When We’re Shaken {a poem}

by Krista Besselman

Author’s Note: I wrote this poem while trying to trust the Lord as I processed both the Ukraine crisis and an unexpected health challenge. I chose to focus less on me and how I feel, and more on God and Who He is, drawing comfort from familiar passages like Psalm 139 and Psalm 46.

You know everything I’m thinking,
All my words from first to last,
And the answers to the questions
I was too afraid to ask.

There are forces set in motion
I could never understand.
They’re so big they overwhelm me
But You hold them in Your hand.

Please remind us in the moment
That our greatest fear arrives
You are greater than the evil
That would tear apart our lives.

We can see both good and evil.
We rejoice and yet we grieve,
Taking comfort in Your presence
And Your promise not to leave.

Though Your love exceeds our knowledge,
Show its height and depth and length.
When our world feels like it’s shaken,
Be our refuge and our strength.

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

Krista found a heart for missions accounting in Papua New Guinea and still uses what she learned in her seven years there to support Bible translation from Texas. She writes poetry to process the ups, downs, and outright crises of life. Her favorite poems call herself–and others–to remember God’s faithfulness in every situation.

Searching for a Sense of Home

by Beth Barthelemy

“The word home summons up a place—more specifically a house within that place—which you have rich and complex feelings about, a place where you feel, or did feel once, uniquely at home, which is to say a place where you feel you belong and which in some sense belongs to you, a place where you feel that all is somehow ultimately well even if things aren’t going all that well at any given moment.”  –Frederick Buechner, Longing for Home

//

I sat around our school table, looking into the mostly eager faces of my daughters, though one face was less eager than the rest this morning. A single candlestick flickered in the middle of the table. My hands rested around my coffee mug as I sat back from our morning’s Bible reading, once again having veered off topic.

“South Africa is our home. We barely even remember living in America. This is where I have mostly grown up and where the cats are,” simply stated the black-and-white-thinking, animal-loving child.

“I just don’t know where my home is,” stated the more pensive daughter. “I mean, I love America, that’s where I was born. I think that’s my home.”

The third-born just snuggled on my lap, listening carefully as she always does but saying nothing this time. The youngest was singing in a loud voice on the carpet beside us.

Inwardly, I sighed. I did not feel up to having this conversation this morning, to steering their hearts toward the truth that I myself was desperately seeking. I knew well the significance of this conversation for my children, who live an ocean away from where they were born. My heart was fragile, had been fragile for some time after a devastating family tragedy a few months earlier. I resonated deeply with my daughters’ rationalizations about home. Our life and ministry was here in the deep south of the African continent, yet my hurting family and missing loved one was across an ocean, back in the place where I had grown up. Even in the move five years before, I felt the sore splitting of my heart; it had not healed over time, no. In fact, that splitting was deeper and sorer than ever.

I took a deep breath. I shared that I too struggle with this question of home, and that isn’t home where we are all together? We reflected on the little farmhouse where we had briefly stayed years ago, and how that indeed felt like home, if only for that single month. “And,” I added, “I think there is a part of us that will never feel completely at home anywhere in this world. We will always feel a bit split between the people and things we love here, and the people and things we love in America, because neither of these is our true, forever home.”

The girls sat silently nodding, knowing enough to understand the true, forever home to which I was referring. That seemed to satisfy them well enough, for just then they were off to another subject. I still stared out the window, however, trying once more to imagine a home where I would never again feel this splitting, this longing. A home where the shadows of this world would never darken.

//

Buechner has similar conflicted feelings about home, though unique to his own life just as my feelings are unique to mine. As he does in many of his works, he connects his own story with many of ours; he has weathered his fair share of storms and is well acquainted with the dark shadows which follow for the rest of our earthly lives.

“I believe that home is Christ’s kingdom,” Buechner writes in The Longing for Home, “which exists both within us and among us as we wind our prodigal ways through the world in search of it.”

Both within us and among us. This is the beauty of the gospel breaking into this broken world; it is transforming our individual sinful hearts and the larger world in which we live. We see our need for home met in the coming of Christ’s kingdom, in that “here but not yet” reality. Yes, Jesus, you are here in my heart and life, and I long for that day when I will be fully at home with you. And, yes, Jesus, you are alive and at work in this dark world, and I am looking for the ways your kingdom is breaking through. I want to see.

As the years fly by in my life — I’m now in my mid-thirties — I am learning that much of my daily work is to see properly. Many days, the shadows of the world threaten to overcome the good and the inherent light. As those of us old enough know, we have little control over the shadows. And if it’s not the shadows, the distractions are endless, the worldly pulls ever strengthening their grip. What I can do, and what I can help my children to do, is to look for the light, choose to see the good, and foster our imaginations for our true home. This is the work of living as children of God in this world, wherever we may find ourselves.

And even as the shadows lengthen, even as we feel the splitting in our hearts, we keep looking for the places the kingdom is breaking in, we keep longing for home. It’s coming.

~~~~~~~~~

Beth Barthelemy is a wife, mother to four young children, and cross cultural worker. She and her husband, Ben, have lived and worked in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, for the past five years. She has an MA in Christian Studies from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. You can find her online at bethbarthelemy.com and on Instagram as bethbarthelemy.

“I am a Professional Pretender” (MKs and Their Parents’ Ministries Part 1)

I was nine when my family moved overseas.

I still remember my last ice-skating lesson. I remember the moment my bedspread was sold at our garage sale to a lady with spiky hair. I still remember hugging my grandmother goodbye at the airport.

I also remember comments from friends and church members during that time. Everyone kept telling me how excited I must be, and how much we were honoring God by our commitment. A tension began to build in me, coupled with a growing sense of shame.

Was it silly to be sad about toys and bedspreads and ice-skating lessons when more important things (like gospel proclamation) were at stake?

Over the next ten years, the missionary call on my family’s life was often spiritually idolized by others. I felt responsible to be the uber-spiritual, always-perfect, super-mature version of myself that seemed to align with the perceptions of others. Like many MKs, I often wrestled with feeling responsible for the success of my parents’ ministry. Unbeknownst to me then, I was also grappling with another loss.

The loss of being nine.

You see, I was an MK, but I was still sad and scared and angry. I complained and cried and argued with my sister. I secretly dreaded going to local church and never really wanted to babysit our teammates’ kids. Why did it often feel like these two realities were directly opposed to each other? Slowly, as many MKs do, I began to master the art of pretending.

According to the dictionary, pretend is defined as “to speak and act so as to make it appear that something is the case when in fact it is not.”

MKs are professional pretenders.

I often felt like I was living in a glass house. I smiled to everyone looking at my life from the outside. I tried to live up to the expectations and personal assumptions of how MKs are supposed to act. I assured everyone that I was completely, totally, one hundred percent fine. I was not fine.

Ironically? Within my glass house, I rarely felt seen.

A variety of expectations can cause MKs to hide inside their own glass houses. Here are six outer and inner expectations that can contribute heavily to the pressure we feel to pretend.

 

Outer Expectation #1: Decades-Old Mission Theology

Heroes of the faith. Spiritual superheroes. Simply extraordinary people. Aren’t those the kind of people that God calls to the mission field? No. Missionaries are normal, everyday people.

Although mission theology around these perceptions has slowly changed over recent years, echoes of this thinking can still seep into the community of Christ. Aren’t missionary families supposed to be the super-spiritual, cream of the crop Christians? This theology can seem sensible, but we can forget that the nine-year-olds in the family are also the ones living it out.

 

Outer Expectation #2: Parents or Other Authority Figures

An adult MK recently told me that she still can hear the parental comment in her head, “If you hang out with those kids and get into trouble, we could lose our positions on the field and have to move back to the States.”

While this comment may have been true, its underlying meaning can cause MKs to feel terrified of messing up or making mistakes. Because isn’t my parents’ job at stake? The following beliefs can often be vocally or silently communicated to MKs:

“I am responsible to keep my parents on the field.”

“I can ruin my parents’ ministry.”

That’s a crushing amount of pressure.

 

Outer Expectation #3: The Complexity of Fundraising

Fundraising is a complex topic. First, missionaries need financial support. Second, the most logical means to accomplish this goal is for missionaries to visit churches on home assignment. And third, who would feel especially stirred to donate money to a family of rude, misbehaved children?

No one.

But the pressure of church visits and fundraising can often feel awkward and uncomfortable for MKs. The appropriate expectation to behave can often be skewed into acting a certain way or making a good impression because financial consequences are at stake. “People are watching what you do—behave accordingly” is what one MK I talked to was often told.

 

Inner Expectation #1: The Stress of Cross-Cultural Living

I remember perceiving a stark shift in my parents when my family first moved overseas. Stress levels remained sky-high as we attempted to transition to our new home and culture.

Kids are intuitive. I noticed the intense expectation that my parents felt to learn a new language and begin ministry right away. I resolved internally not to add to their stress. One adult MK similarly described, “I was just trying so hard to be brave and not be a problem for my parents. I didn’t want to stand in their way. I felt pressure to go with it and accept it as the way it had to be.”

 

Inner Expectation #2: A Skewed Understanding of What “Makes God Happy”

Being happy all the time is what it means to honor God.

If I’m happy, then God’s happy.

Cognitively, I know those phrases are not true. But for a significant part of my MK life, that was the theology I lived out. I believed that honoring God meant following all the rules, always doing right, and making sure I never failed Him. I mistakenly perceived my ability to “play my MK part” as my contribution to my parents’ call to ministry. I believed that showing up to play my role was my part in their service.

 

Inner Expectation #3: The Fear of Being “Found Out”

I recently talked with a group of college-aged MKs who told me that they had often been afraid of being “found out” during their childhoods. Do you know what they were afraid of being “found out” for?

Struggling.

“I often thought that MKs were expected to be spiritual enough not to struggle. When I was struggling with something, I often felt pressure to hide it,” one MK said. This deep-seated fear of being discovered is common among MKs, undergirded by an inner pressure of perfection that manifests in a variety of ways.

******

If I could go back and talk to little-girl Taylor, I’d encourage her to voice her hurts and concerns. I’d assure her that honesty was needed, that struggling was normal, and that it was okay to feel all of her emotions.

But more than anything, do you know what little-girl Taylor and many other MKs today need to hear?

More than praise, they need permission.

They need someone to lean in and gently tell them that it’s okay to be nine.

 

~~~~~~~~~~

Taylor Murray is an MK and the author of two books on cross-cultural issues. Her upcoming book Stop Saying I’m Fine: Finding Stillness When Anxiety Screams will be releasing this fall. She is a familiar writer and speaker in the missions world and has served hundreds of young adults in the areas of soul care, pastoral counseling, and spiritual formation. Taylor is passionate about seeing her generation come awake to the love, presence, and action of God in their lives. Connect with her on Instagram here or visit her website at www.taylorjoyinwords.com.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two people sat down.

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

And sometimes, we do too.

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

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

He is amazing. Pause and ponder this…

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

hubble deep field

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

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

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

But boldness without humbleness is just jerkiness.

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Because it was a commonplace request. 

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

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

****

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

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

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

20%: The government sales tax.

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

****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When Hoping Hurts

My favourite thing about Christmas has always been the name Immanuel, and what it really means. To have an omnipotent creator God who saw that the most important thing for him to be and do is to be present: to be God-with-us. Even as a child, without understanding the theological beauty of this, I loved Immanuel.

In the tumult of ongoing personal and professional storms, with no spiritual community to uphold me, I find myself ruminating on the connection between Immanuel and hope. Both feel far away from me in my current circumstances. When someone talks about hope, I want to walk away. There’s no place for hope in this pit. Things will happen as they happen, and there is no point in hoping for them to fall a certain way.

People wishing for the best for me, saying they hope and pray things will work out even better than expected – this makes me feel alone, not hopeful or supported. More comforting are those who simply acknowledge that my situation is awful and then include me in life, maintaining presence without expecting me to perform either grief or joy for them.

Right now, hoping hurts. It hurts to remember how I previously built a business from nothing to a liveable income. I look at empty bank accounts, and the life I lived two years ago feels like another lifetime. It hurts to imagine living with my husband in our own home, because they are on the other side of the world, out of reach.

Which brings me to Immanuel: God with us.

The Almighty God of love looked at a dark and broken world, and he knew that what we needed wasn’t inspirational stories, cheery words, thoughts and prayers, or to be checked in on. What we needed was presence.

The hope of Christmas isn’t that things are wonderful now that Christ is here.

The hope of Christmas isn’t that Jesus will fix everything.

The hope of Christmas isn’t even that Easter is on the horizon and THAT will fix everything.

The hope of Christmas is Immanuel.

The hope of Christmas is that we are not alone.

The hope of Christmas is that we have a God who has lived in the darkness with us.

The hope of Christmas is that Immanuel is in it for the long haul.

Our God doesn’t swoop in and save us at the end. He’s here for the whole journey. The whole dark and broken experience of life among messy and messed up people. He’s the friend who sticks with us when we’re not nice to be around. He’s the one who will sit with us in silence, not just offer cliched words of “comfort.” He understands that hope isn’t about twirling in the sunshine; it is about believing in light while living in utter darkness.

Sometimes, remembering the good that was – hurts.

Sometimes, believing in the good that will be – hurts.

But it is here in the darkness, the brokenness, the mess and destruction, that we find Immanuel. God with us. This is the real hope of Christmas.

I don’t have to change, I don’t have to fix anything, I don’t have to paste on a smile or make myself peppy. These things aren’t hope. I don’t have to believe that immigration paperwork will happen quickly or smoothly. I don’t have to believe my business will recover. I don’t have to believe my health will ever be okay.

Hope is knowing that what I see now is not all there is.

Hope is knowing that no matter what befalls me – Immanuel.

Hope is knowing that journeying through darkness is part of the journey of faith, and not a diversion from it. It is an opportunity to experience Immanuel.

Jesus looks at my dark and broken life and knows that what I need isn’t inspirational stories, cheery words, thoughts and prayers, or to be checked in on. What I need is presence with me on the journey. What I need is Immanuel.

Dethroning My Missionary Hero

During my first year on the mission field — twenty years ago now — I read Elisabeth Elliot’s only novel, No Graven Image. I immediately regretted it. 

Elisabeth Elliot was my hero. Her books about her first husband’s life and martyrdom significantly influenced my decision to become a missionary. Her emphasis on steadfast obedience, no matter the cost, inspired me to do hard things for God. 

But her novel absolutely mystified me. It’s the fictional story of a young missionary — Margaret — in South America, working to translate the Bible for a remote tribe. An Indian family befriends her and the father, Pedro, becomes her closest ally in her translation work. I don’t remember much about the story except for how it ends: Pedro dies — and it’s Margaret’s fault. 

As a 24-year-old idealistic Elisabeth Elliot fan, this was incomprehensible to me. Why on earth would Elisabeth write such a thing? It felt depressing and cynical and almost anti-missionary. Sure, Elisabeth’s own husband had died on the mission field — I knew bad things could happen — but he was a martyr, a hero. And his death inspired a whole generation of new missionaries. That story had a happy ending….right? So why write a novel about missionary failure, where the ending is actually worse than the beginning? God wouldn’t let that happen in real life….right?

I ignored the story. It didn’t match my perception of Elisabeth, missions, or God. My brain didn’t have a category to fit it into, and I consciously made a decision to forget about it.

And then, 20 years of missionary life happened. Yes, I saw many victories, but an equal number of tragedies. The local pastor who abused his adult daughter. The American missionary with six kids who had an affair with a local woman. Families who left the country because of irreconcilable conflict with teammates. Students we poured into for years, only to have them lose their faith on a full-ride scholarship to Harvard. 

Many times, the world swung crazily around me, shifting perceptions of God and myself. Why did I come here? Am I doing any good? Is this really what God wants me to do? At times I paced the room, raging against injustice or abuse perpetrated by people of God, accusing myself of not doing more to stop it. God, we obeyed you when we came here; why are you not fixing this? Changing this? Why did you let this happen?

Recently I read the biography written by Ellen Vaughn, Becoming Elisabeth Elliot. Vaughn filled in my manufactured picture of Elisabeth’s life: not just a hero, a fearless missionary, a martyr’s wife, but a woman who wrestled deeply with obeying God. Yes, she followed Him into the jungle (with her toddler!) to live with the tribe who murdered her husband, but she also cried herself to sleep from grief. She struggled with resentment and selfishness when she shared her home with another missionary family. And conflict with a colleague eventually took her off the mission field entirely.

As I read this biography, my memory plucked No Graven Image out of a dusty corner of my mind. Vaughn writes, “By the end of her time in Ecuador, Betty had puzzled over what the word missionary even meant.” And I realized that I should have paid more attention to the lesson Elisabeth was trying to teach me in her story of Margaret and Pedro: God is God; I am not. We don’t often get happy endings; my job is simply to obey. Her novel was far more insightful than I gave it credit for. I had to learn the hard way.

Vaughn quotes Elisabeth: “Faith’s most severe tests come not when we see nothing, but when we see a stunning array of evidence that seems to prove our faith vain. If God were God, if He were omnipotent, if He had cared, would this have happened? Is this that I face now the ratification of my calling, the reward of obedience? One turns in disbelief again from the circumstances and looks into the abyss. But in the abyss there is only blackness, no glimmer of light, no answering echo… It was a long time before I came to the realization that it is in our acceptance of what is given that God gives Himself. Even the Son of God had to learn obedience by the things that He suffered. . . . And His reward was desolation, crucifixion.”

My hero had stared into the abyss more than I realized. And her understanding of God came from the abyss, not in spite of it. Vaughn explains that Elisabeth learned that “God’s sovereign will was a mystery that could not be mastered, an experience that could not be classified, a wonder that had no end. It wove together strands of life, death, grace, pain, joy, humility, and awe.” 

I came away from Elisabeth’s biography with a far more imperfect, cracked, patched up image of her than I had twenty years ago. But that’s true of how I see myself and missions too, for that matter. Knowing that she fought through grief and doubt and failure into a more beautiful understanding of the goodness and sovereignty of God gives me hope. If Elisabeth could get there, I can too.

Ellen Vaughn writes, “The only problem to be solved, really, is that of obedience. As Betty noted, futility—that spirit-numbing sense of despair—does not come from the thing itself, but from the demand to know ‘why.’… For Betty, the question is ‘what?’ As in, Lord, show me what You want me to do. And I’ll do it. And in that acceptance—’I’ll obey, whatever it is’—there is peace.”

Sick and Far Away

We all know what it’s like. It’s the fever that comes over us late in the evening. We think we’ll sleep it off, but by morning it’s far worse. It’s accompanied by terrible dysentery. We still hold out for the hope that it is a 24-hour virus, only to realize it is not. Or it’s the croup that comes over our 18 month old in the night. We wake to a strange bark. What could it be? It sounds like a sick dog has made its way into our apartment. Uneasy, we suddenly realize it’s our precious toddler. Rushing into his bedroom, we see him standing up in his crib with his favorite sleep animal. He cries out “Mama” in a hoarse whisper, struggling to breathe. We gather him up and turn the shower on full steam, praying to the God who made him, who loves him.

There are thousands of other scenarios that we could describe. Often, the outcomes are wonderful. The fever and dysentery resolve; the croup is stilled and the next day we get to a pediatrician; the stitches are placed by a kind doctor who speaks our language and we tear up in gratitude. But there is a point in any of these cases where everything feels urgent and hard. Depending on where we live, we may rue limited medical care in ways we never think about when we are healthy.

These are the stories of being sick and far away. Stories where we have only our gut feelings, and Where There is No Doctor to guide us. Loneliness often overtakes us, knowing we are at the mercy of our new neighbors and friends, knowing that our moms, sisters, and doctors are far, far away.

As I write this, I’m sitting in Istanbul, Turkey. After being bathed in fog for several days, the sun has finally broken through and brightens my room. We are all sick. As my ever wise sister-in-law says, “I’m pretty sure it’s not a ‘sickness unto death,’ but it sure feels like it.” From across the room I weakly nod in agreement, my fever rising and causing chills over my body.

Sick and far away. Lonely, tearful, in pain.

And yet, sickness and disease is part of the human story. In my favorite read of the year, Prayer in the Night, author Tish Harrison Warren reminds us that for centuries priests would come pray for people and tell them to make a will. It’s not because of lack of faith. Prayer was for healing, but if healing did not come, a will was a smart way to care for those you left behind. It’s because life is what it is — a broken version of the original plan. It still holds much joy, hope, beauty, and goodness. It also holds far too much pain, sorrow, sickness, and death.

Since I was a little girl, these times of sickness have often brought help from unexpected places. At four years old, with a raging fever brought on by Malaria, a couple from my parents’ organization arrived at our house in the middle of the night to get us to care and safety. At 30 years old with the toddler with croup, a kind friend told me about an excellent pediatrician who made house calls. At 34 with a raging fever and my husband traveling, friends who had no idea I was sick showed up just at the right time.

Often, but not always. The reality is that help doesn’t always come. As thankful as I have been for help that has come, I have also witnessed the tragic deaths of community members, permanent loss because of sickness, outcomes that have made me cry out in sadness and anger, and weep for months. “Pray for healing and make a will” played out in real time. We walk through the door of permanent loss that death brings, slowly learning to embrace our existence where longing is a breath away, and we accept sadness as a permanent fixture of the gladness. Yet, sickness and death have brought me close to the one who understands pain and sickness like no other. I don’t understand this mystery, and I never will. But I lean in. I don’t know any other way to be, any other thing to do.

In this world that offers many contradictions and paradoxes for people of Christian faith, there are also some clear hard core truths. One truth that we cling to is that God loves this world: he loves his creation. He entered it through the person of Jesus to walk with us, weep with us, get sick with us, rejoice with us, and heal us. At times of sickness, I cling to my limited understanding of God’s love for this world; his awesome love for a creation that he continually runs toward, limitless in his creative ability to grab our hearts. As my fever rises, I marvel that he loved it and us enough to reconcile all of creation to himself and renew it through that reconciliation. This faith that I’ve pledged my life to points me to a greater reality than the one that I see and to the feverish, achy body that I now feel.

In her recent newsletter, “Do Good Better,” Rachel Pieh Jones writes powerful words about anemic faith vs. painful faith. Her words resonated deeply as I lay on my brother-in-law and sister-in-law’s couch groaning with sickness, wishing my faith was less anemic. I offer them here as a benediction to this piece.

“Was Jesus happy, comfortable, and safe when people wanted to throw him off the cliff? When he had no place to lay his head? When his family fled to Egypt? When he was beaten, spit on, mocked, stripped, and murdered?

This idea creates an anemic faith that cannot withstand the buffeting winds of a real human existence. It creates an idol out of God and utterly misunderstands God’s character. It provides no language for dealing with pain or fear. It leaves no room for forgiveness, for courage, for endurance, for patience, for lament, for reality. …I want to talk about painful faith. Faith that cries out, ‘This hurts! This is not justice! Where are you God?’ In my darkest moments, the times when I couldn’t breathe because of grief or fear or rage, the times I had to stop driving because I couldn’t see, had to lay down on the kitchen floor because I could no longer stand, had to hurl stones from cliffs and scream, lost my voice from crying, you know the moments. You are a human, you’ve had them too. In those moments, faith hurt. It hurt because it didn’t heal anything, it didn’t solve anything, it didn’t take away the emotions. But faith pointed me in a direction. I knew where to aim my sorrow and anger and confusion.” –Rachel Pieh Jones in “Do Good Better

How to Keep Living When You’re Drowning in Limbo

I packed a suitcase of thin fabrics, suitable for three weeks of tropical humidity and meetings in air-conditioned rooms. I hugged my husband goodbye, then texted him from the airport. It was early March 2020, and after a few months of restrictions in Beijing, I was looking forward to being somewhere other than our small apartment for a few weeks. The plane took off, and unbeknownst to me, I left my home in China for the last time.

18 months later I am living with my parents in my native Australia, and my husband is in our new home in his native U.S. I was able to visit him there for three months over Thanksgiving and Christmas. The rest of the time we have been living apart with no idea how long this situation will last. Last year we were waiting for things to change, and when it became clear nothing was changing, we began planning a move to the U.S. without me there in China to help. This year we’ve been working through the green card immigration process that will allow me to join him in the U.S.

That’s a lot of loss, a lot of limbo, a lot of uncertainty.

The Covid-19 pandemic, with the accompanying lockdowns, border restrictions, flight cancellations, school closures, work changes, and health crises, has created a lot of loss and limbo and uncertainty for many people – especially those of us with international lives. 

Drowning in limbo

Last year I had no idea how long I would be in Australia, when I would go home to my home and husband in China, and later whether I would go home at all. I had arrived in Canberra, the coldest part of Australia, with three weeks’ worth of tropical weather clothes – right as we went into winter. I lived in hand-me-downs from thrift stores, the local buy-nothing group, a friend, and a few things I’d left at my parents’ house because they were holey or otherwise less than optimal. It took me months to decide to buy adequate shoes and socks and underwear – because those purchases were acknowledgements that I really wasn’t going home to Beijing where I already had everything I needed.

And that is a perfect description of living in limbo. 

When you’re living in limbo, you’re in an intermediate state, and you don’t know how long it will last. You’re stuck. You can’t make decisions – you can’t even buy socks. You might have all the transition skills in the world, but it’s hard to use them when you don’t have a new place to settle into, when you’re waiting to arrive – or leave. This can be particularly hard for seasoned expats and other globally mobile individuals. We have strategies and skills, and we know how to use them. Then we end up in limbo, and our strategies and skills don’t work the way we’re used to.  

Last year, I wasn’t so much living in limbo as I was drowning in it.

This year, I’m living differently. My life is still full of uncertainty. I’m still living with my parents and unsure when I’ll see my husband again. But I’ve also found ways to keep afloat, to keep moving – to truly live in the midst of limbo. 

How to keep living in limbo

Uncertainty is a difficult state to live in. It’s hard to plan for the future when you don’t know what’s coming. It’s hard to enjoy the moment when you know it could change. Impermanence isn’t a place where you can be at ease. 

Over the past 18 months I’ve learned a lot about coping with all the unknowns and creating peace and joy in the middle of uncertainty. Here are my four best pieces of advice – things that have helped me stay afloat through a life of uncertainty while I’m stuck in limbo: 

1) Invest in small comforts

Sure, you don’t know how long you’ll be where you are. But as long as you’re there, make sure you have what you need to relax and be at peace, whatever that means for you. Living in limbo is hard enough without having anything that you find soothing and comforting. Any money you invest in those small comforts is an investment in your mental health, your peace of mind, and your ability to cope in a difficult situation. If that situation resolves quickly and you find yourself with two of your favourite comfort items, that’s okay! You can save one for a rainy day, leave it at a place you visit often, or bless someone else with it.

2) Plan small anticipations

One of the hardest things about living in limbo is not knowing when your situation will end. It’s so hard to plan ahead, to have things to look forward to in a concrete way. There’s a vague sense of, “When this is over I’ll do __________,” but it’s difficult to be more specific. Anticipation is a source of joy, and losing the ability to anticipate near future events is problematic. We need markers of time and things to look forward to. My solution: create small anticipations for yourself. Create little routines, and luxuriate in the smallest of joys. 

One way I’ve done this is by throwing myself into my favourite reality TV shows. I watch them as they air (which is several nights a week for several months here in Australia) so that I can follow along on Twitter with everyone else watching live. It was a tiny anticipation in the grand scheme of things, but watching Masterchef with hundreds of strangers on the internet became a huge part of my days and weeks! It was something I looked forward to during the day. 

3) Be present in the moment

Find activities that keep you grounded, that allow you to experience joy in the moment. Joy and pleasure that is not dependent on your situation or your circumstances, but simply is. Notice small things. Perhaps it is natural beauty – sunsets, flowers, mountains, bird calls. Perhaps it is playing with small children, immersing yourself in the wonder they see, getting caught up in the magic they make with simple things like boxes and blocks and crayons. Perhaps it is a time of rest, with a good book, a cozy blanket, and a cup of tea. For me it has been all of these and more. 

4) Lean into the experiences you couldn’t have otherwise

What do you have access to because of your time in limbo that you wouldn’t otherwise? Usually the negatives of our situations shout very loudly. Those difficulties are real, and the pain they cause is real. The grief that comes from plans laid waste is valid and needs to be acknowledged and expressed. But it’s not the whole story. What can I access in my limbo life that I couldn’t access elsewhere?

In my case, two particularly significant experiences opened to me in limbo. Choosing to lean into them has brought me incredible benefits that have helped to redeem my limbo time. First, I’ve been able to access beneficial healthcare with a doctor I’d previously only seen for annual checkups, and the positive changes to my health have been dramatic. 

My second open door has been time with my young niece and nephews. The oldest is five; the youngest is nearly 17 months – he was born about 6 weeks after I arrived. I’ve been 15 minutes down the road from him and his older brother his entire life, and usually see them several days a week. My other niece and nephew live halfway across the country. Twice I’ve been able to live with them in their house for a full month, being a part of their everyday lives in almost every way. As a long-distance family member, these are joys I never dreamed I would get to experience. 

So yes, living in limbo is awful. Uncertainty is so hard to live with. There is so much about my situation I don’t like and wouldn’t choose. And yet, there are ways to make it easier to bear. There are ways to cultivate joy in the midst of heartache. If you find yourself stuck in limbo like me, I hope you will find these ideas helpful.

Dear Re-entry

by Katherine

Dear Reverse Culture Shock,

I have not enjoyed spending time with you. You are a sneaky thief. Beyond that, your identity is ambiguous. You have made moving back to my passport country horrible.

I’m never sure whether I should call you Reverse Culture Shock or Re-entry. And if Re-entry, how do I spell it? People can’t agree if it’s Re-entry or Reentry.

Even though I have had many dealings with you, I still don’t know what to call you. That says something about your nature. You’re elusive, invisible. 

I wish you were more like your brother Culture Shock. Although also unpleasant, I appreciate that he is obnoxious. Like you, he steals, but in a more obvious way.

Or why can’t you be like your namesake Spacecraft Re-entry? He is loud. Everyone knows he is the most dangerous part of a space journey. Getting back into Earth’s atmosphere is a vulnerable time, and it can be disastrous if is not done carefully.

You are not obvious or loud; you hide away like an afterthought, silently stealing from me.

You stole my house, my job, my friends — lots of tangible things like that but also my skills and identity. You turned me into an incompetent invisible immigrant. On the outside, I look like a normal Australian, but I don’t know how to do anything. At least in Asia, my white skin announces that I will need help talking or eating.

You stole my ability to do things people expect me to be capable of doing. I look like everyone else, so drivers assume I will know how to cross the road. People in the supermarket expect me to be able to buy a box of breakfast cereal.

You stole my ability to do things I expect myself to be capable of doing. I’ve lived here before, so I assume I know how to do all those simple things. Like feed myself and take part in conversations. Like buy and wear shoes after wearing flip-flops for many years.

You stole my ability to be settled in like people seem to expect. “Have you settled in yet?” It sounds like a perfectly reasonable question to ask. But it sometimes sounds like, “You should feel settled now that you have been back for almost a year.”

You stole my ability to sleep as much as I need. Every little thing takes so much more effort, so I’m extra tired. But the bed is too soft, there is no hugging pillow, and it’s so cold I need to use a blanket. I even need to relearn how to sleep.

You stole my ability to have fun and relax. In a new environment, my hobbies and habits that kept me sane can’t happen. So not only do you create extra stress and work for me, but you also take away my ways to cope with stress. 

You stole my ability to understand that I’m in pain. Until I met you, I felt like I was at home, but you took that and replaced it with sadness too big see. Homelessness is the air I’m breathing, but I can’t see that air.

It feels like confusion and helplessness. 

It feels like a problem I need to fix as soon as possible. 

It feels like if I only relearn how to live in Australia, I will be able to function as a normal person.

You make those feelings so overwhelming that I can’t see what is really going on. And if I can’t understand I’m in pain, how can I start processing it? You can’t heal from something unless you know it’s there. In fact, sometimes the simple act of naming emotions is healing, but you stole even that. 

It’s going to end up pushed aside, out of sight, out of mind. Like a bacteria in the permafrost, it will end up frozen and inactive. The unnamed and unacknowledged pain could stay dormant until the next heat wave. When the permafrost melts, the bacteria can start causing destruction again. Not only did you create loss, but you also stole the ability to cope with it. 

I can’t blame you entirely – pain in general is hard to deal with. We prefer to find the silver linings and write gratitude lists. Even people in visible pain are sometimes met with, “At least it’s not as bad as it could be.” 

Perhaps it is hard to see another’s pain, especially if we haven’t processed our own. Or perhaps because it is uncomfortable to see someone in pain ,we try to sweep it away. It’s more convenient to say some “comforting words” than listen to another person scream and cry for five hours. 

So Reentry, my inability to process pain is not all your fault. But if you weren’t so invisible, there would be more chance of acknowledgment. That might not sound like much, but it actually goes a long way. In fact, you can’t get anywhere without it. 

But you stole my ability to do almost everything, including explaining to people that I don’t know how to do anything.  If only I could wear “Learners” plates everywhere so people would know. 

This letter is too short to tell you all the reasons I’m not fond of you. But I hope it gives you a glimpse of some of what you have done to me. 

This letter has no power to stop you from silently stealing from me and your other victims. But what I hope this letter can do is to bring you out of hiding. If you were visible, your victims would have more chance to give their pain space to breathe.

Painfully yours,
Katherine

~~~~~~~~~

Katherine’s childhood church in Australia launched her on a trajectory to Asia. After a decade of preparation she landed in Cambodia and married a local Bible teacher. She wrote this letter as a response to two years of re-entry and reverse culture shock in 2011 and 2012.

A Childhood Erased

MCS School South

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robynn Bliss

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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.