“Quiet” Insights: On Introverts, Pseudo-Extroverts, and Voices in a Crowd

Did you hear the one about the team of five cross-cultural workers who walk into pre-field training and take the Myers-Briggs personality assessment? Three of them get a code that’s “E” something something something, while two have “I” as their first letter. Then four of them turn to one of the “I”s and say, “Wait, what? You’ve got to be kidding. You are so not an introvert!”

Perhaps you’ve been part of a team like this. Perhaps you’ve been the one diagnosed with the suspect “I.” Perhaps you’ve been one of those who claim to know an extrovert when you see one.

Now this is where the facilitator steps in to explain that for the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) the words extrovert and introvert don’t mean what we commonly think they mean. They’re not “loud” and “shy” respectively. Nor do they signify who is or who isn’t the “life of the party.” Rather, it’s an outer-world versus inner-world thing. As the Myers-Briggs Foundation asks at its site: “Where do you put your attention and get your energy?” Is that place inside, among your thoughts, or outside, where the people are.

But still, what about those who claim to be introverted when we all know better. We’ve seen them in action. We know how outgoing they are. Did the test fail them? Did they answer the questions incorrectly? Are they not self aware? Or are they trying to have it both ways?

Come on, if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s got to be . . . an extrovert, or at least someone who wants to be the center of attention.

Susan Cain, in her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, gives us a lens through which to look at this dichotomy. You may have already read Quiet. It was published in 2012, after all. But I just got a copy a couple months ago, by way of a coworker, so I’m a little late to the game. Fellow ALO writer Rachel Pieh Jones has mentioned Quiet a couple times here at this blog, in 2013 and 2017. Maybe we need to bring it up every four years. If so, I guess it’s time again.

To Be or Not to Be . . . Yourself

When it comes to being either an introvert or an extrovert, Cain points out that it’s more than a simple either/or situation. Rather, there’s a spectrum between the extremes, even including “ambiverts,” those who find themselves right in the middle. But she also explains why true introverts can come across as extroverts, and she presents a vocabulary for discussing it. For example, there are “socially poised introverts,” who are “interpersonally skilled” while retaining their introversion. Some introverts “engage in a certain level of pretend-extroversion” when circumstances call for it. And some are “high self monitors,” meaning that they are “highly skilled at modifying their behavior to the social demands of a situation.”

Does that last one sound like people who can change how they act depending on their surroundings, say, in a new country? It does to Cain. Here’s how she describes her journey from being a “pseudo extrovert” as a corporate lawyer to becoming who she is now:

It took me almost a decade to understand that the law was never my personal project, not even close. Today I can tell you unhesitatingly what is: my husband and son; writing; promoting the values of this book. Once I realized this, I had to make a change. I look back on my years as a Wall Street lawyer as time spent in a foreign country. It was absorbing, it was exciting, and I got to meet a lot of interesting people whom I never would have known otherwise. But I was always an expatriate.

Here is where Cain draws a line between mimicking extroversion in a purposeful, healthy way, versus in a way that is detrimental to one’s own identity. The person who does the former “acts out of character for the sake of worthy tasks that temporarily require a different orientation,” while for the the latter, she offers up an example of someone who’s denied her true self, “acting out of character in the service of a project she didn’t care about.” (Again, do you see how this could apply to those serving overseas?)

Cain writes that “if we act out of character by convincing ourselves that our pseudo-self is real, we can eventually burn out without knowing why.” “But even if you’re stretching yourself in the service of a core personal project,” she says, “you don’t want to act out of character too much, or for too long.”

So if being a pseudo-extrovert is a positive response to the task before you, how do you cope? One way, Cain tells us, is to follow the advice of psychologist Brian Little, and make for yourself plenty of “restorative niches.” A restorative niche can be in the form of a location or an activity, a place of rest or a way to relax. It’s “the place you go,” she writes, “when you want to return to your true self.”

Can You Hear Me Now?

Much of Quiet consists of Cain defending the 1/3 to 1/2 of us who are introverts in a world that exalts the “extrovert ideal,” identifying introverts’ strengths and admirable qualities. (Full disclosure, according to the MBTI, I’m an introvert—an INFP to be exact.) And one of the points that she makes is that introverts are worth listening to, even when their words are softly, or rarely, spoken.

“If we assume that quiet and loud people have roughly the same number of good (and bad) ideas,” she writes, “then we should worry if the louder and more forceful people always carry the day.” “Don’t mistake assertiveness or eloquence for good ideas,” she explains.

So let’s go back to that team at the beginning of this post. If you were the team leader, how would maximize the creative potential of your group, for instance, in a brainstorming session—getting input from everyone, including introverts who act like introverts, at least during team meetings?

One thing to understand, writes Cain, is the “startling conclusion” that brainstorming simply doesn’t work. Research shows that individuals working alone (such as introverts who might rather think things over in solitude) produce more and better ideas than groups do. And the larger the group, the less productivity. More and better ideas are produced when people go their separate ways and think on their own. But there is an exception to this, she says. It’s brainstorming online. Not only does it work, but the larger the group, the better it works. Why? Well, according to Cain, while online group work is collaborative, it also represents “a form of solitude all its own.”

Cain writes that psychologists have come up with three reasons for why group brainstorming isn’t successful in producing the best outcomes: “Social loafing” is when some people in a group stay quiet and let others take the lead. “Production blocking” is caused by members needing to speak one at a time, requiring others to pause and listen. And “evaluation apprehension” comes about when people are afraid that others will think that their ideas aren’t good enough. These factors can affect extroverts and introverts, but it’s easy to see how they can inhibit introverts even more.

In light of this, Cain gives this advice, applicable to employees and team members alike:

If it’s creativity you’re after, ask your employees to solve problems alone before sharing their ideas. If you want the wisdom of the crowd, gather it electronically, or in writing, and make sure people can’t see each other’s ideas until everyone’s had a chance to contribute.

So here’s another story. It’s about a team in which all the members understand that introverts and extroverts are different inside, even when they might seem the same outwardly. They recognize that introverts who act outside their comfort zone, even for a purpose they believe in, need time to recharge. They also create the space and the time for introverts to formulate their thoughts and share their ideas. And they listen closely to everyone, even those who speak in still, small voices.

(To read even more about introverts serving abroad, take a look at these posts from Anisha Hopkinson and Jerry Jones.)

(The Meyers-Briggs Foundation, “Extroversion or Introversion,” adapted from Charles R. Martin, Looking at Type: The Fundamentals, CAPT, 1997; Susan Cain, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Crown, 2012)

[photo: “Hand adjusting audio mixer,” by Ilmicrofono Oggiono, used under a Creative Commons license]


Mostly Belonging: Hope for the MK

by Michèle Phoenix

When I was little, I’d snuggle up to my mom in the evenings and listen to her reading Are You My Mother?, attracted to the plight of the children’s book’s melancholy protagonist in a way I couldn’t fully comprehend. In the story, the baby bird falls out of her nest and wanders from cat to tractor to cow and car, repeating her increasingly urgent question: “Are you my mother?

Without realizing it, I identified with her pain. The sensation of lostness was all too familiar to me, even at that age.

When I saw a copy of the book in a store a few weeks ago, my instant reaction was an urge to reach through the glossy cover and comfort the hapless hero. I saw a bit of me in her—a lifetime spent wondering if new places and people groups would be my “mother,” my place of belonging and sameness.

In many respects, MKs are not much different from this feathered fellow. We hover between clusters of those who know their place and fit their social contexts, hoping that someone will want us or include us despite our difference. We try to act like it doesn’t really matter. Or we try to be tough and endure it. But we still live our lives in a more or less conscious pursuit of belonging.

“I will never belong” is a sentiment I’ve heard expressed with varying degrees of rancor and drama in my thirty years of MK ministry. Of all the traits Third Culture Kids and Missionaries’ Kids share, I think this one is among the most powerful.

It is born of multi-cultural, multi-national, multi-experiential and multi-identificational backgrounds that both expand our worlds and limit our full adaptation to any of them.

One of my first conscious thoughts about my TCK identity came at a young age, when I realized while on furlough that I’d never be fully American, and that the French would never consider me fully French, either. There seemed to be no place on earth where I could feel that I fully belonged. Is it any wonder that MK communities like schools and mission conferences become such a haven of sameness to MKs?

Unfortunately, having experienced that level of identification can also set us up for a lifetime of discontent, because—and I don’t want to sound pessimistic—it is a sense of wholeness we may never know again.

Multi-cultural dwellers face three distinct options in their quest for belonging.

The first is to conform.
The second is to intentionally unconform.
The third is to straddle the cultural divide.

Let’s start with conforming. In some ways it’s the easiest option, and MKs are fairly good at it, at least on a surface level. We’re observers by nature. Whether it be trying out a new fast-food restaurant or voting in elections for the first time, I still live by the old motto: watch first, act second. I’ll relinquish my place in line as often as I need to until I’ve figured out how “normal” people do it and can proceed as they do.

That’s really just cultural savvy—or practical conformity. The kind that spares us public embarrassment and the kind of social faux-pas we desperately try to avoid. A complete conformity is a more dangerous version of the classic MK ability to adapt. In this case, we’ll either consciously or subconsciously discard those parts of ourselves that link us to other cultures and modes of life in order to be fully American, fully European, or fully Asian.

The danger in full conformity is in what we have to relinquish to achieve it.

You’ll see this in the MK from Rwanda who moves to Canada and wears nothing but Rwandan garb as an outward sign of her allegiance to her heart-home. You’ll see it in the Turkish MK who refuses to return to his passport culture and stops using English—thereby losing contact with the North American branch of his family and identity. Or the TCK in her passport country who never refers to the foreign places that framed her worldview and shaped her personality.

In order for me to have fully adapted to my French culture or to my Canadian passport culture, for instance, I would have had to alter my appearance, my political views, my gender-role opinions, my culinary tastes, and some of my social behaviors to achieve what that culture expected of me.

Once I was finished erasing the old and embracing the new, there would have been very little left of the richness of a multi-cultural upbringing: the broadened understanding and artistic/social/political palette that is so unique and so prized in TCKs.

Conformity would have cost me every bit of the beautiful complexity that can come from being an MK, but it would also have earned me a sense of belonging and sameness. For that sense, MKs can be willing to sacrifice an awful lot.

The second response to unbelonging is unconforming. It’s a fascinating phenomenon to me and it goes something like this: “There’s no way I’m ever going to fit in. People on both continents tell me I’m weird. Weird in Brazil. Weird in Korea. Well, let me show you weird.” And the MK sets out to be as odd as he or she can possibly be.

It’s a self-defense mechanism that has serious back-firing potential, but I can see its appeal. Whereas being the victim of our difference feels painful and unpredictable, being the architect of the difference gives us a sense of control.

So we exaggerate our weirdness in order to call it a choice, not an affliction.

Sometimes it’s strange clothes, sometimes it’s eccentric behavior, sometimes it’s threatening attitudes, weird tastes or social misconduct. On some, it’s endearing. On others, it’s off-putting. But to MKs whose identities have been shattered and rearranged without their volition, it’s a sense of finally being in control of how the world perceives them.

So when someone’s expression says, “You’re weird,” they can pat themselves on the backs and consider it mission accomplished, because they’ve made “difference” a choice, not an painful condition.

But…they’ve also made that elusive “belonging” even more impossible to achieve.

The final response to unbelonging is straddling. It’s probably the healthiest of the three belonging options, though it is certainly not the easiest.

It requires that we celebrate “mostly-belonging.” It keeps us intentionally connected to the cultures and subcultures that have shaped us while investing and implanting in the one in which we live.

Straddling allows us to retain all those facets that lend depth and breadth to our identities while mostly adapting to the new places life takes us. In order to successfully straddle cultures, we’ll have to understand and value each of them, retaining those other-culture quirks that are acceptable in the place where we currently are and disengaging those that might be jarring or misunderstood by the locals around us—at least initially.

Straddling requires that we add new facets to our panoply, not as a rejection of what we’ve known before, but an expansion of our cultural arsenal. It is also a means of honoring the culture in which we’ve been planted. For instance, moving to Germany and not alienating our neighbors may require that we regularly sweep sidewalks that don’t need sweeping. Living in other places may require more modest dress for women. And yet others may require a “bribe” column in our budgeting. These are adjustments we can make without releasing the influences that made us who we are.

Mostly-belonging isn’t a repudiation of the multi-cultural aspects of our identities—it’s a thoughtful, intentional choice to embed in the culture we now live in, and an equally intentional choice to stay connected with the other cultures we carry within us.

An initial carefulness and adherence to social norms will usually yield a more successful integration than, say, waving a Greek flag and refusing to eat anything but olives and feta! As relationships deepen and our friends know us better, we’ll be able to broaden our expressions of multi-culturalism without alienating others.

Straddling or mostly-belonging requires that we relinquish the baby bird’s dream of full, uncompromising sameness. As MKs, we’re actually healthier when we accept that we won’t ever be completely one or the other of our natures, when we acknowledge and celebrate those ways in which we can fit in, and when we set out to live enthusiastically in that space between belongings. That’s what makes us unique, broad-minded, tolerant, chameleon-like and prized bridge-builders in whatever society we embrace. That’s what allows us to thrive as TCKs.

With that attitude—with that self-awareness, intentionality and openness—true connection becomes possible, and a new, richer and healthier form of belonging can be ours.

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

Raised in France by a Canadian father and an American mother, Michèle is a mentor, writer and speaker with a heart for MKs. She taught for 20 years at Black Forest Academy (Germany) before launching her own ministry advocating for TCKs. She now travels globally to consult and teach on topics related to this unique people group, and she has recently launched the podcast Pondering Purple. She loves good conversations, French pastries, mischievous students and Marvel movies.

A Lament for the American Church (or how I’m processing my codependent relationship with the church)

I love the church, and I have loved the church for a long time.

I’ve led worship 600+ times in local congregations. I’ve preached dozens of times across several countries. I served as an overseas missionary in Southeast Asia for 8 years. I’ve been in “church work” in one capacity or another for over 20 years.

In fact, I still serve with a church planting mission organization, providing pastoral care and coaching to missionaries around the world. My day job is walking alongside of hurting people who also love (and are serving) the global church.

I still love the church, but I’ve got a problem.

Watching the American evangelical church for the last several years has been devastatingly hard. Initially, I watched as a sort of outsider, living and ministering in a developing country that had a proud and boisterous autocrat as a leader. And now since COVID led to an early repatriation in March of 2020, I’ve watched from a more comfortable spot in the rural Midwest.

Has it been devastating for you too? Have you grieved at how some elements of the American church have responded to racial issues, to politics, to the Capitol siege, to the ongoing global pandemic that’s killed over 660,000 people in our country alone? Have you lost friends and maybe even family?

During all of this, I’ve desperately wanted to change the church. I’ve shared articles and written Facebook posts trying to convince people to behave differently, to care differently, to love differently.

I’ve needed the church to behave differently so that I would be ok, so that I wouldn’t be embarrassed, or ashamed, or angry. As it turns out, that’s not very loving or healthy.

I’m beginning to realize that there’s a difference between loving the church and being enmeshed with it. There’s a difference between being grieved at her sins and being so emotionally devastated by her sins that I want to scream at people. One is healthy and vital, while the other is evidence of codependency.

 

Definitions & Caveats

Codependency is “excessive emotional or psychological reliance on a partner, typically one who requires support on account of an illness or addiction.”[1]

In unhealthy systems like this, talking about things openly and honestly can get complicated; silence is of paramount importance, and silence helps to maintain the status quo. One writer described it this way:

“One fairly common denominator seemed to be the unwritten, silent rules that usually develop in the immediate family and set the pace for relationships. These rules prohibit discussion about problems.”[2]

I have felt this. I have felt the urge to sit down, to shut up, to stay silent. But I can’t anymore.

The real-world impact of codependency is complex, but at least in part, a codependent person will seek to control the ill person (or addict) so that the codependent will remain psychologically intact.

This was me. And it’s made me bone-weary.

My identity was so wrapped up in the church that a threat to the church (even if it was from inside the church) felt like a direct threat to my core self. I don’t want to live that way anymore.

Is the American church a functioning alcoholic, drunk on power and patriarchy? Yes, some of it is. But “the church” is a pretty large entity to lump together in an accusation like that. So please hear me when I say this: there are parts of the American evangelical church that really are sick. Those parts need to be honestly assessed and truthfully addressed. But that doesn’t mean it all needs to be burned to the ground.

Eugene Peterson spoke plainly about the tensions of living in (and serving) a community of believers. It was not all rosy. But even while admitting the challenges, he wrote, “I have little time for the anti-church crowd who seem snobbish and who have little sense of the lived way of soul and Christ.”[3]

C.S. Lewis would have agreed, I think. A generation before Peterson, Lewis wrote this in a letter to a friend: “The New Testament does not envisage solitary religion. Some (like you – and me) find it more natural to approach God in solitude; but we must go to Church as well.”[4]

I can’t “do faith” on my own. I’ve gained so much from my involvement in local churches. It has been good for me, spiritually, emotionally, and even psychologically. My family has found a local body of believers in our new town in the Midwest, and we are jumping in to community and fellowship.

I am not anti-church, but I am anti-pretend, and I can’t act like things are OK in the American church.

I resonate deeply with Beattie when she writes, “[C]odependency is called a disease because it is progressive. As the people around us become sicker, we may begin to react more intensely.”[5]

Is that what’s happening to me? To us? Have we been in a codependent relationship with the church? Is this why now, as her behavior appears to become sicker and sicker, so many of us are reacting more and more intensely, getting either angrier or else just running away? I think so.

 

Churches Love Codependents

Codependents make great church members. They’re sacrificial. They’ll do anything. They’ll go anywhere. And they’ll defend the leaders and the system if they have to. They care a LOT about the church.

Many church-growth strategies look like a playbook for making people codependent. Encourage strong identification with a specific church/leader/group. Call it branding. Teach a lot about the uniqueness of this church and church culture. Create a very strong “us vs. them” motif. Emphasize teachings on authority and respecting spiritual leadership/headship. And if our “family” is ever in crisis, circle the wagons. And God forbid, but if anyone from without or within criticizes the church, take it personally, react vehemently, and DEFEND.

As it does in the world of codependency and addiction, these strategies quickly lead to a persecution complex, and American evangelicals thrive on a persecution complex.

 

Local Church, Hope of the World?

The now-disgraced pastor and author Bill Hybels used to say regularly, “The local church is the hope of the world.” I used to quote that statement regularly. But you know what? I’ve learned it’s not true. In fact, that message causes a slow but steady trend towards deep dysfunction: Hide flaws. Silence survivors. Conceal abusers (or transfer them somewhere else). Don’t let those on the outside see reality.

Codependents always protect the addict.

But protecting the reputation of the church is a fool’s errand, and it typically ends up meaning, “We need to protect the reputation of our leaders.” If the leader is leading the church that is the hope of the world, or at least the city, then we must protect him, along with the system he leads.

And if a narcissistic politician promises to protect our churches and our “Christian rights,” then we must protect him, too, and hold him above reproach. This is so wrong and harmful for our nation, but we learned it in our churches first.

To put it more bluntly, if the local church is the hope of the world, then the leader of the local church is the hope of the world too. Chuck DeGroat, clinician and pastor, writes about narcissistic church leaders. These leaders are more than happy to be seen as the hope of the world. He writes, “The grandiosity, entitlement, and absence of empathy characteristic of narcissistic personality disorder was translated into the profile of a good leader.” In these systems, “Loyalty to the narcissistic leader and the system’s perpetuation is demanded.”[6]

This is not healthy.

 

Next Steps

The last few years have revealed some of the addictions and illnesses of the evangelical church: patriarchy, white nationalism, a fervent and enduring embrace of narcissistic, abusive leaders, and a disregard for the truth.

During all of that, we were also taught to love the church. And we did.

I did.

What many of us learned, though, was that we needed to love the church as the prime thing. Nobody said it, but I think we gained more identity from our churches than we did from our Christ.

We desperately need to work on de-centering the church (and politics) and re-centering the Christ, the hope of the world. Karen Swallow Prior recently wrote about this in her article titled, “With this much rot, there’s no choice but to deconstruct.” She says,

“We must make Jesus the head of his bride again. We can no longer put the church — its name, its reputation, its money, its salaries, its staff, its programs, its numbers — before Christ himself.”[7]

Enmeshing ourselves with charismatic Christian (or political) leaders is tempting. It helps us feel like we belong and like we’re on the inside. But if our core identities hinge on our churches or our political parties, we have erred terribly.

 

The Church Called TOV

This article is not a book review. However, I believe a truthful review of Scot McKnight and Laura Barringer’s book, A Church Called TOV, would be this simple: A Church Called TOV is a textbook for walking out of religious codependency.

It’s that good.

The authors compare unhealthy, dysfunctional dynamics, with gentle, Christ-honoring pathways forward. Here are the main ideas:

Conclusion

I don’t want to love the church in a codependent way anymore. I will still love her, but I don’t want to be enmeshed with her, where her good (or bad) behavior alters my own sense of self.

I want to nurture empathy and grace. I want to put people first and tell the truth. I want to pursue justice and honor humble service. I want to grow into Christlikeness.

I will continue to be a part of my local church, but I don’t want my core identity to come from her. It can’t. I can’t be enmeshed any longer with the American evangelical complex.

The local church (even a great one) is not the hope of the world.

Jesus Christ is the hope of the world.

Amen.

Come, Lord Jesus.

 

A Lament for the Church: a prayer of letting go

The path to healing from codependency often involves an emotional detaching. That does not mean you care less for the person from whom you’re detaching. It just means you are detaching from “the agony of involvement.”[8]

This lament, patterned after the material in Mark Vroegops’ book, Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy, is my attempt not to care less, but to care healthier.

God of the Church, the one who sees the end from the beginning, hear my cry to you today. You established the heavens above and the Church below, and one day you will invite your Bride, your people, to feast with you in the New City, the golden city of God.

But here and now, O God, your Bride seems sullied. More to the point, your Bride seems to be chasing after the wind, pining away for other lovers who promise power and a seat at the table. Your people are damaging people. They have turned on the least of these, preferring instead to join in with mockers, to stand with sinners.

You will not be mocked, and you will not endure their sins forever. So do something! Stop this madness! Bring light back to our eyes. Make compassion great again! Do not stop your ear to the cry of your people. No! Listen to their fawning over false prophets, see their bowing before every lying hashtag and would-be tyrant. Open their eyes and break their hearts!

You alone know, O God, the depths of the deceit, and the depths of your love. I yield the floor, trusting that this is your case to make, and believing that you will. Your ways are too complex and masterful for me to comprehend, so I yield.

I trust you to figure this out and respond appropriately.

And I rest in your promises to forgive me too.

Amen.


[1] Oxford English Dictionary

[2] Codependent No More, by Melody Beattie

[3] As quoted in the book, A Burning in My Bones, by Winn Collier

[4] The Quotable Lewis, by Martindale and Root

[5] Codependent No More

[6] When Narcissism Comes to Church, by Chuck DeGroat

[7] https://religionnews.com/2021/08/04/with-this-much-rot-theres-no-choice-but-to-deconstruct/

[8] Codependent No More

Originally published at trotters41.com

Beware the Idols of an Overseas Life

When we first move overseas, all we feel is the sacrifice. 

Homesickness punches us in the stomach; we experience a physical ache for left-behind loved ones. Our new country feels strange and overwhelming. We lose our sense of self-respect as we bumble along in communication. We mourn the loss of our identity and productivity as we try to figure out how to drive, eat, and parent in this new universe. There are times when we even hate it, and wonder what on earth brought us here.

But then, something changes.

It will likely take (many) years, but one day it dawns on us that we feel more at home in our host country than our home country. We tell jokes in a different language. We navigate the bus system with ease. We crave the local food. We no longer look forward to our furloughs or home assignments, and might even dread them. 

We’ve found a new community, and it’s possible that those relationships are stronger and deeper than anything we had back at home. The view outside our kitchen window has become familiar. Grocery shopping is mundane. We’ve figured out how to make this new life work. And we are comfortable.

And that’s exactly when we must be on our guard.

Think about it this way: when our life overseas is a sacrifice, we continually contemplate our calling. Why am I here? Is this worth it? Am I doing any good? We dig deep into dependence on God. We evaluate our motives. When life is a slog, our vision is clear: we know why we are doing this. 

But what about when life becomes comfortable? Once we’ve adapted to a new culture, we come face-to-face with the reality that this overseas life has perks. Sometimes, lots of them. 

Our lives are interesting. Fulfilling. Living as an expat means we get the benefits of two worlds: the richness, beauty, and adventure of our host country, but with all the safety nets from our home country. We get to travel to exotic places. We become exotic people.

We get to stand out–not only in our host country, but back at home too. We are respected, set apart, even put on a pedestal. 

We don’t like to admit this. We would rather stick with the “sacrifice” narrative, because it feels better. And of course, some sacrifices never disappear. But often, with enough time, the perks outweigh the sacrifices. 

Comfort is sinister because it can lull us into lying to ourselves. This new identity can be intoxicating. We laugh and say, “Living overseas is addicting!” which is kind of funny, but kind of dangerous. This fulfilling life can blind us to the truths we need to see.

Being venerated by others can steal our cultural humility–both overseas and back at home. Feeling comfortable can poke holes in our dependence on God. Our sense of calling can be overshadowed by the fact that we just really like our life. 

We might stop evaluating our effectiveness. Stop questioning our motives. We may even ignore that little voice that tells us it’s time to turn the ministry over to locals, that it’s time to move on. 

It’s very easy for the perks of living overseas to become idols. What is especially disturbing is that these idols are disguised as sacrifices–both to us and to those back at home. The missions narrative can allow us to live for ourselves while pretending that we are only about God’s kingdom. This should terrify us. 

Does this mean that it’s automatically time to leave when life overseas becomes comfortable? Does this mean that we aren’t allowed to enjoy the gifts of an overseas life? Of course not. If you are in that place, rejoice, for it took a lot of grit to get there. But also, be on your guard. Don’t lose your commitment to humility, to self-evaluation, to asking the hard questions of yourself and your ministry. Recognize the danger of comfort, look it straight in the eye, and confront it head on. If you find yourself defensive, pay attention. What’s really going on in your heart?

John Calvin famously said, “The human heart is an idol factory.” We should not be stunned to discover how quickly our hearts will take something godly and beautiful–even in missions–and turn it into our own personal idol. Let us beware.

Moving Abroad Will Fix All Your Issues. . . . and Other Lies

Ahh moving abroad . . . that’ll fix it. A fresh start. A new leaf. A change of scenery.  That’s what I need to break me out of the unhealthy rhythms and dysfunctional habits I’ve been carrying with me for years. Right?

The people reading this are having at least three distinctly different reactions right now. The starry-eyed “Soon-To-Be’s” are like, “Exactly what I was thinking. Makes total sense.” The half-jaded “Been-There’s” are saying, “PFFFT.  Keep dreaming chump.” And somewhere out there someone just giggled and thought, “Yeah, not so much, but it gets better.”

I wish it were true. I really do. I wish that packing up and moving to a new place meant that you could leave your baggage at home. But you can’t . . . at least not most of the time.

(Just a side note to anyone who actually did discover that moving away fixed all of their issues . . . you should maybe not say anything just now . . . the rest of us don’t like you.)

I call it FLIGHT INFLATION (capitalized for emphasis), and it’s a reality built on two simple principles:

    • Issues can fly
    • They expand when they land

The cross-cultural life can be the great inflator of personal problems. It can also be painfully deceptive, early on. The excitement, the adventure, and the newness can serve as a great cover-up for a good long time, but rest assured . . . if it’s in there . . . it will come out.

Let’s get blunt for just a minute so there’s no mistaking what we’re talking about here:

If addiction is your thing — drugs, booze, porn, attention, name it — an international move is not a substitute for recovery. You can expect that your triggers and temptations will be stronger than ever. Even if your vice seems unavailable in your new home, addicts are masters at finding what they crave.

If your marriage is in the toilet —  You may very well need some time away with your spouse, and a trip abroad could be just what the therapist ordered . . . but LIFE abroad is NOT a break from reality to gather your thoughts and talk things out . . . it is a NEW reality altogether. It’s a reality that mixes all of your past frustrations with a whole new set of frustrations. That’s dangerous chemistry.

If you have anger issues — That’s one place in your passport country where your life can be compartmentalized. Blow up at work, and no one at church will ever know. Kick the dog, and he’ll keep it a secret. Life abroad is (and I generalize here) more community driven — less prone to personal space and segmented social spheres. Who you really are is harder to keep secret in a bubble when everyone you know is all up in your business.

Whatever your issue is — Withdrawal. Gossip. Anxiety. Depression. Control issues. Procrastination. Doubt. Shame. Laziness. Misphonia (that thing where mouth sounds make you crazy . . . what? . . . it’s a real thing . . . stop judging).

Seriously — whatever it is — life abroad doesn’t fix it.

Anonymity, isolation, lack of support, cultural stress, feeling out of control (this list goes on for a while) are all factors in the swelling of our issues abroad. Consider the fact that you are often expected to complete high stakes tasks with other anonymous, isolated, unsupported, highly stressed, out-of-control people, and FLIGHT INFLATION starts to make sense.

But this is not a doomsday post (could have fooled me, right?). So hear me out.

If you’re a starry-eyed “Soon-To-Be,” don’t freak out.

    • Everyone has issues . . . for real . . . everyone.
    • Do everything you can to address them before you go. And set up a plan to keep addressing them.
    • Don’t be naive. Going in with your eyes open sets you up to do this right.
    • Sidenote — If your issues are actually going to crush you abroad, it is MUCH better to discover that before you go.

If you’re a half-jaded “Been There,” there’s good news.

    • You’re also half unjaded. Resolve not to go the other half.
    • Say it with me: “Life abroad does not get to rob me of my _______” (marriage, sanity, sobriety, dog).
    • Become a master of seeking wisdom.
    • Sidenote — If your issues are already crushing you, finish this sentence, “It would be better for me to ______ than to lose my ________.” Then do whatever it takes.

And if you’ve been there, come through it, and learned something along the way, here are some requests for you.

    • Share your wisdom. Humbly and with great empathy. Please.
    • Don’t get cocky. Issues come back.
    • Be an advocate for people with issues. They could use someone who understands.
    • Sidenote — Consider that people are NEVER the best version of themselves in transition. Help them navigate.

 

(Originally published at thecultureblend.com.) 

Which of these 3 barriers are tripping you up?

In his book Upstream, Dan Heath explores how to solve problems before they happen. Basically, when you are upstream you have different—better—options than you do downstream. Downstream you are forced to react to situations, whereas upstream you can anticipate and, in some cases, mitigate problems.

Many organizations have “home assignment” or “furlough” policies. About a year ago at Global Trellis I asked the question, what would an upstream approach to home assignments, furloughs, or sabbaticals look like? Is an upstream approach possible for a sabbatical? Or a life in ministry? It is.

However, according to Heath, three barriers can get in the way of an upstream approach:

1. Problem Blindness —  is the belief that negative outcomes are normal or inevitable. Phrases like “that’s just how it is” or to put a Christian spin on it, “that’s part of the call.” While it’s true that there is a cost to the call, too often we play that card without really thinking through if it is a cost or a result of problem blindness.
 

Sabbaticals are only for pastors or professors.

Home assignments aren’t really restful.

What a waste of my supporters’ money! I should be on the field.

2. A Lack of Ownership — occurs because many individuals or organizations are too overwhelmed or under resourced to move upstream. At Global Trellis, we want to be part of the solution and have pledged to be part of preparing you to function upstream when you can. 

My organization doesn’t have a plan for my home assignment, they just said I have to take one.

Sabbaticals are only for research, so this doesn’t apply to me.

What will supporters think of me? What will I tell them I’m doing?

3. Tunneling — occurs when people are juggling a lot of problems, they give up trying to solve them all and adopt tunnel vision. A clue that you’re tunneling is when you feel a sense of scarcity. You might feel that you don’t have enough time, money, supporters, teammates, options, or even favor from God. Tunneling forces you into short-term thinking. As Dan Heath said, “In the tunnel, there’s only forward.”

You have no idea how many churches and supporters I need to visit.

I already feel strapped for time! I cannot add a course to guide me through my sabbatical on top of it all.

I have a whole year . . . what’s the rush?

The Sabbatical Journey Course was created with these three barriers in mind and is available twice a year. The doors to the course will open on September 9, 2021 and you can notified when the Sabbatical Journey Course is available here.

While we might experience problem blindness, God never does. God will use the time you have for your home assignment, furlough, or sabbatical. He sees you, and loves you.

Photo by Heidi Fin on Unsplash

A Childhood Erased

MCS School South

In June, the boarding school in Pakistan where I spent my childhood closed her doors. No longer will children respond to the gong of a bell that goes off for meal times. No longer will high schoolers gather outside the hostel, shyly sitting with The Boy that one has liked for so long, hands brushing against each other through the conversation and laughter of their classmates. No longer will staff and students alike have to shout over the roar of monsoon rains on tin roofs. The pine trees will no longer hear the whispered joys, sorrows, and prayers of students. Steel bunkbeds will no longer capture early morning tears of homesickness. There will be no more chapel, no more tea time, no more study halls, and no more graduations. Never again will the school song, so long ago penned by my father, be sung in that setting.

An era will be over, and with it – part of my life will seem erased.

Last night I watched memories of Murree, put together by my dear friend, Paul. With my husband and younger daughter by my side I was able to experience again the thick fog of Jhika Gali and the hairpin turns of roads. I heard one last gong of the bell and laughed as a monkey, captured perfectly on film, ran toward me and then away.

I have known about this closing for some time. The school was founded in 1956, a wonderful and admittedly rare happening where missionaries of every denomination got together and worked to build a school for the children of missionaries and nationals who were serving in Pakistan and neighboring countries. This year, after 65 years of service, the doors to the school will close. The last class has now graduated. Murree Christian School will no longer be a concrete place with walls and windows, students and administrators. Instead it will be relegated to memories in people around the world and, surprisingly, a wikipedia page of its own.

My friend Robynn and I occassionally text back and forth about our school closing. Ten years apart, we had similar experiences at MCS. Times of sorrow and sadness to be sure – but that is not the only story. Our stories are stories of much laughter and learning, of grace and growth, of the pure joy of youth. About two months ago I texted to Robynn “Our childhood is slowly being erased.”

A closing ceremony that brought hundreds of us together on ZOOM was planned for July. As it grew closer to the time of the ceremony, the more I felt an urgent sadness that needed to be voiced. MCS holds so many stories. I somehow never thought that the day it closed would really come. As my dear friend Robynn says so well:

Deep relationships were formed. Faith was nurtured. It’s difficult to capture in words what this hidden place has meant to many now literally scattered the world over.

Robynn Bliss

To be sure, we live in a different era. The school had dropped in size to a miniscule number. Staff are hard to come by and finances more so. Schools cannot stay open simply to be receptacles for childhood memories. In fact, the beauty of the times I visited back after graduation lay in the fact that it was still a living, vibrant place. New students and staff that (shockingly) did not know me had their own memories and events, their own life stories. A terrorist attack shortly after 9/11 changed the school in unimaginable ways, taking away the freedom that we students from the seventies had. Dwindling class sizes made it the more difficult to justify the cost of keeping up the buildings and grounds. Less people were comfortable sending their children to boarding school. There are many reasons to close and the decision to close was more difficult than I can imagine.

What does an adult do when they feel their childhood is slowly being erased? The tendency would be to grasp at whatever I can to keep the picture of what I had.

Instead, I open my hands and I give the pencil back to God. From the beginning it is he that wrote the story of MCS. It is God who gave the vision, God who sustained the decades of life, God who loves the people who entered and left the large, stone building to forge their way in a world beyond.

As I have thought more about MCS closing, I have released the idea of my childhood erased. That is giving the closing of a man-made, though wonderful, institution too much power. Instead I’ve thought about the stones of remembrance that I take with me from my childhood and this place that shaped me.

The idea of stones of remembrance comes from the Old Testament book of Joshua. The Lord tells Joshua to choose 12 men, one from each tribe. They are to go and pick up a stone from the middle of the Jordan River, at the spot where the priests were carrying the Ark of the Covenant. They were to carry the stones to the place where the people would spend the night. There they would put them down to serve as a sign. These were stones of remembrance. They served as a sign to the people present and to future generations that God was there, that he was faithful, that he did not leave his people.

What are the stones of remembrance in my life that connect to MCS? What rocks can I point to, stones of surety that declare “God was here.” What can I list that point to a life of faith, built on a stone foundation?

My stones of remembrance are imperfect people who taught me how to forgive and fellow students and dear friends who taught me what it was to press on. My stones of remembrance are the laughter that drowns out the memories of homesickness and the growth that leans into discomfort. My stones of remembrance are brothers who share blood and friends who share memories. My stones of remembrance are rocks of trust and knowing that somehow, all would be well.

I am gathering the stones, I am putting them down in writing, so that I too can tell future generations “This is what shaped me, this is why I am here.” Because it’s good to remember.


At every graduation and important event, we sang our school hymn, voices raised to the rafters of the old church building turned school. Some of us sang with immense talent, others just sang. Though all were lost in those moments in their own thoughts, never knowing that most would look back on these times and the song itself with deep longing. I leave you the final verse here – a reminder that no closing of anything is powerful enough to erase childhood.

Lord with thanks and praise we honor Murree Christian School
May her life and fame and service for thee ever rule

Built upon a firm foundation, in God's hands a tool,
Shaping lives of dedication, Murree Christian School

In all our lives we go through times where places and people we love change, where we recognize that life will never be quite the same. What are your stones of remembrance for those times? Where can you point to rocks of trust and a foundation that holds even when the building changes?

Note: This post was originally published at Communicating Across Boundaries.

All the Things I Still Don’t Know

by Janine

Tonight my daughter came home with homework of fill-in-the-blank words, where they give you a picture and maybe a “letter” (or in our case, a syllable) or two as a hint. These assignments are new as she’s starting to advance in learning her hiragana [the simplest of the phonetic lettering scripts of Japanese].

Some words I just type into the dictionary, and together we learn a new word. The problem arises when you have no idea what they’re trying to portray in the picture. Two out of six were words I have no reference for… one of them I’m not sure we have a word for in English. So I’m waiting for a message from a friend who will help me help my kid with her homework.

Anyway, it’s gotten me thinking about the ongoing upheaval of our sense of competency that begins the moment you land in a new world you’ll now call home.

Before you left, it was all about competency and calling. Or at least, so you thought.

You go through applications and interviews, you study, you take courses, you prepare, you pack, you have meetings and presentations, you answer questions… people think you’re ready to go! “They are fit for the calling,” you hear them say.

And you need to do these things. You have to be wise and not embark foolishly and haphazardly.

But here’s the paradox: you land, and you can just go ahead and throw all that out the window.

I know. It doesn’t make sense. But it really does make sense.

No longer are you the person who knows “all the things.”

You’re a learner now, and it’s best to honestly suit yourself with that attitude along with your new visa stamp.

Gone are the cultural clues, the comfort of how you do things, social structures and systems that you’re familiar with. Gone are the days of intuitively understanding life and the way everything works. Gone are the days of giving on-point presentations; you’ll be combatting first grade homework!

It’s time to learn a language. That’s not like a one- or two-month course and then you’ve checked that off your list. For many languages it’s thousands of hours of study and practice. And you’ll probably butcher it for a good long time and speak with the worst accent. You’ll make silly, embarrassing mistakes. You’ll talk like a child and have to work hard to refine and grow yourself.

You’ll need help, and lots of it. You’ll need humility, and lots of it.

You’ll need a good sense of humor to laugh at yourself and not take yourself so seriously.

You’ll make blunders culturally. Some you’ll laugh about (later), and some you might cringe over here ever after.

You’ll learn to interpret all the things you didn’t even know were there before, because they aren’t written.

You’ll learn new expressions, new things you didn’t know you could do (by the grace of God!), new vibrancy and variety of the beautiful creation of God.

Hopefully, you’ll slowly learn to strip your Biblical beliefs of their cultural colors and give the substance to another to see God bring it to colorful life in their cultural expression and the work of the Holy Spirit in their life.

You’ll be serving– or even deeper than that– learning how to serve. Learning how to share.

It’s our seventh year together on the field. I see just how far we’ve come in all of these areas, praise God. These are the things you might read about in our newsletters or our blog.

But what we live, in our daily missionary lives, is the distance we have yet to go. It’s all the things I still don’t know, but that there is grace for and that God works in.

A Japanese Christian man who works with many missionaries told us that it takes a good 10 years for a missionary to start getting good at culture and language here. So we still have even more to go to be properly seasoned.

And yet, in the meantime, we know God is working and using us, and moving in the process. We see it in our lives and in the people around us and in God’s leading and timing. It’s a journey, definitely not as we anticipated, and yet, all the things we learned and unlearned and then re-learned– they make a lot more sense these days.

This entire journey is a walk of faith and trust in God that He’s got the map right even if the one we’re holding is upside down.  He’ll enlighten us like a loving parent, if we’ll allow Him to.  He’ll even transform us through this journey and work through us in ways we might never have seen coming.  In the end, it’s Christ who supplies our competency as ministers of the Gospel.

~~~~~~~~~

Janine, her husband Vicente, and their three daughters live and serve in the Tokyo metro area.  They established an evangelistic media ministry to share the Gospel.  Janine served for 3 years in Mexico before moving to Tokyo to work in church-planting, where she eventually met her Honduran husband who happened to visit on a short-term trip. Janine enjoys audiobooks, quilting, cooking and obviously, writing. You can find out whether they survive elementary school by following her personal blog.

Hope for Those in a New Place: The Power of Muscle Memory

I recently moved to a new country. New house, new city, new grocery store, new car, new neighborhood. Just about every single thing in my life was new.

Entering a grocery store almost brought about a panic attack. I started at the jars of mayonnaise, paralyzed by indecision. Which one tastes best? Which one is healthiest or cheapest? What if I make the wrong choice? And then repeat that by 25 as I walked down the aisles, my head spinning, my list clutched in my sweaty hand. I didn’t know where the olives were. I didn’t recognize much of what was on the shelves. I stressed over how much chicken was supposed to cost. Once I was ready to check-out, another wave of tension flooded me as I had to remind myself of the procedure for buying my groceries. 

Then there was driving. My new country drives on the opposite side of the road as my previous country. That meant that every time I got to the car, I had to focus on which side of the car I needed to enter. If I happened to be absent-minded, I would get in, close the door, and attempt to put my key into the glove compartment. Once I did manage to successfully turn on the car, it took all my concentration to make sure I was driving on the correct side of the road. I repeatedly reminded myself of the traffic laws of my new country, knowing that my instincts would be to follow the rules of the former.

And of course, there’s not only the newness of living in a new house, but all new furnishings too. Are the light switches on the outside of the door or the inside? Where is that can opener? How do I get that new fry pan on the new stove to cook bacon without burning it? How do I get rid of these confounded ants? 

That much newness, all at once, was incredibly disorienting. It made me feel out of place and out of sorts. And I found myself having thoughts suspiciously similar to what I remember about middle school: I feel so stupid. Everyone knows what they are doing except me. They really must be wondering what is wrong with me. 

It was exhausting. All that concentration, all day long, from remembering the route to the store to picking up mail to cleaning the floors, had my brain on overdrive. A big part of me wanted to run back to my previous country, where everything felt familiar and routine and comfortable.

So it was during those first few months that I needed to remind myself, over and over, of the power of muscle memory. 

Muscle memory is defined as: “the ability to reproduce a particular movement without conscious thought, acquired as a result of frequent repetition of that movement.” Muscle memory, is, perhaps, one of God’s greatest gifts to us. It means that we can talk to our kids while driving the car, or get brilliant ideas while taking a shower. Our brain can relax in our day-to-day routines, giving us the mental space we need for learning new skills or concentrating on solving a difficult problem. 

This explains why when we move to a new country, our lack of muscle memory makes it easy to be overwhelmed and exhausted. It makes sense why we might even hate our new life, and deeply crave running back to what feels comfortable and familiar. 

It’s at this point that we must remember why muscle memory is important. Life will not always be this hard, this tiring, this formidable. It will not always feel so strange. Muscle memory assures us that if we do the same thing enough times, it will eventually feel normal and easy. It will. Trust that it will. 

A year after our move, I can walk through my house in the dark and not bump into things. I don’t have to use Google maps for every place I go. The grocery store is boring, and I automatically pick up the same type of mayonnaise. When I drive the kids to school, I know the spot where the lane ends and I have to move over, and I do it without thinking. I’m not used to every part of my new life yet, but on the whole, it’s become a whole lot easier. 

Here’s the surprise twist: My new county is the United States of America. We relocated back after 16 years in East Africa. I found that re-adapting to life here was just as challenging as moving overseas. 

So for those of you in a new place, let me encourage you: Your brain will not always feel this tired. You won’t always have this maniacal part of you that wants to run away and jump on the closest airplane to take you home. 

What is the secret? Just keep going. Keep moving. Keep doing the same things, over and over again, and wait patiently for muscle memory to kick in. Push through this weary season, because it will get better. It will. I promise. 

Should You Be a Missionary . . . Again?

by Abigail Follows

“I never want to be a missionary again! Amen.” I closed my prayer journal and smiled with satisfaction. It felt good to be honest with God.

Don’t get me wrong. I had beautiful memories from the seven years my family and I spent as missionaries in the mountains of India. Camping in the Himalayas with shepherds. Surviving the births of my two kids in rural hospitals—the second time by a miracle. Watching a woman forgive for the first time in her life. It was a beautiful experience, worth every sacrifice we made to be there.

It was just that I didn’t think I had it in me to do it all again. To squeeze my thoughts into yet another worldview. To spend years learning yet another language. To love an Entire People Group on behalf of Christ—again. I was tired and out of energy. I was spent.

“You have my permission to change my heart,” I said aloud, thinking this time God would let me off the hook.

Yet just one year after we left India, we re-launched to a closed-access country in north Africa. Why do I always forget how good God is at changing hearts?

What about you? Are you a returned missionary? Do you wonder whether God is calling you back into the field? Here are some practical steps you can take to evaluate your calling and readiness to go for God—again.

 

Take your time
If you’ve just returned from mission service, consider taking a break. Get some perspective on your first call. Give yourself time to process.

Just two days after our return from India, a fellow missionary asked us to consider joining his family in Africa. However, our sending organization advised us to wait at least a year before deciding. They gave us work at the home office, and we spent several months just living a quiet, low-key life. Waiting gave us time to rest and recuperate from a very intense mission experience.

My husband, Joshua, is the kind of person who is always ready to go, like, yesterday. I, on the other hand, need to filter minor decisions through a complex network of questions about the meaning of life and the potential for unintentional death… so it can take me a while to be ready for new things.

But my husband was patient. He let me bring up the topic when I was ready, kept a good sense of humor about it, and prayed for me. So if you’re married, be patient with yourselves and with each other.

 

Set a Date and Tell God
Setting a date takes the pressure off you and puts things back in God’s hands. Whether He answers by a dream, impression, open doors, or something else, He will make things clear!

After a good break, Joshua and I chose a “Decision Day” and told God He’d have to do any heart-changing by that deadline.

And He did. For us, He sent a life-changing dream, plus the heart re-filling that we both needed. In just a few months, Africa became a real possibility. We began to discuss the idea in earnest.

 

Get Away
As your Decision Day approaches, take yourself (or yourselves, if you are married) somewhere quiet. Give yourself some peaceful, uninterrupted time to talk and pray. If you can, take several days. If not, schedule time to talk and pray over the course of several evenings.

A few months before our Decision Day we attended our organization’s orientation week. There we met a handful of fresh, pre-launch missionaries. They had so many questions for us. I had thought our experience would make us too tired to keep giving. What if it actually made us more mature, informed missionaries? 

We decided to fast and pray. During the fast, it dawned on us that there were almost a thousand theology students at our nearby seminary, ready to do God’s work in North America. There were five people at orientation ready to do ministry in the 10/40 window.

But were we still called?

 

Look for the Arrows
Celebrate your story, the story God has been writing all your life. What are all the little arrows in the road God has used to guide you? Do you believe He called you to be a missionary the first time? Has He released you from that calling? Has your calling shifted? Or is He still calling you to be a missionary?

After praying about it, Joshua and I agreed that we were released from our call to India, but not released from our call to reach the unreached.

But were we ready?

 

Evaluate Readiness
Take stock of the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual situation of each member of your family. Is there anything anyone still needs? If trauma or conflict was a factor in your departure from your first call, have you sought effective Christian counseling? Does anyone in the family still carry bitterness in need of some sweet, soothing forgiveness? Is everyone healthy, both spiritually and physically?

Our reason for leaving India verged into the trauma side of things. Because of that, it was super important to us to evaluate whether we had sufficiently addressed the needs of each member of our family. It felt like a miracle to look back and see just how much healing God had done in such a short amount of time. 

 

Seek Counsel
Here’s where I tell you to do as I say, not as I do. Don’t be afraid to seek counsel from Godly people in your life!

I wish Joshua and I would have asked for more prayer support during this time. I also wish we would have given our (very Godly) parents more of an opportunity to share their thoughts and feelings. Although they gave us their blessing, I think including them in our process would have made it easier for them to be at peace about our taking a second call.

 

Make a decision
When the day comes, it should be clear whether you should go, stay, or postpone the decision. Celebrate that clarity with a prayer of thanksgiving. And, if you need to take care of some things before you’re ready to make a decision, set a new Decision Day date to work towards.

Our decision was simple–we gathered the kids, knelt together, and thanked God for His calling. Then we pledged ourselves to go again, by His strength.

 

If now is not the time…
Hudson Taylor, 
the example of self-sacrifice and incarnational Christian service, took a five-year break from China because of health concerns. Those five years in English must have felt. Like. So. Long. Like forever.

But when Taylor re-launched to China in 1866, he brought with him the first missionaries of China Inland Missions.

If you have to wait, wait with patience and faith. If the answer is no, and God has released you from your overseas calling, know that He will use you wherever He has put you. Be content to be a part of His plans. They’re awesome plans, no matter where they take place.

 

If God is calling you to go again…
Go with God, my friend! And watch for another article with tips for adjusting to a second host country.

Dig deeper into the discernment process with these questions: Missionaries20ConversationStarters.

~~~~~~~~~~~

Abigail Follows has lived on three continents and listened to the life stories of friends in three languages. She has been a cross-cultural missionary for 11 years. Abigail lives wherever God leads with her husband, two children, and cat, Protagonist. She recently released Hidden Song of the Himalayas, a memoir about her family’s seven years as missionaries in India. Find out more at abigailfollows.com.

Permission to Prioritize Your Birth Abroad

by Chandler Gilow

Birth is important. It’s one of the most human experiences, shared by women and families in every culture on earth. It is both universal and highly personal. The experience is also completely unique, no matter how many births you have. Birth is life changing every time, and your experience, whether good or bad, will impact your life for years to come. 

As a labor and delivery nurse, I have seen a few key components that set up families to navigate this season well no matter the outcome: planning, education, advocacy, and support. If moms and dads set aside the time to research their options, learn about the birth process, and gameplan for potential outcomes, they can advocate with confidence in almost any situation. Likewise, families who are intentional about lining up the support they need can better handle deviations from their plans. 

This transitional season always brings stress, albeit happy stress, into the family unit as you make decisions about your healthcare team and parenting. However, these potential stressors can be compounded for those living abroad.  

A lot of my expat friends had a baby in their first 3 years abroad, and from what I’ve gathered, this is a pretty common story. In the first 3 years you are still transitioning to your new culture, learning a new language, healthcare system, and community. Not to mention potentially helping older TCKs adjust, working with visa restrictions, possibly relocating for birth, and don’t forget ALL the paperwork.  

This season was meant to be filled with joy and excited anticipation, not overwhelming stress. The great news is that it can be fun and wonderful if you allow yourself to invest the time and energy.  

When we found out we were expecting our second baby, we were about a year into language learning in the Middle East. We were excited and overwhelmed all at the same time. Our first birth in the U.S had not gone as planned. The calm birth I’d hoped for ended in an emergency cesarean with a long healing time. 

We had not prepared well. I thought that because I was a nurse I could get by with halfheartedly focusing on a childbirth education class. In the end we had a beautiful little girl, but also some residual trauma. I decided for my second that I would unapologetically devote my time to preparing mentally, spiritually, and emotionally. All the hours of research, preparation, and relocation to a city to get the birth team I needed, ended in a very healing VBAC abroad. All that time was worth it to me because we came back healthier than before the birth.  

Since then, I have talked to so many families who feel guilt for investing time and resources into preparing for their birth. They feel like they are taking time away from language learning, ministry, or their job. They struggle to justify spending money on classes or a doula because they raise money and do not feel like they can make a case to supporters. I have also seen families with older children approach birth abroad without thinking through the nuances that could impact their experience.  

The truth is, birth abroad is amazing and beautiful, and it can be a great way to connect with your local culture. However, it also comes with a lot of nuance that needs to be considered. Every family is different and needs to be respected. They need to prioritize different decisions in their pregnancy/birth/postpartum experience to thrive.

You may need to hire a doula, pay for a birth class, change healthcare providers, travel to another city/country to get a level of healthcare you feel comfortable with. It could mean not feeling guilty reading birth books at night instead of running though your language flashcards one more time, taking time away from your typical day to interview multiple care providers, or paying a little extra to get a private postpartum room. 

Whatever you choose to prioritize should not be done with guilt or seen as an indulgence. It should be seen as an investment to keep your family resilient and to increase longevity on the field. After all, there are no do-overs in birth. I would much rather see families thrive through this season with adequate education, resources, and community instead of simply thriving or needing healing postpartum.  

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Chandler is a wife, mom of two, RN, and Lactation Specialist who started The Global Birth Coach after seeing a hole in expat care during her birth abroad. She is now stateside with her family while her husband finishes his PhD. She is passionate about empowering families to thrive in the perinatal period. You can find her @theglobalbirthcoach on Facebook, Instagram, and PinterestThe Expat Birth Podcast is a podcast devoted to sharing birth stories from abroad. It is released monthly on all major platforms. Contact her through her website or email: info@theglobalbirthcoach.com. 

 

When Doors Close

by Carol Ghattas

“You have ten days to leave the country.” I was shocked. There I stood, pregnant with our first child, excited about the future, and this government official was bringing it all to an end. What had we done? “You’re a risk to national security,” he said. Though I should have held my tongue, the words came quickly out of my mouth in Arabic: “I’m five months pregnant! How am I a risk to national security?” Unlike me, my husband, Raouf, didn’t argue. He knew it would do no good and could even make our situation worse. He thanked the man, and we left his office.

Heading straight to the home of our colleagues, we hugged, cried, and prayed, knowing the days ahead would be crazy and uncertain. We had so much to do to quickly bring closure to our two years in this precious land. While Raouf spent hours doing paperwork and arranging transportation for our belongings, I packed and poured my heart out to the Lord.

I wish I could tell you this would be our only move in twenty years of overseas service, but it wasn’t. I’ve experienced a lot of closed doors and can tell you this for certain: when one door closes, another opens. Knowing that fact does not remove the pain of the closure, but it does remind me of who’s in charge and helps me to accept the change of course.

Sometimes doors close before you can get into a country. Though our original appointment was to Lebanon, doors were closed to Americans at the time. We would live and serve in two other countries before we eventually arrived there, due to being kicked out of Syria. In my mind, I should have been excited that we were finally going to get to move in, but my heart was torn. I had fallen in love with another place and people; I wasn’t ready to leave yet, but we did—we had no other choice.

We crossed the border with our cat and my hormones raging. It was a place still recovering from years of civil war. Chaos ruled. Families who had been protecting mission property were displaced because of our arrival. No one seemed to want us there. What was God thinking?

As I wallowed in my grief, in a land I now saw as a place of exile, the Lord spoke to me out of Jeremiah 29. “‘I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future.’” This was the land in which I was to “build houses, settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters…” God was showing me that even when he leads us to a hard place, we are to live. 

So, that’s what I did. Our four years in Lebanon were a season for me—the season of having babies and pouring into them. I had not one but two sons in that country, and when I look back, I realize the healthcare in my land of exile was so much better than the land of harvest. My husband had ministry opportunities there that allowed him to touch believers from across the region. We still had struggles, but we determined to put our hand to the plow of good deeds and harvest and not look back.

Then it happened—I settled. I became comfortable in Lebanon and thought we’d live there for the rest of our careers. We were preparing to move into an area of the country to better serve the majority, as soon as we returned from a short furlough. However, just weeks before we were to leave, our own organizational leadership asked us to move. What!? How could they? 

They had good reasons, but I didn’t want to hear them. I stayed home and packed for an actual move to an unknown land, while my husband made a survey trip to one of the possible places we could go. While he was away, I came across a magazine about that land—it revealed there was no established church. That did it for me. We were needed there. God’s hand was in this. My husband returned and asked me what God had been saying before he shared about what he had seen. What I heard, he confirmed. We moved again. One door closed, another opened.

The 2020 COVID-19 pandemic has probably closed doors for many of you in recent months. That door may have been just a wall of separation between you and the people you love, or it may have left you stuck either in your home country or a place you simply went on vacation. Sudden change is hard and can shake our faith until we realize that the shut door hasn’t separated us from the God who guides our steps. 

Our biggest hurdle in facing some changes is coming to terms with the fact that we had no say in the matter. It’s a matter of control. When Scripture tells us to number our days, it doesn’t mean everything that happens in our lives should be neatly laid out in our daily planners. Rather, it means that He alone knows the number of our days; my job is to give each one to him, no matter what it brings.

When 2020 began, I wrote a prayer in my journal. It was full of expectation and hope at all God was doing in my life. I was looking forward to increased speaking engagements and upcoming books I’d write. Then, just like you experienced, everything that was good and hopeful stopped. But because I had thirty years of closed doors behind me, I recognized this for what it was—an opportunity to stop and see what God was doing.

While I had my own struggles during the pandemic, it also gave me the margin I needed for God to speak and work in my life. I was able to pivot and see that I had more time to write than ever before, since I work full-time as a librarian. Other activities were taken away, so my evenings were freer and quieter. I was able to work hard and actually finish a book on, of all things—closed doors. God has a sense of humor too.

When doors closed during my time overseas, I wasn’t always so willing to go through the next one, but God, in his patience, didn’t let that prevent me from seeing what he was doing in this new place and how he wanted me to join him there. 

I don’t know where you are today. Maybe you’re standing in front of a closed door and don’t know what to do next, or you’ve been pushed through another and are floundering with loss of purpose. It’s also possible that you recognize a door needs to be closed, because this season in your life is changing. Wherever you are, remember that the One who led you through this first door continues to be by your side and even goes before you through each door ahead. 

Rest in the knowledge that he has the big picture in view and only asks your obedience for the next good thing he opens before you. 

Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, “This is the way; walk in it.”  Isaiah 31:21

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Carol B. Ghattas has over thirty years of experience in cross-cultural ministry and has lived in five countries in the Middle East and North Africa. Now back in the United States, she maintains an active blog site, lifeinexile.net. She is a writer and speaker on missions, Islam, and other topics. Her newest book, When Doors Close: Changing Course in Missions Without Losing Your Way, is now available through online book distributors. For more information or to contact Carol, visit her website: lifeinexile.net.