Can I Find Belonging in the American Church? {Wrestlings of an Adult MK}

by Jessi Bullis

As an adult missionary kid (MK) who grew up with a fairly mobile childhood, “home” and “belonging” have been tricky for me. I remember being as young as five years old and responding to the question “Where are you from?” with deer-in-the-headlights style anxious sputtering. 

As I’ve grown, I’ve spent oodles of time processing how each different country I was raised in has impacted who I am as a person, and I’ve learned to weave them together to make up the mosaic of my personal cultural complexity. Nowadays, I have a ready-made answer for the “Where are you from?” question. But just because I’m prepared to answer doesn’t mean that internal confusion and childhood longing aren’t sometimes set off. 

Over the years, digging into scripture and falling even more in love with Jesus, I came to know Him as my true Home. And since Christ’s bride is the Church, I desperately wanted the Church to be my earthly home.

Afterall, that was the one consistent “location” in my life. In England we attended a church with 300 members, while in Turkey we went to a house church that fluctuated from 20-30 people depending on the week and in whose apartment it was held. Visiting Tanzania, we worshiped in a mud structure, and in Germany church was held in the school auditorium. Each might have looked different, but the underlying feeling was the same.

So when I returned to the exotic, frightening, and magical land of the United States of America for college, my hope was that in the midst of my hardest transition, I would find a home-ful belonging in the Church.

However, while there was hope, I’ll admit there was also a bitter pessimism. 

The American church has often felt like an unsafe place for me growing up. As a child, whenever we would return to the U.S. on home assignment and enter the church circuit, raising support felt like a job requirement to be filled rather than a place to be known and loved.

I felt like a hidden immigrant in the church — misunderstood, but also laden with high expectations to be “the perfect MK.” It was assumed that I would know all the ‘right’ answers to any biblical questions thrown my way, while at the same time I was confused by the jokes and cultural references made in conversation. I learned to play the part, but internally I felt like an outsider.

I also noticed that it sometimes seemed like American patriotism and Christianity were intertwined. 

While my passport country is the United States, and I am legally a citizen, I have struggled to wrap my head around what that means. For many of my mono-cultural friends raised in the U.S., this has meant that the American flag elicits an emotional response, and July 4th comes with life-long traditions of celebration and reverence for American history. Because America was born from the drive for religious freedom, for some it seemed that being patriotic was the most Christian thing they could do.

I, on the other hand, didn’t know the words to “America the Beautiful” or even the Pledge of Allegiance. Whenever I attended sporting events (which I’ll admit wasn’t often), I moved my mouth around hoping it looked like I was saying the same thing as everyone else. 

So when I attended churches where I heard pastors talk from the pulpit about how “America is the best country in the world” and where church members discussed how great a blessing it is to be American, I felt like an outsider. Many cultures have informed my faith, and the global perspective I have impacts how I read my Bible. I love that about myself and my story, so hearing words of American patriotism in the church feels to me like a sucker punch. Suddenly the separation between me and my fellow American believers seemed even wider. 

In these church sanctuaries I found myself questioning: If I didn’t “feel” American, would I be fully accepted as a sister in Christ? Are we not brothers and sisters in Christ first – before our cultural backgrounds? If I voiced concern about patriotism and Christianity being conflated, would my character and faith be questioned? 

In the New Testament, I saw that Jesus spoke with Gentiles as cultural equals. On days when the fear of not belonging has felt strongest, I’ve turned to Philippians 3:20 for comfort (“we are citizens of heaven”). And I always drew hope from Revelation 7:9, where we see people from every tribe, tongue, and nation worshiping together in blessed harmony. 

As I considered these scriptures, I began seeing my own assumptions and prejudices arise. Sometimes my own religious comfort has been built from my cultural experiences, and I have had to repentantly unwind them at the feet of Jesus.

Culture impacts how we interact with God and how we worship. Sometimes this is beautiful and glorifies God in the diversity of His creation. But at other times culture becomes an obstacle to the true message of scripture. I have learned beautiful things about God, His creativity, the depths of His love, and so much more from every culture I’ve worshiped in — including in America. 

I write this article not as someone with all the answers, but as someone who has so very many questions: for myself, for my fellow believers, and for the American church. Questions like:

  • How does national culture play a role in my relationship with God? And with my fellow believer?
  • Do I have opportunities to view Christianity from different perspectives and cultures? If not, do I need to find them?
  • Could I have blind spots towards my faith due to my national culture? 
  • Do I feel closer to a believer from a different country than to an unbeliever from my own country? 

It’s important for all of us to consider questions like these. I pray that each day we, the Church, become more and more like the Bride of Christ that will meet God at the shore of eternity.

“…there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people, and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb…And they cried out in a loud voice: ‘Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.’” (Revelation 7:9-10)

A great resource on navigating God and culture is the Perspectives Course, and if you’d like to know how to support missionary kids in their walk with God, I recommend Tim Sanford’s book I Have To Be Perfect, along with this training for Churches Supporting Missionary Families.

Photo by Josh Eckstein on Unsplash

~~~~~~~~~

Jessi is an Adult MK who grew up in Singapore, England, Turkey, and Germany. She has a heart for TCKs and the unique struggles they face. She received her undergraduate in psychology and a seminary degree in counseling for the purpose of caring for TCKs well. Jessi loves getting to walk through the repatriation journey with Adult TCKs, as this season can be especially difficult to navigate. Her deepest passion is for TCKs to know and feel the love and goodness of God.

Boundary Lines and Haikus

by Roberta Adair

I spent many years wondering in the back of my head if being called to Japan was divine punishment for a flaw. To improperly use fancy Christian lingo, I wondered if God was sending me to Japan rather than other places I was willing and eager to go in order to sanctify me. I believed something like, “God loves me but needs to sandpaper and scrape a lot of Roberta away…and Japan is the sandpaper.”

In grad school I even wrote in my journal, “Lord, I’m willing to go anywhere — just not Japan,” yet now I view this country I said I’d never move to as one of the Psalmist’s “pleasant places.” I get teary as I consider God bringing me here for my good, not in a gross kale kind of way but in a warm, corner brownie kind of way.

In 2019 I attended a day of training with a more experienced missionary. She discussed some of the metaphors that people use to describe adjusting to Japan: feeling like a child, being in a dark tunnel, climbing a mountain. She talked with us about the importance and power of metaphors and led us in a few exercises to help us discover insights for ourselves. For years I had used phrases like “square peg, round hole” (not fitting well) and “like a little kid in a new school” (incompetent and unknown) to try to articulate what living here feels like.

One image that I hadn’t been able to verbalize but had felt over and over was the idea of feeling trapped and tied down – like having a rope wound around and around my arms and not being able to breathe freely, much less move. For a long time, I looked at “Japan” (written in quotation marks as I’m referring to it more as an idea than as a place or a people) as restricting, trapping, binding, and controlling.

There are so many rules: when to bow, when to use honorifics, how long to admire a business card that you received respectfully with two hands (“Always receive with two hands!”). If someone gives a gift, it is appropriate to give another gift at 30% of the estimated value of the original gift.

I found all of these rules exhausting, along with all of the formality, ceremony, and appropriateness (I generally like informal, spontaneous, and mildly-to-wildly inappropriate). There were rules about eye contact, precise expectations about what to wear to different ceremonies, and even how to laugh (many women cover their teeth when they laugh and maintain control, while I love to belly laugh with both friends and strangers). I found all of this overwhelming and exhausting and grating and tedious and irritating.

I know people who are drawn to Japan specifically for the same reasons I had prayed “anywhere but.” They like that it’s predictable, orderly, safe. They are the “learn the rules, and you’ll do well” type of people. I think perhaps this is one reason why my engineer husband adjusted to Japan years before I did.

At the training, as an exercise to start and end our sessions, we were asked to write haikus. I hadn’t written one since middle school, yet I was able to spit two out really quickly. 5-7-5…boom.

They weren’t amazing, but they were written quickly and lightly. I didn’t get bogged down with a gazillion possibilities from a more open-ended prompt like, “Write an essay. Draw a picture. Describe a situation.” The haiku was so simple. I think this exercise marked the beginning of my understanding that too many possibilities isn’t freedom; it’s exhausting.

Ever since that post-retreat time, I’ve tried to notice more of this limitation-as-freedom thing. Rather than feeling restrained, confined, and trapped in Japan, I’m trying to reframe that limitations can contribute to my freedom.

For example, the train. Although we have a car, I like to ride the train to the library. I prefer the boundaries of time with trains. There are consequences to trying to finish “just one more thing” (needing to wait for the next one), and knowing the train pulls away at a certain time helps me focus and get stuff done. It also gives me 10 minutes to check out on the ride home.

Then there’s our newsletter. I wrote freeform email updates during my three years living in another country. They were usually quite long. I didn’t like my husband’s suggestion a decade ago to pick a newsletter format and stick to it. I still occasionally struggle with the constraints of space. If anyone ever thinks, “Um, this paragraph is missing a sentence,” yes it is, but I simply deleted it to make it fit. Using this formula means we can make them faster than we could if they were more freestyle. Two articles with three to five pictures (2-3-5…boom).

Or consider our small house. I’ve seen these literal boundaries and limitations lead to freedom. I have a lot of new-to-me opinions about the lightness connected to having a small house and next-to-no yard. Perhaps this not-chosen-by-me minimalist lifestyle isn’t forever or for everyone. That said, I’ve experienced a lot of joy connected to exploring and playing that I simply wouldn’t have had time for if I had more space and stuff to manage and maintain.

Boundaries are helpful with anything related to reducing decision fatigue. I know this is a trendy topic, but it’s why I like restaurants with small menus, prefer the neighborhood veggie man over a larger grocery store, and have jumped from team self-expression to being a big fan of uniforms (very common for students and workers in Japan). It’s also why we’ve happily adjusted our wardrobes to our small closets. Our four boys share two chests of drawers with seven drawers between them. It works, and it’s (mostly) really good. I have the smallest wardrobe of my life, and (most of the time) I love it.

I think about limitations when I think about having kids. Oh, the laundry, dishes, cooking, time constraints, and adjusting so much of my life and schedule around them. Yet these little balls of Big Energy and Big Feelings also bring so many possibilities. They’ve opened the door to many deep friendships, and they’ve expanded my understanding of the world, people, and God.

These are just a few examples of the ways I experience the expansiveness of limitation. I’m finding that the boundary lines aren’t confining or trapping but instead have allowed me to more fully experience “pleasant places.” And for that, I’m grateful.

~~~~~~~~

Originally from Pennsylvania (USA), Roberta lived in Kosovo for three years before getting married and moving to northern Japan in 2012. She and her husband partner with a Japanese church and have four young and energetic boys. She enjoys hiking, camping, and having friends over for average and boisterous meals.

A Leap Year Book Review

I was excited when I saw that you and I get to chat on this rare February 29th. A day that feels like a gift as the calendar catches up with the small moments of the last four years.

What, I wondered, would be an appropriate way for us to let the moments of the past catch up with us? How could be slow down enough to notice where we are?

And then it hit me, share with the book I’m currently in the middle of listening to. A week or so ago a friend texted me that she was listening to Karen Swallow Prior’s The Evangelical Imagination: How Stories, Images, and Metaphors Created a Culture in Crisis and wondered if I’d read it.

I hadn’t, and promptly looked to see if it was available on the Hoopla app. It was, both in ebook and audio format.

The Evangelical Imagination seems the perfect Leap Year book recommendation for three reasons:

1.  Whether you are an Evangelical or hate (hate, hate) the term, you’ll find yourself going, “I didn’t know that!” So much of what we see in religious experience and expression have roots in the Victorian age. I vacillate between being encouraged that our time is not that different than the past and saddened that our time is … not that different than the past. But through this book I am more aware of where Evangelicalism has come from and how it got to where we it is.

2. History is so interesting! If you’ve ever wondered how Christian bookstores and some of the art came to be, you’re gonna be surprised.

3. The breadth of topics covered that make up, in this case, Evangelicalism is a bit jarring. Currently, what is the main area that Evangelicalism is associated with? I don’t even have to answer because I can hear the choral response of everyone reading this: politics. Having listened to this book, I feel broader, more holistic as a person.

Since most reading this are Christians, you’ll understand yourself and either why you do or view things as you practice your faith. Or understand why you did not do something. The chapter on the history (and evolution) of the “testimony” was one where I realized why, personally, I have always been out of step with the Evangelical way of “give a testimony.” But before this book, I couldn’t have put words to it. Now I can.

Leap year is a slightly unexpected invitation to stop, and pay attention to the waters we’re all swimming, allowing for little bits of culture to catch up to our conscious awareness.

If you’ve always been a church history fan, you’re going to love this book.

If you’ve thrown your hands up whenever you hear the word, “evangelical”, you’re going to be surprised by this book.

If you’re looking for a fellow traveler who looks back to help us all move forward, this book is for you.

Get The Evangelical Imagination by Karen Swallow Prior.

When the “Perfect!” Fit Isn’t

There seems to be an awful lot of Perfect! going on these days, at least in my part of the world. I told my server at a restaurant that I wanted fries and steamed broccoli to go with my entree. “Perfect!” he said. A nurse read off my blood pressure. “Perfect!” again. When I offered 8:30 as a possible time for an appointment, I heard “Perfect!” over the phone.

And then I was at a hotel not long ago and saw an advertisement for “Perfect Pizza.” I really, really wanted to run up to the hostess and yell, Elf-style, “You did it! Congratulations! The perfect pizza! Great job everybody! It’s great to meet you!”

I know it’s just a trendy shorthand for “good” or “fine” or “sounds OK to me,” but Perfect! sure bumps things up a notch. It sounds so comforting, so . . . exciting. And while it’s not my go-to expression (“Great!” is my over-the-top adjective of choice), I still see myself hoping for perfection, and wanting to claim it when I think I’ve found it.

For instance, “Please, Lord, bless us with just the right apartment, in just the right quiet neighborhood, with just the right opportunities for outreach, with just the right distance from the preschool and bus stop, and just the right rent for our budget” is like something I might have prayed while we were looking for a new place to live overseas. And when we’d found a new home that checked all the boxes, we’d declare it a Perfect! fit and would tell our supporters as much in our next newsletter.

A Perfect! fit.

Pardon the detour, but have you heard of “wire electrical discharge machining”? At some point I came across videos of wire EDM, a method of cutting metal so precisely that it’s considered to have “zero tolerance.” Here’s an example. (I could watch these videos all day.)

I think this is often the kind of “basically air-tight” perfection that we’re looking for when we make our plans. But then our hopes are so easily dashed. The street in front of our apartment ends up being a popular parade route, the neighbors are distrustful of foreigners, the preschool isn’t taking new students, the bus line changes its route, or the rent goes up after the first month. It turns out that this isn’t the exact fit we were looking for. So instead of us and our surroundings going together like machined-metal puzzle pieces, we feel more like the proverbial square pegs in round holes.

But these pegs and holes aren’t made out of carbide, and that’s a good thing. While God can miracle rigid pieces together perfectly and instantly, that’s not been my experience or what I’ve seen happen to others. Instead, it’s a much more organic process than that. We’re more like branches, growing in a new environment, clicking, clacking, and rubbing against other branches—people, languages, expectations, customs, foods, climates, communities, schedules, traditions. . . . Over time, the bark wears off, a little from us, a little from them, and we’re smoothed into a fit that’s not Perfect! but beautiful.

It’s a beauty that’s revealed by accepting natural forms that twist and turn into each other, that sand down rough edges, that show scars and bends and gaps telling a wonderfully patinaed story. And the result of that story is a growing together that alters us and them, so that if we’re ever separated, someone looking on might wonder what brought about that strange shape in us, might ask what caused the odd changes where we were.

Now I’m not saying that we should give up on our hopes and prayers or that we should simply accept whatever comes our way. (Some things are not only imperfect, they’re simply unacceptable!) No, I’m suggesting that we hope and pray for something better than the Perfect! location, the Perfect! contact, the Perfect! connection, the Perfect! event, or the Perfect! method.

And in so doing, we’ll learn to hold our plans more loosely. We’ll learn to pray more “Your will be done.” We’ll learn to seek and assert less Perfect! and look for more God-blessed serendipity. We’ll learn that while that apartment will never be what we’d hoped for, it can become the place that makes us feel at home. Over time, we’ll learn to make more room for Unpredicted! and Wonderful! and Challenging! and Sufficient! and Flawed! and Lovely! and Unexpected! We’ll learn to find the splendor of God moving gracefully in imperfection.

[photo: “A few pieces are still out of place,” by Timothy Krause, used under a Creative Commons license]

Send Help. My Husband Believes in Me.

My husband Joshua has the annoying habit of believing I am capable and strong, like some kind of Wonder Woman, except with a super-modest, incarnational wardrobe instead of a metal corset. He is always encouraging me and pep-talking me and going on about how I can do anything and change the world and blah blah blah. 

A perfect example of this was on our second day in our current country of service. There was a birthday in the family, so we piled into a taxi and went to one of the more interesting markets in our town, with its labyrinthian, Technicolor alleys.

Slatted wooden roofs kept the narrow streets cool, and we walked and walked and walked, past kaftans and brass lanterns, leather shoes and round bean bag chairs, stray cats and fresh juice and French pastries and fake scorpion fossils and hippie-dippie beaded jewelry. Four or five languages, along with the beeps of motorcycle horns and the lazy fluting of snake charmers, filled the air with sound. 

Next, we rode camels on a sidewalk. From atop my camel, whose name was, ironically, Madonna, I looked around. Traffic lurched and sped, then stopped suddenly for a wave of pedestrians. The white lines on the road made feeble suggestions that everyone ignored. How did people cross the street in this country? How did they drive? More importantly, how would I drive?!

I had driven in India. But we’d been in a rural mountain village, and there had been one road. I had never had to leave third gear.

But here we were in a new country, in the city, with all kinds of roads to take, “lanes” to drive in, and speed limits to adjust to, each representing a decision I must make in a fraction of a second. I told Joshua I would never, ever be able to drive in this country, so don’t even ask, because it ain’t happening, honey. Especially not a stick shift, which we would soon acquire.

“You can do it, Abby,” he told me, oozing with faith, hope, and love. I wished Joshua could just get in my head for five seconds and understand my anxiety on a visceral level. How it’s like being stuck in an endless game of whack-a-mole at a pizza joint. The second you conquer one anxiety, another one pops up. Sometimes you just want to go find a cabinet to crawl into where you can close your eyes and hug your knees and stop fighting the little varmints.

“You don’t know what it’s like,” I said.

“I know you can do it,” he said. 

I had been hoping Joshua would offer to drive me around for the rest of my life, like my grandfather had done for my grandma. Or like Richard did for Hyacinth in Keeping Up Appearances. Was that so unreasonable?

I examined Joshua’s face. He was so cute and eager, like a puppy who has just heard the word “walk.” All hopeful eyebrows. I even detected the hint of a little happy whine, as though he was imagining me going out in my cape and conquering the world. 

Later, I got a piece of scratch paper and wrote a couple of prayer requests on it: “1. Find a home in the country that can be the backdrop of the kids’ childhood. 2. Learn to drive here without feeling anxious.” I knew that last one was impossible, but I put the piece of paper in my Bible and told God He was going to have to pull out His Red Sea stick, His pillar of fire, and His spat-upon dirt. I needed a miracle.

*

“We’re moving,” I told my family one afternoon. “God provided a place!” And so we packed up our stuff and moved 45 minutes away from the city center to a house in the countryside.

Our kids were already enrolled in all kinds of activities that city children are involved in. Soccer, gymnastics, etc. Someone had to drive them there. Conveniently, or perhaps conspiratorially, my husband’s schedule would not allow him to be the chauffeur. 

I don’t remember the first time I transported my fragile young children in our smashable metal vehicle. Nor the second. Maybe it’s a traumatic memory buried deep in my amygdala, who knows? What I do know is that over the course of several months, a miracle happened. I got comfortable driving.

At first, I would literally talk to myself. The kids in the backseat would hear their mother say, “Water. We’re all just flowing like water. This intersection is a bend in the river and we’re just all flowing around it. Aaaand we’re flowing. We’re flowing.” 

Then I began to learn. I learned that people don’t drive in the right lane because there’s too much going on there—taxis stopping, motorcycles passing each other, carts peddling sweets. But they don’t move fully to the left lane because then they’d never get back over to make a right turn. 

Left turns are even more interesting. If you want to make a left turn, you have to swing your car as far into oncoming traffic as possible, and then complete your turn when enough other cars have built up in that area, or the oncoming lessens.

There was a road culture in this new place, with rules, just like a normal culture has. It seemed like chaos, but there was a system to it. And I had cracked the code. I felt like a feminine, slightly more mentally stable version of Champollion, the guy who figured out ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. I felt capable.

*

Sometimes Joshua’s faith in me can be tiring. If I’m honest, sometimes I would rather my anxieties be accepted as unchangeable. I would rather be coddled. To be helped down from tall buses, to sit helplessly a fair bit of the time. I would rather not be expected to keep whacking moles every day, rather not be expected to keep putting on my cape and showing up in situations where success will most certainly require miracles. 

But I am finding that what I want today, in this moment, is not the same as what I want for my life. Today I may want to hide in the cabinet. But for my life, I want a Wonder Woman story. I want to see miracles. I want to drive across town, to write, to share Christ, to sing, to pray aloud, to climb mountains, to laugh at the days to come.

I guess God knew that about me when He put Joshua in my life. 

Here’s to many more years of miracles.

On the Fringe

But once we have found the center of our life in our own heart and have accepted our aloneness, not as a fate but as a vocation, we are able to offer freedom to others. –Henri Nouwen

Cresting the hill overlooking the community where our campus sits, I hear the chatter of my daughters in the seats behind me. My mind, however, is miles (or kilometers, shall we say) away. I had just run into a few friends, whom we have known for many years now, and chatted briefly.

As I herded my children into my car, I reflected on the experience. Though it was good to run into them (was it, though?), it was also painful – a reminder, again, that we are the outsiders. These friends have a seemingly vibrant, interdependent community – one for which my husband and I have longed. For a wide array of reasons, we have succeeded in knowing a lot of people from a variety of communities, but we have not leaned in to just one. We’re “on the fringe,” we like to say, of a lot of communities.

There are definite perks to this; but tonight, I am just lonely.

//

This past summer, we had a three and a half-month home assignment in the U.S. It was hectic, as they are. And I was keenly aware that my daughters seemed to have more friends in the U.S., where we have not lived for almost eight years, than they do in our ministry area, where they have essentially grown up.

I pondered this for some time. Was it true? Would they/we have these friends if we lived in the U.S.? There was of course the reality that we visited many different states and churches, nearly all the people we know stateside. In the end, I wondered, is it that friendships feel easier in their “home” culture, even though they haven’t grown up in the U.S.? Do they sense that we are “on the fringe” here too?

//

I have a feeling that you can relate. As cross-cultural workers, we can work alongside people all day, we can attend a vibrant church or co-op, we can be part of groups and workplaces, and still feel unknown. We can spend countless hours pursuing others, opening the doors of our home, building relationships, and have maybe one or two that takes off and goes deep – but otherwise feel like outsiders the rest of the time.

Seven years into international ministry, I am no longer surprised by this reality. It used to be a sharp reminder of our otherness; these days, it is more of a dull ache, a sense of loneliness. God has been gracious in the midst of this struggle for belonging. These are a few truths God has used to comfort me:

The longing to belong is a good, God-given one. This desire to know and be known is part of our human, image-bearing experience. This longing reflects our spiritual, emotional, and mental capacities for relationship and meaning. Any feelings of being ‘unknown’ are part of our experience in this broken world; alternatively, the joy of feeling “known” reflects the already-but-not-yet of Christ’s kingdom coming.

I am known, deeply. The truth is that each one of us is deeply known by God himself, more deeply than we know ourselves. While this may sound trite at times, I have found profound comfort in embracing the reality that the God of the universe knows me, on every level, through and through, and cares deeply for me. Nothing in my life is hidden from him; he knows the best and worst of me and loves me still. What a joy!

He knows what it is to be “on the fringe.” Christ himself came from the Father, to an earth which was not his home, in order to minister and serve and give the ultimate sacrifice for others. Though his “otherness” was different than ours, he is familiar with the struggle to belong. In his life, I find a model of living “on the fringe” which gives me a path forward in my overseas life.

I think of Jesus’ words in Mark 10, where he shares a simple mission statement for his coming to earth: “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (v. 45).

Jesus is our ultimate example of coming to a place, fully knowing he would not belong, and giving of himself anyway. When I put aside my own feelings of “otherness” and seek to offer my life for others, I am imitating Christ. When I accept the reality that I will not fit as I would ideally love to and continue to serve anyway, I am imaging Jesus.

So I continue to lean in and pursue others, but less for what they can mean to me, and more for how I can faithfully serve both them and Christ. I am working toward setting aside my own needs for belonging and living joyfully anyway. This is only possible because of the confidence we have in Christ. He knows me, he knows the ache, and he served in love still. Jesus, help me to do the same.

Miso and Lent

by Roberta Adair

A few days ago, I opened up the cool crawlspace under our dining room table and pulled out a big pot of miso I put there ten months ago. Miso is squashed fermented soybeans and is used in a lot of Japanese cooking – most famously miso soup, but also in stir fries, marinades, and vegetable dips.

Until two years ago, I simply bought it in small plastic tubs at our neighborhood grocery store, but then a friend invited me to join her and a few other women for a miso-making class.

I plopped the pot on the counter and gingerly took off the lid. Will the top layer be as slimy and funky as the year before? (It was.) Will it have worked – meaning will the kōji (fermenting bacteria) have done its job with the smashed up beans and transformed the mush into miso? (Also yes.)

After scraping off the top and putting the rest into several containers, I wiped up a little bit I dropped onto the counter with my finger and tasted it. It was salty, tangy, grainy, fermented, and familiar. It was also something quite different than what I put in the pot last year. It had transformed.

Ten months earlier, a professional miso maker gave me dried beans with instructions on how to soak and boil them the day before we were to meet together. Then when we all gathered in a small room in a community center, she walked us through the process of smashing the beans, mixing in the salt and kōji, and squashing the mixture some more.

My favorite step was to make small balls and SPLAT! SPLAT! SPLAT! them into a container to get rid of air bubbles. It was loud and felt almost violent – and oh so satisfying.

As I consider the different steps in the process, I keep thinking about miso as a metaphor for the Christian life, one I get to regularly touch, see, taste, and smell.

Soaking the beans reminds me of being immersed in a safe community. It’s comfortable. I’m not yet required to change, but I’m in an environment preparing me for change. It’s the least painful part of the process but is still important.

Boiling is the next step, which is a process that involves purification and pain. The result is softening (“humbling”) and is necessary for a big transformation.

Squashing follows and involves the beans changing shape but their essence remaining the same. Starting as beans and ending as paste, they are then mixed with salt and kōji to preserve the mixture and start the ten-month process of transformation. Koji works like “yeast in the bean paste” (bacteria in the miso) just as the Holy Spirit works in us.

The beans then sit in a dark, undisturbed place. This is where fermentation takes place and where simple beans that would otherwise rot become nourishing and delicious. A weight is placed on top—a “burden” that makes it more difficult for air to enter and allow mold to grow too quickly.

This process is a picture (albeit imperfect) of sanctification: being made into something better over time. After sitting in the cool crawlspace under our dining room table for ten months, the beans underwent a chemical transformation, and squashed beans—voila!—became miso. The process involved breaking, smashing, mixing, and splatting. And it involved waiting, literally being hidden underground, and not being disturbed for a long season.

Now, as I use my “labor of love” to make miso soup, miso chicken, and miso salad dressing, I think about . . .

  • Phases in my life when I was overly comfortable and didn’t feel pressured to change or grow.
  • Hard seasons in friends’ lives that are lonely, unseen, and exhausting. They are seeking to trust God in the dark without seeing a whole lot of fruit or answers to prayer.
  • Tragic revelations in the lives of public Christians who missed out on the fermenting phase and peaked while still raw beans. As their rottenness is revealed and they give off a big stink, the result is broken families, fractured churches, and disoriented followers.
  • Those who have submitted to and practiced the way of Christ who are in turn nourishing those around them, providing a richness and complexity to their families and communities. To paraphrase Matthew 5:13, they are “the umami of the world.”
  • The fact that the process can’t be sped up through more effort. More squeezing, more pounding, more splatting, or more salt and kōji won’t help. Maturity – Christlikeness – can only happen over time, in darkness, and through waiting.

Miso-making typically coincides with the season of Lent, and I find myself thinking about the way of Jesus being dying and resurrection. His invitation to transforming us, to transforming me, requires some kind of breaking and pain.

Even as I write this, I’m making plans with friends to make miso again in late February. What started as a one-time thing is becoming a yearly habit and (may I say it?) something like a spiritual practice. And I’m thankful.

~~~~~~~~

Originally from Pennsylvania (USA), Roberta lived in Kosovo for three years before getting married and moving to northern Japan in 2012. She and her husband partner with a Japanese church and have four young and energetic boys. She enjoys hiking, camping, and having friends over for average and boisterous meals.

This is What Courage Looks Like

Sandy was raising support, and she was stuck. She had exhausted all of her contacts – friends, relatives, acquaintances. She had contacted all of the churches where she knew someone, and had reached out to dozens of other churches with no response. Yet she was still far away from that elusive 100% funding goal. 

So she tried a different strategy. Each Sunday morning, she would pick out a church to attend – cold turkey – not knowing a solitary soul.  She would show up at this church where she knew no one, look for a friendly face, strike up a conversation with this complete stranger, and ask if this person could connect her with a pastor or missions leader. 

Sandy is an introvert. She is warm and confident but not the kind of person who especially enjoys entering new churches and striking up conversations with strangers. But she did it because she had to. She was determined to get to the country where God had called her and was ready to do whatever it took.

I was Sandy’s coach during her support-raising season. When she described this to me, my mouth gaped open and my eyes bugged out. All I knew was that I didn’t think I’d ever have the guts to do what she was doing, Sunday after Sunday. This took resolve. This took courage. 

I thought about my own support-raising journey. My husband and I would “divide and conquer” in our support-raising tasks. I wrote the newsletters and thank-you notes; he wrote the sermons. He fixed the printer when I was about to throw it out the window. And having him by my side every time I entered a new church gave me a measure of security.

I coach many single missionary women who are raising support, and they don’t get to delegate these tasks. If they hate public speaking, they don’t have a spouse to pass that off to. If they aren’t good at technology, they still have to figure it out themselves. When their pitch is rejected, there isn’t a partner by their side to share the burden. 

We laud the courage of single missionary women when they single-handedly figure out how to exterminate a rat invasion, stop the flood seeping into their house, or replace a blown-out tire. But we don’t often recognize the additional demands of everything they must do to build a support network on their own.

I realize that much of this could also apply to single men. However, I believe that single women often face unique challenges in earning others’ respect and attention – in foreign cultures, on their missionary teams, and in the churches of their home country. 

As I walk with these women on their journey to the mission field, I brim with tremendous admiration for their grit, perseverance, and resiliency. The truth is, most of these women would love to be married with a family. For many of them, it’s their deepest heart’s desire. Yet they are steadfast in obedience while they trust the Lord with their futures. 

This is what courage looks like. 

Do you have a single female missionary in your life? Probably more than anyone else, they need advocates to raise their support. Maybe that could be you. 

Help Keep A Life Overseas Going!

It is our deep joy to support our global community here at A Life Overseas. We are so glad you’re here, and we deeply hope that the community and content here at A Life Overseas has encouraged you and blessed you over our 11 years of being online.

Would you consider giving a one-time gift to help support the global ministry of A Life Overseas? We want to continue providing high-quality resources to global workers, but we can’t do it without you.

In order to continue serving thousands of folks all over the world every week, we need your help in meeting our annual goal of $5,000. A gift of $50 would sponsor one article that reaches around the world. Of course, any gift is appreciated and will help keep us on the air.

You can give a gift of any size here, but keep reading to hear how we’d love to say thank you for gifts of $50 or more!

Every week, writers and editors hone and craft and research, aiming to deliver encouragement and help to our community of Christians abroad. In fact, we publish over 100 articles per year for our global community.

Our writers have covered the funny, the mundane, and the traumatic. We have wrestled with big questions and where to find actual cheese. Our articles have helped disseminate vital research on missionary attrition, how to protect and support third culture kids, and God-honoring risk assessment in missions. We have been a leading voice in “the cross-cultural conversation.” In fact, check out some of our top eighty-five posts here.

Now, we need your help.

How we’d like to say THANK YOU!
The leadership team of A Life Overseas (Marilyn Gardner, Elizabeth Trotter, and I) would love to thank you for your gift. In fact, for all gifts of $50 or more that are given during February and March of 2024, we would be thrilled to send you a copy of my new book, Digging in the Dirt: musings on missions, emotions, and life in the mud (for U.S. addresses only). We’re aware that many of you do not have a U.S. address, so in your case we will be happy to hook you up with a Kindle version.

How to Give
A Life Overseas is funded as a special ministry through our missions account with Team Expansion (Louisville, KY), so all gifts are tax deductible (in the U.S.). Click here to give via our ministry page. If you would rather donate through PayPal (not tax deductible), you can do that here or through the QR code at the bottom of this post.

If you’d like a copy of the book, please be sure to put a good mailing address in the “note” section of Team Expansion’s giving site or the “what’s this for” section of PayPal. Thank you!

And thank you for walking this road with us. We endeavor to keep speaking up about the things that matter to the global Church and those who serve her.

We love to hear from friends and readers, so if you have thoughts, ideas, suggestions, etc., please reach out and let us know! You can do that by emailing me at jtrotter@teamexpansion.org.

All for ONE,
Jonathan Trotter

Scan QR Code to give through PayPal (not tax deductible)

 

*Amazon affiliate links help support the work of A Life Overseas

Home Invasion: Giving Missionary Kids Their Safe Place Back

When I was two years old, after my parents and I returned to Australia from our first time living abroad, our house was burgled while we slept. The thieves took our TV and probably a few other things I don’t remember.

I don’t remember the theft itself, but I clearly remember a nightmare I had a few years later. In my nightmare, men I didn’t know who were silent and invisible came into the house while I was in bed. They picked up my bed with me in it, turning me invisible and silent as well. They carried the bed (and me) out toward the front door, through the living room where my parents were watching TV. I jumped off the bed, at which point they could see and hear me. 

When I told my parents about the nightmare, something clicked for them. The living room I described was the old set up from before the robbery, with the old couch and the old TV. Though I didn’t consciously remember the event, something about it had rooted in my subconscious – and with it, a fear of unseen and unheard men entering my house, making me less safe.

According to Statista, New Zealand had the highest burglary rate per capita in 2018, with 1.3% of homes burgled. Australia’s rate was 0.7%, and the U.S. was 0.4%. If we make the bold assumption that different homes were targeted every year, over the 18 years of childhood that makes 23%, 13%, and 7% of families overall (respectively) that would experience burglary. Yet when TCK Training asked missionary kids if they had experienced a break-in, 38% said yes – compared to only 15% of non-missionary TCKs.

A significant part of that 38% were present during a home invasion: 15% of missionary kids were present in their home when a break-in occurred. These MKs were 35% more likely to have a high-risk ACE score than missionary kids overall (23% vs 17%). With more than one third of missionary kids experiencing a break-in during their childhood, this makes it a fairly common experience among their MK peers. Stories of break-ins are common among MKs. If it didn’t happen to you, it happened to your friend(s). 

One MK I interviewed talked about a home invasion his family experienced on the field while he was in elementary school. The thieves cut power to their home before entering, and in their rural area there were no streetlights or other external light sources, so the entire experience took place in the dark. He remembered huddling in his parents’ bedroom, with them and his younger brother, in the pitch black. They heard the noises downstairs, the hushed voices and the things being broken. For years afterward, he carried a matchbox in his pocket; he needed to know he could create light if he ever found himself in darkness again.

A teenage MK I interviewed spoke of living in a home with a grill of thick bars across each window and still feeling unsafe inside their home. A thief used a long pole to reach through the bar grill when a window was open, using it to steal small items. This made the MK feel imprisoned at home, with windows shut and thick grills over the closed windows — even during hot and humid days. They would close the curtains to block out the community in which these thefts took place.

Every story of theft, break-in, or home invasion is different. The emotional consequences are similar. Our home becomes less of a haven, less of a safe place, when we learn that ‘bad’ people can enter at any time without warning. They could take our precious possessions, entering our home while we sleep (or hide).

This affront to our sense of safety, security, and comfort in our own home is true for both adults and children. Children have less control over their living situations, however, and sometimes are not given much information about what has happened and what the future may hold. This lack of information (and control) can lead to additional anxiety. When home doesn’t feel like a safe place, children/young people stay ‘on alert’ without feeling safe to fully relax anywhere in their world. This leads to a state called ‘toxic stress’ which has negative impacts on the brain and body.

 

What Do We Do?
Feeling safe and protected at home, and especially feeling that there is an adult in the home providing this protection, is one of the Positive Childhood Experiences (PCEs) that provide a buffer for children who experience difficult things. PCEs enable children to thrive as adults even if they meet with adversity in childhood.

It is crucial that we provide missionary kids with a strong sense of safety at home. This will look different in different contexts, but there are a few principles that apply anywhere.

Explain the safety measures you have in place – no matter what they are or how obvious they look. Talk your kids through what you are doing to create a safe environment for them. Whenever you stay the night in a different place (including hotels, friends’ homes, and visits to your passport country), have this talk again, and go through the safety measures in place there.

Ask your children what makes them feel safe. Help them identify the feeling of safety and security. Have conversations about what that feels like and looks like, and discuss ways to create it in our homes, families, and even our schools and friendships. (This is a important tool for children to learn at any age, for many reasons.) These conversations will give you insights into how to make your child FEEL safe with you and in your home. Remember to model this for them – explain what makes you feel safe and what safety feels like to you.

Encourage your children to tell you if they feel unsafe – and listen to them! Something that seems obviously safe to you may feel uncomfortable, unusual, or even unsafe to your child. You won’t know how they are feeling unless they tell you, and they won’t tell you unless they know you take their concerns seriously. Taking their concerns seriously might look like validating their emotions (“I see this is troubling you; how can I help you feel more safe?”) before talking about the ‘reality’ of a situation (“I understand that it seems this way, and I’m glad you let me know. Can I show you what I see going on here?”).

Initiate regular conversations around safety. This idea is not about teaching lessons on how to be safe, but rather checking in with how everyone is feeling. Has anything happened in your community that impacts how safe you feel? Has their friend’s home been burgled? Has something been in the news? Keep creating opportunities to talk about what it is like to live where you live, as well as how each family member feels about it – it’s quite likely you’ll all feel differently at different times.

As a small child having a nightmare, I woke upset and went to my parents for comfort. They listened to me, made the connection with the robbery in the past, and were open with me about it. My parents talked to me about the robbery, validating my fears, thus assuring me I wasn’t afraid for no reason.

They also explained the likely motivation behind the theft (they were probably people without much money looking for something they could take away and sell but weren’t wanting to hurt me) and ways they keep me safe (explaining about locks on doors, etc.). I don’t recall having another dream like that or significant fears related to home invasion again.

Even when we do our best to provide a safe home for our children, we live in a broken world where bad things sometimes happen. Providing safety for children is therefore both about objective safety (what we do to create physical safety) and also about our perceptions of safety – what makes us feel safe. Parents, the ways you act to make your children feel safe are vitally important. Engaging with their emotions, validating their fears, and talking to them about the situations you face as a family will make a big difference for them long term. 

 

Photo by Nicola Nuttall on Unsplash

5 Ways to Cope When Your Incarnational Ministry Becomes Remote

Over a decade ago we joined an organization whose primary goal was Bible translation and church planting with a focus on incarnational ministry. 

We did national language in a large city for three years before God nudged us to step out in faith and make a big move to a more rural area where we could live among the people group we had been led to serve in Bible translation. 

This move was fraught with challenges and change. No one within our organization had ever moved out to the rural areas of our country before. We’d be the first to attempt it. Could we do it?

We had to figure out a visa situation (and once we did, we had to leave the country every 70 days to renew it). We had to find housing. We had to travel with our three very young children (ages 4, 2, and baby at the time). We knew absolutely no one in the area to help us. I was also pregnant with baby number four. It was… a lot. 

But God. We felt a call to go, and we went. It was difficult. And God showed up through each difficulty. My husband met just the right people who helped set up a perfect visa situation for us. We made some connections. We thought the city was livable and doable. Even my little four-year-old’s prayers were answered for a “sparkly house,” which we had initially told her might not happen because houses in our country of service were never “sparkly.” 

After a month of trial and difficulty, we had a visa, a house, a few connections, and hope that God had called us to serve incarnationally in this place we could grow to love. We felt hope and peace. 

God grew our community and ministry. Our home became the center of our lives and our incarnational ministry. We had no privacy; but we did have friends, neighbors, and national co-laborers who saw us living out our Christian faith day in and day out. 

We loved our simple, yet hard life. We ate fresh food from the market, which I had to buy daily. We struggled with lack of consistent electricity and mosquito-borne illnesses. We struggled with isolation, loneliness, and a lack of Christian community.

Yet we felt called to this life of incarnational ministry, and the sacrifices seemed worth it. We felt God was with us, was for us, and had planned this life for us. 

Then covid hit. We decided to stay in our home in our country of service, come what may. Isolation became even more of a reality. Opportunities for incarnational ministry waned. Ministry goals were put on hold.

We started becoming disconnected even from our national co-laborers who were either home in their villages or confined to work from their homes. It was a very difficult time for our family and the life of our ministry. We couldn’t wait for the covid restrictions to end. 

And then, an even greater disaster struck: a military coup. The instability and violence that followed prompted our organization to ask us to leave. We left our home in 24 hours with two suitcases for our entire family, which had grown to eight. 

We had lived in our rural area for five years. We had no time to say proper goodbyes or give any of us proper closure. We had no choice and no warning. Our incarnational ministry in the land and country we loved was over. 

That was in 2021. We’ve recently commemorated the third year anniversary of the military coup that changed our lives forever. We haven’t stopped our work; the ministry has continued in our absence. But it isn’t the same. 

Despite our organization’s focus on incarnational ministry, despite our ministry plans and long-term goals, despite what we wish would have happened, we haven’t been able to go back and live among the people we desire to serve. 

And we aren’t alone. We’ve met so many people over the last three years in our same situation and predicament. Covid. Visa issues. Political instability. War. Evacuation. Loss.

Whatever has caused your ministry disruption over the last few years, I pray that these five reminders will help you adjust your expectations and continue to move forward, even though things have not turned out how you envisioned. 

1. Grieve what you’ve lost.
Take time to lament to God why you’re mad, frustrated, angry, sad, disappointed, or heartbroken that what you wanted didn’t happen. Write a poem. Journal. Pray with a friend. Confess your feelings in a small group. Get counseling. Write a list of all the things you no longer have. Then, loop through that grieving process again (and again) until you feel you have unstacked all those hard emotions and shared them with God and with good listeners. 

2. Accept the new reality.
This step was perhaps the hardest for me. It is hard to let go of one dream to live in a new reality you weren’t planning on. But it is necessary to both grieve what you’ve lost and then move forward in accepting the new reality and making the most of it. Things aren’t what you planned or what you wanted, but can you accept that your life isn’t over and that God can still use you in a new way during a new season? 

3. Make prayer your key strategy.
Make your dependence on God the forefront of your ministry and personal goals. God knows the situation that led to your ministry changing, and he knows you intimately. He cares about the people you serve and the work you are doing. Petition God in prayer to lead you, your team, and your ministry.

Remember that all your work depends on the grace of God, and all your “success” depends on God calling people to himself. God’s Holy Spirit could only come after Jesus ascended to heaven. God’s Spirit will continue to work even after you’ve had to leave.

4. Enlist help for #3.
As you make prayer your ministry strategy, share your detailed needs with your family, churches, and supporters. We’ve found it helpful to get supporters to commit to pray one day each month for you and your ministry and coworkers rather than just include prayer requests in newsletters (although that is good too).

You can ask people to “adopt” a day between 1 and 31 and ask them to pray and send a brief message on that day each month. It adds daily prayer support to your ministry and adds accountability. We’ve also created monthly prayer guides focusing on a specific aspect of ministry, shared prayer requests in a closed social media group, sent out emails and newsletters, and shared specific personal prayer needs with specific people.

5. Keep hope that God will turn evil into good for His Kingdom.
It’s easy to give up and become cynical about visa problems, government politics, war, and conflict. It’s easy to abandon the goals for your work and ministry as impossible because of a situation that is out of your control. Resist that temptation. Hold on to hope that God has always used evil for His good and for the expansion of His Kingdom. 

Your role and work may have changed, your location may have changed, your ministry may look different than you wanted it to, but God is still working. He is still with you and your national coworkers. He still loves you, and He still loves the people you serve. 

So hold onto hope. Keep praying, and keep working. Remember that God’s Spirit makes up for our lack. Trust that God’s Word will go where we cannot. And keep believing that God’s light will shine in the darkness.

Dear Betrayed Missionary Spouse

Dear betrayed missionary spouse,

I hope this letter finds you in a room that feels familiar, comforting even. I’m writing because I want you to have the letter I wish I’d had on our Discovery/Disclosure day (D-Day). I want you to feel seen and less alone. 

I was a missionary wife. Perhaps like you, I’d taken commissional vows, the most prominent being “to walk worthy of the calling,” and I’d meant them. I’d poured my heart into language school, cultural acquisition, and work that comes alongside rather than presides over. I’d chosen faithfulness when I’d have rather been lax. I thought my husband partnered with me in that. 

I missed the first signs of trouble because he would never, plus we talked about everything, and I was doing everything I’d heard good wives do. So when he began to practice poor boundaries in friendships with other women, I believed him when he said that I was just hypervigilant due to my ultra-conservative upbringing. I believed him when he said he didn’t know why he was no longer interested in sex. I believed him when he said there was no pornography. 

Ours had not been an unusually troubled marriage. Sure, there had been some hard seasons, but nothing that prayer, friends, and counseling hadn’t addressed. We spent years in chronic stress and intensity, yet we had the kind of home where people came to know Jesus because of what they saw in our day-to-day interactions. We were friends, and we were transparent about our desires, struggles, and temptations. 

Until we weren’t. 

One month, all that transparency, warmth, and shared camaraderie evaporated. I didn’t suspect adultery because he would never. But he wouldn’t answer my questions about lesser concerns—not honestly, I learned. “It’s just stress,” he’d said, and I’d responded with, “Now? After consecutive years of severe stress? We’re used to stress. What’s really going on?”

“I don’t want to talk about it,” he told me. 

We went from friends to soul strangers under the same roof. It’s just a season, I whispered to myself, it’s nothing major. But major happened when my husband announced that we were moving back to America. Maybe it’s for the best; we are severely underfunded and can’t stay much longer anyways, I thought, and began the process of packing my bags. We’ll come back as soon as we have the financial stability to do so. 

The first year back was brutal. I grieved the loss of my community on the field, helped toddlers understand cultural transitions, made money stretch, and tried in vain to find a spot in friend circles we’d left years earlier. The great void could no longer be construed as a season; it had become a way of life.

We need to get our finances in order and start thinking as friends again, and then we’ll go back, I thought. I tried to push the grief away with the promise we’ll go back.

The great void persisted. He entered counseling but gave me an insufficient answer as to why. I asked a friend to please pray that God would reveal what was wrong in our marriage, fearing that God would reveal that I was a horrible wife in ways I hadn’t figured out, but I was desperate for answers.

And then, several years into the great void, over a year after our return to America, months after confessing pornography, and a few weeks after my friend and I asked God to reveal anything hidden in our marriage, he disclosed adultery to me.

I did not enter D-Day full of hope and vigor, ready for one more challenge. I was already lonely and soul weary: bereft of my ministry, half a world away from teammates I dearly loved, a parent to toddlers who had not responded well to the massive cultural shift, and alone in a marriage whose hard season had turned into years of distance. 

Our immediate responses to D-Day could not have been more different. For him, D-Day initiated the joys of forgiveness and relief from secrets; for me, it initiated anguish and depression.

I asked all of the questions, sobbed my heart out, and entered a depression so deep I’d forget what time of day it was. I set recurring reminders on my phone to remind me to brush the kids’ teeth at the correct times of day, and we relied heavily on rotisserie chickens from Walmart. I was too depressed to cook and clean in the evenings.

The marital vows had meant nothing to him; the dishes and photos celebrating those vows meant nothing to me. I preferred barren walls to the reminders of what my husband had destroyed, so I took down our wedding photos and disposed of wedding dishes.

First though, I asked the important questions: “How old was she? Where did you meet her? How certain are you of her age? Was she financially comfortable, or have you taken advantage of someone financially vulnerable to you? Does she know that you were a missionary—did you use spiritual posturing to facilitate this relationship? What opportunities did you have to say ‘no’ to this, and what was your thought process each time you said ‘yes’ instead? How are you going to repent of the deception that enabled this?” 

I hadn’t yet learned of “trickle truthing,” but I knew that the only path forward was a transparent path. He answered my questions, and this time, almost all (95%) had that ring of transparency; his response to “Have you confessed absolutely every single thing?” did not. I caught some unconfessed things later in the week and began taking steps towards divorce.

We were part of a faith group that doesn’t believe in divorce for any reason. My husband had delayed his confession, knowing that I’d be one woman from that group who’d consider all of her options. And I did.

I told God that if he indicates that he is not fully repentant through deception or recurring sin, I’ll divorce; if God works deep repentance into his heart, I’ll reconcile this once. I would not agree to be just one woman in a union of one man and many women – genuine repentance was an absolute must.

We had one fully heartfelt conversation that weekend, but not that of a typical married couple. We conversed as two exes and friends answering, “How did we arrive here?” Years of secrets poured out of him without one request for forgiveness or one hint that I consider reconciliation. Finally the great void made sense, and his transparency began to close the distance. I stopped pursuing divorce and put my weight behind reconciliation.

We renewed our vows, just the two of us, on a beach; my husband kept the photos as his screensaver. I see the blotchy face, the sudden weight gain, the anguish, the vows I made without a shred of naivete or romantic idealism. He sees the relief of forgiveness and reconciliation he wasn’t sure would be his. 

We’ll go back disappeared under therapy appointments, books, date nights that felt utterly unromantic, and years of post-infidelity marital repair. All of the losses associated with betrayal were mine to process, plus the full loss of my ministry. 

Additionally, we lost many church relationships: our setting at the time held unhelpful perspectives of male sin, wives’ responsibilities, and the relationship between repentance and forgiveness. A church friend had insisted that I needed to heal from past trauma so that I could give my future husband enough sex so that we could have a great marriage. After the adultery, I held shattered certitude and navigated public shame, but God knew the reality: I’d pursued healing, given sex, refrained from nagging, and praised him abundantly. 

A lifetime of believing, fundamentally, that male holiness depended heavily upon female effort fell to pieces – only for me, not for those who taught me – but God was in this shattering. A longtime church friend told him that he was just a sex addict, and my only option was to spend the rest of my life repeatedly forgiving sexual sin. We distanced ourselves from that friend. We distanced ourselves from pastors who told other church members things about our marriage/us that they hadn’t told us themselves. Other church connections distanced themselves from both of us without explanation. 

It doesn’t have to be this way. Some churches walk excellently with reconciling couples. But our church at the time largely failed us here, and I’d be presenting an inaccurate view of our recovery if I didn’t mention how significant the spiritual losses were. Mercifully, most of the friendships that were already genuine and years-long remained stable, and we count some of our former church companions among true friends. 

My husband indeed found the core motivation behind his adultery; his personal motivation and growth are his to share when he chooses. We bought the book How to Help Your Spouse Heal from Your Affair, kept our therapy appointments, and in great agony over time, made it to the other side of recovery.  

Friend, I want you to know that anger, depression, and brain fog following betrayal are normal. A wayward spouse who basks in forgiveness while the betrayed crumbles in grief is so common. I am so sorry. Your D-Day may have been discovery day, not disclosure day, and you may be furious at what you’ve found, furious that you had to find it at all when it could have been confessed. I wish I could spare you, tell you the darkness will end soon, or sit with you if your D-day is recent.

If you are processing your griefs similarly to how I processed mine, you might find these brief thoughts—the right length for those experiencing grief brain—helpful. Grab a pen and sticky notes, and write down the ones that speak to you.

  • God grieves adultery, too! He designed marriage to involve one man and one woman for life, emphasis on “one.” Polygamy, adultery, and ancient orgies/modern pornography—one man and many women, in any format—scorn His original design.
  • I was free to divorce, free to reconcile. Jesus gives me autonomy. He sees me as a person, not an inferior component of a violated covenant.
  • Nobody says “hell maybe!” Give your marriage or your divorce your “hell yes!” but don’t try to “hell maybe” reconciliation. (This was from our counselor.)
  • Transparency builds trust. (Also from our counselor.)
  • To his friends who assumed that he must have sinned to be experiencing his many losses, Job said: “I will not agree with you that you are right. Until my dying day, I won’t give up my integrity” (Job 27:5 CEB). I found comfort in the memory of how I’d walked with God in the ordinary. I’ve been faithful, in His strength.
  • God will remember my faithfulness. This was a rebuttal to the whispers of a branch of religion that saw my husband and me as one unit, equally complicit in his sin: our faith group considered my husband disqualified, and whispered that I, too, needed to step away from work I loved given the infidelity.
  • My husband might not deserve my faithfulness, but Jesus does. The temptation to return the betrayal shocked me, as did the lie that justice could be accomplished with willful sin. I wanted justice, and had to turn my attention to One who is faithful.
  • God is utterly faithful, and injustice and unfaithfulness are offensive to Him. God will be utterly faithful to me.
  • I am like Hagar, alone in the wilderness, unsure how long I’ll be here or how bad things will get. God is the God who sees, the God who hears.
  • “Emmanuel!” is the serenade over us: “GOD WITH US!” Marvelous, considering He has seen and heard us fully.
  • He will tend to His sheep in my absence. He understands my forced absence.
  • He sustains the weary.
  • He comforts those who mourn.
  • He is angry every day with the wicked.
  • He will not shame me for someone else’s sin.
  • It’s wonderful to feast on the Psalms, and to delight in God-with-us.
  • He is near to the broken-hearted.

I don’t know how you got here. I don’t know what’s next for you. If your D-Day is recent, things may get worse before they get better. In fact, they probably will: trickle-truth is a monster, but it is wildly common among adulterers. 

Please know though, that as an image-bearer beloved by God, you are still capable of reason, autonomy, joy, connection, and belonging. You are still you: you are not a different person, you are simply experiencing a depth or kind of grief you may have never experienced before. The darkness of soul anguish, grief, and betrayal is a darkness our High Priest knows and understands. 

That’s it, friend. I don’t have a to-do list for you. You don’t need a to-do list beside the one you already have. You are seen; you are heard. He delights over you with a faithful, fully-knowing love. We are beloved by the One described as Faithful and True, and He’s hanging onto His own far more faithfully than we could begin to hang onto Him, especially during our seasons of darkness.

Love,
Another betrayed missionary spouse

~~~~~~~~~~~

The author lives in a sunny part of the US where she participates in a variety of religious, volunteer, social, and career activities. She writes prose, letters, essays, rigorous academic content, and to-do lists. Injustice angers her, as does writing masterfully in her sleep and forgetting the entirety when morning comes. Hobbies involve baking, sewing, reading, listening to sound sermons, and strategizing how and when to visit Asia, the location of one of her favorite homes.