How to Start Healing From Trauma: The Unseen Trauma of the Mission Field Part 3

by Shonna Ingram

In part one of this series on trauma, I explained what trauma is and what it does to us. In part two, I told you about James’s story. As we think about his story, we notice that he is not in this situation because of one big, traumatic event. Instead, it was small experiences that piled on top of each other that he wasn’t able to process (although there were some big ones in there too).

James was stuck, and he knew it. When people like James come to me for help, I don’t tell them to “just pray about it.” They’ve often heard advice like that before, and it usually isn’t helpful. Instead, I take people on a recovery journey. This journey is not linear, but rather an opportunity to reflect, create, and grow in an ongoing process. 

As I said earlier, there isn’t one single therapy or modality that will heal the layers of trauma we see in this story. On different parts of the trauma recovery journey, James will need different interventions and approaches.

 

Laying the Foundation

We start trauma healing by integrating the brain, heart, and body. To do this, we need an approach that connects mental health principles with a Biblical framework. 

We need an evidence-based approach. The first rule in mental health is to “do no harm.” To help with that, we need researched and proven tools to use throughout the healing journey. But more than that, we need compassion and people to come alongside us in our season of trauma recovery. 

Trauma recovery is not linear. Healing is more of a mending process than a single moment, and we need to think of it as a journey. Some days everything will be fine; other days we will find ourselves triggered for no reason. This is normal, and we need to create space for these ups and downs. With a story like James’s where there isn’t one big event, it’s not always clear what the traumas are. We have to be patient while we figure it out. 

Allow the Holy Spirit to work. We acknowledge that Jesus heals people’s trauma. This isn’t meant to over-spiritualize the process; even secular trauma training holds to the idea that there is something bigger than us out in the universe.

 

Steps for Healing

Before beginning the six steps outlined in this section, it’s important to make sure you are surrounded by people who will support your rebuilding process.

 

1. See where you are. 

If you think you might have experienced a traumatic event, the first step is to get out of the crisis. Think about how the Red Cross or Samaritan’s Purse meets people’s physical needs or about the first level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: water, food, and shelter. Psychological First Aid (PFA) material is a good place to start. (I also recommend the Trauma Healing Institute’s Beyond Disaster material.) 

 

2. Pay attention not only to the things you are saying but also how you are reacting to things.

In the last article I gave examples of some trauma reactions (Fight, Flight, Freeze, and Fawn). You can think through the different types of trauma you may have experienced (Acute, Chronic, Secondary, Childhood Abuse or Abandonment, Moral Injury, Survivor’s Guilt, Loss of Identity, Compound Grief) and ask whether Order, Justice, or Self Value has been lost because of what happened.

 

3. Become familiar with the stages of grief.

Understand the different stages of grief. In 1969, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross popularized the five common stages of grief. They include: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance.

 

4. Find safe places.

Find someone who will hold your emotional, relational, and situational stories. Safe places should make space for: 

  • Normalizing what is happening. For example, I told James that if I had gone through the same thing he did, I would have felt the same way. 
  • Listening without judgment. 
  • Reflecting back what you are saying. 
  • Discerning with you. This might look like them praying with and for you and bringing your feelings and emotions to Jesus.

 

5. Reach out to a professional counselor, trauma-informed mental health coach, or trauma-informed spiritual director. 

Hopefully you will have a list of vetted mental health professionals that you can reach out to if your needs go beyond what a friend or leader can provide. This is what James needed as part of his recovery from his childhood attachment issues. He went through a series of EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) appointments. 

Note: EMDR is one possibility of getting to some of the roots of trauma. Brainspotting (my training), Internal Family Systems (IFS), Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT), tapping, and Somatic Therapy (grounding and breathwork) are other methods used in trauma therapy. I have also seen healing through healing prayer sessions with a prayer minister. It depends on the season and what you are most comfortable with. Ask your therapist, coach, or spiritual director what method they use. 

 

6. Lastly, for ongoing recovery to take place, you need to get involved in a trauma-informed community.

When I was studying trauma recovery, I kept coming across the idea of small groups. A small group allows people to share their stories and see that they aren’t alone. That is why Alcoholics Anonymous and Celebrate Recovery programs are so successful. 

I saw a great need for these types of conversations in the missions community and was asked by many of my therapist friends to start something like that. So I created the Renewed Hope Approach, a year-long trauma-informed recovery group that walks people through the three stages of trauma recovery. The groups spend time sharing their pain and talking about common topics like theology of suffering, grief processing, and forgiveness. 

During the pandemic I was able to field test these groups, and I’m happy to announce that they are now open to the public. In these communities we focus on:

Stage 1: Grief, Loss, and Forgiveness (I call this stage Restore.)

Stage 2: Finding Your Renewed Purpose (I call this stage Receive.) 

Stage 3: Growing in Hope (I call this stage Rebuild.)

Each stage connects the brain, heart, and body by telling our story (brain), engaging in expressive therapies like art and prayer (heart), and engaging in body work practices like grounding and breathing exercises (body). The purpose of all these exercises is to reconnect with God, others, and ourselves. These activities, especially in combination, help facilitate our healing.  

 

Wrapping Up James’s Story 

James has come a long way since I first met him a few years ago. Most days he is in Stage 3 (Rebuild). Not every day is perfect, and there are times that he has to go back to Stage 1 (Restore) to spend some time reflecting on another loss or forgiving someone (or himself) for something that happened. But he did start a Master’s in theology and psychology and is looking to help his organization with missionary care. He processed his wounds and decided he wanted to help others, and that is the final stage of trauma recovery: helping others.

 

You are Invited

Maybe your story is as big and complex as James’s story. Or maybe you just need a place to be seen and heard or are interested in taking preventive measures. Maybe you want to process a series of losses or are wondering if you’re dealing with secondary trauma. 

Or perhaps after reading these articles, you find yourself wanting to help others in their season of trauma recovery.

You can find out when the next group or training starts on my website. I would love for you to join us.

My hope for you is that you don’t just take this information and put it on a back shelf. I hope this series will help you see more clearly what is happening within yourself and within the missions community. And I hope you learned that help is available when you need it. 

If you need help discerning your next step, my team and I are only an email or small group away, and we would love to help you on your healing journey. You can check out our groups and trainings at shonnaingram.com

 

Additional Resources

EMDR

Brainspotting

IFS Institute

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Among Missionaries 

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Shonna Ingram is the founder and director of the Renewed Hope Approach, a program that provides a practical approach to Post Trauma Care. She’s been in ministry for over 20 years and spent 8 years in Africa as a missionary. Shonna is a Board Certified Master Trauma-Informed Mental Health Coach specializing in career, self-development, and spiritual formation, and she has trained hundreds of people in over 30 countries to integrate mental health into a biblical framework. Her heart for people in the re-entry season led her to create her second series, Your Re-Entry Path, as a way for them to figure out their next season, whether inside or outside of vocational ministry. She is mom to 4 amazing adults.

How Trauma Shows Up on the Field: The Unseen Trauma of the Mission Field Part 2

by Shonna Ingram

This is the second article in a three-part series about the Unseen Trauma of the Mission Field. Today we will explore the way trauma shows up on the mission field.

As I mentioned in Part 1, the first place we notice trauma is in behaviors and reactions. If you do a google search on trauma reaction, you will probably find the three most common responses to trauma: fight, flight, and freeze.

Fight is usually associated with someone who can’t control their anger.

Flight is usually associated with someone who is running. 

Freeze is usually associated with someone going numb. 

However, there are other ways these reactions show up. 

Fight responses can include angry outbursts, controlling behavior, bullying, narcissistic behavior, explosive behavior.

Flight responses can include workaholism, overthinking, anxiety, panic, OCD, difficulty sitting still, perfectionism.

Freeze responses can include feeling stuck, difficulty making decisions, dissociation, isolation. 

Another way trauma can show up is called Fawning. I have especially seen this in the missions community. The fawning response can be exhibited as a people-pleasing reaction. It might also look like a lack of identity, an inability to set boundaries, a feeling of overwhelm, or codependency. 

Note: Unless you are a mental health professional, this list should not be used as a diagnosis for trauma. Instead, you can use it as a guideline to help identify what could be happening inside you. 

To see how these reactions play out, I’ll share a case study. Let me introduce you to James.*  

James grew up attending his local church. His dad worked long hours as a traveling sales person, and his mother stayed at home. He was the oldest of three siblings, the top basketball player at his local high school, and attended all the church youth group events.

However, there was a family secret. James’s mother drank a lot of alcohol. At home during a binge drinking episode, she would chase after her children with a knife threatening to kill them if they didn’t do what she said. When he was only ten years old, she would leave him in charge of his two siblings for days at a time, with no food in the pantry. Since his dad was often traveling for work, the children might go days without food. No one at church knew what was going on because at church the family acted like everything was fine.  

The summer between his sophomore and junior year was the year James finally got to go on the high school missions trip. He wasn’t particularly excited about going; he just wanted to get away from his family for a few weeks that summer. During his time in Central America, God stirred something inside him, and he felt closer to God than ever before. So he told his youth pastor that he wanted to be a missionary. This decision excited people, which gave him the validation that he so desperately needed at the time. 

But when he returned home from the missions trip, nothing really changed. In fact, for the rest of his time in high school things actually got worse. His mother stayed out for weeks and his dad was around even less. His younger brother started to get into trouble at school, and James became responsible for them.  

Let’s stop the story here. What concerns are you noticing in James’ story? Two overarching themes that I see are abuse and abandonment.

James assumed that leaving home would make these things better, and it did for a while. He attended a Christian college and started his intercultural missions training. He met the love of his life there, and together they joined an internship in West Africa. During their internship there was an unexpected political coup, and although the fighting wasn’t close, James started having panic attacks and nightmares of being beaten and left for dead. He didn’t tell anyone, though, so no one knew that he needed help. He thought leaving Africa would fix it and that everything would be ok. It did for a while.

Five years later James and his wife finished their partnership development and headed to East Asia. They lived in a town, but their ministry was in a village about four hours away. He and his wife had regular first-term stresses which included his wife giving birth to their second child. They didn’t really have anyone to talk to about what was going on, and everyone back home thought they were fine because their newsletters were full of exciting ministry opportunities. But he started getting angry over little things and started working more. He and his wife started fighting for the first time in their marriage.

After two years on the field they came to the States for a required six-month furlough. They had a two-hour administrative debrief with their agency, and they told them they were fine, just tired – although they did mention they could use a weekend away because baby number three was due in two months. 

They returned for their second term with three kids ages three and younger. Things in town were worse this time around. The police were starting to ask for bribes at the checkpoints. If James didn’t pay, he would be interrogated and possibly beaten, so he paid the bribes even though he didn’t feel right about doing so. It was the first time he feared for his family’s safety.

Then one day on the way to the local market he saw a small child being beaten. He was in total shock because he had never seen that kind of thing in his passport country. Giving bribes and watching a child almost die caused him deep guilt and shame. He started shutting down and began staying late at the office. There was a young, national secretary there who listened to him when it seemed like his wife wouldn’t. Fortunately he caught himself before that relationship turned into an emotional affair, but he became mired in even more guilt. 

James was having problems sleeping and started using alcohol as a coping mechanism. He decided that if this was missionary life, he didn’t want any part of it. He couldn’t put a finger on a moment when it all went wrong. He started crying out to God, but God was silent. Why was He allowing this to happen? He started meeting with a friend to talk about what was happening and started feeling better.

Then COVID came. They were close to the epicenter and had to evacuate the country within 24 hours, leaving behind their house church and the friends they had just started discipling after six years of being in the country. He said, “How can I just leave them there? They could all die.” 

Let’s stop the story there. What potentially traumatizing events are you seeing now?

You’re probably seeing quite a few, but I want to point out two possibilities: moral injury and survivor’s guilt.

Moral injury is usually associated with military personnel and can occur in response to acting on or witnessing behaviors that go against an individual’s values and moral beliefs. This causes a deep sense of guilt and shame or what the Trauma Healing Institute calls a “soul wound.” Moral injury showed up when James had to pay bribes and watch a child almost die from being beaten.

The second trauma James experienced is survivor’s guilt. This happens when a person has feelings of guilt because they survived a life-threatening situation when others did not. War veterans, cancer survivors, and yes, even missionaries can all experience this. For James, it was leaving behind their house church and the friends they had just started discipling after six years of being in the country.

Let’s finish the story. When COVID led the family back to the States, little did they know that they were not going to be able to return to East Asia. James felt stuck, overwhelmed, disillusioned, and totally out of control. Because of their evacuation, they couldn’t bring anything back to America, not even his wife’s grandmother’s china, and for him that was the last straw.

He got physically sick and isolated himself. The isolation left him bitter with God for allowing these bad things to happen and not protecting them, and he had no idea what to do. He said, “I thought we were going to live there forever. What do I do now, and who am I now?”

The evacuation experience led to two more potentially traumatic outcomes: cumulative grief and loss of identity

Cumulative grief “is what happens when you do not have time to process one loss before incurring another. The losses come in too rapid a succession for you, the bereaved, to heal from the initial loss.”

Identity loss involvesquestioning your sense of self or identity.” 

James knew in his head that he was supposed to suffer for the kingdom, but this was just too much. At this point, he had lost all hope. 

He didn’t know that he had experienced traumas, but he did know that he had lost his sense of Order, Justice, and Self Value.

Thankfully there are specific steps a global worker can take to process grief and heal from traumatic experiences, and thankfully James reached out for help at this point in his journey. 

The last article in this series will focus on the steps people can take toward healing.

 

*For privacy purposes, James is a composite of several clients. However, his story is representative of the types of trauma that workers on the field endure.

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Shonna Ingram is the founder and director of the Renewed Hope Approach, a program that provides a practical approach to Post Trauma Care. She’s been in ministry for over 20 years and spent 8 years in Africa as a missionary. Shonna is a Board Certified Master Trauma-Informed Mental Health Coach specializing in career, self-development, and spiritual formation, and she has trained hundreds of people in over 30 countries to integrate mental health into a biblical framework. Her heart for people in the re-entry season led her to create her second series, Your Re-Entry Path, as a way for them to figure out their next season, whether inside or outside of vocational ministry. She is mom to 4 amazing adults.

The Unseen Trauma of the Mission Field: What Trauma Is and What It Does

by Shonna Ingram

In 2008 my husband and I took our four children to East Africa to serve in a Bible translation project. We didn’t go overseas until our early 30s. We thought that having some life experience would give us a little bit of an advantage over those joining missions right out of college. But my second year, I still cried and highlighted the entire book Expectations and Burnout by Sue Eenigenburg and Robynn Bliss

Our time overseas had its normal ups and downs plus a few unexpected challenges. When it was time to leave the field, we felt like we left well. However, our re-entry season put me into another season of unmet and unclear expectations which included loss of financial support, physical illness, and a long list of other losses. It was during this season that I realized I was experiencing trauma responses, but I had no idea how that had happened. 

According to my understanding of trauma at the time, I hadn’t experienced trauma. So why was I experiencing trauma responses?

In college, I’d been trained in mental health, so I thought I knew something about trauma. However, back then (in the early 1990s) we weren’t taught about neuroplasticity, and I didn’t know the brain could change. I had been taught that trauma was one bad or terrifying experience that I might never recover from. I couldn’t recall anything like that ever happening to me. 

All I knew was that during my re-entry season, I felt stuck, depressed, and confused. I was in physical pain, and I had lost hope. I couldn’t put a finger on one event that had caused these trauma responses, and what’s more, I didn’t know how to get out of this situation.

My coping mechanism was to learn everything I could about the word trauma in the hope that I could understand what was going on and eventually help others avoid the pain I was going through. 

Through trauma healing training, I discovered that while it was true that trauma can be a big, terrifying, life-altering event, it also can be smaller ongoing events that topple over each other. And if we don’t have an opportunity to process these smaller events like we do the big, one-time event, it can lead to the same results in our brain, body, and heart.

Since that experience, I have coached and trained hundreds of people in mission organizations and faith-based communities about trauma. 

There is so much to share with you about trauma, especially as it pertains to the mission field, that I broke up the topic into three articles. In this article, we will talk about what trauma is and what it does. In the next article, we will look at how trauma might show up in the life of a missionary, and in the third article, we will look at some steps you can take toward healing.

 

What Trauma Is

A few years ago I led a trauma healing training and asked the participants, “When you hear the word trauma, what comes to mind?”

There were so many different answers to this one question. The answers were anywhere from what happened during a traumatic experience to how trauma affects people after the event. It was an “ah ha” moment for me because for many people there seems to be some unclarity about what trauma is. 

So I shared this definition with them:    

“Trauma results from any event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life-threatening and that has lasting negative effects on a person’s mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.”

In that discussion I focused on the idea of lasting negative effects and whether the event(s) caused them to lose their sense of either Order (the world makes sense), Justice (justice is available), or Self Value (knowing that they are a person of value), or all three.   

This means that two people can go through the same experience, and one might become traumatized while the other one doesn’t.

I also noticed that the participants were assuming that there was only one type of trauma, when there are actually different types of traumas. Some general types of trauma include:

Acute Trauma (the one people think of the most) is a one-off traumatic event, such as a car accident, natural disaster, etc. 

Complex Trauma occurs during the developmental years when there is a disruption in the child’s development. This can be seen in cases of neglect, child endangerment, or institutional care and can result in insecure attachment.

Chronic Trauma is a traumatic event over a long period of time, such as with domestic abuse or bullying.  

Secondary Trauma occurs when an individual hears about the firsthand experience of others.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is an anxiety disorder caused by very stressful, frightening, or distressing events. A person may engage in avoidant behavior, live in a state of high alert, or even relive the event. (If these symptoms last more than 30 days, a person should be evaluated by a mental health professional.) To learn more about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in cross-cultural workers, check out this Missio Nexus article

 

What Trauma Does

During this training I noticed that the participants were only looking at the behaviors of people in trauma and not what was going on inside their brain, body, and heart. But the internal response is very important because trauma disconnects and causes disintegration in our brain, body, and heart.

Trauma affects your BRAIN by changing brain chemistry levels of substances like: 

  • Serotonin (which affects appetite, sex drive, mood, and the ability to sleep)
  • Dopamine (which affects memories and your ability to concentrate) 
  • Endorphins (which reduce pain and stress) 
  • Cortisol (which affects adrenaline)
  • Neurotransmitters and receptors (Glutamate and GABA/gamma-aminobutyric acid)

Sometimes these chemicals can only be fixed with medication; however, there is mounting evidence that exercise and rest can do some of this as well. 

Trauma affects your BODY by getting stuck in your nervous system, usually in both your voluntary and involuntary responses:

  • Somatic Nervous System, which controls voluntary responses to external stimuli
  • Autonomic Nervous System, which controls involuntary responses and includes the Sympathetic (fight or flight response) and Parasympathetic (the way your body relaxes)

Trauma affects your HEART by distorting your relationship with God, others, and ourselves:

  • Trauma can become the lens through which you see everything that happens. You might start questioning the truth and what is real. 
  • It can lead people to question their faith.
  • Trauma can isolate you from others.
  • Trauma can trigger emotional self-harm (such as believing lies) or physical self-harm (such as cutting).

Is it any wonder people are unclear about this word trauma

Because of all this disintegration, you might think that trauma would be hard to heal. What I have seen and experienced is that it depends. It is true that healing from trauma is a process and that no single method or therapy works all the time and in all seasons. Sometimes people go through a six-week trauma healing class, and that’s all they need to start their healing process. On the other hand, I have also walked with people for years using different methods and approaches to help them heal from trauma. 

The important thing to remember is that there is help for healing your trauma. In the next article, we will discuss how trauma might show up on the mission field.

 

Recommended Resources:

Hand Brain model from Dr. Daniel Siegel

Expectations and Burnout: Women Surviving the Great Commission by Sue Eenigenburg and Robynn Bliss

More details on complex trauma   

PTSD article from Missio Nexus

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Shonna Ingram is the founder and director of the Renewed Hope Approach, a program that provides a practical approach to Post Trauma Care. She’s been in ministry for over 20 years and spent 8 years in Africa as a missionary. Shonna is a Board Certified Master Trauma-Informed Mental Health Coach specializing in career, self-development, and spiritual formation, and she has trained hundreds of people in over 30 countries to integrate mental health into a biblical framework. Her heart for people in the re-entry season led her to create her second series, Your Re-Entry Path, as a way for them to figure out their next season, whether inside or outside of vocational ministry. She is mom to 4 amazing adults.

Where is God in My Grief Tower?

by Lauren Wells

A wise man who looks a lot like Indiana Jones (and also happens to be my father) once said that in moments of deep grief you’re faced with a decision: either cling to God and let him be your source of comfort, or run from him and wade through the grief on your own. 

You can’t make it through the expatriate life without experiencing the touch of grief. Grief is temporarily or permanently losing something that you loved. Living a life of high mobility, constant goodbyes, and exposure to big and little traumas causes griefs to steadily stack up along the way. I’ve written a couple of books on this metaphor, which I call the Grief Tower. 

For many expatriates and their children (Third Culture Kids), grief comes in consistent stones of varying weight stacking one on top of the other. On their own, each stone might not feel very significant, but together they create a tall, wobbly tower that will eventually crash if this grief goes unprocessed. 

When my company (TCK Training) debriefs families, we go through the process of writing out the family’s Grief Tower Timeline – putting paper and pen to the big and small hard things that have happened in the family’s life. Sometimes these butcher’s paper timelines are the length of the kitchen table. Sometimes they roll through the kitchen, down the living room, and out the front door. 

As we excavate years’ worth of grief, a quiet question often fills the room. Where was God in my Grief Tower? This life I was called to has created this tower of grief – not just for me but for my children, too!

Even when we trust God’s sovereignty and believe he works all things for the good, the waves of grief still hit us hard. And when this happens, we respond both to our grief and the grief of others with whatever internal narration we’ve come to adopt. Our personal storylines tend to subconsciously ripple into an assumption that God responds the same way to our grief that we as humans do. 

When people say, “Look at the bright side,” we think the right thing to do is to stay positive. We forget that God invites lament. When people say, “He works all things out for the good,” we forget that when it doesn’t feel good in the moment, God is still there to empathize, comfort, and acknowledge that this feels so hard. When people say, “You’re so strong for how you’re handling this,” we don’t remember that God doesn’t expect us to be strong. We forget that He is strong so we don’t have to be. 

At TCK Training, we believe that TCKs should feel and know the love and goodness of God in how they’re cared for. In these raw spaces of grief we have to remember that God’s response is not to “stay positive,” “toughen up,” or “look forward” — and neither should ours be (whether to ourselves or to others). 

Instead, He invites us to lament and ask, “Why?” 

He allows us to mourn deeply and to take time to focus on the grief. 

He reminds us that we don’t need to be the strong one because he is strong for us

When we work with TCKs who turn away from God in their grief, it is most often because they have come to believe deeply that God’s responses to grief are a pep talk, a “get over it,” or an “it could be worse.” I think, perhaps, their belief comes from how they’ve been responded to, and that perhaps how they’ve been responded to comes from the subconscious beliefs held by those responding to them. 

I encourage you to ask yourself the following questions: 

How do I respond inwardly to my own grief?
Does this influence how I believe God responds to my grief?
Does that belief influence how I respond to the grief of those around me? 

May we grow in our response to grief and learn to offer the compassionate heart of God both to ourselves and those around us.

Photo by Piotr Musioł on Unsplash

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Lauren Wells is the founder and CEO of TCK Training and the Unstacking Company and author of Raising Up a Generation of Healthy Third Culture Kids, The Grief Tower, and Unstacking Your Grief Tower. She is an Adult TCK who spent her teenage years in Tanzania, East Africa. She sits on the board of the TCK Care Accreditation as Vice Chair and is part of the TCK Training research team focusing on preventive care research in the TCK population.

A Pocket Guide for Talking to Missionaries: Dozens of Missionaries Open Up About Questions They Love and Questions They Don’t

“Soooo…..how’s Mongolia?”

Let’s be realistic here. There really is no perfect way to start a conversation in the church foyer with someone you haven’t seen in three years. Especially if that person has been living in Mongolia. 

Uh, Mongolia’s good. All good. Cold, but good.

Cue awkward silence while both parties are nodding and fake smiling. 

But hey, at least this person remembered the name of the country. That counts for something. Especially because any missionary will tell you that the awkwardness of “How’s [fill in the blank country name]?” is eclipsed only by the even awkwarder question “How was your trip?”

My “trip” that took three years and included a child being born, another almost dying of malaria, a church plant, five moves, one flood, a new language, and an unfortunate incident involving a police officer and a scorpion? That trip? Um, it was good.

We know you mean well. We’re thankful you’re even talking to us. It’s far worse standing in a church lobby with no one to talk to (because that’s happened too). We’ve got gobs of grace for awkward questions. But may we offer some suggestions? 

We asked some cross-cultural missionaries which questions they dread (and what they would love to be asked!). Want to make a missionary’s day? Keep reading.

The Church Foyer Questions (a.k.a. Small Talk)

Don’t ask questions that assume they feel at home.

Ashleigh: One question I dread is, “Aren’t you happy to be home? or “Do you miss it here?” How do I answer either one of those? I can’t explain myself because often I don’t know what home is or how I feel about either location. I love both, but I also miss the other when I’m not there. 

Meredith: When they come back to their sending country for furlough, don’t say, “It must be great to be home!” The place where they serve is becoming home. 

Instead ask questions that reconnect.

“We’re so happy to see you! It must be so disorienting to be back here after so long. I’m ____, in case you forgot.” 

“Can you remind me of your kids’ names and ages?”

“How long was your plane ride? What airports did you pass through?”  

“What weather change did you experience when you got on a plane there and arrived here?” 

“Who are the people you’ve been excited to see?” 

Or ask about something specific from their recent newsletter or social media post. 

Don’t ask how their vacation is going.

Lynette: Although I may be home on furlough, it’s still not a holiday! Many missionaries spend their “holiday” in their home country, but it’s far from restful. Fundraising, updating, and meeting sponsors simply have to be done and are vital to continuing the mission, but it’s not a break from the work. Only a different environment.

Jenny: Don’t assume their furlough or stateside visit is restful or that they are on an extended vacation.

This question is so discouraging that we wrote a whole post on it.

Instead ask what this time looks like for them.

“I know you’re working hard while you are here. What does your time here look like?”

“Will you be able to take a vacation?” 

“What fun things are you looking forward to doing while you are here?” 

“What’s the restaurant everybody in your family wanted to visit first?” (Bonus points for following this up with: Can I take you to lunch there after the service?) 

Bottom line: Assume your visiting missionaries are feeling awkward and disoriented. Keep it light. Keep it welcoming. Don’t monopolize their time. Introduce them to others. Save the deeper stuff for when you have more time to chat.

The Coffee, Dinner, or Small Group Questions

Don’t ask questions about a “typical” day or week.

Joshua: [I dread being asked] “What does a typical week look like?”

Fred: [I dread being asked] “What does a typical day look like?” I love the heart behind this one, and it’s heading in the right direction! You are trying to get a picture of what life looks like, and that’s awesome! 

Most missionaries don’t have a typical day or week. Instead ask more specific questions.

Marilyn: “How is life different for your family there than it is in the U.S.?”

Joshua: “What do you love about your city? (Or about the people where you serve?)”

Jean: “What breaks your heart?”

Linda: “Where have you seen God at work?” 

Kimberly: I love any questions about what we see as cultural differences, church differences, ministry differences.  I love explaining that I feel both cultures can learn from each other. 

Don’t ask questions that assume the worst about their host country.

Amanda: Don’t ask about the weirdest food we eat. It’s not “weird” in our host country—it’s normal and cultural.  

Matyas: I don’t like questions about politics through the lens that the person asking already has a “right” answer. For example: “Is Hungary a dictatorship?” This assumes they already think Hungary is, and they aren’t open to changing their perspective after they hear the answer.

Heather: “Doesn’t it make you thankful for how blessed we are here (meaning America)?”

Angela: “Is it safe?” I hate this question. Most people don’t understand the complexity of answering this question as a single female in the field. [For thoughts on safety overseas, go here.]

Instead ask open-ended questions about cross-cultural life.

Ashleigh: One question that I love is, “What was your first/biggest culture shock?” And I think it is a great question because it is always so unique to each person, and so incredibly different depending on the cultural context.

Stephanie: Missionaries appreciate humor and being asked about normal life things! It’s lonely out there, and we want everyday-type of connection.

Matyas:  I like questions about people. “How are the people thinking or how are they different?” I like to talk about different cultures and different worldviews. 

Rachel: “What makes London [or host city] feel like home? What are your favorite local places/people, etc.?”

A.W. Workman: “How have you changed since you went overseas?” 

Don’t ask why they aren’t serving in their home country instead of abroad.

Peggy: “Why are you helping kids in Africa when so many kids in our own country need help?” I get this question surprisingly often.

Megan: “Couldn’t you do that in America?” (‘that’ being coaching, cross-cultural outreach, immigrant work, etc.) 

When it comes from Christians, this question is demoralizing since the Bible makes it clear that reaching the nations should be a priority. If you’re not convinced, take a Perspectives class

Don’t get too personal.  

Kendra: Don’t put pressure on the single missionaries to talk about being single on the mission field. There’s so much more to a person than their marital status. You wouldn’t ask any other secular professional about their personal life…it would be considered very inappropriate and crossing a lot of boundaries. Chances are their work and their people are what they’re in love with currently anyway. 

Rachel: [I dread] questions to or about our teens/kids that assume they are spiritually ‘solid,’ or consider themselves to be missionaries, without realizing that (like most kids) their faith may be still developing.

Beth: We’ve been asked, “How’s your marriage going?” How can we possibly answer that question in a group setting with people we don’t know well (or could remove our funding!)? 

Instead, save these questions for close relationships or a member care/debrief setting (see the next section below).

Bottom line: Be curious. Yes, ask about their ministry, but also ask the non-spiritual questions

Questions for Missions Care Teams and Close Friends

Bottom line (but at the top because it’s that important): Most people don’t have to worry about losing their job when they share about personal struggles. Missionaries do. Only ask these questions if you are ready to be a supportive, safe space for missionaries to be transparent. Be prepared to give them grace, not condemnation, and to help them get the help they need.

Don’t ask for numbers.

Jocelyn: Please don’t try to quantify work down to how many baptisms, healings, conversions we have been part of. We are broken and walk alongside broken people, and we are not responsible for numbers. We are responsible to love people. The complexity of the life situations and injustices we walk through with people as we work overseas are immense. We feel misunderstood by others when the validity of the work is quantified by “conversion stories” and “how many baptisms.”

Instead ask about the highs and lows of ministry.

Meredith: “Where have you seen the Lord at work? What’s the most encouraging (or discouraging) thing about your ministry right now?”

Brook: Ask questions about real people, like having the missionary choose one person they are working with and share either disappointments or exciting things they see in that person’s growth and maturity.

Jonathan Trotter: “What are your dreams? What are you looking forward to? How can we support you in the future?” 

Do ask about their health (physical, mental, spiritual, marriage & family) and support systems.

Matt: Senders in a position of responsibility should ask very direct questions about their missionary’s future. Are they planning well for future financial needs? Do they have adequate life insurance, and are they investing appropriately in their physical and mental health?

Audrey: So many missionaries deal with [trauma] and I believe it’s because people don’t know what to do that they tend to ignore it. Many things we face overseas are beyond the comprehension of those who live in our sending countries. Big issues are ignored, not because we are not loved, but because no one knows what to do or how to help. Civil wars, coups, abuse of power by those in authority, constant goodbyes as people come and go in your community — the trauma can be big or small, but it is very real.

Laura: Leave room for conversations about the hard stuff — marriages falling apart, frustrations with ministry, discouragement, feeling out of place in our passport countries, etc. We’re human, too. We’re not “saviors.” Treat us like regular folks and listen to our stuff, too.

Deanna: Is their children’s TCK identity being adequately cared for? Spousal relationship, prejudices toward the people/culture, and how God is working in that?  These can be pretty invasive questions, but it is necessary for missionaries to evaluate these hard topics and for those sending to help them with that, especially if their sending agency is hands-off or lacks resources.

Bottom line (repeated from the top because it’s that important): Most people don’t have to worry about losing their job when they share about personal struggles. Missionaries do. Only ask these questions if you are ready to be a supportive, safe space for missionaries to be transparent. Be prepared to give them grace, not condemnation, and to help them get the help they need.

Like everyone, missionaries want to be seen, heard, and understood. They want to be cared for and prayed for. 

So our last word of advice is to please listen and pray.  

Benjamin: Listen well, be curious, laugh lots. You don’t have to completely understand every nuance of the culture they’re serving in to be a great listener, empathize, and pray for them. 

Judi: Listen . . . Don’t talk. Don’t ask too many questions. Just listen. With eyes intent and an open heart.

Karin: Ask about their joys and their sorrows — really listen — and pray with them right there. Being heard, especially in our areas of grief and sorrow, means the world when we are travelling and speaking and sometimes feeling like everyone thinks we are better than we are!

Anna: Don’t talk. Listen. The end. 

Angie: The question I love is “How can we pray for you, your family, and the pastors you work with? Give us specifics.”  (When someone wants to know the specifics, it makes me feel truly cared for. They are not assuming they know what we need; they are asking for the details.)

We really don’t have words to express how grateful we are for those who love us and partner with us in taking Christ’s hope to the nations. Thank you for caring about missionaries!

A Past Voice from the Field: On Darkness, Light, and Skies of Brass

Zermatt, Switzerland

Today I’d like to share a post that connects two others I’ve written. The first one addresses the quotation “Don’t forget in the darkness what you have learned in the light,” attributed by Philip Yancey to Christian publishing executive and author Joseph Bayly. The second discusses the life and work of Lilias Trotter, British artist and missionary to Algeria.

I had read Yancey’s attribution in his book Where Is God when It Hurts? but more recently, it was while thumbing through Miriam Huffman Rockness’s A Blossom in the Desert: Reflections of Faith in the Art and Writings of Lilias Trotter, that I came across

Believe in the darkness what you have seen in the light.

While not exactly the same as the words of Bayly, Trotter’s are close enough to show a relationship in the idea and phrasing. And I knew that Trotter’s writing easily predated Bayly’s quotation, as she died in 1928, when Bayly was only eight years old.

Knowing that Rockness authors a blog about Trotter, I contacted her for more information. In response, she not only told me that Trotter had written the phrase in her diary in August of 1901 but also gave me some background on its meaning. Rockness writes that the diary entry came from a time when Trotter was visiting her brother in Zermatt, Switzerland, “taking a ‘break’ from the heavy load” she was experiencing in North Africa. While high up in the mountains, she wrote:

“Believe in the darkness what you have seen in the light” – That was this mornings “first lesson” – For when I opened my shutters about 5.30, there was a lovely clear happy morning sky above the grey gold rocks a[nd] glistening snow of the Weirshorn & Roth-horn. While a thick bank of white cloud lay below in the valley – Half an hour more & it had risen around us till there was nothing to be seen but a few dim ghosts of trees. Yet one knew having once seen that sky, that a radiant day was coming, & that the clouds could do nothing but melt. And me[lt] they did, the peaks glimmering like far off angels at first, & clearing till they stood out radiant & strong, with the fogs dropped down to their feet like a cast off mantle. All depended on what one had seen first.

Elsewhere in her blog, Rockness puts the quotation in more context, describing Trotter’s “heavy load”:

It is interesting to note that when Lilias recorded the above statement of faith in her diary, she was in the midst of an unprecedented and sustained period of challenge in ministry. After more than 3 years of political opposition  and spiritual oppression, their work had come almost to a halt. Activities in Algiers and itineration in Algeria were severely curtailed as they were dogged by the shadow of suspicion.  Even their most beloved Arab friends pulled away in fear of being identified with them.

In A Passion for the Impossible: The Life of Lilias Trotter, Rockness writes that the difficulties faced by Trotter included the investigation of English missionaries by the ruling French government and the targeting of young Algerian converts by sorcerers using poison and “black magic.” Also, a missionary family that had come to help in the ministry left after six months, unable to meet the demands of caring for their three children in Algeria.

Trotter wrote in 1897, again in her diary,

One literally could do nothing but pray at every available bit. One might take up letters or accounts that seemed as if they were a “must be”—but one had to drop them within five minutes, almost invariably, and get to prayer—hardly prayer either, but a dumb crying up to the skies of brass.

For Trotter, during difficult times, the skies could turn to brass and clouds could obscure the sun and envelop the world around her. But she had seen the “clear happy morning sky,” and she knew that a “radiant day was coming.”

“Believe in the darkness,” she learned, and passed on to us, “what you have seen in the light.”

If you’d like to know more about Lilias Trotter, you can watch the 2015 documentary Many Beautiful Things, featuring the voices of Michelle Dockery (Downton Abbey) and John Rhys-Davies (Lord of the Rings). It also includes insights from Miriam Huffman Rockness. The trailer is below, and the complete film is available free here.

(This post is adapted from an earlier one at ClearingCustoms.net.)

(Miriam Huffman Rockness, ed., A Blossom in the Desert: Reflections of Faith in the Art and Writings of Lilias Trotter, Discovery House, 2016; Rockness, in a comment (September 5, 2016) for “Lilias Trotter Symposium,” Lilias Trotter, August 17, 2016; Rockness, “Believe!” Lilias Trotter, July 28, 2012; Rockness, Passion for the Impossible: The Life of Lilias Trotter, Discovery House, 2003)

[photo: “Switzerland-55,” by Strychnine, used under a Creative Commons license]

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]