Don’t Just Missionary On

Onward, Christian soldiers.

Soldier on, Christians.

These don’t mean the same thing, at least not to me.

Paul uses the word soldier to describe someone faithfully acting in obedience to God when he exhorts Timothy, “Join with me in suffering, like a good soldier of Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 2:3 NIV). It’s a good thing to be Christian soldier.

But when we use soldier as a verb, such as in soldier on, it can take on a different meaning. Around the early 1900s, to soldier on the job was introduced, meaning, oddly enough, to act as if you’re working hard while only putting in minimal effort. And then the mid 1900s gave us the shorter to soldier on, which means to keep going in the face of difficulty or trouble.

In this latter sense, soldiering on, too, is a good thing. But that’s not how the phrase often comes across today. When I hear “soldiering on,” I think of a joyless trudge, just putting one foot in front of the other without resting, without taking time for reflection, without asking questions, without sharing heartfelt emotions, without asking for help or relief or sympathy or grace.

That’s how the best soldiers do it, right?

Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die.

Do you ever feel that you’re only “missionarying on”—where your service overseas is a joyless trudge, just putting one foot in front of the other without resting, without taking time for reflection, without asking questions, without sharing heartfelt emotions, without asking for help or sympathy or grace?

Please don’t get me wrong: Suffering is part of the equation. Persevering when things are hard, really hard, is often necessary. And sometimes we simply must put our heads down and do the work that must be done. But if being a missionary feels only like a slog through thick mud, day after day after day, loaded down, with no relief in sight or hoped for, then something needs to change.

If that’s the case for you, tell some someones how you feel—someone who will listen without judgment, someone who knows you well, someone who is on your side, someone who understands, someone whom you trust, someone who can make a difference.

Don’t settle for trudging.

Don’t be content to let your “have to” devour your “get to.”

Don’t assume that carrying an overly heavy burden is all there is and all there ever will be.

Onward, Christian missionaries.

But please, please don’t just missionary on.

[photo: “boot,” by eltpics, used under a Creative Commons license]

Is Christ Still Worth It?

In 2007, worker friends of mine were martyred in a country in Central Asia. I was in my mid-twenties, single, and praying for direction for the desires the Lord had given me for his kingdom. I was so shaken by their deaths. I remember how, shortly after it happened, I was swimming furiously in the gym pool, praying to the Lord, ”Who will take their place? Please, send me.”

I couldn’t make it to the memorial in the US, but a pastor friend shared with me the eulogy he had given. One line has had a profound effect on me. After talking about all the challenges these worker friends faced, and their many adversaries, he said something like, “You may hear about all this opposition and all the difficulties they faced, and their lives may not sound appealing to you. But the truth is, their lives did not appeal to them either. They loved Christ more than they loved their own lives.

~~~~~~~

I remember when we were first getting ready to go overseas. My husband and I had the opportunity to share at a church together. I was passionate, convinced that Christ is worthy and that he is worth our sacrifice. I was so glad we were finally (at age 33 and 32) on our way to serve Christ in the Middle East for the rest of our lives. 

The first three years were exciting. We had a lot of adrenaline, and we were planted in really good spiritual communities. During that time we joined a team to help plant a church. We felt like we were finally living our dream life. Then the Lord called us to another ministry in another country. 

The last four years, since arriving in this country, we have faced many difficulties: significant health problems, a brutal treatment to catalyze physical healing, an excruciating language learning season, deep loneliness, unresolved trauma flaring up with intense symptoms and a need for additional counseling/therapy. A tragedy a year ago left us reeling, and we are still processing the shock of it. Our efforts in relationship building haven’t borne the fruit we hoped; right now the path doesn’t seem very clear. The ground at times feels shaky underneath our feet. What can we stand on? At times we feel like the wind in our sails is just…..gone. 

We have been overseas for seven years now. According to a friend, who is also a clinical counselor and who has done a lot of research about mental health in workers, we are right at the burnout period. And frankly, we feel it. Don’t get me wrong. There is a lot I love about our life here. I love where we live. I love the beauty around me. I am so thankful for the expat community we have started to get to know. Our kids are doing really well at school. But I don’t love how lost we feel right now, how very little we have to go on for ministry. We have dreams for the work here but struggle to find our place in it. 

We shared some of this with our church this past summer, asking for prayer. I wondered how they might hear what we shared. Did our lives sound as unappealing as the ones from my friends? We were definitely not sharing the glamorous, attractive stories that you sometimes hear from workers when they come home. We were not doing the best job at recruiting, if you ask me.

A question swirled in my head: What would motivate any of our friends at church not only to keep praying for us, but to maybe one day also go overseas? Is Christ still worth it?

Is Christ worth years and years of language learning? Is he worth the death of who we are in English for what we can be in another language? Is he worth our praise when we have more questions than clear answers from him?  When the ground doesn’t feel firm, and our confidence feels shaken, is he worth it? 

The thing is, Christ hasn’t changed. He is still the one who holds all things together (Colossians 1:17). He is still the one who knows the end from the beginning, whose footprints sometimes are unseen as he leads through the sea (Psalm 77:19). He is still the one who creates the visible out of the invisible (Hebrews 11:3). He is still the one whose arm brings salvation (Isaiah 59:17).

Christ is still the one who stoops low even as he has all authority on earth (Matthew 28:18-20). He is the one who gives himself to us so completely, so joyfully, so powerfully, so lovingly. The one who is our life — our only life!

This verse in a new song by CityAlight and Sandra McCracken captures why we can still love Christ even when we don’t love our lives: 

On the road that You walked
With the weight of the cross
All my pain and my sorrow You held
So to You I shall hold
You redeem every loss
For my Lord, You have given Yourself

Bless the Lord, for He gives me Himself
Bless the Lord, for He gives me Himself
And if I should remain in the valley today
Bless the Lord, for He gives me Himself

Yes, friend, in the valley the risen Christ is still worthy and worth it, because there we get Him – all of Him – forever.

Some Seeds Die

When I was growing up, my family often sang prayers before mealtime. Our repertoire included “God is good and God is great,” “Hands, hands, hands,” and “I owe the Lord a morning song.” Another family favorite was the “Johnny Appleseed” song. Perhaps your family also sang this song. Based on the historic figure John Chapman, the legend of Johnny Appleseed has made its way into Disney movies, folklore, and prayer-songs[1].

The second verse of this song has not been sitting well with me for years. We sing:

“And every seed I sow, will grow into a tree.
And someday there will be apples there,
For everyone in the world to share.
The Lord’s been good to me.”

While I appreciate the encouraging, hopeful words, in recent years I have found that they grate at my soul. Is it ok to teach our children lies or half-truths, even in the context of a children’s song? Not every seed will grow. Jesus was clear about that. But this song gives us a nicer, cleaner, easier way to teach our children that seeds grow. We do learning activities with our children, and we assume that the seeds we plant in the little pots on our porch will grow.

But often they don’t.

I have learned this over the past decade of ministering in a slum community. Quite literally, many seeds do not grow. There is a grassy field only a stone’s throw from our house. We would love to plant small trees there, or flowers, or vegetables. But the roaming sheep and goats immediately devour anything edible. We recently tried transplanting a fairly good-sized tree from a pot to this field. Within an hour the goats had devoured all the leaves and left it a bare stick. Our six-year-old son cried as he watched our plant get eaten.

Even the pots on our porch often fail to produce the plants we were expecting to grow. Whether it is the neighboring chickens that wander onto our porch to eat the new seedlings or a curious child who decides to pick at the pots, new seeds often have no chance to grow. We did a gardening activity with thirty of our elementary school students recently: planting spinach, chili peppers, and kangkong. We faithfully watered the thirty little pots. Hopeful sprouts sprang up. But now a month later, two small pots are all that remain.

Sadly, ministering in hard settings often yields similar results as our gardening efforts in the slum. Have you been in your location for years but not seen anyone come to know Jesus? Do you know the heartbreak and despair of sowing for years but not seeing any fruit? Have you poured yourself into the work and not seen what you had hoped to see? Or perhaps the pain and disappointment is related to your team? Have people you trusted and mentored not produced the fruit you were hoping for?

These past few months have felt like a season of pruning for me. Teammates have left. We had to send an intern home suddenly because of a breach of trust. And multiple students that we had poured into have stopped coming to lessons. Sometimes the heartbreak feels too much to bear.

So I have started singing a new version of the Johnny Appleseed song with my children:

“And every seed I sow will grow into a tree.
But that is not true, ‘cause some seeds die.
And then I’ll sit on the ground and cry:
‘The Lord’s still good to me. Even when the seeds die.’”

This feels more in line with Scripture. Some seeds die. Three quarters of the seeds, in fact, if Jesus’s parable of the soils is mathematical. Some seeds fall on the path and are eaten by birds. Other seeds fall on rocky soil and cannot grow. Some seeds begin to grow but are choked by the worries and riches of this world. Only a quarter of the seeds fall on good soil. (See Matthew 13 for more details.)

Wherever you are, wherever you are sowing seeds, may you be encouraged today. Not with an “everything will be ok” or “every seed will grow” lie. But may you be encouraged to lament the areas in your life and ministry that are disappointing. May you know today that God sees, God hears, and God cares.

And may we be able to join our voice with the voice of the prophet Habakkuk and proclaim:

“Though the fig tree does not blossom and no fruit is on the vines; though the produce of the olive fails and the fields yield no food; though the flock is cut off from the fold and there is no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD; I will exult in the God of my salvation. God, the Lord, is my strength.” (Habakkuk 3:17-19a)


[1] As I wrote this article and googled the song, I discovered that it was actually created by Disney in 1948, originally titled “The Lord is Good to Me.” However, the words that I grew up singing are different than the original.

Is It Possible to Parent Well?

Somewhere between the 1,100-mile move and the wheels falling off (not literally, but figuratively) of our family’s parenting vehicle, I asked the question:

‘Is it possible for me, as a career missionary, to parent well?’

It seems I crucify myself between two thieves: Fear and Self-Doubt. And there are probably a million other places I can go which defeat me as a parent.

But, fellow cross-cultural parent, I am not writing this for any of us to stay in places of shame or defeat. I believe God has a fresh word for all of us amid the uncharted waters of loving our kids in new spaces, both figurative and literal.

When we were first considering a dramatic ministry change, I called a friend to pray over me and my family. She saw a picture of me trying to protect my kids from what this new call and accompanying relocation could do to them. As I released them, they were in scary places I had no control over, and they were shaken. Yet, my friend’s word of encouragement was that without this ‘shaking up’ they would never establish themselves in their own unique relationships with God.

Whether you are in transition, or simply in the throes of what missionary journeys can do to us as very human parents who still struggle, may I offer this same word to you for your children?

It is easy to chastise ourselves for what the calls to ministry in new places and often countries and always cultures can do to our kids. And while we consider their desires and preferences, sometimes a transition happens despite our children’s deep desire to remain in a specific place.

A little over a year ago, this was my story.

This is not a post about knowing all the answers. I am far from a place of confidence along the parenting journey. We have walked through some excruciating experiences in the past year.

However, I’m choosing to be vulnerable and share some universal parenting truths that are currently keeping me and guarding me as a parent. Perhaps there is some daily bread for you too, in this offering.

  1. There Is Divine Strength to Parent: Missionary or not, it is a hard thing, at times desperately hard, to be a parent. From the moment our children come to us so needy for our love and care, we feel out of our depth to meet those needs. What starts as the newborn phase of physical exhaustion moves rapidly to the deepening emotional and spiritual needs of growing people. This past year has felt like the most exhausting in my fifteen years of parenting, yet the promises of God remain, ready for me to grasp and embrace. These three Biblical promises alone, remind me of the truth of sufficient strength for my every need:

“But those who hope in the Lord
    will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
    they will run and not grow weary,
    they will walk and not be faint.” (Isaiah 40:31, NIV)

“He tends his flock like a shepherd:
    He gathers the lambs in his arms
and carries them close to his heart;
    he gently leads those that have young.” (Isaiah 40:11, NIV)

“But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (II Corinthians 12:9-10, NIV)

2. Comparison Leads Us to Futile Places: We can learn much from parents further along the road, as well as from our peers. But, when our ‘learning’ becomes construction of standards by which we compare, there is only the wilderness of dry rivers and dust-eating attempts to find nourishment. This is true primarily because there is a whole story that goes with each family. There are places we cannot see — especially those places that are far from social media — that tell a different story than the external. This is not to dampen the joy of those who are experiencing places of genuine flourishing as parents, but there is not a parent on this earth who has never struggled. We are all co-journeyers on this long road home, none of us having it all together.

3. As You Press into the Heart of God, He Will Teach You How to Parent Well: Truly, the best thing we can ever do is to learn the manifest heart of our Abba Father. As we learn His heart, this is the place from which we learn to parent. His love is infinite, always seeking us, pursuing us. We see how he has loved his covenant people though they strayed time and again. This gives us the grace to continue to love our kids when they do not love us back and ultimately when our hearts break in big and little ways. We remember that yes,

“The Lord disciplines those he loves,
    as a father the son he delights in.” (Proverbs 3:12, NIV)

But, He also is a God whose kindness is intended to lead us to repentance. (Romans 2:4, NIV)

God never stops being our Abba, for we are in Christ Jesus. Therefore, He gives us the strength to know His heart FOR US in our brokenness, mistakes, and sin. Then, we too, can give that same heart to our children.

4. He Who Has Called Us Is Faithful: As I have felt the guilt of following God and therefore causing my children to enter hard places, I have had to remember God’s faithfulness. Just as he called me to be a parent, so he calls me to do this as I am His child, surrendering my life to Him. My oldest son just began high school. It is his ninth school. I would not have chosen this for his story. Yet, God. He is the ultimate Author, and He chose our journey as missionaries to shape our children’s lives too. I think of all of the ways my son has needed to trust God in new things. I trust our journey as his parents has been for his good. And I can trust that for my other two children. No matter their current struggles or strengths, it is God who owns them and the entirety of their stories. The final chapter of completion is His to write. I could desire nothing more than that their journey would lead them to His arms and that we would dance together in that great and Final Day at the Wedding Feast of God.

There is much more that could be said as parenting is incredibly profound. What I offer here is meant to encourage the brokenhearted, the struggling, the doubting, the fearing among us. If my own journey is any indication, that will undoubtedly be you in one or many parenting seasons.

And the truth is that, though we are deeply imperfect, we can parent our children from the strength, hope, and heart of God. This is the promise of Christ in us.

You know about jet lag. Do you know about heart lag?

Jet lag, sweet terrible jet lag. It leads to entire chocolate bars consumed at three in the morning or entire novels devoured in the first three days after an international flight. Might lead to sickness, crabbiness, headaches, complaints, arguments. Every expatriate knows about jet lag.

But do you know about heart lag?

Every time I come back to Djibouti or go back to Minnesota, I feel shock. And then I feel shock that I feel shock. It has been twelve years; I should be used to the coming and going by now. I thought after a decade the transition would get easier, but I find my heart lagging more and more behind my body.

In some ways it does get easier. I know our routine and our stores and our friends and the languages. But in some ways I find the return more jarring than ever, increasingly so. Why?

Expectations. expect not to be jarred, not to be shocked. I expect both sides of the ocean to feel normal, and they do. But when those two normals are so far from each other, when one is green and leafy and one is brown and dusty, when one sounds like robins and one sounds like the call to prayer, the normality of such variance is shocking.

Deeper Cultural Knowledge. Now I am aware of the deeper differences. I see beyond the tourist-culture-shock things like garbage and the driving and the heat and the clothes. I see the values, the fundamental differences in worldview, the different political structures and family functions and religious practices. And these differences both rub against the deeper things of my soul and resonate with those deeper things. This means that a much more profound part of my identity is experiencing the shock.

Personal Change. I have been changed now precisely because of interacting for so many years with this deeper cultural knowledge. Those changes affect the way I act on both sides of the ocean, so the transition requires digging deeper to uproot and replant. It involves more struggle.

Home. Coming home instead of going on a trip or returning to a relatively new place changes the way I see it, changes the way I respond to the inundation of the changes. Small developments happen while I’m gone, and as a long-term expat, I notice them. A corner store turns into a restaurant, the newspaper is under new management, the mosque has a new voice. Home changed in my absence, and I have to catch up.

These things could all easily be considered culture shock. But I recently started thinking of them in terms of jet lag. I decided that they are the result of heart lag. The shock factor is there, but I know I will move beyond it quickly, and I know what resides on the other side – settling, ease, comfortable familiarity. My heart just needs some time to catch up.

We give our bodies time to adjust, and people tend to be sympathetic to the traveler who falls asleep in the middle of a sentence at 7 p.m. after flying for thirty-eight hours. Let’s give our hearts time to adjust too. Be sympathetic to the traveler (even when it is yourself) who needs a few days for their heart to catch up to their body.

 

Originally published on February 2, 2015.

Sing Along with Me: How Long?

broken mirror reflecting sky


Returning to the States after serving overseas was a hard time for my wife and me. We were grieving our losses and were struggling with the difficulties we’d already faced and those we saw ahead. We prayed and prayed but didn’t receive clear direction from God. In our spiritual malaise it was hard to slide back into a church service and cheerfully sing praise songs. So we often stayed seated while others stood, and prayed silently while others sang.

While we didn’t hear the audible voice of God in answer to our prayers, we did read the words of David in communion with our prayers:

How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart? (Psalm 13:1-2a NIV)

We still sometimes find ourselves sitting and praying during our church’s worship service, and we still sometimes call to God with the opening words of the 13th Psalm. So when I saw syndicated columnist Terry Mattingly’s post at On Religion last month, “Open Bible to Psalms: What Messages Are Seen There but Not in Modern Praise Music?” it caught my attention. And then as I read on and saw him quoting Craig Greenfield, a past contributor to A Life Overseas, I was pulled in.

In his essay, Mattingly discusses Michael J. Rhodes’ analysis of the 25 top Christian worship songs (from a ranking by Christian Copyright Licensing International). Rhodes finds that in their lyrics, justice appears only once, enemies “rarely show up,” and there is no mention of the poor, widows, refugees, or the oppressed, even though those are common themes in the Psalms. “Maybe most devastatingly,” he writes on Twitter, “in the Top 25, not a SINGLE question is ever posed to God.”

Craig, who has spent years living among and working with the poor overseas, responds by lamenting the lack of lamenting in our worship, the absence of mourning with those who mourn over the state of a world that’s “all messed up.” He writes, “Sometimes it’s a broken, evil place and His Kingdom has not yet come in full.”

The Psalms often express lamenting in blunt questions posed to God, questions such as “How long?” Are you familiar with the Irish rock band U2’s “40” from back in 1982? It opens with words taken directly from Psalm 40 and concludes with the refrain “How long to sing this song?” That’s a reference to another of their well-known recordings (from the same album), “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” decrying violence in the world, in which they sing, “How long, how long must we sing this song?” For many years, U2 closed their concerts with “40,” while the band members left the stage one by one and the audience sang, “How long to sing this song?” repeated again and again well after the stage was empty.

Psalm 13 isn’t the only place where the psalmist cries out to God, “How long?” And that’s not the only kind of question asked in the Psalms, either. There are plenty of “whens,” “whats,” and “whys,” as well.

I think, too, of another song containing an outpouring of questions directed at God. It’s Kings Kaleidoscope’s “A Prayer.” I was introduced to Kings Kaleidoscope when I listened to and wrote about the podcast The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill. The band and its lead singer, Chad Gardner, came through Mars Hill Church, where Gardner led worship until resigning. Each of the main episodes of the podcast opens with King’s Kaleidoscope’s “Sticks and Stones,” which tells of the band’s disillusionment with Mars Hill. (If you haven’t listened to the podcast, you might instead recognize the tune from a 2019 Lexus commercial.)

“A Prayer” opens with the question, “Will I fall or will I misstep?” It speaks of silence and anxiety, and transitions to an over-and-over-again “Jesus, where are you? Am I still beside you?” Then comes a “bridge” of no words and no music—in the version below, a full 30 seconds long. It’s a powerful moment and makes me wonder if this is what the psalmist’s “selah” might have sounded like. And then the quiet is followed by a solo violin and Jesus’ enthusiastic answer:

These are two song I can stand up for and sing, though I doubt I’ll hear them led from a church stage. U2’s “40” has been around too long, and the group is far from what most people would call a “worship band.” And when Kings Kaleidoscope released “A Prayer,” it came out in two versions: clean and explicit. The clean rendition is embedded above, while the explicit one contains the f-word, as Gardner uses it to describe the violent fear he’s experienced. Some laud his raw authenticity. Others consider it a sinful word choice.

One more thing, though: I don’t want to stray too far from Rhode’s original thesis. While I’m concentrating on the general absence of questions in our church singing, he emphasizes the scarcity of questioning in the context of addressing poverty and justice. I have to confess that my “How longs?” mostly concern my inner turmoil, rather than grieving the hurt occurring around our globe—the grieving and hurt that many of you live among and see firsthand. I, like the church as a whole, have a ways to go to align my thinking with the Psalms, to be able to sing with and for those who are marginalized and oppressed.

Shortly after his tweet, Rhodes, In Christianity Today, wrote,

We’re talking about a revolution in the way we sing and pray, a revolution driven neither by smoke machines nor by the theological flavor of the week but by the very scripts God has given us to use in our life with him. Sounds like a lot of work. But if we embrace it, we might find ourselves singing our way toward the justice that our God loves and our world longs for.

(Terry Mattingly, “Open Bible to Psalms: What Messages Are Seen There but Not in Modern Praise Music?On Religion, July 25, 2022; Michael J. Rhodes [@michaeljrhodes], Twitter, September 14, 2021; Craig Greenfield, “Worship Music Is Broken. Here’s What We Can Do about It.Craig Greenfield, September 17, 2021; Rhodes, “Why Don’t We Sing Justice Songs in Worship?Christianity Today, September 30, 2021)

[photo: “Broken Mirror on Mass Ave,” by essygie, used under a Creative Commons license]

Trusting God With What You Leave Behind

A few weeks after we arrived in Tanzania, Gil and I heard breaking glass in the middle of the night. Imagining the worst, we rushed downstairs to discover that one of our pictures had fallen off the wall. No big deal.

Except that the picture represented something that was a big deal. In it, Gil and I stood smiling on a park playground with a half dozen other adults and about 30 kids. We all wore navy blue Faithblast! shirts. This was a photo of the weekly kids’ club that Gil and I had started in Southern California. 

Gil and I barely knew each other when we started FaithBlast, and it’s how we fell in love. The ministry was our baby. We nurtured it for four years, and it blossomed into further neighborhood outreach. Our story was inextricably linked with that neighborhood, that playground, those kids. 

Knowing we were heading overseas, Gil and I had fervently searched for someone to take over the ministry when we were gone. But there was no one. When we left, the FaithBlast ended.

So when the picture fell off the wall and the glass smashed into pieces, it felt eerily symbolic. Fresh tears came. Why had we left a thriving ministry that was so dear to us to come to this unfamiliar and uncomfortable place where we had to start from scratch all over again? 

In the excitement of following God’s call to another country, it’s easy to underestimate the repercussions of your departure. Maybe, like us, it’s a ministry that falls apart. Perhaps it’s aging parents who don’t understand. Maybe it’s siblings in crisis or a beloved church in upheaval. Perhaps it’s hurting a friend whose wedding you can’t attend. Maybe there isn’t an obvious replacement for the role you filled, and you know you are leaving behind a burden on others.

When we say yes to God’s call to missions, we first think about the sacrifices God is asking us to make. We count the cost of leaving homes, family, jobs, community. But it’s our choice, and we walk into it willingly. What about the sacrifices we are asking others to make on our behalf? We are making that choice for them, and that burden can feel heavy.

Jesus said that everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for His sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life (Matthew 19:29). 

It’s a stunning promise. But what about those we leave behind? Can we trust God with them too?

This is tricky, and not just for those leaving for the first time. For those deep into overseas ministry, this question will haunt us for the rest of our lives – on both sides of the world. Do we fill the need at home, or do we fill the need overseas? Both choices leave projects unfinished, loved ones with empty spaces in their lives. How do we choose?

We must ask ourselves the hard questions and dig out our motivations. Am I going or leaving or staying because I’ve made an idol of family or position or comfort? Am I shirking my responsibility, or I am trying to take the role of God in another person’s life? Is it clear that it’s my job to care for this person, to mediate that conflict, to push that ministry forward? Or is God asking me to surrender that to Him? 

As the old song tells us, Trust and Obey. But in this case, Obey and then Trust. Walk forward in obedience, and trust Him with what we can’t do. 

In My Utmost for His Highest, Oswald Chambers wrote, 

If we obey God, it is going to cost other people more than it costs us, and that is where the pain begins. A lack of progress in our spiritual life results when we try to bear all the costs ourselves. And actually, we cannot. Because we are so involved in the universal purposes of God, others are immediately affected by our obedience to Him. . . . We can disobey God if we choose, and it will bring immediate relief to the situation, but it will grieve our Lord. If, however, we obey God, He will care for those who have suffered the consequences of our obedience. We must simply obey and leave all the consequences with Him. Beware of the inclination to dictate to God what consequences you would allow as a condition of your obedience to Him.

When we left California in 2001, we left behind FaithBlast. When we left Tanzania in 2020, my replacement was only temporary, and Gil’s position wasn’t filled at all. Once again, we had to trust God with what we left behind. 

Our ministry, on any side of the globe, always belongs to God. The people we love are in His hands. Where I see only a small piece; He sees the complete picture. When He makes it clear it’s time to leave, then I can trust that He knows what He is doing with what I leave behind. 

The Myth of the Ever-Happy Missionary

I don’t know if anyone has actually said it, but sometimes I feel it in the air: missionaries are supposed to be Very Happy. We are supposed to land in our host country and immediately love everything and everyone around us, floating on clouds of ministry bliss.

But sometimes we aren’t happy.

Sometimes as much as we love the people around us, they are also frustrating and hurtful, just like back in our passport country. Sometimes a cultural practice irks or disturbs us. Sometimes the relationships we left behind pain us, like a wounded foot that can’t quite heal because we keep walking on it. Sometimes we suffer from anxiety or depression or homesickness.

Maybe it’s for a season. Maybe longer. None of us wants to camp out in those places of heartache, but we do go there, sometimes for a while. Are the hurting missionaries less of a success than the happy ones? Where did these ideas come from?

With the advent of industrialization and modernity in the West, people’s lifestyles changed in ways that the world had never seen. Child and infant mortality decreased drastically; educational opportunities advanced; work was less tied to exhausting manual labor. These changes brought definite increases in quality of life and in what could be termed happiness. The right to pursue happiness is even tied into the major founding documents of the United States.

But the “right” to happiness has brought with it an expectation and a pressure: if we’re not happy, then we’re letting down ourselves and the people around us, who shouldn’t have to experience our unhappiness. The pressure can even come from a misguided attempt to be thankful for first-world advantages: if we’re not happy, then we’re not grateful enough for the benefits we have. The pressure is compounded for Christians and ministry workers: if we’re not happy, it’s because we’re not spiritual enough to “rejoice in the Lord always.”

The Lord calls us to contentment, certainly. We are commanded—and enabled—to have a deep-running river of joy in Christ, even in suffering. But we may be called to seasons of sorrow and pain, or at least discomfort and longing. Where is the mandate to be happy?

If humans hadn’t rebelled against God in the Garden, if the Fall hadn’t happened, then we would all be supremely happy, with nothing to detract from it and no knowledge that anything could. His creation plan included our ultimate happiness, satisfaction, and bliss in paradise with Him. A time is coming when God will wipe every tear from every eye, and yes, we will be nothing but joyfully happy for all eternity.

But during this in-between time, temporal happiness doesn’t come first. In this fallen world, He is bent on our ultimate joy as it coincides with his ultimate glory. And sanctification often hurts.

Being happy all the time is not the point. We aren’t Christians for that purpose, and we didn’t come to our host countries for that purpose. We came because God called us, because He has work to do here.

We can look at Jesus himself to see that the servant is not above the master when it comes to hard emotions. Jesus wept over Lazarus’ death (John 11:28-35); he was angry and even violent over the money changers’ sacrilege in the temple (Mark 11:15-19); he was grieved at the faithlessness of his disciples when they could not drive out a demon (Matthew 17:17). His negative emotions laid bare the gulf between what God designed for the world, and what it is. We are not sinless like Jesus; we cannot indulge personal anger and call it righteousness. But his example shows us the value of painful emotions.

Jesus himself—Very God of Very God—experienced and expressed anger and grief, and his Father was not disappointed in him. It did not mean he lacked self-control. It meant that he saw the broken situation rightly and longed for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in Heaven. Even more so, it meant that he believed in God’s coming, conquering Kingdom: he knew what should be, and he trusted that it was imminent.

Our negative feelings can point to the fact that this world is not conformed to God’s ways—that the Kingdom, while already coming, has not yet come in full. They point to the reality that there is much work to do in this world and that God has called us to be part of it.

Now, if we need counseling, medicine, or a variety of other helps, then we should embrace them. It’s a wonderful gift from God to have medication to help sort out our brain chemistry and relational help to help sort out our life experiences. Every part of us was broken by the Fall, so it’s no surprise when we experience difficult emotions; when they overwhelm us, we may need to put our trust in God by trusting his common grace of psychology and pharmacology.

If we let ourselves ride out the hard emotions, without catastrophizing them to signal the end of the world or heaping on guilt and shame, these emotions can clue us in to important things. Like how God is working in us, and how we are either cooperating or resisting. How he wants to challenge us, and heal us. They can help us work through loss and pain and be soothed by the peace of Christ. They can help us to know ourselves and others, growing our ability to offer empathy.

Our sadness and other non-happy emotions don’t have to destroy us or our ministry. They can be part of cultivating a life and ministry resilient enough to withstand brokenness and yet thrive. When we feel these negative emotions, we can go to the God who felt them too.

 

Originally published May 26, 2017.

I went to a foreign country to share the gospel. My children grew up and chose not to believe.

by Anonymous

I never intended to be an overseas missionary. Then in 1997 I found myself living in Russia with my husband and four small children. We believed God had sent us to this place, and we had a glorious ten years of serving and ministering there. When we arrived, our children were two, five, and six, and eight. I homeschooled them, and they enjoyed being a part of the local church family.

I had always believed that if you raised a child in the love and nurture of the Lord, they too would follow Jesus. We believed the verse, “Raise up a child in the way he should go and when he is old he will not depart from it.” You can only imagine the shock we felt when our son entered University, lost interest in spiritual things and began to date an unbeliever!

We were wholeheartedly following the Lord! How could this happen? We tried to get him to go to the campus fellowships, but there was no interest. Little did I know at the time that two of my girls would follow the same path. My next oldest daughter went to a Christian college near our home; I didn’t want her to attend a secular university like her brother! She was fine for a while, but then she, too, began to drift. Eventually she lost interest in being a Christian. My next daughter stayed closer to home, faced some difficulties at college and did not stray from her faith. My youngest daughter, after graduating from a Christian high school, followed her brother to the secular university near our home and also lost interest in the things of God.

What can I say? I never expected this. I honestly thought that since they were being raised in the Lord with a loving and involved family, our children would never depart from Him. Since that time I have blamed myself, my husband, our mission, and even our church, but in the end I realized that it may not have been any of these things. I have come to believe it was their free will. They became curious about life “outside” the Christian world they were raised in. They, like all of us, need their own salvation experience, and though we trained them in the fear of the Lord and tried to do our best, God gave them the freedom to make their own choices. 

I have wrestled with their choices and struggled not to compare our kids with others serving the Lord around me. I have been to dark places of disappointment with God where I felt betrayed by Him. I laid down my life in obedience on the mission field and gave up so much to evangelize and bring his gospel to the Russian people – how could I have lost my own children in the process? It crushed me to see so many come to faith and then watch my children lose their own. I began to read everything I could get my hands on about prodigals, trying desperately to find some answers. 

It was during this time of praying and crying out for His peace that the Lord gave me a vision. He showed me a lighthouse on a hill overlooking a harbor. Tied to the shore were four small boats. He revealed to me that those small boats were my children and that some of their boats had come undone and were starting to drift out to sea. My husband and I are the lighthouse on the hill, and our job is to abide in Him and shine His light so that it is visible to the children when they need us to guide them safely back into the harbor of His love. This picture really set me free from the temptation to nag and guilt my adult children back to Jesus. Their salvation belongs to Jesus. He is the savior. He is the one who leaves the ninety-nine to seek the one. I can “just be mom!”

As I write this, my children are in their twenties and thirties. I have learned much about prayer, faith, and total trust in the Lord through this long trial. I have learned about my need to have “unconditional love” for these children God has blessed me with. I didn’t realize that I was not loving them in this way until one year when we were on vacation. The pressure cooker seemed to explode, and our son and daughter said these words: “I feel like you will only accept and be proud of us if we do what you want, if we become the ‘Christians’ you want us to be, then you will love and accept us.” These words were incredibly hard to hear and broke my heart, but I began to examine my attitude and the words I was speaking to them. It was a revelation into their hearts.

Since that painful encounter, I have determined to simply put my whole trust in the Lord and enjoy my children, the four gifts that He has given me. I have come to realize that it’s not about me and what I have done or not done. I do not have to feel the shame of their decisions or take the credit. All glory in their salvation belongs to the Lord. This has really set me free. We are now enjoying a closer relationship with our kids, one that allows us to do the loving and the Savior to do the saving. 

These painful circumstances led me to start a prayer group for moms of prodigals. I believe it is of vital importance to have others around you who understand your pain. We often felt misunderstood and judged by people in the church (usually those with kids still at home) who would ask us questions like, “Are your children going to church?” Or “Are they dating a Christian?” And then I would feel the judgment come. Each of these questions was like another knife in my heart. Then I would meet with my ladies, and the pain would lift. It is a wonderful gift to meet weekly with these other moms who feel and experience the same challenges. We are a living testament to the truth of Galatians 6:2: “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.”

Waiting for the salvation of three of our kids has been an unexpected cross to carry, but the comfort, help, and presence of the Holy Spirit has kept us abiding and shining the light for Jesus. His word keeps me grounded, and meditating on the truth gives me great hope in what He has done and will do in the future. I know these kids belong to Him. I will pray and wait and watch for the salvation of my God.

 

“In Him we have this hope as an anchor to the soul, both sure and steadfast and which enters the Presence behind the veil.”
Hebrews 6:19

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The author has chosen to remain anonymous to protect her family’s privacy. If you wish to reach out to her for support, you may reply to this email, and the leadership team will connect you through email.

Dealing With Abuse Overseas is Complicated

What struck me the most were her lifeless eyes. Without emotion, the young teenager related to me disturbing descriptions of abuse in her home. Her father would verbally assault her and yank her hair. He would beat and kick her mother, locking her out of their bedroom for hours.

My horror quickly turned to despair. As a teacher, I knew about mandatory reporting of abuse. But this was not the United States. I had no one to report to.

*******

Amid the wreckage of abuse revealed in recent years, we can rejoice that many organizations now have their eyes wide open. New protocols. New safety standards. Tough policies. If you are serving overseas, hopefully your organization has already required all staff to complete child protection training. (If not, stop what you are doing right now and implore your leadership to get on the ball with this. Right now. Don’t wait. And keep nagging until it happens.)

In developed countries, there is no longer any room for excuses. Basic child safety procedures should be routine: Screen all workers. An adult should never be alone with a child. Doors and curtains should be left open. Workers should be trained to write incident reports. All signs of abuse should immediately be reported to authorities.

Unfortunately, in many countries, this is not so simple. And that’s what we need to talk about.

Standard child safety training (as important as it is), does not take into account the complications of life in a developing country. When I say I had no one to report to in my opening story, that’s exactly what I meant. I was living in a country where Child Protective Services did not exist. Beating a child or a wife was not only socially acceptable, it was ordinary. If I had gone to the police, they would have laughed at me. So what is there to do in this kind of situation? 

Or, let’s say you are in a position to hire or train children’s workers. What should you do if you live in a country that doesn’t do background checks? Or in a place where bribes are so common that you know you can’t trust the system? 

Or, what if you are in over your head with a suicidal or self-harming teenager? You know the protocol should be to pass her on to a professional, yet you are living in a location where there are no mental health professionals available to help. Maybe an ex-pat, English-speaking, or wealthy teenager might find hope in a telehealth option, but that’s not possible for the kid you are working with. What do you do?

I’m not an expert on these kinds of agonizing situations, although I faced them many times in my work overseas as a youth leader, chaplain, teacher, and principal. I had to document the injuries inflicted on a child by his father. My husband and I were called in the middle of the night by the mom of a teen attempting suicide. Not because we were experts, but because there was no one else.

I believe we need to do some hard thinking and praying in these circumstances, preferably in advance. We need help and advice from those who have gone before us so that we are not caught off guard. 

I wish I could say that my husband and I always did the right thing. But we tried the best we could, and we learned many things along the way. Here are a few:

  • In the absence of background checks, we asked for a reference from a pastor or a community leader. It wasn’t a perfect system, but it helped.
  • We did what we could to enter into families’ lives. We discovered that oftentimes abusive parenting happened not because the parents were evil, but because they knew no other way. When given the option of counseling and parenting advice, they often were willing to receive it. 
  • We educated ourselves. We learned about self-harm, trauma, and eating disorders. And if we couldn’t refer a student to a mental health professional, we could at least get a medical doctor involved. 

If you are looking for more resources on this subject, you can start right here at A Life Overseas:

One thing we get terribly wrong in our response to abuse. And one way to get it right. 

Ask a counselor: What about child abuse? 

Sexual Abuse on the Mission Field and the follow up Telling My Story: Sexual Abuse on the Mission Field

Here are some helpful organizations that can provide support, resources, and training:

There are no easy answers here, and this article is just the beginning of the discussion. But I believe that together, we can work for positive change. So I invite you into the conversation. How have you dealt with abuse when serving overseas? What resources would you suggest? What other factors do we need to consider? 

Tending to the Garden of Expat Emotions

by Lauren Swenson

It was so strange to me, the day when someone asked our names at church as if we were total strangers. We’d played volleyball several times together, had a host of mutual friends, and attended the same service regularly. I asked him, “Do you seriously not remember meeting us before?” His response was, “Oh I’ve lived here long enough that I’ve decided not to make any friends until I know they’ll be staying in Nairobi for a while. How long have you been here?” (Two years, and we met you within the first month or two.) “What do you do?” (We’re building a CrossFit gym.) “Oh, so you own a business! Yes, maybe you’ll be here a while.” He then proceeded to give us his name – again – and he told us he’d try to remember our names this time.

Surprisingly, although this weirdly frank conversation is not the norm, there have been quite a number of people we’ve met who ask prequalifying questions like “How long have you been here?” or “How long do you intend to stay?” or “What organization are you with?” to try to gauge if there’s a possibility of a longer-term relationship or if it’s going to be a short-lived acquaintance.

And I can say truthfully now, I get it. I get why people try to hedge their expectations. It hurts. I find myself grieving over the loss of friendships regularly here. I find myself saddened by the reality that we live in a place where people very regularly move on.

Strictly from a professional standpoint, we have trained with, invested in, and brought on fourteen people who joined us and then left, and we have two more highly integrated individuals who are moving on in the immediate future. The majority of these people are driven by worthy aspirations and have made meaningful life-moves for themselves, so of course I celebrate those realized hopes with them.

But ouch.

It’s not easy being left behind, rebuilding and finding new people to fill spaces that belonged to someone else who uniquely fulfilled their role with us, with our story and aspirations and structure.

I find myself grieving, because I give, invest, pour into people, and then the gaps appear, and the process has to start all over again. It’s disappointing when I have to slow my own progress to go back and train a new teammate.

I grieve because saying goodbye so often makes me feel isolated and alone, and like my story matters little compared to others’ stories.

Maybe someone more mature than me could take the losses in stride. What I do know is that I don’t want to grow heart-calluses that keep people at arms’ length, so I choose to dive in to understand, invest, know, and trust. But is there a way to do this without it hurting?

And in a context where life is not easy and opportunities are sought after like the rare treasures they are, I hurt at the heartbreak and hardships so many face. The never-ending toil of trying to find enough work to put food on the table at the end of each day. The lack of quality public education that puts tremendous burden on families to put children through school. No money for rent, people dodging landlords praying their home won’t be padlocked, possessions seized and tossed into the street. I am not here to work with the poor and disenfranchised, but in the course of my regular life – friends, neighbors, consultants – the realities are humbling, desperate, and overwhelming.

What do I do when this unsettling grief seems to circle around me? It’s not a distant discomfort; it is very present and tangible.

In some ways, it’s a good thing to grieve like this; it is evidence that I am present and alive – feeling, empathizing, caring – in my relationships. As a matter of principle, I want to be all of those things with people, and I believe I am choosing the right priorities.

What troubles me is how I feel when I give myself to training, believing, raising up, trusting, and investing my time, ideas and often finances, and I don’t feel it reciprocated with the loyalty of longevity. Somehow I feel betrayed, like I’ve been used (or am being used) as a steppingstone.

Yet those words war against another reality: I can literally say that one of the joys of my life is being a conduit of grace and hope and being an equipper, someone who can be relied upon and who helps others see a way forward. I desire to be living part of others’ pathway to seeing God’s providence and purpose in their lives, and I feel like I’m operating in my giftings when I do so. I feel my own purpose in being a steppingstone.

It feels like more than a matter of semantics, this steppingstone question. The tension in equipping others and releasing them. The pain of relationship and community. There isn’t a lighthearted quip or pearl of wisdom to nicely qualify and take care of the discomfort that seems like a constant ache in me. I am convinced I can’t make a mental decision, alter a belief, or take a vow that will make the grief disappear.

Instead, I find myself imagining a garden: soil and flowers and crawling things with a stone pathway meandering through it. The hedges don’t guard on the inside of the garden; rather, they keep what isn’t necessary from disturbing the space within. Inside the garden there are park benches awaiting conversations, a table awaiting the opportunity of a shared meal, the bird bath welcoming song, the green grass hoping for small feet to run and tumble through it.

I don’t want to hedge against good grief. I want to be a place where the sadness I feel is because my life is that garden, and my heart has been the steppingstone that welcomed guests in and has seen them leave, better than when they arrived.

Help me, Jesus, to know how to do this well, because sometimes it hurts more than I want it to.

Originally published here.

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Feeling compelled to influence a part of the world just beginning to embrace fitness as a lifestyle, Lauren and Bryant Swenson and their three teenagers relocated to Nairobi, Kenya in 2016 to open a CrossFit gym. To keep family and friends connected with their journey overseas, Lauren started a blog, which has become her own soul-nurturing chronicle even as life abroad stretches her faith and understanding. Through her writing, Lauren desires to be an authentic and faithful voice, and to foster the togetherness, teachability, tenacity, and transformation that define their purpose in Africa.

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.