. 

*Feelings chart by Rebekah Ballagh.

When you’re not sure what to pray for your organization

When I first went to the field I didn’t know how strong my relationship with my organization was going to be. I had no idea I would stay on the field as long as I did and that the next two decades were going to be so formative for the rest of my life.

So, it’s not surprising to hear that in those early days I prayed for my organization . . . sort of. My teammate and I prayed for “leaders” and “decisions they made.” As the years passed and I grew to know the names of the leaders—both on the field and in the home office—I could pray more specifically. But if I’m honest, I can’t say that I prayed as faithfully or as reflectively as I could.

Any organization is clearly made up of more than “leaders” and “decisions they make.”

Whether you’re with an organization or not, we all know of organizations and people who are in organizations. We’re all impacted by organizations—often for the good, sometimes for the less-than-good, and at times for the bad.

Eugene Peterson in On Living Well has this to say about growth (I bet you thought I was going to say prayer! Read what he said and think about how growth and prayer are related):

Christian growth, like any kind of growth, needs to be in continuous touch with the sources of its nourishment. If it develops more activity than its roots can support, it loses productivity. If it initiates activity that has no basis in its roots, it will wither quickly, to be replaced the next week by another cut-flower fad.

What struck me—both for growth and prayer—is the importance of roots. Of course this makes sense, but every now and then it’s good to circle back to the obvious and camp there for a moment.

Your ultimate roots are in God, not an organization you are with or may work with. One of the ways we can do this is through prayer for organizations. A common question for business owners is “do you make time to work on your business or do you only work in it?”

Life can be so full and loud and the urgent is often knocking at the door. If we’re not intentional, we can become like the business owner responds to the needs of the day and works faithfully in and rarely on the calling of her business.

I don’t want to just to just talk about prayer, but give you a few ideas and then time to pray for an organization you love.

1. Is there anything you fuss or worry about in your organization? Since your mind is already ruminating on that area, start there. Instead of pretending it doesn’t annoy you, be honest about it and pour your thoughts, concerns, and grievances out to God. (You just might be surprised how you change in the process too.)

2. This A Life Overseas article Let us pray for each other contains four scriptures to guide your prayer. You can adapt it to praying for your organization.

3. Global Trellis has adapted the Examen to lead you specifically through praying for your organization. You can read the Examen and the adaptation here or download the resource here.

If you’re new to the field, my hope and prayer is that this article will help you pray “better” (is there such a thing?) than I did when I moved to the field. And if you’re further along in your journey on the field that this will be used by the Holy Spirit to nudge you to pray for your organization this week.

May our prayer roots grow deeper. Amen and amen.

Photo by Olivia Snow on Unsplash

Excess Baggage: The Weight of Unmet Expectations

In the five years since Andrea Sears conducted her survey on missionary attrition, she’s been steadily analyzing and releasing the results, topic by topic. Late last year at her Missions Experience blog, she posted the data on how “expectations factors” affect missionaries’ decisions to leave the field. Her findings show that at least half of the former missionaries surveyed “experienced disconnects between their expectations and reality” in the five areas of

team members, reported by 62%
community, 58%
relationships back home, 54%
ministry results, 52%
job responsibilities, 50%

And in looking at how unmet expectations contributed to the respondents’ attrition, she finds the top four factors to be

team members, reported by 65%
job responsibilities, 64%,
community, 61%
family life, 56%

These findings are interesting in and of themselves, but they remind me of the results of another survey, one that formed the basis of Expectations and Burnout: Women Surviving the Great Commission, by Sue Eenigenburg and Robynn Bliss (a past contributor to this blog). In their book, published in 2010, the two take a deep dive into the role expectations play in navigating cross-cultural work. In 2013, I referenced their work when I wrote about the topic of expectations at my blog.

I’ve been thinking a lot about expectations lately and hope to address it here in the coming months. To start, I’d like to repost my article below, in a slightly edited form. It originally appeared under the title “Missionaries, Don’t Let Your Expectations Weigh You Down“:

I remember the good old days when you could pack 70 pounds into each of your two checked bags on international flights—at no extra cost. That meant that when our family of six moved overseas, we could take 840 pounds of clothes, books, sheets, cake mixes, and the like. And we used just about every ounce of it.

It could be argued that we didn’t need to take that much with us, but we’re Americans, after all, and we Americans don’t often pack light. I’ve traveled with people from other countries, and even on short trips, I invariably seem to end up lugging the largest pieces of luggage. What if there’s a pool nearby? Better bring swimming trunks, and a towel. What if it snows? What if I spill something on my Friday jeans? What if I need work shoes? What if somebody throws a formal party?

There’s also another set of luggage that cross-cultural workers tend to overpack. It’s the bags that hold our assumptions, our plans, . . . our expectations.

In 2010, Sue Eenigenburg and Robynn Bliss surveyed 323 female missionaries on how their expectations corresponded to reality on the mission field. The results form the backbone of their excellent book Expectations and Burnout: Women Surviving the Great Commission. What they found is that our pre-field predictions often don’t measure up to our on-field experiences. (I say “our” because though the book is written for and about women, most of its insights and lessons easily apply to both sexes.)

The authors gave the women a list of 34 expectations and asked them to rate each one on the degree to which it applied to them. Then the respondents went back and evaluated the list against what actually came to be in their lives as missionaries.

In 14 of the areas, the women reported that their expectations exceeded what they found in real life. The 10 with the highest percentage of expectations greater than reality include some very deep, personal issues:

75.4% Am fruitful
70.4% Am a prayer warrior
67.6% Am growing spiritually continually
62.7% Am spiritually dynamic
65.8% Continually trust God for everything
57.5% Have a daily quiet time
56.5% Have a successful quiet time
56% Am well balanced in areas of ministry in and out of home
55.1% Have miraculous stories to tell of how God is using me
50.9% Embrace my new host culture

The disconnect between expectations and reality often leads to disappointment and guilt. And as the authors point out, this can lead to burnout. It is difficult to move steadily forward when we are dragged down by the weight of our overpacked luggage.

So how can we pack less? How can we lighten our load? Here are some suggestions.

  • Read fewer biographies. Read more people.
    Stories about missionaries can be very inspirational, but when inspiration is the main goal, they can often leave out the flaws and shortcomings. When we assume that real missionaries are superhuman, then we are discouraged when we don’t measure up. That’s why we need to have honest conversations to find out the good and the bad, the easy and the hard. But not everyone will give you the unvarnished truth. It usually takes time to earn someone’s trust. And you’ll need to ask questions that get people rethinking their responses, to speak beyond the safe and familiar answers. Try asking a missionary, “What do you wish you’d known before you moved overseas?” “What have you learned?” “What would you tell yourself as a younger missionary candidate if you could?” “What are some of your unmet expectations?” (For other examples, see the questions asked of missionaries in Eenigenburg and Bliss’s survey, printed in the appendix of their book.)
  • And when you read, read between and outside the lines.
    As Eenigenburg and Bliss discuss, too many books on the lives of past missionaries paint a picture of spiritual perfection. One of the best-known missionary legacies is that of William Carey, who is often called “the father of modern missions.” In 1792, a sermon he delivered gave us the words, “Expect great things; attempt great things.” But I doubt that all of his expectations were met in his later life as a missionary in India. During that time a five-year-old son died; his wife, Dorothy, suffered from severe mental illness, became delusional, and died at the age of 51; his second wife died at 60; and his son Felix, after becoming a missionary himself, suffered tragedy and walked away from God. In Expectations and Burnout, the authors discuss this aspect of Carey, citing James R. Beck’s book, Dorothy Carey: The Tragic and Untold Story of Mrs. William Carey. Beck writes that Carey has often been portrayed as “never discouraged and never complaining” but adds that he wrote in his journal, “I don’t love to be always complaining—yet I always complain. The context for “Expect great things; attempt great things” is the life and work of Carey, not a Pinterest board or a poster of a snow-capped mountain range. But just as some books—and missionaries—are only completely positive, some can be entirely negative. Be cautious in drawing conclusions based on either side. But when you hear what sounds like cynicism and despair, be slow to judge. Context is important here, too. Find out the whole story. And don’t say, “That will never happen to me . . . not with my faith, my preparation, and my plans.”

Before you seat out for the field, prepare thoroughly and pack carefully. When it comes to packing your expectations, it isn’t just about seeing how much you can get into a suitcase and still get the zipper closed. It’s also about being discerning and knowing what to leave behind.

But you don’t want to go empty-handed, either. Hopes, dreams, and plans are important. Don’t forget your underwear and socks. And if you’ve got room, you might want to take that swimsuit, too. Just in case.

(Andrea Sears, “Expectations Factors,” The Missions Experience,” October 14, 2021; Sue Eenigenburg and Robynn Bliss, Expectations and Burnout: Women Surviving the Great Commission, William Carey, 2010; “Expect Great Things; Attempt Great Things,” Center for Study of the Life and Work of William Carey, D. D. [1761-1834], updated November 22, 2013)

[photo: “Heavy Luggage,” by Maurice Koop, used under a Creative Commons license]

Let’s review being incarnational

Last weekend I taught a two hour seminar to writers on “Becoming an Incarnational Writer.” The point of the workshop is to help writers think about their readers and not just the words they wrote. In my pre-field training we looked at the incarnation as a model for how we could enter into our new host cultures.

It was good stuff! But I thought I knew far more than I actually did. How hard can this incarnational stuff be when you go in the name of Christ and carry good news? Right? (Ha, oh sweet ignorant Amy.)

Incarnation means “was made flesh.” In particular, that God was made flesh and entered humanity as Jesus. Whether you are preparing to go to the field, in your first term, or been on the field for a lifetime, what do you notice about the incarnation from these key phrases from scriptures:

“The word became flesh and dwelt among us.” John 1:14

“In the fullness of time God sent forth his son.” Galatians 4:4-5

“Christ came into the world that he might save sinners . . . Christ might display his immense patience as an example.” 1 Timothy 1:15-17

He comes “lowly and riding on a donkey.” Zechariah 9;9

“He humbled himself by becoming obedient, even to the point of death.” Phillpians 2:8




What stood out to you? I was struck again by how integral dwelling and humility are to an incarnational approach . . . and how long they take!

Humility means to “have or show a modest or low estimate of your own importance.” Because this is read in so many locations and by such a wide range of experiences, no one way to be humble exists that is the same for each of us. But the work of having a low estimate of our own importance starts internally and is manifested externally.

It also works not only in your host country, but in your passport country too. Many A Life Overseas readers may not actually be living overseas as you read this. Perhaps COVID or family needs or visa policies have brought you to a land that you do not feel deserves the humble touch. You may be right, I don’t know. But I do know that incarnational living isn’t just for when we go to the field.

Which brings me to the second core concept that stood out to me: dwell. Being incarnational involves dwelling. I found three definitions that helped unpack what true dwelling involves:

—to live in or at a specified place

—to linger on

—to think, speak, or write at length about

What convicted me was not that concept of dwelling, but the focus of my dwelling. Maybe it’s the same for you. What do you linger on in your thoughts? What do you chew on in your conversations like a cow with her cud? Venting is fine! Having real emotions and reactions to hard situations is healthy and good. But choosing to dwell instead of process and move on is perhaps not the patience or obedience of incarnation.

Here are five principles or nuggets I noticed about the incarnation that I hope encourage you:

1. Jesus was a helpless baby. He started out as a baby! We do not have to know everything. Whew :)!

2. Jesus grew at the same rate as everyone. It’s true that he was teaching others at the ripe old age of twelve. You too will have some areas you excel in. But overall being incarnational means that you too will have to “work the program.” You’ll have to grow and achieve step-by-step.

3. Jesus built community. He had family, friends, and co-workers.

4. Jesus communed with God. We know that Jesus pulled away and spent time with God. Building community and spending time with God need to both exist in an incarnational life.

5. Finally, Jesus stayed focused on his “assignment.” Just like us, Jesus had many opportunities vying for his time such as healing the sick, addressing political messes, instructing the masses, building furniture, and on and on. While he did all of those things when the intersected with his God given assignment, they were never out of proportion in his life.

As you’ve read this post and thought about your own incarnational experience, and in particular wherever you happen to be right now, what stood out to you?

Photo by Olivier Chatel on Unsplash

Missionary Stories and Hymn Stories: Saying “Amen” to “Depth and Complication”

“British missionary William Carey is often called the father of modern missions,” writes Rebecca Hopkins in Christianity Today. “Adoniram Judson has been titled the first American missionary to travel overseas.”

And for many of us, that pretty much sums up the origin of missions in the West. But Rebecca has more to tell us in “How Black Missionaries Are Being Written Back into the Story,” as she adds in Rebecca Protten and George Liele. Why are they notable? Because both left America and planted churches before Carey or Judson went out—Protten to St. Thomas and later present-day Ghana, and Liele to Jamaica—and both were former slaves.

If Protten’s and Liele’s names are new to you, grab the January/February issue of CT to read their stories, stories that, as Rebecca writes, “add depth and complication to the sometimes too-simple narrative of missions history.” Depth, because of the inclusion of Black Christians that sit outside the traditional narrative of the White American church. Complication, because Protten and Liele were not “commissioned” and “sent out” in the traditional sense, and because questions remain as to how complicit they were in the evils of their day—Protten in regards to “cultural genocide” and Liele in regards to slavery.

I like the phrase “depth and complication.” Too often we Christians find comfort in our “too-simple narratives,” leaving out difficult details, and leaving out people, as well.

Rebecca’s article and that phrase were in the back of my mind a few weeks ago (pardon me while I go on a stream-of-consciousness trek here) when I heard on the radio the end of an interview with the African-American composer Thomas Dorsey. I looked up more on Dorsey, known as the “Father of Soul Music,” and here’s what I found.

The son of a Baptist preacher and church organist, Dorsey started his musical career as a blues piano player, often performing in bars and brothels, and later toured with the “Mother of the Blues,” Gertrude “Ma” Rainey. Then in 1921, after attending the National Baptist Convention, he committed himself to writing gospel music. But it wasn’t a full commitment, as he didn’t completely turn his back on the blues culture of the time, which included “dirty blues,” risqué songs filled with double entendres. It was in this genre that he cowrote his most popular blues piece, the hit “It’s Tight like That.” As Dorsey tried to introduce his bluesy gospel songs in churches, his mixing of the secular and holy rankled many preachers. And as Dorsey tells Steven Kaplan in Horizon, he believed preachers felt upstaged by his music. “I got kicked out of some of the best churches in town,” he says.

He found a better welcome in Ebenezer Baptist Church, where, in 1931, he helped establish the first gospel choir. But it was the next year when his life truly changed, resulting in his writing the classic gospel song “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.” Following is the story, told by Dorsey in the documentary, Say Amen, Somebody. It takes place after he had travelled to St. Louis, while his wife remained in South Chicago:

Anyway, I was in a revival, and my wife was to become a mother. I went away with a feeling that she’d make a lovely, lovely mother when I came back. I knew my people were well when I left home. And they sent for me to come to the door. As a boy brought me in a telegram, I took it and read it, almost fell out . . . says “Hurry home. Your wife just died.” I don’t know how you would accept that. I couldn’t accept it at all. And a friend of mine put me in a car, took me right home. I got home. I jumped out and ran in to see if it was really true. And one of the girls just started crying, said, “Netty just died! Netty just died! Netty just died!” and fell on the floor. The baby was left alive, but the next two days, the baby died!

Now what should I do then and there? And then they tried to tell me things that would sooth . . . be soothing to me. But none of it’s never been soothing to me, from that day to this day. But two fellows come by, I forget their names. They were friends of mine. And they were telling me about it and I says “I don’t know what to do and I don’t know how to do.” And I just tried to make my little talk to the Lord, but it was wasted I think. And I called the Lord some one thing and one of the others says, “No, that’s not his name, say, ‘Precious Lord.'” I said, “That does sounds good,” and . . . got several Amens on precious Lord. And ladies and gentlemen, believe it or not, I started singing right then and there. . . .

And he bursts into the chorus of his most famous song.

I’d never heard that story told before, had you? But if you’re like me, you have heard a story that includes another couple from Chicago, deaths in the family, a telegram, and a church song. It’s about Horatio and Anna Spafford, dedicated Presbyterians and friends of the evangelist, Dwight L. Moody. In 1873, following the devastation of the Great Chicago Fire and after some personal financial setbacks, the Spaffords decided to take some time away in France. Anna and their four daughters went ahead, with Horatio to follow. While the five were crossing the Atlantic, their ship collided with another and sank. All of their children drowned, and the telegram Anna sent to Horatio began, “Saved alone what shall I do.” Weeks later, as he crossed the Atlantic himself to be with Anna, Horatio passed by the spot of his children’s deaths, and that evening he penned the words that became the famous hymn “It Is Well with My Soul.” It begins,

When peace like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well with my soul.

It is well (it is well),
With my soul (with my soul),
It is well, it is well with my soul.

This is where the hymn’s origin-story ends, but not the story of the Spaffords. Three years later, with changing views that put them in conflict with their church, Horatio and Anna formed a new congregation, with Horatio at the helm. He taught that the members of the church, which he considered the true bride of Christ, were to forsake all worldly attachments.

Then, in 1881, the Spaffords, with their two young children, born after the tragedy at sea, led fourteen others to relocate to Jerusalem to await Christ’s return. The group, dubbed the “Overcomers,” became well known for its works of charity, helping those in need, regardless of their religious affiliation, and making no effort to proselytize. But word of their beliefs and lifestyle also spread. Each member was given a new name, and all lived communally in a compound. Education for the children was considered unnecessary. And celibacy was required. While the group considered Horatio the leader and his wife a prophet, Anna became more and more vocal and her power came to usurp her husband’s. After his death, she became even more controlling. Marriage in the group was abolished, with Anna matching up couples to spend nights together in bed to train them in resisting temptation.

Over time, the sect grew, including new members from Sweden. It was this group’s emigration that inspired Selma Lagerlöf to write her novel Jerusalem, based in part on what she learned spending time at the American Colony, as the commune was called. For her body of writing, Lagerlöf later became the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. The main building where the group lived still stands and is now The American Colony Hotel. If you’d like to learn more about the Spaffords and their Jerusalem church, you can read Jane Fletcher Geniesse’s American Priestess: The Extraordinary Story of Anna Spafford and the American Colony in Jerusalem, from which much of this information is drawn.

Depth and complication.

Lilias Trotter, missionary to Algeria, thought a lot about the importance of resisting the world’s attractions, too, though her beliefs were less extreme, and more orthodox, than the Spaffords’. Trotter, born in 1853, became a skilled watercolor painter, and the celebrated art critic John Ruskin took her under his wing. Trotter wrote to a friend that Ruskin said if she devoted herself completely to art “she would be the greatest living painter and do things that would be Immortal.” She did not see giving her life to painting as her path, though, and instead gave herself to serving the downtrodden women of London through the YWCA. When she reached her early thirties, she felt God calling her to mission work in North Africa, but she was turned down by the North African Mission due to a heart condition. She went anyway, along with two other single women. She served there for 40 years, founding the Algiers Mission Band, which later merged with the North African Mission. She died in Algiers at the age of 75.

Trotter’s story would be largely forgotten if not for the diligence of Miriam Huffman Rockness, who researched her life, wrote her biography, and maintains the Lilias Trotter blog. Her blog has been my main source for learning about Trotter, and it’s there that I found out how Trotter’s writings became the inspiration for a classic hymn. It started with Trotter creating a devotional pamphlet titled Focussed. In it, she uses the French word attrait in place of attraction, writing,

Turn full your soul’s vision to Jesus and look and look at Him, and a strange dimness will come over all that is apart from Him, and the Divine “attrait” by which God’s saints are made, even in this 20th century, will lay hold of you.  For “He is worthy” to have all there is to be had in the heart that He has died to win.

Do you see traces of a hymn in there? Helen Lemmel did, and in 1922 she produced “Turn Your Eyes upon Jesus.”

Turn your eyes upon Jesus,
Look full on His wonderful face;
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim
In the light of His glory and grace.

And now, if I may, I’d like to circle back to Thomas Dorsey.

After writing his biggest gospel song, Dorsey went on to produce more church music and co-founded the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses. “Precious Lord” became a favorite of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, and as reported by the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, shortly before he was assassinated King asked blues saxophonist Ben Branch to play it at a rally that evening. “Play that song tonight,” said MLK. “I want you to play it like you’ve never played it before in your life.” Mahalia Jackson, whom Dorsey had previously mentored, sang “Precious Lord” at King’s funeral.

When my way groweth drear, precious Lord, linger near,
When my life is almost gone;
Hear my cry, hear my call, hold my hand lest I fall;
Take my hand, precious Lord, lead me home.

Precious Lord, take my hand, lead me on, let me stand,
I am tired, I’m weak, I am worn;
Thru the storm, thru the night, lead me on to the light;
Take my hand, precious Lord, lead me home.

We love our missionary stories and our hymn stories, but we do them a disservice when we omit important people and details.

Depth and complication.

Amen.

(Rebecca Hopkins, “How Black Missionaries Are Being Written Back into the Story,” Christianity Today, December 13, 2021; Steven Kaplan, “Gospel Man,” Horizon, Volume 25, Issue 7, American Heritage, 1982; Say Amen, Somebody, directed by George T. Nierenberg, GTN, 1982; Jane Fletcher Geniesse, American Priestess: The Extraordinary Story of Anna Spafford and the American Colony in Jerusalem, Doubleday, 2008; Miriam Huffman Rockness, “A Brush in the Hand of God,” Lilias Trotter, April 4, 2014; Rockness, “Turn Your Eyes upon Jesus,” Lilias Trotter, October 26, 2012; “Ben Branch,” National Civil Rights Museum)

[photo: “Sand Dune Patterns and Shapes,” by Jeff Sullian, used under a Creative Commons license]

Navigating the Night (3 things to do when you have no idea what to do)

I used to want precise answers to all the questions, and I used to think I could actually obtain precise answers to all the questions. But I’m learning that the straight and narrow sometimes isn’t, and that God might in fact be OK with that.

Sometimes, in our efforts to make so many things absolute and perfectly perfunctory, we skid sideways off the bigger, realer, absolutes.

What does God want me to do ten years from now? I have no idea. I have a slight idea of what God wants me to do a year from now, but even that’s pretty hypothetical.

And I don’t think I’m alone in this. Sure, we act like we know this road, but I think we’re all just trying to figure out what to do with the rest of our lives.

I tested this theory with a group of about four hundred expats. I had everyone over thirty stand up and I said, “Think back to when you were eighteen years old, finishing up high school, maybe preparing for some travel or a gap year. Now, let me ask you a question, ‘Are you where you thought you’d be, doing the thing you thought you’d be doing? If so, please sit down.’”

Two people sat down.

The rest of us had no idea we’d be here doing the things we’re doing.

But walking in the dark can be scary, especially when everyone looks like they know exactly where they’re going and what they’re doing. We’re walking in the dark pretending we see. And so is everyone else.

If you find yourself in the dark today, not sure of what to do or where to go, I’d like to give you three pinpoints of light. Three true stars by which to navigate the night.

On whatever continent you find yourself, across whichever sea, whatever generation you claim, and whatever country claims you, may these three reminders illuminate your today.

 

1. Adore God
Maybe you started off adoring God, but it wore off. Maybe you started off really valuing Him and loving him with everything. But maybe that was a long time ago. Maybe you started trading.

In the historical Psalm 106:20, the Psalmist writes of God’s people: “They traded their glorious God for a statue of a grass-eating bull.” It’s one of the saddest verses in the whole of Scripture. They traded God for a statue. Of a bull.

And sometimes, we do too.

We must stop the trade. We must begin to see the bull for what it is.

But rather than pointing out the bull’s obvious cheapness, let’s point out our God’s obvious and immense value.

He is amazing. Pause and ponder this…

The smartest surgeons use their hands to fix bodies.
God uses his hands to make bodies.

The most brilliant psychologists understand the brain.
God wires the organ, connecting neurons and synapses,
washing it all in neurotransmitters.

Skilled poets use words to create feelings.
God uses words to create constellations.

Master artists paint with a thousand colors,
but have you ever seen the sun on fire,
sinking into the ocean?

This is our God. Adore him. Never ever exchange him for a cow.

 

2. Love People
We follow a guy who loved people really well. When he was popular and when he was persecuted, he saw what people needed, and he cared. He still cares.

Jesus wasn’t afraid to violate all sorts of cultural norms and rules to love people. He did not always act like a normal, proper, culturally appropriate, religious Jew. Often, he offended the religious people to love the hurting people.

Some of you have traveled half-way around the world to love people, but you’re finding it really hard to love the people you live with. You want to change the world? Start by loving the folks closest to you.

Loving the people of your host country more than the people you live with is hypocrisy. Loving the people you’re serving more than the people you left is hypocrisy.

Traveling abroad to “love on” cute little nationals while you can’t stand your family or the messy toddlers (or teenagers) in church is hypocrisy.

Yes, love all the people in the world. Start with the person in front of you.

Here is a truth about love: to love someone with your heart, you have to be OK spending some time down in there, and frankly, many people aren’t. The heart is where we store our pain, and if there’s a lot of pain buried in there, it’s going to be scary. It’s going to hurt. But, if you really want to love people, you’re going to need to get down into your heart and see what’s there.

If you find pain there, take that pain to Jesus and let him heal you in the deep places. Because the more whole and healed your heart is, the more you’ll be able to open it to people and really love them.

[If you’re looking for a safe place to start this journey, check out Emotionally Healthy Spirituality and/or Finding Spiritual White Space.]

 

3. Walk Boldly
Here’s what’s so cool about following Jesus and being adopted by God: If you are a child of the King, YOU ARE A CHILD OF THE KING! You are loved and adored by the highest. So walk boldly.

hubble deep field

If you put a tennis ball 100 meters away from you (about one football field, for our American readers), the ball would be covering up about 3,000 galaxies. And since scientists believe the universe is pretty uniform, if you put that tennis ball 100 meters away from you in any direction (including underneath you), behind it would be another 3,000 galaxies. For reference, nearly all the stars you see in the night sky are in one galaxy, the Milky Way.

And assuming all those galaxies have roughly the same number of stars as the Milky Way, then behind that tennis ball, 100 meters away from you, there are 600,000,000,000,000 stars. (That’s six hundred trillion.)

One tennis ball covers up that much stuff, and the One who spoke it into existence knows you. And loves you. So walk boldly.

But boldness without humbleness is just jerkiness.

Boldness by itself can be really annoying. In Cambodia, some folks drive boldly in their big cars. They’re not afraid — they have power, and they know it. In America, we say “Lights on for safety.” In Cambodia, they say “Lights on ‘cause we’re more important and you need to get out of my way NOW!”

Boldness must sleep with Humbleness to give birth to Christlikeness. And if you can figure out how to walk boldly and humbly, you will change the world.

Be bold because you know who God is.
Be humble because God knows who you are.

Walk boldly because you know Jesus.
Walk humbly because Jesus knows you.

 

Conclusion
I don’t like the dark. I never have. I like to know exactly where I’m going, when I’m going to get there, and how many McDonald’s there are along the way. But life doesn’t seem to work like that. So, when I find myself unsure and blind, I remember these three flashes of truth.

I might not know where I’ll be a year or ten from now, but I’m pretty sure I’ve got enough light for now. I can navigate the night when I remember these three burning callings: Adore God, Love People, and Walk Boldly.

It may not be much to offer you today, but when you’re walking in the dark, a little light goes a long ways.

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

Originally published at A Life Overseas on November 10, 2015.

To Bribe or Not to Bribe? That is the Question.

We were on our way home from church and stopped at a petrol station.

We fished around for cash; credit cards weren’t an option in our host country. My husband had only 50,000 shillings on him.

As the attendant filled the tank, I triumphantly rustled up another 30,000 shillings from the depths of my purse. “Aha! We can top up now!” I declared.

I leaned over and asked the attendant, “Please add another 30,000.”

But instead of giving us more gas, the guy pulled out a wad of receipts from his pocket and rifled through them. He pulled out one for 80,000 shillings and offered it to me with an arched eyebrow.

I stared at him, baffled. What on earth was going on?

Suddenly it dawned on me: he didn’t realize I was asking for more gas; he thought I wanted a receipt for 30,000 more than what we had paid. Why would he make that assumption and then nonchalantly comply? 

Because it was a commonplace request. 

In our host country, hiring a driver to run errands was routine. It was also routine for that driver to fill up the gas tank and then bring his employer an inflated receipt for reimbursement, making himself some profit on the side. 

So when customers left their receipts behind, the gas station attendants collected them, ready to dutifully pass them on to pilfering drivers. If I had wanted a false receipt, all I needed to do was ask. Embezzlement was that easy.

****

I sat in the cubicle next to the designer’s computer as she put the finishing touches on the banner I was requesting. 

“Looks great!” I exclaimed. “You said 150,000 shillings, right? Please put the name of my school on the receipt.”

“Oh, if you want a receipt, it will be an additional 20%,” she quickly corrected me. 

20%: The government sales tax.

Why wasn’t the tax automatically included in the quotation? I didn’t need to ask why; I had heard the answer before. Many customers would go elsewhere if she included tax in her quotations. If her business wanted to compete, her only choice was to offer under-the-table prices. She was trapped.

****

I entered my new culture in my early 20’s, idealistic and naive, ready to change the world. The reality of ethics in a developing country smacked me in the face.

I heard first-hand accounts of teachers who withheld critical exam information from students who wouldn’t pay up. Nurses who ignored any patient who wouldn’t tip them in advance. Social workers who bent adoption laws for the right price. Visas granted only to those succumbing to bribes.

It seemed pure evil until I became aware of the other side of the story. Indeed, greed was part of the equation, but sometimes employees weren’t paid enough to live on – or their paychecks were backlogged for months. Desperation was also a factor. 

In a society where no one plays fair, picking yourself up by your bootstraps sometimes means stealing the boots first. If you want to get ahead, you have to play dirty. 

So what happens when foreigners find themselves trying to help those locked in corrupt systems? Should we capitulate, arguing that it’s better to give in, as long as we do good work? Or do we defy corruption, even if it means suffering the consequences?

The answer is not always clear. In some places, what we might see as a bribe is interpreted as a “pre-tip” for expedited service. We must observe and explore these cultural nuances, recognizing that the conclusion is not always black and white. 

Many times, however, corruption is blatant. Occasionally, acquiescing is a matter of life or death. But should cooperation with corruption be our default?

Confronting corruption is costly. It’s easier to slip the police officer a few bills and drive away than spend an hour arguing for justice. It’s cheaper to give in to the customs official demanding a bribe than to be charged exorbitant fees. Waiting for visas can stretch for months when you refuse to grease the wheels.

But do we want to see quick fixes or lasting change? Corruption breeds oppression for the vulnerable. When fraud has free reign, the subsistence farmer can’t get a fair price for his crops. The small shop owner can’t compete with powerful companies. Emergency aid fills the stomachs of government workers instead of displaced refugees. When we feed that system, we hurt the powerless. 

We must remember that as expatriates, we are privileged. We have money, resources, and safety nets. Someone has got to break corruption’s cycle, and those of us with privilege should be the first to fight. 

Our attempt to stand up against corruption may seem feeble. Is it worth the trouble? That’s not our concern. Our job is to obey God, do the right thing, and trust Him with the result.

The day may come when our small acts of integrity result in large-scale transformation. I know people who have found themselves perfectly positioned to go head-to-head with an entire corrupt system, and miraculously, they see change manifesting right before their eyes. They are immersed in a profoundly challenging and spiritual battle, but their story proves that change is possible.

Cynicism is the pendulum swing from naivete, and neither is healthy. Somehow we must walk the tightrope between wisdom and suspicion. Not every government official in a developing country is corrupt, and foreigners are not saints. As Christians, we should be alert to the brokenness in this world and ourselves – but also never lose hope. 

****

The police officer stepped into traffic and held out his palm in front of me. Sighing, I pulled to the side of the road so that he could inspect my car. “Ah! Look at this,” he announced. “Your insurance has expired.”

I groaned inwardly. He was right. My insurance had expired the day before, escaping my notice. 

He demanded a 40,000 shilling fine. “I will pay it,” I told him, “but only if you give me a ticket.”

He did not have a ticket book, and I refused to pay without it. We reached an agreement: I would go to the police station to pay my fine and leave him my license as collateral. When I could show him proof of payment, he would give it back.

The next day, I got up early and drove 45 minutes to the police station. The police there laughed at me. “Why didn’t you just pay the officer? We don’t have any ticket books here either.”

I drove to another station: same result. Finally, at the central police station downtown, in the little room at the very back, I found an officer with an authorized ticket book where I could pay my fine (which was actually only 20,000 shillings).  

In the end, it took four hours to pay my fine legitimately. But I felt as successful as a Jedi rebel, a small act of defiance against the Empire. It was worth it.

Can I get a witness?

Dear reader,

As I sat down on Monday to write this post, I prayed and asked God for ideas.

Okay, I whined and said, “God, I have no ideas. I have crumbs of thoughts and I don’t feel well so I know I’m more prone to being whiny.” And then I wrote an email to a friend.

“Friend, . . . this is just an ‘I need a witness’ email because I don’t know anyone else who is dealing with an ongoing medical situation from hell and I know you have in the past.

This current round has been going on since early November. And just when I think I’ve turned a corner and maybe am moving towards not feeling icky and controlled by either having to be vigilant about food or spending so much time with treatment, another flair up happens and I feel discouraged.

Logically, I know that at some point I will feel better (my past history reminds me), but at the moment, I am a bit despondent at the whole process and how long this is taking and how yucky I feel.

All this to say, I know you get it and just knowing there is a fellow sojourner and one who gets it helps me to bear this. I remind myself, “You know, you have walked this path, and Amy you are not alone.” So, even though you don’t know it, you have been helping me on this path these last few months.
Much love, 
Amy

The thing is, to look at me, you would think I’m fine. And the truth is, I am fine and I am also not fine. Knowing that I know one other person who walked this path and could reach out to her, was a comfort to me today.

I thought, that maybe you too have an area of your life that others might not know is giving you fits. And that you too might be fine and also not fine at the same time. I chose the above image because you might feel like you’re all alone in a desert.

While whatever you are facing is unique, I’m also willing to bet that someone else would nod in a “I get you” kind of a way.

So, today if you need a witness, someone to say, “I see you and I get that part of you is not fine,” either leave a comment or send an email to someone who may not know that they have been traveling with you.

We’ll pray for you and bear witness to your current not-okayness.

With love to you too,
Amy

Can You Talk the Talk? Swimming in the Alphabet Soup of CCW-ese

How are your language skills as a cross-cultural worker? No, I’m not talking about the language(s) you’ve learned for living and working in your new home. I’m referring to your fluency in CCW-ese, or the jargon that cross-cultural workers often find themselves swimming in. Immersion is the best way to learn, right?

I’ve put together a collection of vocabulary below to help you see just how fluent you are. Does it all make sense to you?

The next time you’re on home service and someone asks you to say something in your new language, call this up and start reading. (By the way, some of this may not apply to you, as it’s slanted toward the experience of someone with a US passport. In other words, your dialect may vary.)

Hello, I’m a CCW living overseas. I’m part of a larger group of expats that includes such people as EAWs working with NGOs to help IDPs in low GDP countries and FSOs serving with the DoS. My journey abroad started with PFO, where the MBTI and the RHETI showed me I’m an ENTP and an Enneagram Type 2, respectively. Then my spouse and I, along with several others, were briefed on CPM, DMM, M2M/M2DMM, T4T, BAM, and DBS strategies and were shown how to write an MOU. After that, it wasn’t long before all of us were following directions from the TSA and walking through the AIT scanner at places like ORD, LAX, and ATL, headed for other places such as BKK, NBO, and PTY and parts beyond. It was hard for my MKs to leave our POMs behind, but they were looking forward to their new lives as TCKs, growing up with other GNs and CCKs, on their way to becoming ATCKs.

One of our first steps upon arriving at our new home—which is among a UUPG in the Two-Thirds World, just outside the 10/40 window—was language learning. We started out using LAMP and GPA with some TPR mixed in, as well. Someday, I think I might try my hand (so to speak) at ISL.

We’ve also had to make cultural adjustments, for instance switching from letter-sized paper to A4, switching from the NFL to FIFA, and learning how to switch out RO filters for our water. And when we take trips to other locales, we’re sure to bring along a voltage converter and adapters to knock the power down from 220/240 to 110/120 and to use C, D, E/F, G, H, I, J, L, M, and N plugins when necessary.

Then, before long, we were hosting STMs and engaging with the locals by using our TEFL certifications to teach ESOL. A few of our students are hoping to take the TOEFL or IELTS and get I-20s and F-1 visas.

At some point, we expect to fly back for good, filling out a CBP Form 6059B for the last time, again hoping that nothing in our bags will bother DHS’s CBP agents. That will mean no more yearly IRS Form 2555 to claim the FEIE, no more scheduled chats with fellow workers around the globe using P2Pe apps (every Saturday at 13:30 GMT), and no more jumping on the HSR for a quick getaway.

It’ll be another big change—RCS can be hard. But we’ll be prepared, because we’ll have built a RAFT, which should keep us afloat through the transition.

And, of course, we’ll be sure to keep connected through ALO.

[photo: “Alphabets,” by Tomohiro Tokunaga, used under a Creative Commons license]

When the Straight & Narrow Isn’t

My parents had their life all mapped out, and then their baby was born with chromosomal abnormalities and died at home, surrounded by tubes and oxygen tanks, only a month old.

As a teenager, I had my life pretty well planned out (get my pilot’s license, be Nate Saint). But then my mom got cancer and died. And the path of God darkened.

The “plan of God for my life,” the path I was following with full confidence and youthful arrogance, disappeared. Because sometimes the straight and narrow isn’t.

God doesn’t always lead in straight lines.

He is the God of fractals, making beauty and order out of lines that look like a drunk man was drawing during an earthquake. Left-handed.

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God moves in a mysterious way

His wonders to perform.

He plants his footsteps in the sea

And rides upon the storm.

The paths of God meander. But somewhere along the way we got this idea that we should be able to sit down, especially in January, and map out THE SPECIFIC WILL OF GOD FOR OUR LIFE AND MINISTRY FROM NOW UNTIL FOREVERMORE. I’m sorry, but my life’s just not working out like that. But if yours is, then hey, more power to you.

Don’t mind me, I’ll just be hanging out back here with all the folks who are a wee bit confused by God sometimes.

Deep in unfathomable mines

 Of never-failing skill,

 He treasures up his bright designs

 And works his sovereign will.

I’m a fan of vision and purpose and alignment. I’ve read tons of books on leadership and vision. Really. My personal “Vision & Mission” statement is taped to the tile on my office wall, and I read it several times a week. However, I’m beginning to wonder if these ideas are more suited for a corporation than my life.

Perhaps God has a higher purpose than us coming up with a goal and then perfectly implementing it. It really seems to me that few people, even the heroes of the faith, saw the whole plan of God for their lives, and then developed perfect action steps that they then enacted flawlessly. Mission accomplished.

Perhaps the Kingdom of God advances less militaristically and more organically. Less checkbox-like, and more with an ongoing awareness that God’s plans seldom travel in a straight line (at least from our perspective).

What about Moses? He had the great call and purpose of freeing the people of Israel. However, a good chunk of his life looked very much NOT aligned to that goal. How would we look at a person in Moses’ position, whittling away time in a faraway land while the people of Israel languished in slavery? Was that out of alignment? Do we just blame it on the fact that Moses didn’t follow God’s plan, so he got banished for DECADES? I sure am glad I obey God perfectly. All the time.

Or David, anointed by God, but residing in pastures. Where was the alignment? Where were the action steps? He didn’t even kill Saul when he had the chance! That’s like minus one action step to ruling the Kingdom.

And then there’s Jesus, who knew at age 12 specifically what the Father had called him to do. However, up until the age of 30, his day-to-day jobs and activities did not LOOK aligned to the call or mission of God. What a failure.

His purposes will ripen fast,

 Unfolding every hour.

The bud may have a bitter taste,

 But sweet will be the flower.

Who’s Flying This Plane?
David says in Psalm 23:3, “He guides me along right paths, bringing honor to his name.” I’m no farm kid, but I’m pretty sure the farmer gets to decide the “right paths.” Which is a bummer if you’ve already got the straight and narrow completely sorted.

For each transition in our life, Elizabeth and I have tried to listen to God, we’ve tried to discern his path, and we’ve been mostly sure (about 83%) we were heading in the right direction. However, in each case, we did NOT have any idea what the step AFTER that step would be. But we pretty much knew what we needed to do to obey today.

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Have you ever noticed that pilots are dumb? I mean, really, who gets from Chicago to Korea by flying north?! It’s like they’ve never looked at a map. Oh, that’s right, they didn’t look at a map, they added a dimension and looked at the GLOBE. The flight paths of giant airliners look really dumb if you’re stuck in two dimensions. But add that third dimension and everyone starts shouting, “O Captain, My Captain!”

I imagine God’s kind of like that too. Sometimes, I want to get to Asia and God says, “Um, you know, that’s great, let’s fly over Santa Claus.” And I’m like, “Yeah, that’s stupid, I need to go STRAIGHT west and then a bit south.” And God says, “You have no idea what you’re talking about. Would you like kimchi or chicken fingers?”

God deals in dimensions we know nothing about. And I believe he will sometimes lead us along paths that look wrong, that look out of alignment, that — get this — require faith.

If God leads you “off target” or out of alignment, will you follow Him?

There are more parameters, more dimensions, more curvatures of the planet, than we will ever know. If God’s plans really are more wonderful than we could imagine, why do we strive so hard to imagine and define them? Can we rest in a loving Father? Can we continue to move forward in obedience, even if we don’t know where that obedience will lead?

 

Bonhoeffer (Because, Why Not?)
The dude had guts. And I think an uncanny ability to see from a height that helped him understand things. So, after his life deviated from his own plans in a BIG WAY (think Nazis and prisons) he was able to write:

“I’m firmly convinced – however strange it may seem—that my life has followed a straight and unbroken course, at any rate in its outward conduct. It has been an uninterrupted enrichment of experience, for which I can only be thankful. If I were to end my life here in these conditions, that would have a meaning that I think I could understand; on the other hand, everything might be a thorough preparation for a new start and a new task when peace comes.”

In other words, he knew his life looked out of whack. It looked grossly misaligned and greatly off kilter. But, he pulled out that pesky thing called faith, got comfortable with some intellectual dissonance and the tension of unknowing, and believed that God had it under control. No matter what.

How could he say these things? Because He knew his God.

Blind unbelief is sure to err

And scan his work in vain.

God is his own interpreter,

And he will make it plain.

The longer I serve abroad, the less I desire to do great things for God and the more I desire to just be with Him. I feel less ambition and more Peace. Less like I’m racing the buzzer, and more like I’m being pursued by a Lover.

This doesn’t mean that I’ll work less, caught up in some heavenly romance. It means that I’ll work closer. Closer to the One my soul desires. Closer to the One the world needs. Closer to the heart of God.

And frankly, I don’t care how straight or how twisted the path is, if it leads farther up and farther in, I’m so there.

 


photo credits: flightaware and unsplash
Originally published at A Life Overseas on January 1, 2015

Fire-building and the end of the year

Have you ever watched someone build a fire who doesn’t know what they are doing? They have all of the elements—tinder, kindling, and fuel—but they often make one key mistake.

They do not leave enough space for oxygen.

And without oxygen, no amount of trying will lead to an actual fire. Instead, even with the best of intentions and effort you have … a pile of wood.

I heard Juliet Funt speak this year and then read her book A Minute to Think. What she shares is probably something you’ve sensed deep in your soul and didn’t need her to tell you: busyness is epidemic.

And we cross-cultural workers, sadly, are no exception. Funt quotes Juliet B. Schor, who calls the way we choose to operate “performance busyness. There is no ‘they’ doing it to us anymore. From corporate executives to sheep farmer to retiree, our driving pace and pressure has become fully internalized.”

That resonated with me. For many of us, we might not physically go to a work place and report to a boss in person. But it doesn’t matter because, it’s true, I have internalized performance busyness, and I bet you have too.

In both our heads and hearts we know this isn’t the way of Jesus. Funt, though not a Christian, points to a deeper truth: “There is visible work and invisible work. Thinking, pondering, considering, reframing, mulling, concocting, questioning, and dreaming—none of these require a single muscle to be moved in order to be enacted. We only see the results when completed, not in the process.”

For three years Global Trellis has created an end-of-year packet that allows cross-cultural workers to reflect on the year that is ending and prepare for the upcoming year.

As someone who saw an advanced copy said, “I just skimmed the packet. The colors are soothing, and in a year of less capacity than in the past, it feels nice to have a guide through this.”

Jesus loves to do invisible and visible work with you. We need to value and make time for both.

If you are wanting a minute to think about this past year and gather thoughts for the next, you can. The way of Jesus involves oxygen for your soul to reflect, think, and even dream. Either take a few minutes now to review your year with Jesus or you can get the reflecting packet here.

Photo by kevin turcios on Unsplash

We Are Mars Hill

I’ve listened to the entirety of Christianity Today’s Rise and Fall of Mars Hill podcast with great interest, eagerly waiting for each episode to be released. But I’ve held off recommending it too enthusiastically until the final segment aired, to be sure it didn’t go off the rails, or at least my set of rails.

Well, the twelfth*, and last, episode came out on December 4, and after listening to it, I encourage you to do the same. Even if you don’t take in the whole series, I think you should still listen to the ending segment, titled “Aftermath.” Why? Because I’ve come to the conclusion that We Are Mars Hill, and it is the closing episode that makes that clear to me.

Like many, I first heard of Mark Driscoll, co-founder and lead pastor of the Seattle-based Mars Hill Church, when Donald Miller introduced him in his 2003 book, Blue like Jazz (though at the time he was simply “Mark the Cussing Pastor”). And later, he caught my attention by infamously stating,

There is a pile of dead bodies behind the Mars Hill bus and by God’s grace it’ll be a mountain by the time we’re done. You either get on the bus or you get run over by the bus. Those are the options. But the bus ain’t gonna stop. . . . There’s a few kind of people. There’s people who get in the way of the bus. They gotta get run over. There are people who want to take turns driving the bus. They gotta get thrown off, cuz they want to go somewhere else.

In time, Mars Hill grew to, at its largest, around 13,000 attending at 15 sites in multiple states. Over the years I kept up with news coming from the church as Driscoll became more of a celebrity and accusations against him became more newsworthy, culminating in his departure from the church in 2014, followed by the dissolution of the church network. This came after Driscoll’s fellow elders declared him guilty of having a quick temper, using harsh words, displaying arrogance, and leading with a domineering manner, characteristics that had spread through church teaching and relationships.

One thing that makes the Mars Hill saga relevant is that there seems to be something of Mars Hill in so many of us—the desire to find something big and powerful that removes ambiguity and tells us how to to do things the right way, the desire to have confident leaders who aren’t afraid to brawl with easily identified enemies, the desire, especially for men, to regain significance in our culture and in our churches and in our families.

And if we’re not careful, very, very careful, we’ll climb aboard the bus and travel confidently down the same road. Yes, We Are Mars Hill.

By “we,” I mean the global church, because all of us must take care. But a smaller “we” are workers sent out from the Western church to take the gospel abroad. For better or worse, we are influenced by the values that have made their way through the church landscape back home, affecting how we do ministry and how we define success. It’s easy to believe that we will succeed if we can only get everyone on board, doing the right things—and if we don’t take our foot off the gas. How easy it is to measure our worth by what we are doing for Christ rather than what Christ has done for us . . . and we can never seem to do enough for Christ.

In the last episode of the podcast, David Zahl, editor in chief of the Mockingbird blog, warns against the kind of gospel that came out of Mars Hill, a gospel that first presents a “life shattering and extremely exciting” grace that saves us from the condemnation of the law, only to return to it again:

[W]hat happens is you bring the law back in so it becomes a kind of a . . . Law, grace, law is the way that we would normally put it. The disposition that comes through is this very sort of Get better . . . to try harder, to pull themselves together. Eventually what you’ll have is what you have in every other element of the culture, which is burnout. You’ll have people who wake up one day and’ll be like, Hey this isn’t actually working.

There’s also another way in which We Are Mars Hill—or we can be. It’s in taking our place alongside those who have been hurt by the church. In a followup interview, the podcast’s host, Mike Cosper, comments on those who were drawn to participate after listening to earlier episodes. One was “Lindsay,” who shares in the final segment about what she went through dealing with an abusive husband who was enabled by Mars Hill leadership. Cosper describes her reasoning as “I know I’m not alone. I know I’m not the only one who experienced something like this,” but it took hearing from others to come to that realization. Cosper adds, “Someone who’s been through an experience like that—domestic violence and church hurt and everything else—it’s like, man, that’s hard stuff. And so to have the courage to come forward took a lot.”

We honor that courage by showing those like Lindsay that they truly are not alone. Have you, too, ever been wounded by individuals or an organization or an institution in which you put your trust? Even if we haven’t been run over ourselves, we can still pull over to the side of the road and attend to those who’ve fallen under the bus’s tires.

And then there’s Jen Zug, a former member of Mars Hill and assistant to Driscoll. In 2014, she wrote an open letter to the church, “The Story of How Mars Hill Church Broke Up with Me,” which she reads from in episode twelve. Her letter ends with “I will always love you, Mars Hill, like a school girl remembers her first crush. But I choose to continue forward on the mission God gave me through your influence, even if you choose another direction.” Several years later, she and her husband, Bryan, visited another Seattle church that just so happened to be meeting in a building formerly owned by Mars Hill. That Sunday the church was spotlighting a ministry that offers therapists for pastors and missionaries. In her notes from that service, says Cosper, Zug wrote, “Christians are messy people, and sometimes Christians in full-time ministry are even messier than usual.” Cosper adds that “that posture and that ministry struck her as unimaginable at Mars Hill.” It is with this new congregation in an old Mars Hill building that the Zugs have now found the kind of authentic community that they originally had in Mars Hill’s earlier days.

If you haven’ t already, I would encourage you to listen to all of The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill. It fills in details for those not familiar with the whole story, with lots of interviews, sermon clips, and personal perspectives. It even takes off on a couple tangents with two “bonus” segments: In one, Cosper talks with Joshua Harris (of I Kissed Dating Goodbye) about his deconstructed faith, and in another, he looks at the Acts 29 church-planting network, of which Mars Hill was a product. In total, the podcast is over 17 hours, so if you don’t have that much time to give, the last episode presents a good overview, touching on many of the important issues. (It’s two-and-a-half hours long, so it still covers a lot of ground.)

The voices in “Aftermath” are striking, too. I’ve already mentioned Lindsay and the Zugs, but another poignant story comes from Benjamin Petry. His father is Paul Petry, one of two elders dismissed from the church in 2007, the day before Driscoll made his bus comments. This past September, the younger Petry travelled to Driscoll’s new church in Phoenix, seeking some sort of reconciliation. He asked Driscoll to call his father to say he was sorry, but that call hasn’t happened . . . at least not yet.

At Christmastime, we remember Jesus’ coming to the world to make things whole. But that celebration can also put a spotlight on the brokenness that will continue until he comes again, asking us to mourn with those who mourn. It was the podcasts’s final installment that brought tears to my eyes, in listening to the stories from people who once called Mars Hill their church. Some of them are now doing the hard work of asking for and offering forgiveness. Some are celebrating the holidays in their new churches. Some are picking up the pieces and trying to figure out what to hang on to and what to let go of.

All are worth hearing. They are part of our family. I hope you get to listen to them.

(*Counting the two bonus installments and a “side story,” there are fifteen episodes in all.)

(Mark Driscoll, clip at Joyful Exiles, October 1, 2007; Mark Cosper, “Aftermath,” The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill, Christianity Today, December 4, 2021; Cosper, “Why the Mars Hill Podcast Kept You Waiting,” interview by Stefani McDade, Christianity Today, December 8, 2021; Jen Zug, “The Story of How Mars Hill Church Broke Up with Me,” The Pile I’m Standing In, August 12, 2014)

[photo: “one-sixty-six/three-sixty-five,” by Laura LaRose, used under a Creative Commons license]