In my last night in the city of a closed country, I crept out of my apartment after dark.
I lived on the top floor of the building, but I’d noticed that where the staircase ended, there were iron rungs attached to the wall, leading up to a hole in the roof. I’d been wanting to get up on the roof of this building all year, but “unconventional” wasn’t culturally lauded here the way it was back home. I had a sneaking suspicion that the university would not look favorably upon me hanging out on the roof. This was my last night, though. Up I went.
It was nearly midnight. The moon had been full earlier in the week, but was still big and yellow, hung low in the sky. Summer lightning struck in the distance. I found the Big Dipper in the sky. But mostly I looked across the city, wondering what it would be like to go back to the States. Would it feel like home? Or would I feel like a flower picked from a garden and moved to a vase for ten months, then taken back to the garden and planted again, unable to re-root? Ten weeks seemed too long to be away from this sweet place.
I had no idea, that night, that I would never come back.
For months afterward—no, for years—I would catalog my infractions, the things that might have been the cause of what happened next. I still do it, catalog and flog. There were so many things I didn’t know, so many things I took for granted, so many ways I wasn’t cautious.
I shouldn’t have forwarded an email about the execution of Christians in our country.
I shouldn’t have let a student keep the Jesus film over mid-semester break. I should have warned her.
I shouldn’t have taken the girls to that coffee shop for our last Bible study. We’d sat on the second floor, the only customers there, and I thought we were safe. I thought it was a special celebratory ending to our year together. But we had prayed and read the Bible in public. Why had I been so foolish? I should have been more careful.
I should have been more careful, I should have been more careful, I should have been more careful.
The word translated “high places” (bamah) is repeated 102 times in the Old Testament, mostly referring to Canaanite places of worship, altars on mountaintops and under “every luxuriant tree” (1 Kings 14:23).
When the Israelites prepared to enter Canaan, Moses exhorted the Jews to “demolish all their high places” (Numbers 33:52). It was hundreds of years, though, before young King Hezekiah actually put an end to idol accommodation in Israel. Hezekiah enlisted the help of the Levites and made sure the high places were destroyed, and that true, God-centered worship was restored in the temple (2 Chronicles 29–30).
The Jewish temple had a high place, a bimah, of its own, a raised pulpit from which the Torah was read. Scholars are unsure whether bimah derived from the Hebrew bamah or from the Greek word bema, meaning platform. Bema, when found in the New Testament, is usually translated “judgment seat.” I used to hear pastors use the Greek word in sermons: “When you find yourself at the Bema seat,” they’d ask, “what will Jesus say to you?”
It occurs to me now, as I rehash my mistakes, that what I’m doing is not what Jesus would do if I were to meet him at a high place.
It occurs to me now that obsessing over my own failures and what-might-have-beens is a way of creating my own altar, a bamah to me, a high place where I worship myself as the ultimate sovereign, responsible for whatever happens, good or bad.
Mistakes were made. I made mistakes. But obsessing over my mistakes elevates them as more powerful than God. God is sovereign, and God is good, and God has forgiven me.
It would be at least a year before I was able to believe any of those things again.
Excerpted from a new edition of Amy’s memoir, Dangerous Territory, and reprinted with permission. Amazon affiliate links help support the work of A Life Overseas.
Amy Peterson is a teacher, writer, and priest in the Episcopal church. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, two kids, three cats, and the Blue Ridge Mountains. Before her call to the priesthood, she taught ESL in Southeast Asia before returning stateside to teach in California, Arkansas, Washington, and Indiana. To read more of her thoughts on faith, language, culture, and creation, visit amypete.substack.com.
I am so excited to announce the release of my new book! It’s called Digging in the Dirt: Musings on Missions, Emotions, and Life in the Mud, and you can find print and Kindle versions here.
Digging in the Dirt contains some of my most heartfelt writings, and addresses things ranging from depression and anxiety, to TCKs and what flying taught me about missions.
It addresses married sexuality on the field, as well as what to do when the thief steals and the power goes out. It’s got some poetry, some top ten lists, and some laments. It’s also got some seeds of hope, and it is my deepest desire that it would encourage and bless folks all over the globe.
I’ll post the text from the back cover and the preface below.
I’m so grateful for the community here, and I’m grateful for my editor, our very own Elizabeth Trotter! Have a wonderful weekend, and may the love and peace of God be very near to you and yours!
all for ONE,
From the back cover:
Welcome to ground level, to the dirt and the mess.
We like the mountain tops and the sunshine. We like green grass under a clear blue sky. We like victory and breakthrough and answered prayers. But sometimes it rains, the shadows deepen, and life turns muddy. Sometimes God seems quiet. What then? What happens when depression descends, or anxiety hangs like a sword overhead? What happens when loneliness suffocates, the thief steals more than stuff, and you get blood on your shoes?
In Digging in the Dirt, Jonathan Trotter delves into the disasters, the darkness, and the deluge, and he offers comfort, presence, and a gentle invitation to hope.
With humor and prose, with poetry and Top Ten lists, Jonathan welcomes us to the dirt, to the places where we actually live. He invites us to boldly see life as it is, with eyes wide open, and reminds us that even when the digging is scary, we are never alone.
To the ones who are dealing with devastation and distress, welcome. To the ones who need to uproot, to pull out, to clear ground, welcome. To the ones who seek desperately to plant seeds of grace and hope in once barren soil, welcome. To the missionary abroad and the believer at home, welcome. Receive the invitation, and join with Jonathan here at ground level, together.
Come, dig in the dirt.
From the preface:
Hello and Welcome!
I’m Jonathan, and it’s such a pleasure to meet you. I look forward to journeying with you through these pages. Together, we’ll delve into the dirt of life and relationships, of sorrows, pain, and loss. And maybe we’ll plant some things too.
Perhaps, along the way, we’ll see small, green stalks of life and hope begin to poke through, watered with the tears of the journey. Digging like this can be messy, but it can be good too.
These musings will meander from the hot dirt of Cambodia to the sticky mud of American politics. Some of these musings are inspired by international missionary life; some of them are firmly rooted in an American context. But whether you’re American or not, whether you’re a missionary or not, I hope that you find them all a blessing, an encouragement, and perhaps sometimes a challenge. I wrote them for you, and I share them with you with my whole heart.
Start reading Digging in the Dirt wherever you’d like, and feel free to skip ahead or go backwards. Are you a cross-cultural missionary? Start there if you want. Are you interested in developing emotional intelligence, or are you exploring whether or not Christians are allowed to have feelings? Consider starting in the Emotions section. Are you reeling from recent life events that have left you feeling like you’re choking on the mud and muck? First of all, I’m so sorry. Second, breathe a slow, deep breath, look over the Table of Contents, and start wherever you need to start.
Wherever you are, and whatever your story, welcome to ground level, to the dirt. It is here that the real work happens; the good, hard, sweet, healing work. It is my deepest hope that here, among these musings, you may find grace, peace, and a hope that just might be strong enough to crack through the crust.
I’ve heard it’s the holy grail of fluency: dreaming in your target language—walking around in your dream world, saying whatever you want to say and understanding everything that’s said. Sounds pretty cool.
Has that ever happened to me? Nope. I do sometimes dream that I’m back in Taiwan, but the people around me tend to say a lot of nonsense words, and when I open my mouth, I can only say the most basic of sentences. Sometimes I’m lost in the city, late for a meeting. I can’t remember the address of where I’m headed, can’t find the subway station, and have no money for a cab. It’s the cross-cultural equivalent of dreaming that I’m standing in my high school’s hallway, finding out I have a test I haven’t studied for and not knowing my locker combination. Oh yeah, and when I look down I’m not wearing pants. I think my dreams have found me pantsless on the streets of Taiwan a few times, too.
Or what about daydreaming about complete fluency, gleefully imagining the moment you take your seat as a translator for the UN? That, too, is a nope for me.
If your dreams are filled with fluent encounters in a second (or third or fourth) language, if language learning is your forte, if it’s as easy as ah, bay, tsay, or if it’s simply a piece of gâteau, this post probably isn’t for you.
But if your language learning has been a struggle, if you’re disappointed in your progress, or if you’ve reached a wall with no door in sight, read on. . . .
Before moving overseas, I’d earned a degree in English and considered myself a good communicator. I was a student of a language already, after all, and I thought picking up another one wouldn’t be too hard. But that’s not how it worked for me as I studied in Taipei. It was slow, difficult, and slow. After I’d worked on Chinese for several months, a more newly arrived, and much younger, cross-cultural worker at our school asked me how long I’d studied for one of the unit exams. He wanted to make sure that he didn’t waste too much time. I told him I hadn’t spent more than a few weeks reviewing. Oh, he said. He was hoping it wouldn’t take him more than a few days.
That was hard to swallow, but he didn’t mean to criticize me. Others weren’t so indirect, though. There was the cab driver who pointed out that my wife’s Chinese was better than mine and a Taiwanese acquaintance in a coffeeshop who overheard another foreigner speaking and said something like, “Now her Chinese is good.” Of course, the voice inside my head was even less gracious when comparing me to others. By “others” I mostly mean other foreigners. I figured I’d never speak like a local, but I was disappointed that I couldn’t reach the level of so many Chinese learners around me.
There was also our landlord who wasn’t very patient in her communication with us, especially over the phone. And there was the man I met on the street, whom I came to think of as a friend. But one day he became angry with me, complaining about my inability to understand what he was saying, stopping just short of accusing me of misrepresenting myself when we first talked.
And there was the helpful official who had me address an envelope to myself so he could mail a document to me. I had studiously practiced writing the characters in anticipation of such an opportunity, but when the letter arrived, he had rewritten it. He wanted to make sure it was legible so that the document would actually make it to our house.
Sometimes I could laugh at my mistakes, such as in low-stakes adventures ordering at McDonald’s, and when I called myself a bicycle instead of a missionary. (It helped that a friend said she’d done the very same thing.) But it’s easier to laugh when the mistakes seem like silly aberrations, rather than everyday occurrences. Those are the things we laugh about with others. It’s not so fun to be laughed at.
As with many language learners, it was easy for me to fall into the trap of simply agreeing with whatever was said to me, thinking I could figure out the meaning later. One day I was talking with the director of our language school to set up a one-session introductory language class for a group of college students visiting from the States. We were standing in the office surrounded by teachers at their desks—a group of people I really wanted to impress. She asked me a question that I only partially understood. Yes, I said. She asked me again. Yes, I said. She asked me again. Yes. But it wasn’t a yes-or-no question. The teachers laughed, the way I’ve laughed when hearing someone unskilled in English do the same thing.
There were some times when I did feel pretty good about my communication skills. It was fun to get a reaction from people who were amazed that someone who looked like me could say “Hello” in their language. And I was never more fluent than when groups from the States came to visit. For all they knew, my Chinese was flawless. And from time to time I’d have a deep, meaningful conversation with a national where my vocabulary didn’t fail me. That helped a lot. There were even times when I truly believed those who encouraged and complimented me. But mostly I was reminded of my limitations.
It wasn’t for a lack of trying on my part, though I now wish I’d tried hardersmarter better. I’ve recently learned about the difference between fixed and growth mindsets, and if I could have a do over, I’d like to start with a mindset adjustment. Someone with a fixed mindset believes that talent is mostly innate. Either you’re born with it or not. Someone with a growth mindset believes you can increase your talent with effort and practice. There are a couple ways a fixed mindset can hinder you. One is when you believe you’ll never be good at something, so you don’t try. Another is when you think you are good at it, but avoid challenging yourself for fear you might fail and show others, and yourself, that you’re not what you think you are. As much as I want to have a growth mindset, I see how my tendencies point to the fixed end of that spectrum.
But I see a limit to the growth mindset, too. So if I could start over, or start again, I’d also want to develop a more complete understanding of who I am. While I shouldn’t give up improving myself, I don’t believe it’s true that “you can do anything you put your mind to.” There are just things I’m not going to achieve in this lifetime, whether because of my inner makeup or outside circumstances. I’m still working on being more comfortable, as they say, in my own skin. If I could do that, if I could try less to become more like the people around me and do a better job of trying to maximize who God has gifted me to be, then I think I wouldn’t wander around frantically nearly as much in the world of my dreams.
So how about you? Are you having a hard time with language learning? If so, I hope you’re able to continue to grow in your abilities. I hope that if you’re not thriving in your language acquisition, you’re able to keep on striving. And in your striving, I hope you’re given the time and space to do your best, or as close to that as you can get. When you struggle, I hope you can allow yourself to strive softer. And when your studies can’t take you any further and you fall short, I hope there’s still a place for you on your team and in the work you’re doing.
When encouragements are directed your way, I hope you can trust them. When others point out where you’re lacking, I hope you know you’re not alone.
And finally, when you move about in your dreams, if you feel lost and can’t understand what people are saying to you, I hope you run into some extremely kind people who make sure you get where you want to go, even if they have to use hand gestures for you to understand them. And if they’re extremely, extremely kind, they might even help you buy some pants.
When going onto a mission field for the first or tenth time, we often have ideals of what a missionary is supposed to be, do, and look like. Some of it is impressed upon us by church culture, gathered from missionary books we’ve read, or created by ourselves.
As a young missionary I didn’t take my calling lightly, and I don’t believe you do either. Maybe you, like me, have put a lot of pressure on yourself to live up to the missionary standard. After all, we were commissioned to “go into all the world” by Jesus Himself at the end of Matthew.
I didn’t know any real live missionaries when I first went onto the field, but from what I gathered:
A missionary is supposed to be empowered to help the people they serve without needing their help.
A missionary is supposed to be protected from all harm, at all times, wherever they go, inside the will of God.
A missionary is supposed to heal those who are sick with prayer or a simple touch.
A missionary is supposed to be unhindered, and therefore it is more holy to go onto the field single.
A missionary is supposed to live as simply and frugally as possible and should have no Western conveniences.
A missionary is supposed to know what to say, where to go, and whom to help at all times.
A missionary is supposed to focus on spiritual needs and leave physical needs for humanitarians.
A missionary’s mere presence is supposed to make an instant impact on the community. –
People back home should be led to support the missionary without being bothered with a list of their needs.
I identified myself as a missionary. I wasn’t in my host country to sightsee or vacation. I had given up everything, all of my personal comforts and dreams, to be there, because I knew God wanted me to. Things went well for a while.
I lived up to my own missionary ideals in the beginning. I felt useful to the ministry I volunteered with. I was single and undistracted, pouring everything I had into the work.
As my boldness grew, I took on many roles that seemed important. It felt great to see a child on his deathbed start to walk and talk after I had spent months caring for him. The other short termers who were in and out looked up to me, and I got to be the one to answer their questions.
Then death came under my watch, and Ibegan to question everything.
If all the things I knew about missions were true, why was I watching someone I loved slip away under my constant care?
My identity was so wrapped up in being that good missionary. The missionary that was undefeated. The missionary that my home church would be proud of and would want to support.
How would I tell the people back home that I had failed?
If I wasn’t making an impact like all those missionaries I had read about, then maybe I was a fake after all.
The idealistic missionary image I had built came crashing down. I was plunged into an identity crisis. I had to take a break from ministry and go home. When I left, I didn’t know if I would have the strength to come back.
On a month-long furlough to think over ministry, I evaluated my heart and motives to see if I had missed God, because in my mind, this was not how things were supposed to turn out.
During that time I came to realize that nearly everything I thought I knew about being a missionary was false. All the things I thought a missionary was supposed to be were just lies that I had believed.
As much as I would like to think I have left an impact on those I served, or that I am making an impact now, the outcomes are not mine to decide.
So . . .
Dear missionary who has believed those same lies and questioned whether you are really qualified to be on the field, let me tell you:
God never called you to determine the outcome of your serving. You were never meant to be anyone’s savior. Only Jesus can be that.
Missionaries are not a super-human species that never fail or lose a battle. In fact, more than bringing out your strengths, missions will reveal your weaknesses and neediness and bring you to a place of greater dependence on the Lord.
God doesn’t ask you to be a great missionary or to conjure up change. He only asks you to be obedient and go. With whatever little you have in your hands, just go. You may be called a missionary, but your true identity is simply “follower of Christ,” not “hero.”
Whether we follow Him to the bedside of the dying or to witness a miracle is not up to us to decide.
We could choose to walk away from the mission field. It might feel easier to stay where it is safe, to hide in our bedrooms and cover our ears to all the sadness in this world. We could be angry at the outcomes that we do not understand and question God for allowing them.
Or we can be obedient. We can lay down the lies that we have believed for so long. We can cry over injustice, and then we can get up and keep pouring ourselves out, knowing that God will use our weaknesses in the way that He chooses and that someday things will be “very good” again.
Rachel was preparing to go to Mexico in 2017 but through a series of events, ended up as a full time missionary in Haiti. She quickly found her calling as a cross-cultural worker and blogger. In 2020, after their marriage, she and her husband Nelson started Espwa Demen, a non-profit that assists impoverished children and families in rural Haiti. Because of the country’s security situation they were forced to relocate to the US at the beginning of 2023, but their ministry continues to grow in the hands of local volunteers and through frequent trips. You can follow Rachel on her personal blog or find her on Instagram.
“I have to tell you something, but you can’t tell anyone, because I am not supposed to know this yet.”
I receive this text from my teammate and good friend.
“Oookaaay…. What’s going on?”
“The Smiths* are leaving.”
I immediately shoot back a bunch of crying emojis.
The Smiths have a daughter who is best friends with both my daughter and my teammate’s daughter. Their trio is about to be broken.
Our mama hearts hurt for our daughters.
Goodbyes have been a painful thing for us in our life overseas. My daughter wrote a poem a while back about all the friends she has had to say goodbye to. She had prayed often (and so had I) for a really safe friend here. So when I find out that this dear, much longed for friend in this country is leaving, the tears flow freely. Not again, Lord.
For a few moments that night, I feel ready to quit this life altogether. Why choose a life where there is this kind of grief, that is both frequent and also unexpected? Unlike diplomats or the military, who know the length of their terms, we are never sure when we will have to say goodbye to those we love or when it will be our turn to be the ones who leave.
A few weeks later, I host a goodbye party for this sweet friend with all the girls in her class. I tell them we’ll start with a more serious activity and then move to more fun.
I create space for them to feel whatever they are feeling about saying goodbye. These precious expat girls know the pain of constant goodbyes. I ask them to breathe in deeply and to think about what is on their hearts. I give them a few minutes to get in touch with where they are.
Then I read Psalm 84 to them, a psalm about pilgrims longing for the presence of God as they travel. My voice breaks as I read, “No good thing does he withhold from those who walk uprightly.” No good thing. He is our sun and shield. A day with him as our best friend is better than a thousand with our dearest friends. Oh Father, this is so beautifully true. Thank you.
After this, we listen together to Christy Nockels’s song Home. They all have blank paper and markers, and I ask them to draw, doodle, write, whatever they want as they listen to what God has for them. We go through the whole song. They ask to listen a second time, as they creatively process with the Lord. So we do.
It feels like a sacred space, as I see them sprawled all over the basement, under stairs, behind couches, in corners, listening to the Lord. I pray the Spirit will come and meet them in ways he only can.
He meets me too. Isn’t that so like him? I am captivated by the phrase Nockels repeats over and over: “Further up and farther in.”
That is when it hits me. That even though our paths are going in separate ways, the invitation is the same for all of us: to go further up and farther into the love of our Father in Christ. We are all still traveling home, just on different paths. It fills me with so much hope for my daughter and her friends. Jesus will from his own fullness give them “what he takes away.” It gives me a sense of purpose in this nomadic life and its goodbyes. Each one is producing an eternal weight of glory — in both us as parents and in our kids.
Later, we laugh and play with water balloons and dunk cake and marshmallows in fudge and munch on lemon bars . . . because Christ is in all of it. In both lament and feast.
Friend, if you too are going through heart-wrenching goodbyes, may you accept the invitation from our Father to keep journeying further up and farther into the fullness of the Son. Christ is the God who journeys with us in the mountains and valleys. When he brings us through the valley of tears, we experience more of his heart, more of his presence, more of his goodness. May the very presence of Christ buoy your soul in all the farewells that this life calls us to. And may He transform the valley into a place where we taste more deeply the love that never lets us go.
As much as self-care has become a popular term in recent years, the essence of it has devolved from its intended meaning – doing things, big or small, for our holistic well-being – to being primarily about bubble baths and charcuterie boards. Rest assured, as much as I love a bubble bath and a good charcuterie board, as much as I think a bubble bath and charcuterie board can be good ‘small things’ for our holistic well-being, as much as I wonder how many times I can get away with using bubble baths and charcuterie boards in a single paragraph, I’m not talking about bubble baths and charcuterie boards.
I’m talking about all the important aspects of self-care, from emotional processing, to healthy boundaries, to planting green zone moments. And I’m talking about this because, in our research at TCK Training, we’ve seen that mental illness (including depression and anxiety, as well as other mental illnesses) in TCK parents is high. And this impacts our well-being, our children’s well-being, and our ministry’s well-being.
You may have gotten the memo. It’s a pretty commonly accepted fact: Life on the Field is Hard. And there are a lot of factors that make it harder, like popular theologies of suffering, expectations on what missionary life should be, and our own pride in how much we can endure. As if that’s not hard enough, life on the field makes good self-care harder to do with a lack of resources, overworked teams, and a shortage of amenities. But wait, there’s more!
Because we also expect to be able to do it all, we rarely tally up how hard things are, and we often just shame ourselves for having a hard time at all.
I believe that when you outline your core values, you can find the time and the means to make them happen. Usually when I’m talking to missionary families, they want to have a healthy family and a thriving ministry. I believe that’s possible. But only through following the example of Jesus. Jesus had a thriving ministry of healing the sick and casting out demons, but he had a core objective of preaching and teaching – just like we have a core objective of leading our families in the ways they should go.
In Mark 1:35, Jesus finished a great day of his thriving ministry, woke up, prioritized his own well-being (he went off to an isolated place to pray), and then set up boundaries around how much time he would spend on his thriving ministry (even though there were crowds of people expecting him to resume his work). Being imitators of Christ, let’s follow his example of taking time to prioritize his own well-being.
Oftentimes when talking with TCK parents about the unique struggles their kids face, we hear a lot of surprise. “How is this a unique challenge for TCKs? We also went through these same experiences.” I won’t be addressing that particular question in this article, but I acknowledge that, yes, parents go through many of the same things their children do, which means that, yes, parents need to be emotionally processing their grief, too.
Here’s a unique struggle for TCK parents: while TCKs haven’t always learned how to hold together their big emotions in public spaces, TCK parents have. So you’re in these moments where you’d really love to sit down and have a good cry, but you can’t. Because you’re living in a fishbowl. Because you’re managing everyone else’s emotions. Because you know that it doesn’t fix anything. But there never seems to be a convenient time to have a good cry, so things don’t get processed.
We need to stop waiting for time to process the challenges we’ve faced in our expat life and start making time. Take some time to journal or talk through hard things that have happened and how that impacted you. Print out our free Processing Questions worksheet, and on the back write out the things you really ought to process. You can carve time out of your weekly schedule, or you can double up on tasks. Try laminating our processing questions printable and thinking through the questions while you’re washing dishes or taking a shower. We know that showers are the perfect place to solve the world’s problems. Let’s repurpose them to solve our own.
Living on the field usually looks like immersion. You’re there 24 hours a day, with the people you’re trying to serve. There are calls at all hours, and demands for more than you can possibly give. So you die to yourself and pick up your cross and go on and on trying to meet all the needs. At some point you start to wonder how long you can do this because looking at the road ahead or behind you, 10, 20, or 30 years seems a lot longer of a journey than the road to Calvary. You thought you heard that the burden is easy and the yoke is light, but that must be for the people you’re serving. Not for you. So you set your jaw and hoist up the cross and carry on.
Let me speak the gospel truth for you: Jesus beckons you to him, and his burden is easy and the yoke is light. Laying down your life and picking up the cross? You’re already doing that. There’s nothing you have to do, nothing you have to prove, because Jesus doesn’t measure his love for you in how much you do for him. He says, “Let me teach you . . . and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:29). Wearing yourself out is not what Jesus has in mind for you.
Saying “no” is an important spiritual discipline. Think about your values, and and then look at your calendar, your choices, and your life, and decide where you need to put boundaries so you have time for the things you value.
How many hours will you work? What hours will you not work? How much wiggle room do you put in for emergencies? What defines an emergency? At the end of the day, how do you want your family to perceive you, and what choices do you need to make to present that way?
Green Zone Moments
It’s time to talk about bubble baths and charcuterie boards again! In stressful moments – which happen a lot on the field – our bodies can get into the red zone. These are high stress levels with lots of cortisol (the stress chemical) and adrenaline. These chemicals cue your body to move into survival mode. Fight, flight, freeze, be really irritable with your family members — there are a number of ways that this can show up, but the symptoms reveal the chemical balance in our brains. For holistic well-being, we need to get relief from all those stress chemicals. One strategic way of doing this is through Green Zone moments.
A Green Zone Moment is a moment that you know you’ll enjoy so much that it will bring you peace and lower your stress chemicals – at least for a bit. Even better, positive anticipation of Green Zone Moments can also help reduce cortisol levels! This means looking forward to a bubble bath or a delicious charcuterie board is good for your mental health. But it doesn’t have to be a bubble bath or charcuterie board.
What activities bring you joy? It doesn’t have to be practical. Listen, Jesus could have gone into an inner room to pray, but instead Jesus regularly went on a hike alone into the wilderness. Not because it was a practical option, but because, I posit, it was delightful to him.
It doesn’t even have to be big or different from what you already do. I went through a season where I had a list of 30 tiny luxuries, and I tried to get 10 everyday. From a cup of coffee to snuggling with my kids to taking the time to get music playing. I didn’t add more than a couple of minutes to my day, but I purposely valued the little things I can do or even already do for myself.
I think this culture of downplaying our own needs and elevating the needs of others is problematic and leads to burnout more than it leads to healthy communities. I saved “the why” for last because I don’t want to have to say it at all. I don’t want to have to convince you that you’re worth caring for. I don’t want to have to convince you that your losses deserve to be processed, that your time and energy deserves to have boundaries, that you deserve to have tiny frivolous moments of joy recklessly seasoning your life, that you deserve well-being.
And I know this culture well. I know how suggestions for making life easier can be dismissed with “I’m fine.” I know how truths can be met with “That seems true for everyone but me.” I know how pervasive it is and how hard it is to combat this world view that our needs don’t matter.
I think that you should do this for yourself. I think that when the Bible says “love your neighbor as yourself,” it starts with loving yourself. So you should do this for you. But if you can’t: research shows that your mental health has a huge impact on your children’s holistic health.
The CDC-Kaiser survey of Americans shows 19% of people said they grew up in a home with an adult suffering from mental illness. In our survey, 39% of TCKs (and 39% of MKs) said the same. Additionally, the rate of TCKs reporting mental illness at home went up over time, from 1 in 3 TCKs born before 1960, to half of Gen Z. Mental illness of an adult is considered an Adverse Childhood Experience (ACEs) because the research shows that it has a strong impact on a child’s lifelong well-being. In fact, TCKs who reported this ACE also reported significantly higher rates of abuse and neglect – including 64% reporting emotional abuse and 58% reporting emotional neglect.
We as parents need to do what it takes to stay mentally well.
The prescription is to process your grief, protect your time and energy, and plant delightful moments throughout your day, week, and life. When you do these three things, you’ll see the positive impact of these investments in all areas of your life.
Missions is hard. Really hard. Ministry is difficult. Cross-cultural living makes any expat question their resolve to stay. Unexpected changes, finding their niche, juggling multiple roles, and messy relationships reflect just a few of the challenges missionaries face. And don’t forget the revolving door of teammates and the endless goodbyes.
Missionaries are often under-prepared for how difficult this endeavor actually is. Some leave the field prematurely. In fact, 47% leave within the first five years. But it isn’t just hard in the first term. Mid-term and even end-of-career workers have their own set of challenges.
Gospel messengers can be tempted to lose heart, choose the easy path, run away, or give up, especially when seeing others leave their agency, location, or church. They believe lies like: I’m not cut out for this. I’m ruining my children’s lives. No one else struggles as much as me. If I were in a different organization, relationship, or country, things would be better. I am not needed. If I had different gifts, the ministry would flourish.
These challenges can cause global workers to wonder if they can persevere or if it’s time to go. But staying isn’t always good, and leaving isn’t always bad. Both require grit and grace. How do people know when it is time to go?
As someone who was tempted to leave too soon, global worker and author, Sue Eenigenburg, wanted to develop a resource that would help both men and women, newcomers and veterans, not to leave too soon or stay too long. To equip them to stay even when life and ministry feel overwhelming, but also to decide wisely when it is time to go. So she asked her colleague, Eva Burkholder, to collaborate on a new project.
Sue and Eva wrote this book because they desire to encourage global workers to develop grit to stay well even when it would seem easier to quit or when teammates leave unexpectedly. But the book also helps people discern wisely when to go — and to experience grace whatever they decide.
Grit to Stay Grace to Go has three parts:
In part one, Sue discusses the many challenges global workers face and the lies they believe that tempt them to leave too soon. Through her own stories and others’ experiences, she encourages global workers to not only stay, but to stay well by clinging to truth when circumstances are intense. She hopes readers will take away a renewed commitment to persevere by remembering truth and remaining unswayed by lies when cross-cultural ministry seems impossible.
Part two, which Eva focuses on, explores more deeply one specific challenge to staying well—the difficulty of watching teammates and friends depart. Testimony after testimony from fellow missionaries illustrate the reactions of hurt, disappointment, grief, guilt, and even judgment this revolving door brings. She hopes that stayers will turn this challenge into an opportunity to extend grace to goers—to forgive, bless, release, and live in the present, helping those who stay say goodbye well to those who go.
Sometimes workers choose to leave the field in the heat of conflict, when they are burned out, or in isolation after a stressful season. Sometimes God leads his messengers to leave the field or change roles. And going is also hard. After all, it doesn’t just take grit to stay, it also takes grit to go.
Therefore, in part three, Sue and Eva offer thoughtful questions to help readers make an intentional, rather than reactive, decision when they are undecided. Questions such as: Why do I want to transition? Whom do I need to talk to and when? What would I do if I weren’t afraid? Have I already moved on? What would I be going to? They hope that thoughtful reflection will help those considering whether to go, to do so in a healthy way with grace no matter the outcome.
The authors also encourage readers to pause after each chapter to engage with poignant reflection questions, suggested spiritual practices, and prayers. Additional resources offer more hope and encouragement to stay or go with grit and grace.
Grit to Stay Grace to Go is an effective preparation tool to help newcomers normalize their struggles and identify faulty thinking. For those with experience in ministry and in the fray, it is a resource for persevering when it seems easier to quit, especially when others leave them to carry on alone.
For those in the throes of determining whether to go or stay, it will be a valuable guide for the decision-making process. And for those who send and pray for global workers, this book will help them to empathize with the challenges of those they send and offer grace when their global partners return to them.
Grit to Stay Grace to Go is a practical guide to help cross-cultural workers and those who send them (or anyone who serves on a ministry team for that matter) develop grit and grace to stay or go. Get your copy at William Carey Publishing and other major book retailers.
Sue Eenigenburg graduated from Moody Bible Institute and Lancaster Bible College. She has served with Christar in cross-cultural ministry on four different continents for more than thirty-five years. She and her husband Don have four married children and twelve grandchildren. She is the author of Screams in the Desert and More Screams, Different Deserts. She also co-authored Expectations and Burnout and Sacred Siblings.
Eva Burkholder’s experience as a missionary kid, cross-cultural worker, and member care provider adds a global dimension to her study of scripture and storytelling. Through her blog and her book, Favored Blessed Pierced: A Fresh Look at Mary of Nazareth, Eva invites readers to slow down, reflect, and apply God’s Word. She and her husband live in Texas and enjoy spending time with their two married sons and their wives.
I’ll never forget meeting Alex* and Anna.* For me, it was like meeting Beyoncé or Michael Jordan. With admittedly fewer cameras and less bling.
Alex and Anna had served in Asia for ten years. My husband and I were in our early twenties. These people had been missionaries for nearly half our lives!
We’d read their beautiful, well-written articles. I’d fallen in love with the people of their host country. I’d prayed with Alex and Anna from afar, rejoicing when various friends were delivered from the fear of evil spirits.
Now we were actually meeting them.
We had so many questions—after all, we were about to launch as missionaries ourselves. But Alex and Anna seemed very… tired. Something was wrong, though I didn’t know what.
Just a few years later, Alex and Anna left Christianity. In fact, they both chose to follow a new-age religion. One even became a practitioner.
How in the world had that happened?
I don’t know their whole story with doubt and faith. But today I wanted to share my story and shed a little light on a hidden topic: the doubts and questions missionaries battle every day.
Why Do Missionaries Doubt?
When I was a freshman in college, my mom converted to a non-Christian religion. This sent me on a quest to figure out what I believed and why. Specifically, I questioned the divinity of Christ. It was an intense search, mentally and emotionally exhausting. Hour after hour I searched the scriptures, praying for truth.
Finally, I accepted Jesus afresh as my personal Savior. Later, my husband and I launched as missionaries to India, determined to share our love of Jesus with the world.
Good story, right?
I had no idea that going to the mission field would bring up more questions than answers.
Now I’ve been in the field for over a decade myself. And I haven’t done any scientific studies to know for sure, but I have a theory that missionaries are more susceptible to doubt than many realize. There are four things I believe contribute to this.
1. Studying Worldview
Did you ever take a public speaking or debate class, and afterwards couldn’t listen to a sermon without analyzing it? Or how about an editing class, which left you unable to read a book without wielding a mental red pen? The learning we do in our professions changes how we see the world.
Missionaries are not immune to this. If we take classes in worldview, we learn to see worldview everywhere. We can’t watch movies without analyzing values, players, and tools. We become like amateur anthropologists.
All this investigation can make our beliefs, ideas, and worldviews seem like just another way of explaining life. As I delved deeper into my Indian friends’ worldview, I felt disoriented. If their beliefs stemmed from a human attempt to understand the universe, couldn’t mine, too?
The next factor is trauma. You may find yourself wondering why God allowed XYZ to happen, to you, to your kids, or to your host people. Or why the peace that passes understanding is suspiciously absent from your life right now. You start wondering, even subconsciously, if you were right about God, after all.
I’ll never forget my moments of deepest doubt in India, kneeling on a hard mat on the ground, the smell of sandalwood incense floating in the window. Like Job, I could see only the mat in front of me—not the spiritual battle, nor even the entire physical battle. Like Job, I asked God why, and I waited a long time in the silence.
3. Asking Others to Question
At the same time we missionaries are analyzing worldviews and going through hard things, we are actively asking others to question what they believe is true–particularly church planters. We seek to do this in a life-giving way, and we do it because we believe Jesus is worth any price we may have to pay. That is the deep conviction that sends you to the field, right?
The thing is, when we ask others to question, we get in the habit of questioning. I faced an intense amount of cognitive dissonance in India. Was I asking others to question when I was not willing to do the same? Was I holding my own beliefs up to the same level of scrutiny I expected from others?
4. Spiritual Warfare
In the Biblical worldview, we do not wrestle against flesh and blood (Ephesians 6:12). Unseen forces desire to make us ineffective and faithless.
This became very clear to me when some of my doubts didn’t behave normally. I would find satisfactory or even great answers, but I still couldn’t shake residual unsettled feelings. I soon realized I needed heavenly help to move forward.
What To Do With Doubt
One of my colleagues lost a number of friends in a genocide. When she asked for prayer in her newsletter, a friend told her not to talk about such upsetting things.
After that, it was hard for my friend to know whom to ask for help.
Missionaries face joys, traumas, and questions that might be hard for others to understand. Wondering if anyone will be able to relate can make it hard to ask for help.
Beyond that, missionaries often feel the pressure of being role models—like Alex and Anna, they realize they are their church’s Beyoncé or Michael Jordan. When I faced doubts, I would often remind myself that I had a responsibility to cast a vision for the unreached, to inspire people to sacrificial obedience of Christ. Why burden supporters with fleeting doubts? Shame, fear, and even the desire to be responsible can leave us feeling like there’s no one to turn to.
But I have come to believe that doubting on the field doesn’t have to be an emergency. Instead, it can be an amazing opportunity.
If you’re facing doubts or questions right now, I have three suggestions: confront your doubts, doubt with faith, and engage in spiritual warfare.
1. Confront Your Doubts
It takes time. It takes mental strain. It takes emotional space. And sometimes, we just don’t have those things.
At first, I tried to ignore my doubts. Because dinner needed made and babies needed burping, plus there were the unreached to reach. But ignoring problems sometimes makes them bigger. It magnifies them in our subconscious until they totally take over.
I couldn’t stay in that place of cognitive dissonance for long. So, I printed out a bunch of articles to read, and I prayed exhausting prayers. I knelt on the hard mat. I stopped avoiding it by surfing YouTube and got distracted by my Bible instead of my phone.
I believed that God should be able to handle my questions and that any faith worth believing should stand up to scrutiny. I put that belief to the test.
And God answered me.
2. Doubt with Faith
The first time you doubt, if you’re like me, you’ll panic and think all is lost. But I’ve learned to bring my doubts to Jesus quickly. And I’ve come to expect Him to answer. It’s not always instant, and that’s okay. I’m learning to surrender my questions because over time I’ve seen He always comes through. I’ve learned to expect that God will respond to me.
Along that same line, it’s also okay to take breaks during your search. When we believe we’ll hear from God eventually, we can laugh with our families, take vacations, and enjoy good books, even as we seek His face for answers. We can rest despite the discomfort of not knowing, because we count on Hebrews 11:6–that God is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him.
3. Engage in Spiritual Warfare
Though we wrestle with unseen forces, the hosts of heaven desire to see us victorious. I’ve learned various “tools” over the years: fasting; praying through the armor of God in Ephesians 6; rejecting bitterness by declaring forgiveness in prayer; doing prayer walks in my home; actively rejecting and resisting temptation; confession and repentance from sin; and singing hymns and spiritual songs. I’m also blessed to have a great prayer team back home and fellow workers who are men and women of prayer.
If you need an understanding prayer partner/team or new tools, I encourage you to do whatever it takes to fill those needs.
For followers of Jesus, and especially gospel seed sowers, confronting doubts and engaging in personal spiritual warfare are critical elements of self-care. Just like our physical and mental health need nurturing and protection, so our need for assurances from God shouldn’t be ignored for too long. We might be tempted to delay asking our own questions in order to minister to others, but God desires to minister to us just as passionately as He desires to save the unreached.
We give our personal testimonies all the time. I was lost, now I’m found. I was blind, now I see. We keep them succinct, which is important—but we can sometimes get the idea that our story with God is a one-time event, something linear and fixed.
But we are branches connected to a vine. Growing grapes takes time and skill. It requires the exact right amount of growth and pruning. The healthiest vines are in constant contact with a skilled vinedresser.
The truth is, our story with God lasts our lifetime. I love the lyrics to a popular Christian song: “If it’s not good, then He’s not done with it yet!” Since no one is good, not one, God is not done with me yet, either.
What a privilege that I can bring my doubts to Jesus, and He can transform them, one by one, into pillars of faith.
What about you? How do you deal with doubt? Do you have a story of God meeting you in your doubts and renewing your faith?
“It’s not fair,” I whined in the backseat of the car, my sister next to me. “It’s not fair,” I moped from the end of the line. “It’s not fair,” I mourned, overlooked for a role I wanted. “It’s not fair,” I gasped, taking the fall. “It’s not fair,” I wailed, watching everything I’d built fall apart.
“But look at what God is doing through this,” they point. “It’s not fair,” I say again.
I think it’s just awful that wonderful things come out of terrible things. I hate that you have to bury seeds for them to bloom. I hate that pearls come from irritants. I hate that delicious strawberries come from fields fertilized in manure. And I hate all of those things because I hate that post-traumatic wisdom only comes from going through tragedies.
Yeah, I guess if you have to go through hard things, it’s nice that something good can come from it. But why do we have to go through hard things to have the good things that come after?
I can point to the traumas and tragedies that have brought me to a place of being able to weave words into stories that present hard truths in soft ways. I cherish the times people tell me how these words altered the trajectory of their homes in ways that brought them closer to the unconditional love of the Father. But surely there is another way to learn this wisdom and pass it on?
Everything is possible for you, Father. Take this cup of suffering from me.
And thus begins a sacred journey.
We all know that life’s not fair, but it makes it a bit easier to not have to go it alone. To know that the Lord has gone before us even in this. To know that the journey through unfair trauma and tragedy can take us to glorious destinations. To know that we have a comforter, a counselor, and a light to guide our path.
I have a journey before me, but I’m standing at the front desk with a complaint, “Excuse me, sir, I specifically asked that this cup would be taken from me. And yet, behold, still there is a cup. I would like this to be rectified.” And Jesus comes alongside me to guide me. “Yet not what I will, but what you will,” He coaches me.
“I’m sorry, what?!” I’m doing double-takes as Jesus leads me forward on the journey. I am a reluctant follower. But I follow, nonetheless, and I see how the path I walk is neither new nor novel but a well-worn road.
My soul has been overwhelmed with sorrow. I have felt betrayed. I have stood silent against accusations. I’ve had friends abandon me. I’ve experienced pain. I’ve had tragedy happen. I’ve survived it.
But it’s interesting, isn’t it? That’s not the end. The story, the journey, it isn’t over yet. Jesus isn’t yet at the right hand of God, and I have no wisdom to offer anyone yet.
It seems that after the death of Christ, we stop focusing on his humanity. We talk extensively about the agony of the cross, which makes sense because all four of the Gospel writers draw us into this tragedy. The curtain is torn. Darkness falls. And the focus shifts from Jesus to the perspective of those left behind. That makes sense for the Gospels. What was Jesus doing at this point? We hear about the work of Jesus conquering Death in the epistles, but his followers didn’t know these things.
Even on Easter morning, the focus doesn’t shift back to Jesus. We continue to follow the story of the women and the disciples. Jesus just appears and disappears until he finally ascends. That’s how the authors wrote their gospels, so it makes sense that we would follow along that way.
We receive so many emotion words from the women and the disciples. I can imagine Luke interviewing people and hearing from their perspective, “We were so frightened; we thought he was a ghost. Even when we saw he wasn’t a ghost, we still couldn’t believe it. We were amazed and overjoyed” (Luke 24:37-41). How was Jesus feeling during this? The eye-witnesses were too gobsmacked to notice and give account.
Thus, the sacred journey continues.
My eyes fixed on Jesus; I see how my journey overlays His. I’m aching and weary. The moment of trauma is over, yet my body is still on high alert. My skin feels electrified. Every brush of my own clothes sears my skin. I feel like my back’s been flayed. And I look toward Jesus. I don’t know how his back is doing, but the wounds of his hands and his side are still gaping. Honestly, it’s a miracle he’s even alive.
We each come across a couple of our friends, but they don’t recognize us. Our friends recount our own story to us, but they totally miss the point. I’m furious and think, “How foolish you are!” (Luke 24:25) I explain to my friends, and He explains to His, in a way that they don’t miss the point. And then Jesus walks away.
“No, no, no,” I call him back. “These are our friends, our people.” I’m clinging to what I know. He keeps walking until his friends urge him to stay, even though they still don’t recognize him. It’s like he wants me to be willing to walk away from people I’ve grown away from. I’m not ready for this lesson.
When he comes back, I’m glad. I watch them eat together. In the common monotony of everyday life, his friends finally recognize him. But it’s only two people.
It happens again. Different people. More cherished friends. They don’t understand what’s happened either. “You’ve changed,” they tell me. “Why are you troubled? Look at me. It’s me!” I implore them. My words echo His, as Jesus tries to convince his friends he’s not a ghost. They believe: we’re each still who we are. Now what?
“Do you have anything to eat?” Jesus asks. He invites us back into the common monotony of everyday life. We eat, we talk, we tell the story again. It’s hard to tell every time.
The hardest part is reconciliation, so I hang back and watch. Jesus comes to Peter. Peter recognizes him and dives off the boat to greet him. Classic Peter. Jesus invites them to eat. I take notes. Always start with food. It brings people together. Three times, Jesus asks Peter if he loves Him. I’m thankful for this interchange. I don’t have to be content with one apology and be expected to get over it. I can request reassurances in proportion with the damage rendered.
Finally comes the conclusion. Finally comes the ascension. Finally the journey ends.
Trauma is like any other story. It’s got a setting and rising action before the conflict and climax. And it ends with cleaning up all the leftover messes. Often the leftover messes of a trauma are the relationships: reconnecting, repairing, reconciling, and settling back into normal rhythms. This is a hard part of trauma that is often overlooked. Many times this hard part takes a lot longer than we expect.
In this time following Resurrection Sunday and leading up to Ascension Sunday, we hold sacred the long journey through trauma and tragedy to the good that God has in store for us: the wisdom that these experiences give us. And as much as I cherish that wisdom and the goodness God has for us through the hard things, I’m going to stay mad about the awfulness of how this broken world functions. I can do both.
I refuse to get over how awful it is that good things come from hard things.
I will hold this space for those of you still in the early stages of your journey, for those of you banging your fists on the front desk, demanding a refund for this cup of suffering, insisting that it’s not fair. I’m here to say, “You’re right! It’s not fair! And most importantly! You’re not alone.”
For those of you further along who are activated and who feel disconnected from their communities, who wonder why it had to happen like this, who wonder why it’s not getting easier in the wake of tragedy, I’m here to say, “You’re right! It’s not fair! And most importantly! You’re not alone.”
For those of you who have seen the beautiful things that the Lord has wrought out of the awful things you’ve lived through, who are turning back and grieving for themselves that they ever had to endure that, I’m here to say, “You’re right! It’s not fair! And most importantly! You’re not alone.”
And I can point out to you the Way, the Truth, and the Life. He walked with me through the valley of the shadow of death, and He will walk with you.
It seems agonizingly unfair that much of wisdom, strength, and personal growth comes from difficult and painful journeys. Not just the hardship, but the recovery, coming back to people and them not recognizing you, being met with doubt, and having to convince people of the journey you’ve been on.
In this season, we remember the sacredness of this journey, a trauma-versary that changed the world forever. The Lord has gone before us. But moreover, he goes alongside us, today, at whatever stage of the journey we’re in.
Trauma doesn’t make us stronger, but continuing onward through the hard things toward healing does.
I remember all the dogs at the Dar es Salaam airport. Usually people don’t travel internationally with their pets, but in the spring of 2020, nothing was normal. The dogs were restless in their cages, but the rest of us stood unusually still, tense, our faces strained from lack of sleep, frantic packing, a thousand unknowns.
I remember the recorded British voice that politely reminded everyone every five minutes: It is not permissible to bring plastic bags into Tanzania. In a dark humor, I thought, How about infectious diseases?
Just a few days earlier, we got a call in the middle of the night telling us to book a flight as soon as possible. Many in our community were making the same decision, but it was even more significant for us. We had planned a year earlier to relocate to the States in the summer of 2020. So this early, frenzied departure meant leaving a life of sixteen years with no closure, no dignity, no RAFT.
The memories of these moments in March 2020 are sharp and vivid, as if they happened three days ago, not three years.
In the five days before our departure, I can picture myself lining up my kids’ baby shoes, carefully saved for so many years, and taking pictures of them before handing them off to a friend. I remember making broccoli beef for my last meal in the crock pot I’d owned for 12 years. I remember how our feet echoed on the empty marble floors of the Ramada hotel restaurant on the night before we left.
I could list thousands of tiny, minuscule details of those five days. My focus was razor-sharp. My emotions were not.
Other than a couple of bursts of despair or panic, I went numb during those five days. And then during the long, unpredictable journey to California. And then during the next three months when we lived like vagabonds, trying to hold together our jobs in Tanzania while applying for new ones in the States.
If you had asked me how I was doing, I would have told you I was okay. I wasn’t happy, and sometimes I was decidedly unhappy, but I didn’t fall into a depression. I got out of bed every morning. I wasn’t crying all of the time. I wasn’t having panic attacks. I wasn’t having nightmares. Well, not many.
I am task-oriented. I did what I needed to do. And big feelings were not on the agenda.
But I was not okay, and that fragility manifested in unexpected ways. Suddenly, I had an aversion to anyone outside my immediate family. I didn’t want to see anyone. I didn’t want to talk to anyone, even people I normally would have been thrilled to be with. (Pandemic restrictions made this easy.)
Another A Life Overseas writer asked me to be on a podcast of people who were evacuated because of the pandemic. A little voice in my head said, “You like things like this.” But a bigger, louder voice said, “No. No. NO. Not even an option.” The big voice didn’t give me a reason. It just bullied me into saying no.
I stopped writing. I went months where my mind was mostly devoid of anything to write about, even though it was usually the best way to process my feelings. It was like my emotions froze, and I became a robot.
I was trying to adapt to a new life, and I was restless and impatient. I wanted to feel productive and meaningful again. But I had no energy, no creativity, no mental space. I could only focus on what was directly in front of me. I was frustrated that I couldn’t do more, and I didn’t understand why I couldn’t. I thought I was fine. I knew I was sad, but I thought I was handling our transition well.
I wasn’t. Not really.
About a year and a half after our arrival, my brain and body decided to shut down, and I stopped sleeping for ten days. I finally got help. I told the urgent care doctor, “I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I know what anxiety feels like, but this is different. It’s like I’m on overload and can’t get my pulse to slow down.” That admission was the beginning of feeling better.
I’ve been back three years, and it’s taken me that long to figure out what was happening inside me during that first year and a half. I only see it now in hindsight.
There are times in life you know you’re a mess; the pain or the fear is big and consuming. Every moment of every day feels like a fight. (I’ve had seasons like that, and this wasn’t one of them.)
But other times, you don’t realize you’re in a fog. You are coping quite well. You are doing what you need to do. You don’t realize your soul is actually withering. Then one day, the sun breaks through the clouds and triggers a distant memory: Oh yes! This is what warmth feels like.
This is what it feels like to be creative, my mind brimming with ideas. This is what it’s like to live without a constant sense of being overwhelmed. This is what it feels like to be happy.
I didn’t recognize that I wasn’t doing well until I started to feel better, and to remember what it feels like to be fully alive.
Today, I love being with friends and meeting new ones. I’m doing seminars for small and large groups. I was a guest on a podcast. My brain comes up with way more things to write about than I have time to get them out.
I don’t think I anticipated the jarring effect the transition would have on my body, mind, and soul. Or that it would last as long as it did. Seeing this in myself has given me empathy for others around me who are in transition: the new parents, new empty-nesters, the immigrant. How can I show them grace? How can I help to bring light into their fog? How can I walk alongside them for as long as it takes, knowing it will probably take longer than anyone anticipated?
But also, I want to remember to give myself grace the next time. To be more patient with myself. To remember that some of the hardest parts of life must simply be faced a day at a time until they get better.
This morning at church, a song unearthed a sweet memory of Tanzania, and I cried. For what I left. For what I’ve missed. For what I’ve gained. For how far I’ve come.
I know exactly how I want to start each and every morning. It looks like waking up before my alarm, dawn light setting aglow the edges of little sleeping faces. I kiss foreheads and little lips scrunch up until my children resettle into their sleep. It looks like the steam from my coffee dancing in the cool fresh air of the morning. It looks like an undisturbed hour on my patio with my coffee, journal and Bible, and an excessive number of highlighters. It looks like a bit of exercise before a shower, and working on breakfast with a second cup of coffee as my kids stumble into morning hugs and snuggles.
I know exactly how I want to start each and every morning.
And then dawn breaks.
This morning is different from the one I wanted.
We’re leaving next week and are in the midst of farewells. My kids went to bed late, so naturally they woke early and cranky. I need to pack the house, and I’ve got 15 million errands to run and a lunch date with a friend at noon. Coffee is getting cold as I unpack kitchen tools to make grumpy children breakfast, and I’m persistently plagued by this one tennis shoe I’m sure I packed three times already. I’m in the car, throwing granola bars at the snarling children in the depths of the vehicle, and I’m missing, desperately missing, my morning routine.
Grieving that my favorite morning rhythm was ruined by reality.
Guilty that I shirked things that are important to me.
Ashamed that I can’t seem to do it all some days.
Oftentimes we develop rhythms during seasons of peace and orderliness. We develop our routines based on things that are important to us, and we make them routines because we want to make sure they happen in our lives. But for the globally mobile, it seems that seasons of busy and even seasons of total chaos are common.
The natural response is to skip the routines until we shift back into easier days. But the globally mobile life is full of prolonged and frequent seasons of busyness and chaos, of transition and resettling. Rhythms get so long forgotten we don’t shift back into them at all. The moments of self-care for our own well-being, the moments of connection with our families, are lost in the hustle.
Instead of throwing out the whole concept of routine when there’s no way to accomplish the ideal routine in a season of chaos, we can shift our rhythms to match the season.
In addition to a Thriving Rhythm during seasons of peace when we have time for growth ––
Have a Striving Rhythm for a season of busy hustling or even when the emotional toll of the season is making life seem harder.
Have a Surviving Rhythm for those seasons of total chaos or deep grief and despair when just one more thing seems too much to bear.
Have a plan in place to modify your routines so that transition, changes, and urgent needs don’t throw everything off.
How to Set a Rhythm for Each Season
I find that three sets of rhythms – thriving, striving, and surviving – are adaptable to most seasons of life, but if you have some very specific seasons (i.e. during school/school break or village living/town living), you can create custom rhythms for those seasons, too.
1) Make a list of daily priorities.
If you already have a routine, then this would be the “why” for the items on your to-do list. For example, do you run everyday because exercise is important to you or because you value getting outside or because it helps you manage your emotions?
2) Outline a Thriving Rhythm.
A Thriving rhythm is a realistic routine based on your real-life seasons of peace that makes space for the things that are priorities for you. It doesn’t have to be a morning routine or an hour long. This is an attainable rhythm for you during a season of peace. It will look different for everyone. If you don’t already have a Thriving Rhythm, you can create one from the priorities you just made. If you already have one, it will be helpful to see it written out.
3) Outline a Striving Rhythm.
Looking at your priorities and your Thriving Rhythm, ask yourself what it would look like if you only had five minutes for each task, or half the time you scheduled for your Thriving Rhythm. If you can’t spend an hour doing a morning devotional, what could you do in five minutes? If you normally take five minutes to cuddle your kids in the morning, what could you do in two and a half minutes?
4) Outline a Surviving Rhythm.
Looking at your priorities, Thriving Rhythm, and Striving Rhythm, ask yourself what your absolute bare bones are. You have 10-15 minutes, maybe not even consecutively. How do you fit in your priorities even during the seasons of chaos? Knowing that “nothing” is often what happens when chaos throws off our Thriving Rhythm, what is better than nothing?
For everything there is a season. (Ecclesiastes 3:1a)
The varied seasons of life are normal, and it’s normal to have different capacities and different levels of routine in those different seasons. What needs to be normalized is giving ourselves grace and flexibility while not neglecting the bare bones – the most important things that keep us grounded even when life is hectic. We can be consistent and steadfast in the things that are important to us, even if the rhythm sounds different to match the current climate.
Through these rhythms we can invest in self-care and connectedness, so that even in the unsettled, hectic, difficult, or just simply busy seasons, our families feel heard, prioritized, safe, and emotionally supported.
We set the rhythms for our families. Let’s shift with the seasons but not be thrown off by them.
I went to bed with my hair wet so I didn’t have to worry about drying it. I kiss my children awake, and then we roll into the kitchen together. “Snackle box is in the fridge. It’s breakfast-on-the-go today,” I say as I tap my YouVersion notification for the verse of the day while I get coffee brewing into a to-go mug. My kids each pull out their own tackle box full of small snacks and load into the car. Running errands counts as exercise, right?
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 Disastermaterial.)
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.
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.
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.