A few weeks after we arrived in Tanzania, Gil and I heard breaking glass in the middle of the night. Imagining the worst, we rushed downstairs to discover that one of our pictures had fallen off the wall. No big deal.
Except that the picture represented something that was a big deal. In it, Gil and I stood smiling on a park playground with a half dozen other adults and about 30 kids. We all wore navy blue Faithblast! shirts. This was a photo of the weekly kids’ club that Gil and I had started in Southern California.
Gil and I barely knew each other when we started FaithBlast, and it’s how we fell in love. The ministry was our baby. We nurtured it for four years, and it blossomed into further neighborhood outreach. Our story was inextricably linked with that neighborhood, that playground, those kids.
Knowing we were heading overseas, Gil and I had fervently searched for someone to take over the ministry when we were gone. But there was no one. When we left, the FaithBlast ended.
So when the picture fell off the wall and the glass smashed into pieces, it felt eerily symbolic. Fresh tears came. Why had we left a thriving ministry that was so dear to us to come to this unfamiliar and uncomfortable place where we had to start from scratch all over again?
In the excitement of following God’s call to another country, it’s easy to underestimate the repercussions of your departure. Maybe, like us, it’s a ministry that falls apart. Perhaps it’s aging parents who don’t understand. Maybe it’s siblings in crisis or a beloved church in upheaval. Perhaps it’s hurting a friend whose wedding you can’t attend. Maybe there isn’t an obvious replacement for the role you filled, and you know you are leaving behind a burden on others.
When we say yes to God’s call to missions, we first think about the sacrifices God is asking us to make. We count the cost of leaving homes, family, jobs, community. But it’s our choice, and we walk into it willingly. What about the sacrifices we are asking others to make on our behalf? We are making that choice for them, and that burden can feel heavy.
Jesus said that everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for His sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life (Matthew 19:29).
It’s a stunning promise. But what about those we leave behind? Can we trust God with them too?
This is tricky, and not just for those leaving for the first time. For those deep into overseas ministry, this question will haunt us for the rest of our lives – on both sides of the world. Do we fill the need at home, or do we fill the need overseas? Both choices leave projects unfinished, loved ones with empty spaces in their lives. How do we choose?
We must ask ourselves the hard questions and dig out our motivations. Am I going or leaving or staying because I’ve made an idol of family or position or comfort? Am I shirking my responsibility, or I am trying to take the role of God in another person’s life? Is it clear that it’s my job to care for this person, to mediate that conflict, to push that ministry forward? Or is God asking me to surrender that to Him?
As the old song tells us, Trust and Obey. But in this case, Obey and then Trust. Walk forward in obedience, and trust Him with what we can’t do.
If we obey God, it is going to cost other people more than it costs us, and that is where the pain begins. A lack of progress in our spiritual life results when we try to bear all the costs ourselves. And actually, we cannot. Because we are so involved in the universal purposes of God, others are immediately affected by our obedience to Him. . . . We can disobey God if we choose, and it will bring immediate relief to the situation, but it will grieve our Lord. If, however, we obey God, He will care for those who have suffered the consequences of our obedience. We must simply obey and leave all the consequences with Him. Beware of the inclination to dictate to God what consequences you would allow as a condition of your obedience to Him.
When we left California in 2001, we left behind FaithBlast. When we left Tanzania in 2020, my replacement was only temporary, and Gil’s position wasn’t filled at all. Once again, we had to trust God with what we left behind.
Our ministry, on any side of the globe, always belongs to God. The people we love are in His hands. Where I see only a small piece; He sees the complete picture. When He makes it clear it’s time to leave, then I can trust that He knows what He is doing with what I leave behind.
“I have to go back home and work on my seminary degree. It’s an org requirement, and it will take me too long to complete online if I stay here. But don’t worry! Once I finish, I’ll be back.”
Jacob* was resigned to the fact that he would be leaving the field for a while to fulfill the requirements of his sending organization. While the seminary degree in and of itself was not a bad thing, it would be the impetus of his leaving the field for good.
That’s because, about a year into his program, Jacob fell in love with Kara. They shared a deep love for Christ and making him known, but Kara was not at all interested in living outside of her home country. Nevertheless, the couple went ahead with their wedding day. Five years and two kids later, Jacob and Kara are pretty well settled into life in their home country. With Jacob having no intention of going back overseas, the team he left behind now consists of two couples and five single women.**
There’s a cheeky statistic I’ve heard that says, “About two thirds of field workers are married couples. Another third are single women, and the rest are single men.” Of course, this facetious statistic would imply that there are no single men on the field. And while we know this is not correct, most of us have noticed the conspicuous imbalance of single women to single men on the field.
While I have yet to see a study on why there is such an imbalance of singles on the field, there are some interesting observations to be made and perhaps a few questions we should be asking to get a clearer picture of the reasons and consequences of the male shortage in overseas ministry.
Why Are There So Few Men? So, why are we not seeing more single men in full-time overseas ministry? It certainly cannot be said that there is a lack of men wanting to work in full-time ministry. Men fill most paid ministry positions in local churches, but when it comes to overseas work, single men are heavily outnumbered. Here are a few observations about this phenomenon:
1. Men are compelled (and are sometimes required) to go to seminary or grad school before they begin service in overseas ministry. Sometimes, this requires several years away from the field. The extra time spent obtaining more education can be long, burdensome, and expensive. In the midst of time spent obtaining this education, these men may find themselves with mounting student debt, in love with someone who does not share their desire to live overseas, or drawn into the world of preaching to congregations in their own country.
2. Some men who desire to minister cross-culturally don’t want to do so until they are married. However, this “wait for a mate” time often leads to involvement with other ministries or jobs that pull their attention and passion away from living overseas. Some of these men wind up marrying women who do not share their passion or desire to minister cross-culturally. These life changes often mean a complete redirection of plans and passions.
3. When a single man expresses his desire to minister overseas to his church leadership, these overseers tend to encourage men to stick around and “learn about ministry” by interning or leading a ministry in their local church. While the heart and intention behind this is one of love and mentorship, the experience gained in a local church in the Western Hemisphere is often entirely unhelpful for a person headed to a culture that does not even have a concept of church.
4. Churches often want men to be married before they go overseas because it’s believed that marriage will save them from sexual temptation and pornography addiction. However, the widely-held belief that marriage will be a deterrent to sexual misconduct is not only entirely inaccurate, but also keeps church leadership from addressing an actual issue that is likely already present in most men’s lives.
5. When I have put this question to men who are engaged in ministry in their home countries, many have responded with a real apprehension about fundraising. They might be willing to go overseas and work a paying job, but the thought of asking churches for support feels arduous and humiliating. I am not sure how this mindset might shift between unmarried and married men, but it seems to be a common sentiment.
Feeling the Strain The imbalance of men and women serving cross-culturally has very real consequences. We don’t just stand idly by and make observations because it makes us feel smart or important. The imbalance takes a heavy toll, and many field workers are feeling the strain.
My team in particular lives in a place with a disproportionately large population of male migrant laborers. Our team is and has always been mostly female. While there will always be work for the women to do, there is a much smaller workforce to focus time and attention on a population with whom we, as women, cannot interact: men. We live in a conservative country with strong cultural taboos about mixed company, so there is rarely a situation where women speaking to these men is appropriate. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 7:32-34 that “An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs— how he can please the Lord. But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world— how he can please his wife— his interests are divided.” To put it plainly: We need a more diverse workforce because the harvest field itself is diverse.
In addition, many ministry teams work in cultures that have oppressive and cruel attitudes toward women. Living in patriarchal societies takes a heavy toll on women. There are spaces where women are simply unwelcome, and there are areas where women know they will be ogled or sexually assaulted. However, these locations may be the only places to, say, get a car repaired or buy a ceiling fan. Within the community of Christ-followers on the field, we depend on each other for help with tasks we would ordinarily be entirely capable of doing on our own.
Then there are the cultures that simply expect single adult men to misbehave. The expectation is that young men will stay out all night, philander, and live as wildly as possible until they tie the knot. Who will show them another way? Where are the single men who can live a life of sacrifice, love, and purity among them? We need representation of the body of Christ in all of its diverse beauty, and that includes the unique struggles and freedoms that are inherently a part of a bachelor’s life. Jesus himself lived his life unmarried and devoted to the work of his Father. Ministry as a single man is the first example the church was given, so why would we believe that this status is less than ideal?
How Can Churches Help? Of course, the questions and observations merit answers. While I do not believe that there is anything simple about the dilemma we face, there are some ways the church can help more single men get to the field:
1. Stop expecting men to get married before they live cross-culturally. Have the difficult conversations and counseling sessions to deal with porn addiction, lust, and objectification. Do not fall for the lie that having a wife will be the fix-all for potential sexual misconduct.
2. If single men express a desire to be married before they move overseas, ask them why they feel that way. We must be willing to ask where this desire is coming from, and to explore their reasons why ministry overseas requires them to be married but ministry at “home” does not. It also bears mentioning that the pool of single women on the mission field is deep and wide. Men who want to get married may actually have a lot more opportunity to find a spouse who shares their vision once they get to the field!
3. Rather than creating years-long responsibilities as a prerequisite for life on the field, set goals and reasonable expectations for men’s personal and theological development. Like anyone headed into overseas ministry, single men need people to walk alongside them to grow in maturity and in gaining an understanding of cross-cultural ministry. But we have to be willing to allow life on the field itself be an instructor. I once heard Vinay Samuel say, “Theology should be written on the mission field.” Indeed, life and ministry on the field will likely be a far better teacher on theology, scriptural interpretation, and strategy than any seminary class.
As churches, we should be questioning why such an enormous imbalance exists both within domestic ministry, where men hold most full-time ministry positions, and within cross-cultural ministry, where women hold most full-time ministry positions. Granted, the gender disparity is far greater domestically than it is overseas. But, with such an abundance of women in full-time cross-cultural ministry, and so precious few of them in full-time local church ministry, we have to ask: Are women just picking up the ministry positions that men don’t really want? Women have a long history of heeding the call of Christ to make him known near and far, and there have been relatively few barriers to keep them from overseas work. However, if women wish to fill ministry positions within their home countries, the opportunities tend to be limited, unpaid, or for men only.
While I’m not wanting to get into the weeds on gender roles within ministry here, I do believe that we must take a hard look at how ethnocentric our attitudes have become when it comes to women ministering domestically versus overseas. For example, the ESV Bible was translated and overseen by an exclusively male team of 95 scholars and translators. Apparently, women were not invited, so this was not a simple oversight. However, when it comes to women leading bible translation projects in languages other than English or outside the Western Hemisphere, there is scarcely a voice of dissent.
These are issues of importance not because sexism in church is a hot button issue. They are important because Jesus said that the harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. In fulfilling the command of Christ to make disciples of all ethnicities, the workforce must be as multifaceted and diverse as the world itself is. The goal is not just to have a balanced ministry team, but to give the world — women, children, men, marrieds, singles, widows, minorities, rich, poor, and so on — a chance to hear that Jesus loves them from someone who can effectively live and communicate that truth to them.
**This story is not taken from one individual per se. It is a combination of many such stories that I have seen and heard from multiple cross-cultural workers.
I like making lists. I like asking questions. I like making lists of questions. And that’s what I’ve done here on the topic of expectations for working cross-culturally.
We all set out on the journey abroad with high expectations. Of course we do. Without those expectations we wouldn’t begin. But based on the realities we encounter, or on the competing requirements of others, are our expectations too high? It’s not that we should lower them all, or jettison them altogether. Instead we should aim to recognize and understand them, have conversations about them, and modify them when necessary. There’s much to suss out along the way.
When contemplating the questions below, understand that the purpose is to identify what you expect—as in what you think, believe, or assume will happen, not what you hope, want, wish, would like, need, demand, pray for, desire, fear, or know (though they may overlap with your expectations). So if you read a question and want to respond with “I can’t know that,” then remember that that’s not what’s being asked for.
Inspired by the research and writing of Sue Eenigenburg, Robynn Bliss, and Andrea Sears (which I discussed last month), I can think of a number of ways for utilizing this list. The most obvious is for new candidates readying for cross-cultural work, to ask themselves these questions to consider aspects of their move that they’ve never considered before. Comparing answers with teammates, family members, agencies, and church representatives would be helpful as well—and could help head off later disappointments, misunderstandings, and conflicts before they occur.
Future workers could also share their expectations with veterans in the field, or with those who have returned from overseas. This could allow them to hear from those with experience in dealing with too high—or too low—expectations.
I could see using these in a team-building (or team-understanding) exercise, or as discussion starters for future cross-cultural workers to get to know each other. Each person could choose a few questions, or draw some from a hat, and use them as conversation starters.
For those already on the field, there is always a future ahead with many unknowns, even after many of these questions are already behind them, and thinking about the expectations they still hold could be insightful.
They could also look at these questions to think back on their past assumptions, comparing them to what actually has come to pass—or comparing them to how their expectations have changed.
They can ask themselves how disappointments have affected their well-being and their relationships with others and with God. And they can consider the effects of having not expected enough. Those could then produce lessons they could share with new workers coming after them.
And the cycle continues.
So here’s my list. Use it however you see fit. I don’t expect every question to apply to you, but I do expect that some will . . . and I hope and pray they’ll be helpful.
What are my expectations?
When will I depart?
What training or orientation will I go through?
What kind of visa will I need?
What will I need to do to get and keep a visa?
What will my official role be in the country?
What will the minimum financial support necessary be for me?
What will my financial support level be?
How long will it take to raise support?
How consistent will my financial support be?
What kind of response will I get from supporters for one-time or special financial requests?
What financial responsibility will I have to my sending agency?
How will I handle previously acquired debt?
What salary (or personal-discretion funds) will I have?
How much control will I have over ministry funds?
What will the cost of living be?
How favorable (or unfavorable) will the exchange rate be?
In what kind of setting will I live (rural, urban, etc.)?
What specific country, area, or city will I live in?
What will be the location of my work?
Will the location of my work change?
What kind of housing will I have?
How close will I live to my teammates?
How often will I move?
Will I have a housekeeper or other domestic helper?
Will team members provide babysitting or other childcare?
How will my home be used for ministry?
What will I use for transportation?
What will my standard of living be?
How much will my education, preparation, training, and past experiences prepare me?
How easily will I embrace the culture?
How much will I fit in to the culture?
How will the local people receive me?
How much will culture shock/stress affect me?
How long will culture shock/stress last?
How easy will it be to get items I’m used to in my home culture?
How will I celebrate holidays?
How will I acclimate to the weather?
How will I adjust to the food?
What will my diet look like?
What kind of food will I eat at home?
How often will I eat out?
How long will it take to develop relationships with local people?
How close will my friendships be with nationals?
Will I have a best friend, and if so, who will it be?
What will my work responsibilities be?
What people group will I work with?
How will I partner with other teams, agencies, or workers from other denominations?
How will I partner with local churches/believers?
What will a new church plant look like?
What role will I and my family play in a church plant?
What methods will I use for outreach?
What kind of work will I do?
What physical needs will I work to alleviate?
What will be my balance between meeting physical and spiritual needs?
How will I integrate aspects of the host culture in presenting the gospel and in developing church practices?
What will my typical day look like?
What will my typical week look like?
How long will it take to complete the projects I have planned?
How will government restrictions affect my work?
What will my supporters, my church, and my sending agency want me to accomplish?
What will be the results of my work?
How fruitful will my work be?
When and to whom will I hand off my work?
How will I define success?
Where will I do language learning?
What method will I use for language learning?
How long will it take to learn the language?
How many languages will I need to learn?
What level of fluency will I achieve?
How difficult will it be for me to learn the language?
What language will I use for my work?
What language will my personal worship be in?
If single, will I date and pursue marriage?
If I have children, how will living overseas affect them?
How will my children’s faith develop?
What involvement will my children have in the ministry?
What kinds of relationships will my children develop?
How will my children be educated?
What relationship/interaction will my children have with my home culture?
What will my children do after graduating from high school?
How will I help my children make the transition to college if they attend?
How large will my family be?
How big will our team be?
How will we go about adding new team members?
What individual roles will different teammates have?
How dependent will team members be on each other?
Will the roles of married and single team members differ, and if so, how?
Will male/female roles differ on my team, and if so, how?
Will husband and wife roles differ on my team, and if so, how?
How will team decisions be made?
How will we handle team conflict?
Who will oversee my work?
What input will I have in agency decisions?
What kind of personal boundaries/privacy will I be able to maintain?
How much personal autonomy will I have?
How, and how often, will I communicate with supporters?
How openly will I be able to communicate with my supporters?
How many will read my newsletters, prayer emails, etc.?
What kind of prayer support will I have?
How much communication will I get from supporters?
How involved will my home church be?
How often will representatives from my church and agency visit?
What will happen during church/agency visits?
How often will I host short-term teams?
What will short-term-team trips look like (housing, projects, logistics, etc.)?
What steps will I follow to make personal/family decisions?
Will I be able to express any political views?
How will I balance ministry/family/personal time?
How many vacation days will I have?
What will I do when I need to take a break, to rest, or to get away?
What hobbies and personal interests will I engage in?
What opportunities will I have for continuing education?
Will I be able to pursue professional development?
Will there be opportunities for professional advancement?
How will I determine God’s will?
How will God communicate with me?
How often will I experience miracles?
How will I practice my personal spiritual disciplines?
What will my prayer life be like?
How, and with whom, will I have weekly worship?
How will my faith change?
What will spiritual warfare look like?
What risks will I face?
How safe will I be?
What will I, my family, and my team do if threatened with physical persecution or violence?
What sacrifices will I need to make?
What will be my capacity to handle change?
What will be my biggest challenge?
How resilient will I be?
How will my and my family’s health be?
What will local medical care be like?
Will I travel outside the country for health needs?
What member care will I receive?
What self care will I practice?
What will I do if I experience symptoms of depression or other mental illness?
How would my team, agency, or church respond to finding out about my experiencing mental illness?
Who will I be able to share with with complete openness and honesty?
How will I deal with disappointment and failure?
What will I do if I feel overwhelmed?
How will any previous trauma affect my life abroad?
How would I address moral failings in my life?
How would my team, agency, or church respond to finding out about any moral failings in my life?
What temptations will I face?
How will I handle temptations?
What kind of personal accountability will I have?
What rules/practices will I have concerning alcohol and tobacco?
What rules/practices will I have concerning the internet?
How will my family at home respond to my being away overseas?
How will my relationships with family back home be affected?
How often will family from home visit?
What events will happen with my family members back home while I’m away?
Will I be able to travel back home for family events there, such as births, illnesses, funerals, emergencies?
When and for how long will I have home service?
How will reverse culture shock affect me (and my family)?
What kind of send-offs and greetings will I get when traveling?
What opportunities will I have to speak at supporting churches?
How long will I stay abroad?
What would cause me to leave the field?
How will the decision be made for me to leave the field?
What kind of work will I do if I leave the field?
How will I fit in with my home church when I return?
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.
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.
For every missionary who takes up their cross and follows Christ to the ends of the earth, there are parents and family members whose lives are affected by the calling. This group never chooses to offer themselves, to share in the sacrifice, and yet they must. Will the pain result in bitterness or healing? This was a decision I was forced to make when my family heard the call.
When my oldest daughter left for a third world country with a six-month-old baby on her hip, I began a journey of sorrow that I didn’t choose. I thought I supported missions — until it was my own child leaving for full-time overseas work. It was then that missions became more than just the information booth in the church lobby, the glossy support letters in my mailbox, or the fascinating guest speaker at church. It became personal, and the hardships and dangers that missionaries experience now touched my life and my emotions daily.
I was always proud of my children’s interest in missions. During their teen years, they eagerly joined in summer service trips to exotic places, always with a bit of danger involved. I envisioned that they would continue their involvement as adults, possibly serving on the missions task force at church or leading short-term mission trips. I never expected any of them to take my grandchildren and plunge into full-time work in a poverty-stricken area of the world. I want to say I handled the challenge with grace and faith — but I didn’t.
Throughout the weeks leading up to departure, I thought I was adjusting and holding it together. My daughter, son-in-law, and three grandchildren moved into our house after divesting of most of their worldly goods and leaving their apartment. They bought one-way tickets and sold all that was left of their belongings — everything that didn’t fit into the three bags allowed per traveler. It stung that much of what they sold off had been gifts from my husband and myself.
The day of departure came, and the airport trip was brutal. I pasted a smile on my face and locked my tears up tight. I wanted my grandchildren to remember a joyful Nonna; I wanted my daughter and son-in-law to feel the support I was trying to fake. I waved until the little family I loved turned the corner in the security line and I could no longer see them.
My daughter had asked a friend to walk me to my car in the airport parking garage and make sure I was emotionally ready before starting the four-hour drive home. My false bravado lasted only a few miles down the highway, at which point I pulled over and wept. When I was finally alone in God’s presence, I was honest with Him. I was angry and hurt. This was not how I had planned my life.
The Psalmist proclaims, “Those who sow in tears will reap with shouts of joy” (Psalm 126:5 HCSB). I have learned much in the past seven years about sowing in tears. I have leaned into God, bringing Him my grief and the deep shame I felt. Grief arose when my dreams of life with grandchildren and family living near me were shattered. I felt shame when I could not readily rejoice that my children were sacrificing so much for the gospel and doing what God called them to do — the holy mindset I was supposed to have.
In turning to the Lord in honesty, I was met with tenderness and compassion, not condemnation. He understands the mother’s heart He created in me that must balance the desire to protect with the command to release my children to do all that God calls them to do. My season of dying to my dreams was like being crushed in an olive press. It was painful, and some days felt like hand-to-hand combat with my emotions.
Being an artist, I poured myself into prayer-painting. The enemy was not silent during my time of wrestling with God. When I heard cruel whispers giving me dread and sorrow, I chose to create and lift every concern to God. I painted rural scenes from their beautiful adopted country. My heart shifted as I began to pray for the people my daughter’s family encountered and for increasing boldness as they shared the good news. Bitterness loosened its grip as I chose not to listen to fear and self-pity.
Hebrews promises us that, “For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:11 ESV). In these years of separation, I live out the words of Hebrews. I did not reach a permanent peace-filled plateau. Because my daughter lives in a country with political upheaval, I often cycle through times when sudden dread will seize me after reading world news headlines and all contact with my daughter gets cut off. I choke out my prayers by sheer obedience. Peace returns when I once again focus on God’s purposes.
One of the greatest sources of discouragement for global workers is often from their own families back home, yet many of these relatives are committed church members. I don’t want to be part of that statistic. I never want to be the one to dissuade my children from obeying where the Holy Spirit is leading them.
Over the years, my daughter has sometimes called home discouraged. She shares wounds and disappointments. I pray for her and encourage her with scripture. She told me once that of all the team members in their area, her parents were the only parents who didn’t offer tickets home and encourage them to give up. I count that as God’s victory; I have been changed from grief-filled to poured out and finally to finding purpose as I support my missionary family’s work.
I have traveled to their country several times. I now see the wisdom of God and how well-suited my daughter and son-in-law are for their work. I’m amazed by the spiritual fruit from their ministry. They witness miracles rarely seen in the States. When I see my grandchildren share their faith with neighborhood children in their adopted tongue, I am humbled. How could I ever have wished them anywhere else? My grandchildren’s deep faith is worth far more to me than having them live nearby.
So, I visit with my grandchildren mostly by video chat. I do not participate in their lives the way most of the world enjoys their family. That is not my lot in this world and not mine to question. Nonna’s gifts are not cute clothes or countless stuffed animals, but instead, Kindle books, crocs for the rainy season, and jars of peanut butter. I choose to let go of anger and my own empty dreams to receive so much more: a deeper prayer life and a much closer relationship to my daughter’s family, although we live far apart.
Jim Elliot, slain missionary to Ecuador, once said, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.” As I love and support my family from afar, I think about his words. The loss felt so great in the beginning, but I can truly say that what I’ve gained is of greater worth. And those gains are eternal — in the lives of my children and grandchildren and the people they serve. One day we will all be partying together in heaven, forever, no more separation and no more tears. That hope lives in me and gives me strength for the journey.
Ann Bowman (not her real name) is a mentor to young women serving overseas. Having two grown daughters in missions, she has walked with them through the joys of living abroad and the trials. Ann is an artist, writer, teacher, and Nonna to four grandchildren who live in Southeast Asia. She and her husband reside in Texas and spend as much time with their family on video chat as they can.
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.
“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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
Do you see missions in your future? Then this is for you.
Right now, you’re just planning, and dreaming, and hoping. But one day it will finally be the right time, and you’ll find yourself filling out an application with a mission organization, packing your bags, and moving overseas.
There’s just one thing you might not be thinking about very much: Raising support. Before you can get on that plane, you’ll need to find an army of people who are willing to partner prayerfully and financially with you each month to make your missionary service possible.
Raising support to become a missionary may just be the most challenging thing you will ever do. Trust me, raising monthly support will be a whole lot harder than raising $3000 for a short-term trip. Fundraising may require more faith on your part than even moving to a new country. But it’s necessary, and important. And guess what? There are things you can be doing, right now, to make that process much more effective when the time comes.
So here’s my advice:
Starting now, get deeply involved in a missions-focused church.
What do I mean by “missions-focused?” I mean a church who loves missions, and it’s obvious. They support missionaries, and they’ve got their pictures plastered in the hallway. They invite their missionaries to speak. They give regular updates on those missionaries, and pray for them often. The leadership intentionally encourages their people to consider missions (and not just for short-term trips). This is the kind of church you will need behind you when it comes time for you to raise support. If you are at a point in your life where you are looking for a new church (for example, starting college or moving to a new city), then make it a priority to choose a church that loves missions.
But what if you are deeply involved in a church that isn’t missions-focused? Should you leave and find a different church?
Not necessarily. Could you be an advocate for missions at your church? Could you meet with the leadership to discuss what a missions program would look like? Could you offer to host a Perspectives course? Could you contact your denomination to see if they offer any missions training or resources? Maybe God could use you to bring a fresh vision to your church that wasn’t there before.
And if that’s not possible, or just isn’t working? Well, I would never encourage someone to leave their church without understanding their unique circumstances, because I think it’s a big deal to leave a church. But you do need to consider how much more difficult your journey to missions will be if you don’t have your church behind you. Not only will it be significantly more challenging to raise financial support, but you will need your home church to give you spiritual, emotional, and prayer support as well. If you don’t think you’ll get that, then you should be fervently praying about your options–starting now.
What do I mean by “get deeply involved?” I mean that you need to be known at your church as someone who serves widely, frequently, and whole-heartedly. You need to take advantage of social events, men’s or women’s retreats, and church camping trips as opportunities to get to know people. Volunteer to be a greeter–that person who meets everyone at the door. You should be someone who is “always there.” Of course, I’m not encouraging you to over-stretch yourself, but your reputation should be as the one who is happy to volunteer for just about anything. Serve cheerfully, in any capacity– not just the “up front” jobs.
When the time comes for you to talk to the missions committee about your plans to go overseas, their reaction should be “Well, it’s about time!” not “So who are you?” When your support raising coach asks you to make a list of people who know you well, the list from your church should be a mile long. It’s going to take intentionality on your part–starting now, not just when you are ready to start building your support team.
There’s a fine line here, because I don’t want to encourage you to attend the women’s retreat or volunteer in the nursery just because you’re hoping people will add you to their budget someday. You don’t want your motives to be manipulative. Hopefully, these ideas will just give you an ‘Aha!’ moment, not a guilt trip. If you find yourself resisting, you need to ask yourself, “If I’m not willing to serve here, how do I know that will change overseas?” “If it’s too much effort to build relationships here, how do I know I will be motivated to build them cross-culturally?”
When the day comes to start humbly asking for financial and prayer support, a lot of your success will be dependent on how deeply involved you have been in your missions-focused church. Most likely, there will be a connection to how well you pre-raised support before you actually raised support.
A few weeks ago, someone who is moving overseas contacted me. This is her first time living overseas, she is going into the unknown, and wants to be as prepared as possible.
Here is what I said to her:
Dear Lucy (name has been changed)
Wow – I’m excited for you and not a little envious! This is an amazing opportunity, and though I know based on your email that you are scared, I think you may find this is one of those gifts that is given to you and your family for this time of your life.
That being said, you asked for practical, not philosophical advice – so here goes:
Learn the numbers as quickly as possible. You will find them everywhere and it will help you to tell time, understand the prices of items, and tell people how many children you have!
Learn the currency and don’t translate it into US dollars. If you do, you will either spend too much money thinking “everything is so cheap,” or too little money and thus, not get the things you need.
Take things that will immediately make your new space feel like home – a few pictures, candles, a couple of books. That way, even as you’re waiting for the rest of your household goods, you can begin to create a home.
Recognize that your children’s grief is real, real, real. Allow them to be sad without putting caveats on the sadness (eg “I know you’re sad, but think how much fun travel will be…”) Travel may be fun, but it will not give them back their friends and schools. Allow them to grieve, and grieve with them.
You are arriving in the summer, a time when expat communities dwindle, so it will probably take some time to connect with others. Still – limit the amount of time that your kids spend on social media, just as you would limit social media in your home country. You cannot, I repeat, you cannot live in two places at once. Believe me, I’ve tried, and it doesn’t work. So limit the time they spend, and try to get out and explore.
By the same token, don’t allow yourself to spend too much time on Skype, Facebook, or any other social media sites. It will be all you can do sometimes, to tear yourself away. But tear yourself away you must. This is not the end of your world, this is the beginning of a new world. Allow it to be just that.
Don’t be afraid to initially be a tourist. If you don’t explore the area, you may come to the end of your time and find you’ve not seen the world-famous sites there are to see. Use those first weeks to create adventure and have your kids journal about it.
Remember that your culture is just that – your culture. Others have different ways of doing things. They aren’t bad – they are just different. Learn cultural humility, a life skill you will never regret.
News flash: Life wasn’t perfect in your home country. It will be easy to think it was when you are faced with the newness of life and culture shock in its monstrous intensity. But it wasn’t. There are relationship problems, infrastructure issues, and just plain life wherever we live.
You take yourself and your family with you. You aren’t all going to change on the plane. Sure, this is a new start, but you are who you are. At the same time, you are also capable of change and being shaped by the country where you will make your home. Allow that shape to happen.
Have a high tolerance of ambiguity and be capable of complexity. The country where you’re going is dismissed in the western world with a few stereotypical statements. Those are not the complete story. If you allow yourself, you will be able to understand a more complete, and thus richer version of the story.
Give yourself grace. This move is huge! You won’t understand the impact until sometime later, so give yourself, your husband, and your kids grace.
Laugh.Laugh.Laugh. Laughter is a holy gift that will take you through culture shock and culture conflict. It will take you through the hard days and you will be able to look back on them with much joy. So allow yourself the holy gift of laughter.
Most of all, know that “He who began a good work in you, will be faithful to complete it!” God lives in other places. He is alive and well across the world, continuing his good work in the redemption story. You are a part of that Story and He is faithful.
I’ve included a picture here that I think you will enjoy! Print it out, and put it on your refrigerator so you remember these ten commandments.
Much love to you,
What would you add for Lucy? Please share in the comments and we will compile the comments for a new post!
It’s not that I can’t swim, I just don’t do it often enough to cause an injury. I’m in physical therapy for my shoulder now, but I actually started PT because of pain in my hip, and then my shoulder started acting up. I wish I could say that my hip problem was caused by swimming, or by mountain climbing or power lifting. Instead, I think it’s from stepping out of my car the wrong way. And my shoulder? It might be caused by painting our dining room. Or who knows? It could have come from brushing my teeth with too much reckless abandon.
I know what you’re thinking. But before you say that it’s clear I’m getting old and my body’s falling apart, let me first say that it’s clear I’m getting old and my body’s falling apart.
So every day I go through my series of exercises. If only my routine included things like “reverse suspended monster crunches” or “overhead double infantry lifts.” But no, I have “supine gluteal sets” and “seated shoulder flexion towel slides at table top.”
It’s not quite the stuff of a Rocky training montage. (If you haven’t seen any of the five Rocky movies, seven if you add the two Creeds, then just think about any film that includes a music video of the main character getting ready for battle.) In preparation for the next ultimate fight, set to stirring music, Rocky boxes with frozen meat (da-da-daaa), rips off dozens of one-handed pull-ups and push-ups (da-da-daaa), lifts log chains over his head (da-da-daaa), guzzles raw eggs (da-da-daaa), and outruns a car (da-da-da-da-da-da-da-daaa-da-daaa).
Here’s the thing about training montages in the movies: They’re in the movies. When you’re tackling challenges in real life, it’s not bigger than life and it’s not condensed down to just a few minutes. Seen from the inside, the real stuff of montages can feel slow, tedious, and monotonous, not monumental.
Do you have things in your life abroad that are necessary but mundane, things you do day to day on the path to your goals but that lack the flair of a movie workout? Things such as prepping for departure? Settling into a culture? Language learning? Wading through red tape? Forming relationships? Chipping away at overwhelming problems?
Here’s the thing about serving overseas—and life in general: Rarely do our efforts merit a rousing soundtrack. Now if your cross-cultural experiences are film-worthy, I won’t stand in your way, and I’ll cheer when your theme song reaches its crescendo in the cinema. But for most of us, rather than a fully orchestrated “Gonna Fly Now,” an “Amazing Grace” played by a toy xylophone and a kazoo may seem more appropriate.
It makes me wonder about the music behind the Psalms, when they read, “to the tune of ‘A Dove on Distant Oaks'” or “to the tune of ‘The Death of the Son.'” Wouldn’t it be nice to know what those songs sounded like? I’m guessing they weren’t pulse-pounding tunes but more in line with the normal, coarse warp and woof of a life serving Jesus.
And here’s another thing: Much of what you do in cross-cultural work doesn’t culminate in a resounding, definitive victory. Often, it’s more of a series of little victories mixed in with little failures. You know, that two-steps-forward-one-step-back thing. (Or is it the other way around?)
Take language learning for instance. What if your language study doesn’t culminate with nationals saying that you sound more native-born than they do? What if your language study never seems to end? Yes, you’ll have agency- and self-imposed benchmarks to meet, but you may never get to where you wish you could be—or to the level of your coworkers. That’s OK. It’s not about matching their good, it’s about doing your good. Wherever your best efforts lead you, there’s a place for you in God’s work. I hope others believe that, too.
Much the same could be said about “learning” your new culture. It takes a lot more time and effort to be a resident of a country than to be a tourist. In A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society, Eugene Peterson uses similar language when talking about the Christian life, making a distinction between those who are “tourists” and those who are “pilgrims.” He writes that most Christians “are impatient for results. They have adopted the lifestyle of a tourist and only want the high points.”
Peterson identifies the common assumption among Christians (and others)
that anything worthwhile can be acquired at once. We assume that if something can be done at all it can be done quickly and efficiently. Our attention spans have been conditioned by thirty-second commercials. Our sense of reality has been flattened by thirty-page abridgments.
“Thirty-second commercials.” “Thirty-page abridgments.” To those I could add three-minute training montages. But all of these may seem rather quaint compared to the norms of today’s culture (Peterson’s book was first published in 1980), with our current attention to Twitter and TikTok and all the other short bursts from social media.
Yes, the Christian life is “a long obedience.” And if I could paraphrase that, I’d say it could also be seen as a long series of short obediences. It’s exercising, stretching, pulling, pushing, lifting, running, jogging, walking, and resting, over and over again. It’s you, as a cross-cultural worker, doing all this with a God-ward aim, with your God-given abilities, at your God-given speed. It’s finishing your race, even if your finish line doesn’t end up being on foreign soil.
And it’s you, all the while, humming in the background the soundtrack of your own making.
(Eugene Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society, InterVarsity, 1980)
I landed in Tanzania in 2007 as a fresh-faced college kid taking a semester off to teach English. Those four months altered the course of my life. When school called me home, I vowed to return to Tanzania soon. It took 7 years to fulfill that promise. Those years were filled with great tension and worry: Would I ever get back “there”?
The homing device that had burrowed under my skin eventually returned me to Tanzania in 2013. What relief to finally be living the life I’d always dreamed of! What confusion when I had to go back to the states in 2015! Another vow to return “there” soon: More long years of waiting.
In 2019, I got close to “there” when my husband and I moved to Zambia. I kept whispering in his ear about how desperate I was to go to Tanzania. So, when our organization planned to transfer us to Kenya in early 2020, all I could think about was that Tanzania was right on the way!
We got to Tanzania on March 9th. Within a few days, Corona rumors became reality. The borders closed on March 16th. Ultimately, our three-week vacation turned into 4 months of living in limbo. I was finally “there,” but everything felt wrong.
When I dreamed of going to the missions field, I thought it was all about getting “there.” Once I got “there,” I would establish a thriving ministry, become fluent in a new language, and get connected to the local community. In essence, I would live like the missional heroes whose biographies I had devoured in high school. I never envisioned living in 4 different countries over 7 years, preparing to move to a 5th but stopped by political unrest, and then being en route to a 6th only to be halted by a deadly virus.
My story looks nothing like I imagined it would. It does not follow the pattern set before me by my heroes. There are many curved roads, roundabouts, and U-turns on my journey. I’ve expended so much energy fighting to get “there,” consumed with the fear that being “here” meant I was a failure. But what if instead of teaching me how to march in a straight line, God has been equipping me with the tools needed to attain freefall and float?
I learned this phrase when I stumbled upon Denise Levertov’s poem, “The Avowal.”
As swimmers dare
to lie face to the sky
and water bears them,
as hawks rest upon air
and air sustains them,
so would I learn to attain
freefall, and float
into Creator Spirit’s deep embrace,
knowing no effort earns
that all-surrounding grace.
As I try (and mostly fail) to get “there,” God embraces me right where I am. Surrounded by his grace, I find contentment unbound from circumstance.
I release my goals: freefall.
I relax into grace: float.
I freefall: The ground beneath me is slippery, but His grace bears me up.
I float: The way ahead of me is unclear, but God sustains me.
I freefall and float: Surrendering my quest for straight lines and discovering beauty in each unexpected turn.
Alyson’s medical missions work has taken her to Tanzania, Haiti, and Zambia. Along the way, she’s discovered a passion for sharing stories that honor God and encourage people. Her writing has been featured on A Life Overseas, Busted Halo, Verge Magazine, Red Letter Christians, and more. You can follow her at www.alysonrockhold.com.
You know that country you’ve been dreaming about? The one that you have been praying over and researching? You’ve been talking about it endlessly these days, building a team who will support you when you move there. You are ready to uproot your family, your job, your entire life to pour your soul into the place you love so much.
Call me a party pooper, but today I’m here to tell you something important: Shortly after you finally arrive in that country, you are going to hate it.
It might take a few weeks, or maybe a few months, but at some point it’s going to happen: You will wonder why on earth you thought you would love this country. You will question why you enthusiastically raised support for so many months to go live in a place that you actually despise.
It might happen when you come to the realization that this doesn’t feel like a fun adventure anymore. The public transportation is claustrophobic and smelly. You are tired of eating baked potatoes and scrambled eggs and yet the idea of facing the grocery store again makes you want to cry. You feel like a frizzy, unattractive mess. The pollution is triggering your little girl’s asthma or your four-year-old has gotten malaria twice in two months.
It might be because the people you meet are cold and suspicious of you. Or in your face and critical. Or just in your face, all the time, peeking through your windows. You feel like a curiosity on display, or you feel like an ignored, cast aside monstrosity. You wonder why you ever thought you could love these people who apparently abhor you.
Or maybe you find yourself spending all day every day learning the difference between a past perfect continuous verb and an intransitive verb. Your body hurts from sitting all day and your brain hurts from thinking all day, yet you know you still have 16 months of this same horrible task ahead of you. And you wonder why you uprooted your happy, productive, meaningful life so that you could spend all of your time looking at meaningless squiggles on a piece of paper.
Maybe you’ll hate it because your team leader seems distant or your co-workers are too busy for you, and you feel very alone. Maybe it will be because you are a woman in a country that demeans women, and you’ve never felt so insignificant. Maybe it will be because you didn’t anticipate how this new country would change your family dynamics, and it’s so hard and so painful to try to figure out new ways of helping your children find joy.
There are a million reasons why you could hate it. But one thing is for certain: At some point, it will happen.
Yeah, I know, just call me a dream smasher. I can hear you imploring, Do you have a point? Do you even want me to move overseas?
Absolutely. Stay with me. I’m going somewhere with this.
Here’s my point: I want you to know what you are getting yourself into. When you get to the point of hating your country and your life and your calling, you need to know that this doesn’t mean there is something wrong with you. Or with your country. Or with your calling.
There are three things you need to know:
Make your calling sure. Do this now, before you go overseas. Your calling to this country needs to be more than just a really strong feeling. It needs to come from hours of prayer, consultation with your pastor, soul-searching with godly friends. You need to know the reasons for why God is sending you to this country: What is the need? How are you uniquely qualified to fill that need? Write it down. Plaster it to your refrigerator. You will want to remind yourself of these reasons when you find yourself hating life.
Make your faith sure. Do this now, before you go overseas. You must fully understand your worldview. Read a book on how to study the Bible on your own. Read a book on the theology of suffering. Read a book on the theology of poverty. Wrestle with the big questions before you go, so that when they hit you in the face and seek to destroy you, you will already be prepared.
Perseverance is the whole battle. Not half the battle, not 90% of the battle. The entire battle. Do not give up. Do not give up. Let me tell you something: There will always be a reason to leave. Always. If you want to leave, you will find a reason, and it will be a good reason that will sound honorable to your supporters.
I know, this is tricky. You are not going to live in this country forever; the right time to leave will come at some point, sooner or later. But make sure your call to leave has just as many prayer-filled, logical reasons as your call was to go. Because if not, then maybe you just need to persevere. Learn one more verb. Meet one more person. Go out your front door, one more time.
And here’s the part where I give you hope. You will not hate this country forever. I promise. Cross my heart; hope to die. If you stick this out and keep your heart open, a lasting love for your host country will sneak up on you. It might take 6 months, or a year, or even five years, but you will not hate it forever. There may be some things about it that you always dislike, of course, but your capacity to love this country will stretch and expand and deepen the longer you are there. One day, it will dawn on you that you don’t hate it, quite so much. And one morning, you will wake up and realize that you love this country. And you will never want to leave.