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.

How to Pre-Raise Support Before You Actually Raise Support

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.

To the New Expat…

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:

  1. 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!
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. 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.
  12. 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.
  13. 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.
  14. 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,

Marilyn

What would you add for Lucy? Please share in the comments and we will compile the comments for a new post!

Note: This was previously published in July 2015

How’s Your Training Montage Coming Along?

I have swimmer’s shoulder, but I don’t swim.

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)

[photo: “Focus,” by Keith Ellwood, used under a Creative Commons license]

Freefall and Float: Following God on Non-Linear Adventures

by Alyson Rockhold

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 Are Going to Hate It

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. 

How Well Do You Know Your Host Nation?

I’m a bit out of words lately. I’m in seminary full-time. Covid. Elections. Wars. Planes crashing. Racial tension. Political violence. Conspiracy theories.

It’s a lot.

I have way more questions than answers. Some of my questions are around the gaps in the training I received before moving abroad and in the ongoing trainings and mentorships I have access to. By not addressing these gaps, we risk perpetuating problems as expatriates continue to export our culture and values without fully engaging in our new contexts.

I’m going to share some of the questions I am asking myself. I hope you will take some time to think about them.

Do you know the history of your host country from the perspective of its citizens?

            Ancient history, precolonial history, colonial history, and post-colonial history?

            National heroes? Legends, myths, folktales?

            Religious history, from multiple perspectives?

            Racial, class, gender history?

When did women gain the right to vote? How many women serve in leadership? How are they perceived?

Did your country have slavery? Were the people enslaved by others? 

What have been recent and historic conflicts? What were they about? How were they resolved?

Do you know what role your passport nation has played in any of this history?

Did you learn this from Westerners writing about them or from them? Does this knowledge come tainted from an outsider’s viewpoint?

Do you read book written by authors from your host country? 

Do you listen to local music?

Do you read the local newspaper, listen to the radio, follow leaders on social media?

Do you know how people view people of your gender, race, ethnicity, class, stature? Do you know why?

Do you know what people who look like you have done here in the past? For better and for worse?

I meet far too many people who could care less about these things in the countries where they work and are supposedly “serving.” I don’t understand how a person hopes to “make a difference” if they don’t know how things are. What do they hope will be “different?” Unless they mean more like themselves.

Before leaving your passport nation there are some things you need to do, namely start learning about where you are going and commit to never, never stopping. Those of us who are already gone need to do this work. 

I now believe ongoing local cultural training must be required by all organizations who send people abroad. I don’t mean “culture” like food and clothing and language. I mean deep, heart level, historic, worldview forming topics. The possibilities are endless. 

What would you add?

Questions about Going, and the Answering Thereof

You can learn a lot by asking questions. You can learn a lot by answering them, too.

Recently, a young couple came to my wife and me with a list of questions for us. They were trying to figure out how to respond to the stirrings they were feeling about ministry opportunities and wondering if they should consider serving cross-culturally someday.

I think our answers fell somewhat short of profound, but I hope they were helpful. What struck me, though, was how much their questions got me thinking. Good questions have a way of doing that. They’re beneficial for the ones asking and for the ones pondering the answers, as well.

So if you’re considering going overseas, here’s a list of questions you could ask those who’ve already gone. And if you’re one of those who’s already gone, here’s a list of questions to help you reflect on the process that got you there. I hope some of them make you say, “Hmmmm, good question. Let me think about that.”

All of the questions below are concerned with the lead up to departure. For what comes after that, well, we can come up with those lists some other time.

When did you first consider serving overseas?
When did you know for sure you should go?
What did you hope to achieve by going?
Did you and your spouse have the same level of commitment?
What did your parents and/or children think?
How were you supported?
How did you raise support and how long did it take?
How did you decide your income level?
Did you have debt when you left?
How did you choose your sending organization?
What role did your church play?
What would you have done if you’d not gone?
What did you leave behind?
What concerns did you have?
What made you excited?
What did you think success would look like?
How would you describe your stage of life when you started your cross-cultural work?
What sacrifices did you know you’d have to make?
How long did you plan on staying?
How did you decide where to go?
What did you know about your future host country/culture?
What kind of research did you do?
Did you know anyone in the place you were heading to?
What kind of support team did you develop?
What did you pray for?
What responses did you get to your prayers?
What kind of “calling” did you respond to?
How did you prepare?
What was your main motivation for going?
Who were your biggest cheerleaders?
Did you have people close to you who didn’t want you to go?
What hurdles did you need to overcome?
What disappointments did you encounter?
What plans for your children’s schooling did you make?
What did you do with your “things”?
Did you have any doubts?
Did you have any previous cross-cultural experience?
Did you study the language before going?
How did you pick a ministry target?
What verses in the Bible spoke to you?
Who were your role-models?
Why didn’t you go earlier?
Why didn’t you wait longer to go?
and . . .
What questions did you have?

[photo: “Which Way Is Home?” by Abby, used under a Creative Commons license]

7 Tips for Finding and Choosing a Sending Agency

by Naomi Johnston

When my husband and I decided we wanted to go and do long term missions we literally had no idea where to start. We had both been on short term mission trips separately, but both of us hadn’t really done anything typical. My husband had gone to Russia and ended up designing and welding up a fire escape for the local church there. And I had gone to India on a more personal trip with my Dad where we built upon personal relationships my Dad had made previously, strengthened church leadership and visited a lot of people in the community. Both experiences were life-changing, but not what you would call ‘normal missions,’ if there even is such a phrase.

Here are some steps that helped us research and choose a sending agency.

 

1. Forget Google
While in general I’m a huge fan of Google and the ease it brings to my life, I had no idea about how much of a monster Missions is and how many agencies there are out there. When I finally saw what I was trying to put a handle on, I had to put my computer away and take a breath. I tried to go back a couple of times, and I even reached out to one of the organisations on the list that sounded vaguely familiar.

But honestly, how is anyone supposed to make an informed decision while making the 3373625125637348949 calls necessary to get in touch with each agency? You can’t, so I highly recommend taking another route.

 

2. Look for Communication Quality.
While looking through Google, I managed to get in touch with an organisation that sounded familiar, and I organised an online interview. We seemed to fit, and it was all positive, but the communication dropped off after that. They didn’t seem to need us, and we didn’t want to bother them. This taught me that how an organisation communicates with new leads is very important and could be a clue as to how they run as an organisation.

Just remember, if this is your path, you’re going to be on the field in a foreign country with only small strings of attachment linking you back to the world you just left. So we decided that we wanted our sending organisation to make communication a priority, because that’s one giant key to keeping us sane once we finally get out there.

 

3. Use personal and local connections.
Personal and local connections are so much easier to set up, follow up, and evaluate. After failing at a few attempts of finding Missions agencies through Google, my husband approached the agency with whom he had gone to Russia. The director also happened to attend our church. He arranged a meeting to discuss our ideas and see if there was any way of going forward. This part of the process was remarkably quick and simple compared to what had been happening before, and that was mostly due to the fact that we could meet in person, catch up regularly, and track the process in real time. It also meant he could answer our questions and allay our fears pretty quickly and very organically.

 

4. Make sure the organisation values align with your values.
Because we were chatting to the director through our church connection, we took for granted that the organisation values would be the same as ours. As the process went on, we found out that there are some differences in opinion with some things, but luckily for us, these weren’t deal breakers. It would have been a shame to get most of the way through the process before potentially finding out that the differences were too many.

So if possible, look into the organisation and their beliefs, especially about things that are known to differ between Christian denominations. Be clear and concise with yourself about which issues are deal breakers and which differences you can accept.

 

5. If possible, take a short-term trip with the organisation.
At first I thought this option to be both frivolous and a waste of time. If we were going to work towards a short-term trip, wouldn’t that would take time and money away from our efforts to get out there long term? However, my husband still wasn’t firm on the idea of leaving his dream job, family, and the familiarity of home in order to chase a vague idea on the other side of the globe. So for us, a short-term trip became necessary.

However, even when not absolutely necessary, I would still highly recommend what is known in some circles as a ‘Vision Trip’. This gives the opportunity to experience firsthand how the sending organisation works in getting you on the field, without the pressure of it being the ‘long term launch.’ It also gives an opportunity to visit the field that you want to be a part of, and to be directly involved with the culture of that team and the dynamics of how they work. For me, meeting the destination team and seeing firsthand how they worked together was another confirmation that we had chosen the right country and the right sending agency.

Post-Covid, this can prove a real challenge, and maybe this option won’t be available for some time. However, I think when possible, a Vision Trip is such an irreplaceable course of action, and frankly, we wouldn’t be going long-term had we not done it. 

 

6. If you’re married, both spouses must agree.
This may conflict with how others feel, but there is no doubt in my mind that if you are married and you feel called to overseas missions, your partner must also be called. God would never call you to a relationship, to then call only one of you to the other side of the world for an extended period of time. The calling must come to both of you. To make it even more complicated, in my experience and from the experience of others I have talked with, sometimes the calling comes to each of you at different times.

I cannot stress enough to you how important it is, as the person who first gets the calling, to shut up and let God do the talking. Convincing a partner through colourful words, pleas, and stories to follow you across the globe without their own concrete belief that God is calling them there very often ends in disaster. Don’t let that be your story. If God truly wills it, it will happen in His timing and he will speak to both of you, albeit at different times.

 

7. Prayer and confirmation from God.
This can look different for each person, so I can’t speak as to what everyone will feel when confirmation comes. However, our confirming experiences included the approval of key mentors, the approval of both the sending and receiving teams, the peace that comes from God even as situations were tricky and scary, and the confusing combo of clarity, clear direction, and spiritual struggle. This final confirmation is something along the lines of knowing that you know that you know, and experiencing things that lean into your weaknesses and spiritual deficits. It can be challenging, but is very different from lack of peace.

While this is by no means an exhaustive list, it has been our personal journey. In the end we were able to confidently choose our sending agency, knowing that it was God’s will and that we were a great fit for them, as they were for us.

I’m curious to know if you have other suggestions for finding and choosing a sending agency.

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

Naomi Johnston is a photographer and designer based in Hamilton, New Zealand. Along with her husband Glyn and daughter Minna May, she is currently fundraising on her way to joining the One Mission Society team in Budapest, Hungary. She will be part of the media team, and is also hoping to work in Human Trafficking Prevention. Naomi writes regularly on her blog at www.thejohnstonjourney.com and @thejohnstonjourney on FB and Insta.

A Trip to the Embassy

by Seth Lewis

I was excited. We’d only lived in Ireland a few months—long enough to begin to feel the reality of deep differences, but not nearly long enough to adjust to them. Our second son had just been born, a different experience in a different medical system, and we needed to register his birth at the United States embassy. American soil, in Ireland. It would be nice to get a little taste of all we’d left behind. A few hours on the motorway got us to Dublin, where we found the US embassy—a big round thing looking out of place on its street-corner, like a landed UFO. Like us. 

To get through the outer wall, we had to go through security. I hadn’t anticipated that, but it made sense, and I knew what to do. On the other side of the metal detector, the ground was American. Even the flowers were red, white, and blue. This was going to be fun.

I opened the door to the UFO, and was immediately struck by the lack of country music. Not even rock. Nothing. Just another security guard, another metal detector, and a sign that said “Please take a number”. A number? I’m not a number, I’m an American! This is my embassy! 

I took a number. White walls and tiles. Uncomfortable chairs. Drop ceiling. I knew there was a ballroom in the building, but no one offered to show it to me. Come to think of it, the room did look familiar. I’d seen this set up before, in America, at the Department of Motor Vehicles and the Social Security Office. 

An embassy is a US government office. I should have known it would look like one. That I would hear several people being refused before I got a turn to hand my number through the thick (bullet proof?) glass and hope I had every form and supporting document exactly right. Somehow I had thought they would be as happy as I was to see another American. I had wanted a taste of things we left behind. I got one.

We walked out past the red, white, and blue flowers and through the security gate. On the other side, the Irish ground felt a little more like home. In the car, I played country music.

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

Seth Lewis has lived on the south coast of the Republic of Ireland for the last ten years with his wife Jessica; two of their three children were born there. He works with a network of local churches who are committed to church planting and also assists with a local Bible college and youth camp ministry. Before moving overseas, Seth worked with a church in Virginia. His accent doesn’t really fit anywhere anymore, and he’s okay with that. You can find him online at sethlewis.ie.

What Are You Even Doing Here?

by Corella Roberts

Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, I was a fresh, excited, bi-vocational missionary-teacher in Alaska. I wanted to make a difference. I wanted to partner with God. I wanted to use my gifts and my training and my time to spread the gospel. I wanted to shine His glory to the uttermost parts of the earth.

And then … it was really, really, REALLY hard. I barely made it two months into village life before finding myself gasping for air.

“During this overwhelming, unpredictable season, we were invited to go to a church service in a nearby village; and we welcomed the opportunity to see a new place and worship with other believers. A travelling, Native pastor picked us up in his four-seater airplane, and we hopped down the river to an even smaller village for church.  Before the service began, this well-intentioned pastor asked us if we’d met the only other Christian couple in our village. They were in their forties, had been following Christ for about four years, and had been praying for Christian teachers to fellowship with. 

They didn’t have any kids in the school, where our lives had been consumed with the task of adjusting to teaching; so no, we hadn’t met them yet.

‘Then what are you even doing here?’ this short, fiery man retorted. 

Somehow, I held it together in the moment, but I was absolutely pierced, soul deep.  . . .

I tried to sit through the worship, but the pain inside was too strong. I got up, closed myself in the small bathroom, and tried to stifle my sobs.  Is THIS your plan, God? This mess of a job I’m calling teaching? . . . This crushing expectation to support the other Christian couple? Seriously, God. I don’t like it. I can’t do it. Why am I even here? I knew I needed to pull it together, but I had no answer. No peace. Only pain. Some missionary I was.” (I recounted that story in my new book, Colliding with the Call.)

I didn’t stay in that place of despair or those feelings of failure forever. In fact, I didn’t even give up on our bush teaching assignment. My husband and I hacked out another seven years in rural Alaska before moving to teach in Thailand, but I can tell you, I still hear that question buzzing in my ear now and then. What are you even doing here? It’s like a dengue-carrying mosquito, and I know if I let it land and bite, my faith will be in critical condition for a while. (If you don’t know what Dengue Fever is, feel free to substitute the imagery for the cough of a COVID-19 carrier who forgot to wear a mask.)

I think that question is so particularly hurtful because if there’s one thing a missionary wants to be, it’s useful. So when we start doubting our purpose, our calling, it’s often a direct attack on ourselves and our identity. But that right there–the feeling of a loss of identity when we feel like we’re failing at our tasks–is the real danger.

It’s easy to say, “My identity is in Christ,” but a whole other thing to live it. I won’t expand on that because Amy Young already wrote about it here. And you can find a huge list of scriptures about it here. But what I do want to touch on is that right now, during this global pandemic and the frustration of social distancing, what we can do is most likely being affected. Which means we’re all swatting at that question, What are you even doing here?

So, let’s answer it once and for all.

 

WHAT are you even doing here?
Are you sheltering your family by practicing social distancing? Do it in love. Are you preparing online lessons or teaching your stir-crazy kiddos from home? Do it in love. Did you make the painful decision to go? To stay? To be near those who need you most at this time? Be there in love. Are you distributing food? Sharing words of encouragement? Worshiping and praying? Learning to be still and listen? Do it in love.

There is no small task in the kingdom of God. What you see as menial, He sees as faithful service. I am convinced that nothing poured out in worship is ever wasted. Keep doing what you’re doing in love, as worship, and know that it is enough, because He is enough.

“The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed . . .” Matthew 13:31-32

 

What are YOU even doing here?
You are you on purpose–created and designed to fill that very special niche in God’s plan. He has not put anyone else in your particular position, he has put you there. Wherever you are and whatever you’re doing (or feel like you’re not doing), you’re there, doing it, on divine purpose. No one else can speak to that one hurting heart in your home, next door, or through the screen, the way you can. And no one else can represent that very special facet of His heart to the world the way you can. Just keep being you–He’s never asked you to be anyone else.

“For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works . . .” Ephesians 2:10

 

What are you even doing HERE?
I have a friend right now who has been stuck in Australia, trying to return to her family and her graduating senior in Thailand, since this whole global shut-down began. Others have been able to repatriate but now are unsure how they’ll get visas again when it’s time to return to their host countries. And many of us (myself included) are separated from vulnerable family members and questioning if we made the right choice not to be with them when this all started going down. It’s incredibly frustrating to feel trapped or blocked from being where we want to be, but I’m holding onto this:

“. . . your life is now hidden with Christ in God.” Colossians 3:2-4

God has my feet on this chunk of the planet, in this moment in time, for a reason. But more than that, I belong to Him. He is my true home, and my heart is safely cupped in His hands. 

No matter where you are, what you’re doing, or how you’re feeling productive and useful or not, you are sheltered and dearly loved in Christ for all eternity. 

I think if someone were to furrow their brows at me today and pointedly ask, “What are you even doing here?” I’d be miffed, certainly, but then I hope I’d say, “You know, I’m not always sure. But I am sure that God is pursuing my heart. And I hope I can love some other people into His kingdom along the way.”

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

Corella Roberts makes her home in Northern Thailand where she and her husband partner with an international school to “Serve the Servants.” Their first missionary teaching assignment landed them in the remote bush of Alaska, which you can read about in her newly released book, Colliding with the Call. From tundra to tropics, she seeks to follow Jesus, and she encourages others to connect deeply with God at corellaroberts.com. You can also find her cleaning up legos or meandering their local market in search of mangosteen and lychee fruit.