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. 

Please Pray for My Alex, and I’ll Pray for Yours: When Our Children Don’t Believe

by Anonymous

Will you pray for my Alex?

That’s not my child’s real name, but that doesn’t matter. It also doesn’t matter whether Alex is my daughter or son. What matters is that Alex has decided not to follow Jesus.

It shouldn’t really matter that Alex is an MK, either, but it does to us, Alex’s mom and dad. I know that a parent is a parent and a child is a child, but when we went overseas to take the gospel to the lost, we didn’t plan on losing one of our own.

While Alex was growing up, we were trying to help the people in our new country taste and see that the Lord is good, but somewhere along the way the taste our Alex ended up with was bitter or, at best, bland.

Were we too strict as parents? Were we too lax? Did we spend too much time working with others at the expense of our child? Did our move and ministry overseas have anything to do with Alex’s choice?

There’s a voice inside me that can easily quote the verse “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” I’ve learned how to explain that verse away, but that doesn’t make it go away. When I open up Proverbs, there it is.

Another voice says, Now you know what it feels like to have a child leave the family faith, and there are days when wrestling with Alex’s lack of a foundation shakes my own.

We hear others say that their greatest joy is that all their children are faithful believers, and we want that joy, too. Sometimes we feel so alone.

But I know we’re not.

I know that some of you, too, have an Alex. I’ve read your hesitant emails and listened to your hushed words.

You grieve, as we do, but you haven’t given up.

So we pray for our Alexes to hear God, in whatever way he chooses to speak, we pray for them to return to his eager embrace, and we pray for them to be given the time to do so.

We love them and want them to know the blessings of Christ, in this life and the life to come.

We pray and we hope, even when we’re hoping against hope.

Please pray for my Alex. I’ll pray for yours.

Why I Will Not Say “I Never Made a Sacrfice”

This was my original post on A Life Overseas in 2012 when the site launched. Today it is my last regular post. I am stepping away, pulled by my other writing, being in seminary, family, and work and I know there are fresh voices out there to hear from. It has been an honor to write in this space for so many years. Thank you for reading along and sharing your stories. I’ll still be around and you can always find me on socials and my website.

Hudson Taylor said it, David Livingstone said it. “I never made a sacrifice.” A life spent as a foreigner, away from traditional comfortsaway from family and home country, a life of talking about Jesus, in these men’s opinions was no sacrifice.

While I understand the sentiment and the faith-filled valor behind it, I respectfully disagree. What these men did with their lives in China and on the African continent is the very definition of sacrifice.

A sacrifice is a giving up of something loved, something precious in order to gain something better.

I heard a young woman working in Uganda say that her life doesn’t feel like a sacrifice. In the next sentence she talked about hardships and how some days she doesn’t know how she will get through the day. That is sacrifice. I’m not sure what people expect a sacrifice to feel like but I think it feels hard sometimes. I think it feels like not being sure you will get through the day.

Every step of obedience, every life choice, every risk taken, whether it is getting married or not, having children or not, living overseas or not…brings with it a gain and a loss. Negating the reality of the sacrifice cheapens the reward, the sense of joy, fulfillment, purpose, the God-honoring obedience.

One of the problems with saying ‘it is no sacrifice’ is that it leads people to put international workers on pedestals. Have you ever had someone say something like:

“You are so holy because you don’t care when your hair falls out from the brackish water and searing heat.”

“You are so much more spiritual because you don’t struggle when you aren’t able to attend your grandfather’s funeral.”

“I could never do what you are doing because I couldn’t send my kids to boarding school.”

No and NO! We are not all so different, we simply live in different time zones.I cry when I see handfuls of hair in the drain and when I watched my grandfather’s funeral three months later on a DVD and I weep with a physical pain in my chest over the miles between here and my kids at school. I am not more holy or spiritual or stronger than anyone, I feel the sacrifice.

And feeling the sacrifice makes the privilege, the reward, so deeply precious, so treasured, so urgently prayed for.

Livingstone said (emphasis mine),

It is emphatically no sacrifice. Say rather it is a privilege. Anxiety, sickness, suffering, or danger, now and then, with a foregoing of the common conveniences and charities of this life, may make us pause, and cause the spirit to waver, and the soul to sink; but let this only be for a moment. All these are nothing when compared with the glory which shall be revealed in and for us. I never made a sacrifice.”

Not a sacrifice, but rather a privilege.

Can this life not be both? Are sacrifice and privilege juxtaposed against one another or could they perhaps go hand in hand? It is a privilege to sacrifice.

Living with hair in the drain instead of my head, away from loved ones during a crisis and on everyday days, international borders between me and my kids, living like this is a sacrifice. It hurts, it tears, it might leave you weeping on the couch some nights, snortling into your husband’s shoulder. But it is not in vain. It is not without joy. It is not without faith. Feel the pain and the joy of it and then render everything sacrificed as rubbish and count the privilege as gain.

I will not say that I have never made a sacrifice.

I will say that I have never made a sacrifice in vain. I have never made a sacrifice that didn’t bring with it a deep, residing joy. I have never made a sacrifice without faith that there is a reward coming which will, like Livingston said, far outweigh these present sufferings.

With my eyes steady on the prize, I sacrifice. Never in vain, (almost) never without joy. Always with faith.

In what ways do you feel the sacrifice? Experience the privilege?

When the Backpack is too Heavy

Sheila Walsh tells a poignant story of her son wanting to leave home at the tender age of six. Evidently he set out with his backpack and jacket, heading toward a pond near home. She, wanting to allow freedom but aware of his young age, kept a watchful eye from a window where she could ensure safety as well as give him his independence. After a short time he was back at the door, offering no explanation other than a six-year-old going on sixteen response of “It’s good to be home!”

Later that night as she was tucking him in, she brought up the adventure and asked him about it. His response was matter of fact “I would have gone farther but my backpack was too heavy.”

As I listened to her, I was overwhelmed by the truth in a child’s simple comment.

I would have gone farther, but my backpack was too heavy.

Sheila Walsh

These days, I feel like this child. My backpack feels so heavy, the things I carry too weighty. My adult kids and their lives; friends I know who are aching from pain, some that can be spoken and other that can’t; patients and family members struggling beyond believability; worries and fear about the future and regret about the past – a backpack so heavy I can scarcely move.

It’s all mixed together with the good stuff so I’m not always sure what the good stuff is. Sort of like my kids backpacks used to be at the end of a semester, where a mashed up moldy sandwich, an apple, and crushed chips are crumbled up together in what used to be a brown lunch bag, but mixed in with this is a perfectly good juice carton and packaged granola bar. Instead of sorting through, I throw all of it away.

I’ve always thought that the primary lesson to this story was the obvious one – a heavy backpack preventing a child from the joy and distance of the journey. If I just lighten my load I would go farther, make more of an impact, be freer to serve. And to be sure, this is critically important. But dig deeper and the symbolism goes farther.

This little six-year-old knew exactly where to go to remember who he was. and where to drop off his backpack. He knew the way Home. He knew that Home was light, and love and Mom. He knew that there would be no condemnation, just warm chocolate chip cookies, cold milk and a listening heart. He knew that at home he could rest and move forward, his burden gone. He knew home was a place to be reminded of who he was.

As I think about the times I turn around because the backpack is too heavy, I hope I have the sense of a six-year-old who goes back home, and drops off his back pack. I hope I can go back to Jesus, the source and author of love, where condemnation is erased and the load is lifted, replaced with his yoke, his burden. Back to the Church, where I can be reminded of who I am, back to the Author of all that is good and holy and right.

I don’t know where in the world you are today and what things in your backpack make it too heavy. It may be transition and displacement. It may be loss of place. It may be the burden of betrayal or feeling like you’re wasting your life. It may be a struggling marriage or longing for a life partner. It may be the sorrows of your children and their needs that keep you up at night. It may be chronic illness, depression or anxiety. It may be the death of one you love.

I do know that whatever it is, home and rest are waiting. Not home the place, but Home – the person and presence of Jesus.

God of Loss and Love

Yesterday I unexpectedly found myself by a lone bench on an empty ocean front. A boat was just off the shore, solitary but securely anchored in the sea. I ached with the unexpected beauty, the symbolic solitude of the boat. I felt like this boat. Alone, aching, but securely anchored. As I stood there, I thought about the last two months and how a crisis can set off a whole new cycle of grief and loss.

Though seemingly unrelated, grief is grief, and loss is loss, and every time we experience another loss, buried past losses and griefs can end up resurrected. Like a dot to dot child’s book, grief and loss connect together creating a picture that represents something much bigger than just one dot.

In my first year of nursing school we played a game one day. It was a dramatic game of life. Tables were spread around the classroom with cards at each table. We all began at the same station with very little. We had a birth card and that was it. As we went through the game, we gained more, but it was far from fair. Some people gained a family card while others remained without. Some people got career cards, others got cards that said they were jobless and had to apply for benefits from the government. Still others kept on getting more and more money. About half way through the game, the rules and cards began to shift. We all began to lose things – both physical and material things. We began to lose friends and cars; jobs and eyesight. We protested loudly, as only eighteen year olds who understand all the things can. It was unfair. It was unjust. We hated it. Ultimately, all of us ended much where we had begun – with a single card. Then one by one, we lost even that card and they went into the graveyard of a garbage can.

I hated the game. It was rude and unfair, but I understand why our professors had us play it. How else can you help 18 year old students learn empathy for the patients they were caring for, for the losses they were undergoing as they faced illness? How can you give them a concrete way to experience loss? If the game was unfair, how much more so is life itself?

This I know – though I did not know it at 18: Whether we stay rooted to one place throughout our lives or we traverse the globe, the two things we can count on are loss and change. We might think we can control these only to have them surprise us with their insistent persistence.

While many write poetically about God being a God of grace and generosity, indulge me as I think about the God of loss, for loss and change are the two constants that humanity shares across the globe.

Is God the author of loss? The creator? The healer? If he is a God of grace and generosity, can he still be a God of loss? Some days I am not sure. If he is a God of grace and generosity, can he still be a God of loss?

In the paradox and mystery of faith a resounding yes to all these questions arises in my soul. A God of grace, generosity, loss, and ultimate love is woven into the whole, a mystical tapestry. Tapestries are made more beautiful by the stories that are woven into them and what would a story of gain be without loss beside it? What would a story of love be if we didn’t know what it was to not be loved? What would a story of grief be if we never knew joy? They are empty without their opposites. Without the resurrection, the cross is but a horrific, miserable death. With the resurrection, all of life changes, including loss and grief. My questions don’t have answers. Instead they are met with a person. Like Orual in Till We Have Faces, I cry out: “I know now, Lord, why you utter no answer. You are yourself the answer. Before your face questions die away. What other answer would suffice?”*

Though I seemingly quote this bravely, my honest desire would be to learn more of God without having to go through loss. I wish life didn’t have and hold so many unchosen crosses. But as I wish, I know that even as a little girl I began to know this God of loss and love. I first felt loss and his corresponding love in the cold steel of a bunkbed, a thin mattress separating me from the hard wires of the base. I felt deeply the loss of a mom and dad, the loss of a home, the loss of security. Even then, I knew this God of loss; a God who cares about loss and grief, who wraps us up in his love even as we shout out the grief of broken dreams and broken hearts. A God of loss who stretches out a strong arm to the lost. In my story, his strong arm led me from childhood to adulthood, a long journey of grace.

The grief and loss dots are connecting again during this period of my life and I feel his arm stretch out to me now, even as I run away, wanting to ignore it.  Like the runaway bunny, whose mother will never give up, no matter where I run to, the God of loss always finds me. Though I may want to ignore him or accuse him of apathy and mistreatment, his light and his love push the shadows of loss away every, single time.

In the book Prayer in the Night, author Tish Harrison Warren writes this: “Here is what I am slowly stretching to believe: there is no shadow side of God; no hidden deception or darkness behind the God revealed in Jesus. The God we pray to is the God who loves us — endlessly, relentlessly, patiently, and powerfully.”

By his grace I continue to press into this, believing that:

“What’s lost is nothing to what’s found, and all the [loss] that ever was, set next to life, would scarcely fill a cup.”

Frederick Buechner – Paraphrased

I Could Never Do That

“I could never do that,” she exclaimed. “But that’s because I have kids.”

It was fifteen years ago; I was sitting behind a table at a missions conference, the church members perusing the displays of flags and brochures. She was a young mom, about my age, and was commenting on my husband’s and my decision to move back to Tanzania, long-term. 

My internal response was to feel a bit snooty. I wanted to say, “Well, I plan on having kids there, and I’m still doing this.” But I bit my tongue.

I knew better than to judge her, because how many times had I said, “I could never do that” about all sorts of other things? Moving back to Tanzania and raising kids there didn’t feel like a big deal to me because I had been an MK in Africa. But I had told my friend in Mongolia, “I could never live there.” And what about my missionary friend who lived in a remote part of Tanzania, without running water or electricity? Hadn’t the same words slipped out of my mouth?

I am by nature a cautious, unadventurous person. I like the status quo; I’m not into new things. So it is way too easy for me to say, “I can’t do that.” I can come up with all kinds of excuses that sound really noble. I’m not wired that way. I’m not gifted in that area. I don’t have the time (when maybe I do). 

I can even make my excuses sound spiritual. I’ve already sacrificed so much for God, so why would he ask me to do this other hard thing? Or the best one, that no one can argue with, God hasn’t called me to do that.

This is tricky. Some of us struggle with boundaries and say yes too often. Some of us really do need to take a rest. And of course, there are actual “can’ts.” We have physical limitations. Your medical condition may prevent you from serving in a very hot climate or a very polluted city. Your bad back may keep you in a bed for long stretches. You might not be able to sing a note on key, or your tongue might be unable to trill those r’s, no matter how hard you practice. 

But the truth is, sometimes we say, I can’t when really what we mean is I won’t. It just feels so much better–to ourselves and the people around us–to say I can’t. 

I can’t raise support.

I can’t homeschool.

I can’t send my kids to boarding school.

I can’t live without electricity.

I can’t form a relationship with that cranky neighbor.

I can’t go to one more dysfunctional church meeting.

I can’t put up with one more person knocking on my door. 

This is where we’ve got to do some soul-searching. When we find ourselves bucking up against that hard thing in our lives, we’ve got to let down our defenses, open up to God–and probably an honest friend who will tell us the truth–and ask ourselves if we are just making excuses. 

I look back on my years in Tanzania and consider all the things I accomplished that I never would have thought I could do. Driving on the left side of the road. Leading worship. Hosting large groups. Conducting an interview. Killing ticks and centipedes. Writing Sunday School curriculum. Navigating foreign government offices. Making bagels from scratch. Deboning a chicken. Flying by myself to a remote area of the country. 

I didn’t feel brave. I was not excited about trying these new things. But the reality was, if I didn’t do it, it wouldn’t get done. If I wanted to adopt those children, I had to get used to driving on the psychotic downtown streets. If we wanted to stay in the country, I had better learn how to navigate immigration. If my husband longed for bagels for his birthday, then I better learn how to make them myself. If I wanted to be a school principal, then figuring out how to do interviews came with the job. If I didn’t want centipedes in my child’s bed, then I had to learn how to kill them. 

I surprised myself, over and over again. Lo and behold, when I was forced to do things, I was far more capable than I realized. In fact, I look back on my missionary life and I’m incredibly grateful for the opportunity to stretch myself in so many different ways. At the time, it just felt hard and scary. But in the end, I was able to do a whole lot more than I ever thought I could. 

I’m not endorsing self-help mottos like, “If you can dream it, you can do it,” because this isn’t about finding strength in ourselves. This is about being willing to take an honest look at our excuses and how they line up with what we know God wants us to do with our lives. God will give us the strength to do what we know He has called us to do. His grace is enough. In our weakness, His power is made perfect. It may require repentance, humbling ourselves, and taking a step of faith. Or a lot of steps. 

Just last year, I was faced with a challenge I thought I couldn’t do. We were returning to the States, and I had the opportunity to stay on with our mission as a pre-field missionary coach. The position was perfect for me and God made it clear that I should move towards it, but I balked. I can’t raise support as a stateside missionary, I told myself, my husband, and my friends. It’s impossible. But God finally broke through my excuses, I surrendered to Him, and here I am, as a stateside supported missionary. I can’t or I won’t? 

To the New Expat…

A few weeks ago, someone who is moving overseas contacted me. This is her first time living overseas, she is going into the unknown, and wants to be as prepared as possible.

Here is what I said to her:

Dear Lucy (name has been changed)

Wow – I’m excited for you and not a little envious! This is an amazing opportunity, and though I know based on your email that you are scared, I think you may find this is one of those gifts that is given to you and your family for this time of your life.

That being said, you asked for practical, not philosophical advice – so here goes:

  1. Learn the numbers as quickly as possible. You will find them everywhere and it will help you to tell time, understand the prices of items, and tell people how many children you have!
  2. Learn the currency and don’t translate it into US dollars. If you do, you will either spend too much money thinking “everything is so cheap,” or too little money and thus, not get the things you need.
  3. Take things that will immediately make your new space feel like home – a few pictures, candles, a couple of books. That way, even as you’re waiting for the rest of your household goods, you can begin to create a home.
  4. Recognize that your children’s grief is real, real, real. Allow them to be sad without putting caveats on the sadness (eg “I know you’re sad, but think how much fun travel will be…”) Travel may be fun, but it will not give them back their friends and schools. Allow them to grieve, and grieve with them.
  5. You are arriving in the summer, a time when expat communities dwindle, so it will probably take some time to connect with others. Still – limit the amount of time that your kids spend on social media, just as you would limit social media in your home country. You cannot, I repeat, you cannot live in two places at once. Believe me, I’ve tried, and it doesn’t work. So limit the time they spend, and try to get out and explore.
  6. By the same token, don’t allow yourself to spend too much time on Skype, Facebook, or any other social media sites. It will be all you can do sometimes, to tear yourself away. But tear yourself away you must. This is not the end of your world, this is the beginning of a new world. Allow it to be just that.
  7. Don’t be afraid to initially be a tourist. If you don’t explore the area, you may come to the end of your time and find you’ve not seen the world-famous sites there are to see. Use those first weeks to create adventure and have your kids journal about it.
  8. Remember that your culture is just that – your culture. Others have different ways of doing things. They aren’t bad – they are just different. Learn cultural humility, a life skill you will never regret.
  9. News flash: Life wasn’t perfect in your home country. It will be easy to think it was when you are faced with the newness of life and culture shock in its monstrous intensity. But it wasn’t. There are relationship problems, infrastructure issues, and just plain life wherever we live.
  10. You take yourself and your family with you. You aren’t all going to change on the plane. Sure, this is a new start, but you are who you are. At the same time, you are also capable of change and being shaped by the country where you will make your home. Allow that shape to happen.
  11. Have a high tolerance of ambiguity and be capable of complexity. The country where you’re going is dismissed in the western world with a few stereotypical statements. Those are not the complete story. If you allow yourself, you will be able to understand a more complete, and thus richer version of the story.
  12. Give yourself grace. This move is huge! You won’t understand the impact until sometime later, so give yourself, your husband, and your kids grace.
  13. Laugh.Laugh.Laugh. Laughter is a holy gift that will take you through culture shock and culture conflict. It will take you through the hard days and you will be able to look back on them with much joy. So allow yourself the holy gift of laughter.
  14. Most of all, know that “He who began a good work in you, will be faithful to complete it!” God lives in other places. He is alive and well across the world, continuing his good work in the redemption story. You are a part of that Story and He is faithful.

I’ve included a picture here that I think you will enjoy! Print it out, and put it on your refrigerator so you remember these ten commandments.

Much love to you,

Marilyn

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

Note: This was previously published in July 2015