God of Loss and Love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Frederick Buechner – Paraphrased

A Global Pandemic and Ambiguous Loss

In 1999, researcher Pauline Boss, introduced the concept of ambiguous loss with these words: “In the world of unresolved grief, there is a unique kind of loss that complicates grief, confuses relationships, and prevents closure. I call it ambiguous loss. It lies at the root of much depression, anxiety, and family conflict.

While religious communities traditionally have comforted those who lose a loved one from death—a clear loss—less attention is paid to ambiguous loss. This is understandable as there is no official notice or ritual for such unclear loss. Yet, the trauma devastates people. Traditional therapies are insufficient because closure, the usual goal in grief therapy, is impossible. With faith communities so often the central support system for people who are suffering, knowing about this more nuanced and complicated loss is important.

She goes on to say: “I do not pathologize. Depression is, of course, a symptom that needs treatment… in the case of ambiguous loss, the cause lies in the external environment. It is important for people suffering from this kind of traumatic loss to know that it is not their fault.”*

Ambiguous loss is believed to be the most stressful kind of loss. Death brings finality and closure and you are allowed and expected to mourn. Ambiguous loss brings none of those things. There are no sign posts. Instead, the grief process is frozen.

Ambiguous loss is unclear, traumatic, externally caused by illness/work/leaving (not by individual pathology), confusing and incomprehensible.

Ambiguous loss can freeze the grief process. People can’t get over it, they can’t move forward, they’re frozen in place. 

Pauline Boss

I can’t think of a better description of the losses people are feeling during this worldwide pandemic. Quick pack-ups and overnight border closures, family separations and job losses, death with no or limited funerals, grieving alone – all of it has contributed to lack of closure and a prolonged and ambiguous grief process.

There are two types of ambiguous loss:

  • Type One: Occurs when there is physical absence with psychological presence. This includes situations when a loved one is physically missing or bodily gone. While there are catastrophic examples of physical ambiguous loss (including kidnapping, terrorism, ethnic cleansing, genocide, and natural disasters such as earthquake, flood, and tsunami) the more common examples of physical ambiguous loss are divorce, adoption, and loss of physical contact with family and friends because of immigration. This would be the most common type with third culture kids and expats. There is a physical absence, but you know the place you left, the friends you left, are still psychologically present. You see pictures of your adopted home, but you are no longer there. Your children see their school friends through social media, but physically, though the place remains, you are gone. You may never get to visit again.
  • Type Two: Occurs when there is psychological absence with physical presence. In this second type of ambiguous loss, a loved one is psychologically absent—that is, emotionally or cognitively gone or missing. Such ambiguous loss occurs from Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias; traumatic brain injury; addiction, depression, or other chronic mental or physical illnesses that take away a loved one’s mind or memory. Psychological ambiguous losses can also result from obsessions or preoccupations with losses that never make sense, e.g., some suicides or infant deaths.*

Identifying ambiguous loss is a huge step. I remember first reading about it several years ago, how just reading about it did something powerful in and for me. Realizing I wasn’t alone, that there was a name for my experiences, was a pivotal point in better understanding what I needed to do.

There were several steps to my process, and I write them here cautiously, knowing that there is not a one-size-fits-all approach to facing ambiguous loss.

Naming it as ambiguous loss was an important first step. Finding a name for what I was experiencing was huge. You can’t cope with something unless you know what it is. At six years old, I waved goodbye to my parents as they stood on the platform of a train station in Southern Pakistan. I strained my head to wave, crying the crocodile tears of a child that knows that they are leaving their primary source of security, but not having words to express it. I strained to watch my parents through the window until the platform was out of sight, finally succumbing to the comfort of kind adult chaperones. I knew that my parents weren’t dead, but their physical absence brought profound loss. It would be the same for all but two years of my childhood until I turned 18 and left home. Finding out about the concept of ambiguous loss was deeply comforting to me. I thought back to many childhood events like this one, realizing I had never grieved the losses because I didn’t think there were any. Naming is an edenic act, and when we name something we open up a door to understanding that is otherwise impossible. In this Pandemic year, it is important to name the ambiguous loss. If you had to pack up with little notice and no goodbyes, if you did not have time to build the RAFT to float yourself and your family, it is probably true that what you are experiencing is ambiguous loss. The place you left still exists; the work and your place within the work may still be there, but you aren’t. Soon, someone else will take your place because though people are not replaceable, positions must be replaced. Naming this is critical to moving forward. If you do nothing else but name it, you are still on a step toward healing.

Use both/and thinking. It’s not one or the other – it’s both. We have both the anxiety of no closure and the opportunity of unexpected change and relationships going forward. Absolute thinking is not helpful with ambiguous loss or the pandemic in general. F. Scott Fitzgerald said this, and it is perfect for thinking about both/and thinking:

The test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

F.Scott Fitzgerald

This both/and thinking is important for us and for our children. We acknowledge the losses even as we begin to write our names in the land where we find ourselves.

Find meaning in the present. Not acknowledging ambiguous loss can cripple us to finding meaning in our present reality. What is the meaning in your present reality? Where have you found meaning that is unexpected? Perhaps you have found meaning in the act of waiting. Perhaps you have had unexpected time with aging parents. Perhaps you used to long for more time with your kids, feeling like their childhoods were on fast forward in the movie of life. Suddenly, all of life has slowed down and it feels impossible to dream, to look forward to anything. Maybe there is meaning in the impossible.

Reconstructing identity is a third step in facing ambiguous loss. Moving, death, job loss, changing friendships – all of this affects our identity and our perception of our identity. Who are we without what we had? Who are we when we are not in our adopted countries using hard-earned language skills? Who are we without the brother, mother, son, or daughter that we have lost to a country or place far away? Who are we apart from our friendships? Who are we when ministry is gone? All of these questions are a part of reconstructing our identities. Ultimately, in my faith journey I’ve recognized that identity is not about where I am, for that is too fickle and can change through pandemics, military takeovers, natural disasters, and job loss – indeed everyone of those things have affected my life at different points. Instead, my core identity has to be about being beloved by God and recognizing I am part of a bigger picture in His world.

Building resilience, not seeking closure. The goal is not closure, and we make a mistake if we think that is possible. That’s the thing with ambiguous loss – the goal changes from closure to building strength and acceptance of ambiguity. We may never get to say proper goodbyes, we may always wonder “What would have happened if we stayed?” We may always long for something that we can’t even voice. I’ve been learning a lot about being grateful for those things, for they are indeed gifts. We live in a world of displaced people and refugees; indeed that is the story of our time. It is a gift that we know what it is to grieve loss of place and people. Understanding ambiguous loss is in itself a gift. It allows us to enter relationships with hope but without the guarantees that we so long for. This is far more what our world needs than a security and belief that what we have will be there forever. This is true for individuals, and it’s true for a family. As a family adapts to change, stress, and ambiguous loss, it builds resilience and this becomes a part of the larger family story. The larger family story will have a pandemic chapter, but it’s not the only chapter. It’s one of many.

Discovering new hope. As we move forward, we discover new hope. Hope in a future that will continue to hold the hard and unknown, yet entering it with a greater reality of the presence of God. Hope in the words from the book of Hebrews that He who called us is faithful. We may never know the whys, but can it be enough to know Him? I speak truth when I say that some days it is enough and some days it isn’t. I cling to the days where it is enough, where He is enough. And I’m getting better at facing the days when He is not enough, where I pray the Jesus prayer all day long and into the night.

Lastly, God is far more concerned about who we are than about what we do and where we live. If we lose everything, He still loves us. Before He called us, He loved us. I’m sitting with that hard truth, praying that I will know it in my soul. I pray that wherever you are today, and whatever your losses, you may know this hard but glorious truth. He looks at you and He loves you – and though all around you may be loss and grief, that truth is a reality.

*https://www.ambiguousloss.com/about/faq/

World Events & the Fragility of Goodness

It’s a Monday and depending on where you are in the world, and in what time zone you woke up, you have most likely been assaulted by different headlines around the globe.

  • In Indonesia, divers are still searching wreckage for the tragic air crash that killed all those aboard.
  • Lebanon considers a tighter lockdown as Covid-19 cases surge
  • Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders are in Russia for talks
  • Snow and ice disrupt lives in Spain
  • China denies coercive birth control methods
  • And the United States is rumbling with the fallout of an insurrection that stormed the capital building, with resultant shouts for another impeachment of the sitting president.

No matter where you are, it’s a lot. All of these call for prayer and some call for a deep soul searching lament for the state of the world. And none of these headlines include our personal tragedies and sadness, our collective displacement and loss.

But this is the world we live in, the world we engage in on a daily basis. We can wisely shut off the news for a while, we can wisely disengage for a certain number of hours in a day and week. But we can’t escape our world, nor are we called to.

It’s within this context that I have been thinking a lot about “goodness” – that word that speaks to the quality of being kind, virtuous, morally good. What does it mean to grow into goodness, to grow beyond the childlike attribute of being “good” and grow into someone whose character makes you think of true goodness.

As children, many of us hear the words “Be good” on a regular basis. “Be good for grandma!” “Be good to your brother!” It is said so often that it sometimes loses both its meaning and its power. Perhaps the importance of how we can mature into goodness is also lost along the way, lost in a world that doesn’t necessarily reward goodness beyond childhood. Instead, being savvy, smart, intellectual, and quick-tongued and quick penned are what gives us an edge in many spheres.

As I’ve thought about goodness, I came upon the story of Bulgaria’s Jews in World War 2 as relayed in a book I am reading called The Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East. In this particular section, the author is telling the story of a Jewish family in Bulgaria who ended up in Palestine. Central to their survival in Bulgaria is the larger story of the Jews in Bulgaria.

A deportation order had been written that would deport all of Bulgaria’s 47,000 Jews. Unlike most of Europe, this planned deportation was never carried out. It wasn’t carried out because ordinary people and leaders found out about it. The Metropolitan and the Bishop of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church stood up for the Jews, approaching places of power and “imploring the king to demonstrate compassion by defending the right to freedom and human dignity of the Jews.” A member of parliament (Dimitar Peshev) publicly went against his government, gathering signatures and approaching the king stating that a deportation “would be be disastrous and bring ominous consequences upon the country.” Along with these, leaders of professional organizations and businesses, and ordinary people across the country stood by the Jewish population.

The deportation order was stopped temporarily in March of 1943, and then indefinitely in May. The Jewish population of the entire nation of Bulgaria did not die in gas chambers.

The author goes on to say this:

“None of this would have happened withough what the Bulgarian-French intellectual Tzvetan Todorov calls the ‘fragility of goodness’: the intricate, delicate, unforeseeable weave of human action and historical events”

Evil spreads quickly and virulently. Like a virus, it is hard to stop once it takes root. Todorov says that once it is introduced into public view, it spreads easily, whereas goodness is temporary, difficult, rare, fragile. And yet possible.

I have been thinking about this story and the idea of the fragility of goodness all week. Each person in Bulgaria who spoke up for the Jews, people who were their friends, their neighbors, their business partners, and their community members, is a chain in the link of goodness that ultimately preserved life and human dignity. While Tdorov speaks to the fragility and the “tenuous chain of events” that led to a stay in the deportation order, maybe it is not as tenuous as he supposes. Maybe what appeared tenuous and fragile was far stonger then he could imagine.

In my experience, goodness is far stronger than we know, far more powerful than it may appear. Its power is in its moral strength and its stubborn refusal to quit. That’s what I see, not only in this story, but in the small ways that goodness moves in, refusing to give up, determined that evil will not have the final word.

How can I chase goodness the way I chase beauty? When will I get to the point where I choose good without even thinking because it is so much a part of me? I don’t know. But it gives me hope when I think of ordinary people going about their lives in Bulgaria in 1943, deciding that they would speak up and out, never knowing that they would be a part of a chain called the fragility of goodness.

In all of this, I am reminded of Christ, the author of goodness, the one who strengthens the fragility of goodness making it into a force that challenges and destroys evil, for it is he who daily calls me, who daily calls all of us in this community, to chase after goodness, truth, and beauty.


Note: all quotes are from The Lemon Tree by Sandy Tolan

An Invitation to Wonder

won·der

/ˈwəndər/noun

a feeling of surprise mingled with admiration, caused by something beautiful, unexpected, unfamiliar, or inexplicable.

We put up our Christmas tree on Saturday. As empty nesters, it’s our tradition to either have any adult kids who happen to be in the area over to help us or, in their absence, invite a friend or several. This year we invited one of our dearest friends to help. Ava had never picked out or decorated a Christmas tree. As a Muslim growing up in Iran, this was something new. It was a delight to have her join in with this magical tradition.

Within an hour and a half the room was transformed from chaotic and crowded to sparkling brilliance. Shiny ornaments collected through the years reflected the white lights, while Christmas music played softly in the background. We sat back and sighed in wonder as we looked at the tree. The transformation of what had been a plain, partly frozen tree in a lot with hundreds of others was complete and it was a wonder to look at.

Every morning this week I have crept down sleepy-eyed and still in my pajamas and turned on the lights to the tree. The room fills with soft twinkle lights inviting me to stop, inviting me to wonder.

This year has been a year. Soon after the new year ushering in hope and promise we faced the tragic death of my brother in February, closed borders in March, death of an uncle in April, rising Covid cases in May, my brother’s long delayed funeral in July, two unexpected deaths of a cousin and a cousin’s husband in October, death of an aunt in November, and now…. the season of jolly good will? I think not! Like you all, I am exhausted with the year, exhausted with the telling people why I’m exhausted, and I’m sad. Just plain sad.

It’s more than this year though. When I look back at past Decembers, they have included death, hospitalizations, life-changing tragedies, and oh so many tears. The other day I said to my sister-in-law “I have begun to dread December!” Within the bright lights of Christmas is the realization that hard things still happen and the world is still broken.

But then I stop and I take a breath. I look at my tree in the early morning as the light is just appearing over the Atlantic Ocean a couple of miles away. I feel an invitation to step away from the broken and enter the timeless wonder of God become man.

I am invited into the wonder of the Advent Season, the wonder of the Incarnation, the wonder of the mysteries of my Christian faith.

Long ago on a rooftop in Pakistan, my mom had an invitation to wonder. She felt alone and forgotten, lost in a world miles from family and friends. That night she experienced wonder through unexpected visitors. In the midst of the Sindh desert in Pakistan our friends arrived from hours away and sang carols at our door, their presence an offering of love. It was the wonder of friendship that went the extra mile, offering hope and joy.  Every year I stop and remember this story, for it too is an invitation to wonder.

If we stop for a moment, we realize that all around us are invitations to wonder. A sunrise, a sunset, a babies first cry in the world, a son’s engagement, a memory of love, a beautiful meal, laughter, an ever beckoning invitation into words and the Word.

Advent is not an invitation into a western Christmas magic that quickly disappears. It’s our invitation to listen, to watch, to wait, and to wonder.

We have an invitation to wonder at the mystery of the Word becoming flesh and making his dwelling among us, an invitation to see his glory. Will you stop with me for a moment in the midst of what has been a deeply discouraging year of untold sadness and loss, of transition and disappointment, of people and dreams dying? Will you accept our invitation to wonder from a God who loves us infinitely more than we can grasp?


Accept this invitation to stop and listen to this beautiful rendition of a timeless hymn:

Come, Thou long expected Jesus
Born to set Thy people free;
From our fears and sins release us,
Let us find our rest in Thee.
Israel’s strength and consolation,
Hope of all the earth Thou art;
Dear desire of every nation,
Joy of every longing heart.

I Never Thought I Would Miss the Spiders

Earlier this year, my kids and I were still in Tanzania, and while driving home, we stopped at a roadside fruit stand. 

I asked for a huge bunch of bananas, handed the seller my money, and she passed the bananas through the window to my pre-teen son, sitting in the passenger seat. This was routine; we did it several times a week.

I pulled back onto the street and had driven just a few yards when I heard my son give a horrified yell. Alarmed, I looked over and saw an enormous spider, about the size of a silver dollar, crawling on top of the bananas in his lap. The yell turned into a guttural yelping, as my son stood up, dropped the bananas on the seat and proceeded to clamber over all of the seats and into the trunk of our minivan. 

Meanwhile, I was still driving, and meanwhile, the spider was also running for his life in my direction, so I joined in with the cacophony of noise in the car. The spider then decided that hiding underneath my seat was a safe place to get away from all the screaming. 

I gathered my wits about me and considered my options. I could pull over, but would I really successfully manage to find and destroy the spider while on the side of the road? Or I could drive home and pray that he decided to stay put until I got there. 

I chose to keep driving, tense as a turkey in November, while imagining a giant spider crawling up my leg. Thankfully he did not, and when we got home, I relieved my tension by emptying a can of bug spray under my seat. 

Last week, I was in the grocery store in my new home in California, and I picked up a bunch of perfect, spotlessly yellow, pristine bananas and plopped them into my shopping cart. 

Comparatively, it was a very boring experience.

After 16 years overseas, I’ve lived back in the States for several months now, and what I miss about Tanzania isn’t entirely what I expected. 

America is so convenient. I get a thrill going to the grocery store, and not just because the bananas are spider-free. If the recipe calls for pepperoncinis, guess what? I can buy pepperoncinis! If I have a hankering for chive and onion cream cheese or tzatziki Triscuits or Apple Cinnamon Oat Crunch Cheerios, there they are, just like that! In Tanzania, I would have actual dreams about American grocery stores–not just daydreams. And yet, convenience can quickly turn into monotony when there are never any surprises.

I miss how excited I used to get when I would find Root Beer on the shelves of my grocery store in Tanzania. Or that time I called my best friends to tell them to get down here really quick because there’s a bin of dried cranberries for sale! Sure, cooking here is much easier, but I’m also not as motivated to cook when everything is pre-made. I love how Tanzania pushed me to develop skills I didn’t realize I had. I love how it taught me to be grateful for small things. 

In America, the garage doors open by themselves. The dishes wash themselves and the clothes dry themselves. The electricity never goes off and the water is always hot coming out of the tap. 

But yet, there were many evenings in Tanzania when I would stand barefoot in my backyard, pulling clothes off the line. The palm trees would rustle, the heavy air smelled of the ocean, and the crickets would rhythmically trill. The dryer I now have in my garage is a lot easier, but it just doesn’t carry the same magic. 

America is comfortable. With a flip of a switch I can regulate the temperature. Almost everyone around me wears the same clothes and speaks the same language and shops at the same stores. All the streets are paved and everyone follows the rules on the roads. The sameness is comforting and predictable and stress-free. But it’s also not always interesting. 

In Tanzania I struggled through diverse relationships, where my co-workers saw life very differently than I did. It was sometimes stressful, but it opened my eyes to a broader perspective of the world. I often grumpily complained about poor internet or crazy drivers or constant humidity, but the discomfort toughened me. It made me stronger, more resilient, more flexible. It helped me find my satisfaction in God. I miss that.

I feel safer in America. My white skin does not make me stand out, so I can walk along the streets at dusk and not worry about getting my phone stolen. I never worry about men breaking into my house with machetes. I sleep better. 

And yet, I take my safety for granted here. I don’t pray about it as often; I don’t often call to mind my true Prince of Peace. In the realm of the sovereignty of God, I’m not any safer in America than I was in Tanzania. I just have a misplaced trust in my government to keep me safe. 

I knew I would miss the relationships, the beauty, the culture, and our fulfilling ministry in Tanzania. But I find it interesting that I also miss the very things that I was most looking forward to leaving behind. Like jagged glass that is slowly smoothed by the pounding waves, those things that grated on me, frustrated me, compelled me to browse the internet for cheap plane tickets–those things formed who I am. They made me a different person than if I had spent my whole life in America. I wouldn’t want to change that. 

For many years, if you had asked me what I would not miss about Tanzania, I would have assured you that spiders fit into that category. Now, I’m not so sure. After all, without them I would have always thought that buying bananas was boring. 

An Appeal – A Life Overseas

Yup! We hate to ask but…!

On November 14, 2012 Laura Parker, co-founder of the A Life Overseas blog and community space posted a “Welcome Video” to the site. That was the beginning of what has now become an online community thousands strong.

We are a diverse group linguistically, culturally and theologically, but we all agree that taking the step to live, work, and raise a family overseas takes our lives to places and into circumstances we could never imagine. In this community, life is definitely far stranger than fiction.

We exist to support those in cross cultural work. Whether you’re a business person, a diplomat, a humanitarian aid worker, an educator or all those above, but you are first of all a Christ-follower this community is for you.

Cross-cultural workers cram a life into a suitcase and begin a journey into foreign places, both geographically and spiritually. Assaulted by cultural stress, ministry challenges, learning a new language, and the trauma of culture shock, these workers long for community– a sense of connection, regardless of if they are the boiling water alone in an African hut or battling public transport in a crowded Indian city. No doubt, living overseas can be brutal — on a family, on a faith, and in a soul. But, there’s no doubt, too, that it can be one of the most depth-giving experiences an individual can embrace. Like all of life, though, our stories are understood best when we have a community to share them with.

About A Life Overseas

We are in a place right now where we need funds to continue the site. We are largely funded through the writers and administrators of this blog, but we need help!

So we ask you to consider making a donation to keep the site going. Five dollars, ten dollars, fifty dollars – it doesn’t matter. Our leadership team here at ALOS is committed to keeping this going but we need your help!

Through the past eight years, if you have benefited from reading and interacting with A Life Overseas, would you consider helping?

Click this link to make your donation! And thank you!

Cultural Hope

wheelchair-1581642_1920

“But what on earth can I write?”

This was what I wrestled with last week as I thought about writing for A Life Overseas. Half of you are displaced, wrestling with when you can get back to your host countries and homes. Half of you are sheltered in place in various places around the world, struggling with what that means. All of you are wondering “Did we make the right decision?”

All of these realities are compounded by the unknown world beyond Covid-19. Some of you are farther ahead. I have friends in Shanghai that encourage me there is life beyond shelter in place and quarantine orders. My son in Greece will be able to attend church next week for the first time in eight weeks. Others are still cautiously waiting. Still others are grieving things beyond Covid-19, worried for things that cannot easily be shared.

All of us are in need of the deep healing that only comes from God.

A few years ago, my husband and I were in an art gallery. Various paintings by different artists were beautifully displayed in an open space. There was light and beauty all around us.

I don’t remember any of the paintings except one. And that one I will never forget.

It was two feet wide and at least three and a half feet long. It hung on a dominant wall in the gallery and, despite sharing the space with several other paintings, this was the painting that I could not stop looking at. It was striking.

It was a picture of an art gallery, much like the gallery we were in. Within the gallery in the picture was a painting of Jesus on the cross on the central wall. Looking up at the painting, hope and longing pouring from the canvas was a man in a wheelchair. The painting was called “Cultural Hope.”

It was a moment of awe as we in the studio stood, invited in to this private moment between Jesus and a wheelchair-bound man. It was reminiscent of stories long ago where in a crowded room a paralyzed man was healed – only this man was still wheel-chair bound.

I knew nothing of the artist. Nothing of what had inspired the painting, but I wanted to stand there forever. Was it the longing in the man’s eyes? Was it the distinctive connection between the two? Was it that moment of shared suffering between cross and wheelchair that shouted of pain and only whispered of redemption?

I walked away challenged and moved. While this man’s wheelchair was visual, my wheelchair is in my mind. While his paralysis was obvious, mine is hidden. But I, like the man in the painting, have looked up at the cross shouting with pain and hearing only the whisper of redemption.

Throughout history people have come to the cross. Sometimes they have come with their own pain, illness, and suffering, and other times they have come with the burdens of others. Sometimes they have come with the weight and fury of injustice and unfair systems. Always they have come with longing for comfort in a broken world – comfort that can be found in a Savior that entered our world and knows our suffering.

As I reflected on the world wide suffering, confusion, fear, and even anger, I remembered this painting. I remembered what it evoked in me as I entered the moment portrayed through the painting. It struck me that this is us during this time. We are the man in the wheelchair. We look up toward Jesus on the cross from whatever binds us, from those things that paralyze us. We come to the cross with shouts of pain, longing, confusion, worry, or fear. Our cries are general and our cries are personal.

“Will you hear our public cries for the world? Will you hear our private cries for those we love? Will you heal our lands of the many things that prevent us from flourishing? Will you heal us – not only of disease but of so many other deep wrongs? Will you heal our paralysis and help us to act?”

Will you heal; will you act?

Shouts of pain and only whispers of redemption.

The longer I stand before the cross, the louder is the whisper. It compels me, urging me to wait, reminding me that the cross was replaced by an empty tomb, that the painting goes beyond “cultural hope” to a living reality.

This is our cultural hope. This is our living reality. We can’t see it, but that is the very definition of faith. We hold out for “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” And, if only for a moment, we rest.

Out of Office Reply

Some things will just suck the blog right out of you.

Furlough and book editing are apparently two of those things.

Our family spent the summer back in the States, and while we very much enjoyed catching up with friends and family, it was exhausting. You all know that already. We’ve been back less than a week and have enjoyed the company of a plumber, the air con repair guys, inspiring traffic jams, a long power cut, and extroverted mold.

So yeah, my apologies for being a bit “out of the office” when it comes to our community here. Seems a life overseas sometimes gets in the way of A Life Overseas.

Anyways, I also wanted to give you a heads up on Elizabeth’s and my new book, Serving Well: help for the wannabe, newbie, or weary cross-cultural Christian worker. I’m neck deep in editing and will be submitting another draft to the publisher this week. Hopefully it will come out mid-2019.

It is a great honor to parse these words, and our deepest hope is that they would bless and encourage folks for years to come. So would you mind praying? Pray for wisdom in what to cut and what to not cut. Pray that the global church would be blessed through this work.

Pray for the wannabes, the newbies, and the weary ones.

And know that, although I’ve been a bit less communicative, my heart is still here. I am still for you and the work to which you’ve been called. I still serve in a local international church here in Cambodia and I still do pastoral counseling and debriefing.

And I’m still editing and formatting and working on that dang bibliography.

May God’s mercy be with you.

 

All for ONE,
Jonathan T.

Despair is Where Hope is Born

Sometimes I get tired of talking about sad things. Sometimes I want to talk about peace and love and joy.

So recently, when I was asked to join two other speakers in presenting on the theme, “Emotions in the Psalms,” I asked if I could do something on the happy side. I’m tired of talking about grief.

But the more I got into it, the more I heard Admiral Ackbar declaring, “It’s a trap!” Turns out you can’t talk about hope without dealing with despair.

I started coming across words like these from Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann: “The prophetic poet asserts hope precisely in exile.”

I listened to the amazing new song by Andrew Peterson, Is He Worthy? The song ends with a beautiful proclamation about the Lamb and the Throne and all peoples gathered around, but it starts with these questions and congregational responses:

Do you feel the world is broken? (We do)
Do you feel the shadows deepen? (We do)
But do you know that all the dark won’t stop the light from getting through? (We do)
Do you wish that you could see it all made new? (We do)

 

And again, Brueggemann:

“Hope expressed without knowledge of and participation in grief is likely to be false hope that does not reach despair. Thus…it is precisely those who know death most painfully who can speak hope most vigorously.”

 

We need this reminder.

We need to remember that true hope is not just optimism. True hope is not a flimsy, fluffy thing. No, true hope, Biblical hope, sees it all. It sees the bad, the hard, the pain. It sees the depths and the darkness. It sees the world’s sin and my own sin.

And it keeps on seeing…all the way to Christ. In the end, deep hope must be securely grounded in the character and love of God.

So if you’re not really feeling it, if you’re not feeling happy-clappy-Jesus-is-alive-and-all-my-problems-are-fixed, then take heart, because that’s precisely where hope is born.

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For more exposition on these themes, including a look at the magnificent Psalm 130 and the role of imagination in hope, check out the audio of my message here or via the trotters41 podcast.

 

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Psalm 130 (A song for pilgrims ascending to Jerusalem)

From the depths of despair, O LORD,

I call for your help.

Hear my cry, O Lord.

Pay attention to my prayer.

LORD, if you kept a record of our sins,

who, O Lord, could ever survive?

But you offer forgiveness,

that we might learn to fear you.

I am counting on the LORD;

yes, I am counting on him.

I have put my hope in his word.

I long for the Lord

more than sentries long for the dawn,

yes, more than sentries long for the dawn.

O Israel, hope in the LORD;

for with the LORD there is unfailing love.

His redemption overflows.

He himself will redeem Israel

from every kind of sin.

Check out this collection of our most-read articles

Consider this the Table of Contents for a book on missions, cross-cultural living, grief, TCKs, MKs, missiology, common pitfalls, transition, short-term missions, relating to senders, and a whole lot more.

I figured it was time to compile our most-read posts and present them to you, organized by topic. So here they are, 85 of our most-read posts ever.

My hope is that this article, this Table of Contents, if you will, would serve as one massive resource for those of you who are new to our community, those of you who’ve been hanging out here all along, and even for you, our future reader, who just found our little corner of the internet. Welcome!

Many thanks to the authors who’ve poured into our community, aiming to build and help (and sometimes challenge) the missionary world and the churches that send. If this site has been helpful to you, would you consider sharing this post with your friends and colleagues and missions leaders?

A Life Overseas is loosely led, with a tiny overhead (that covers the costs of the website), and a bunch of volunteer writers and tech folk. Why do we do it? We’re doing this for you! We’re doing this because we like you and we want to see cross-cultural workers (and their families!) thriving and succeeding and belonging. We’re doing this because we believe the Lamb is worthy. We’re doing this because we believe that God’s love reaches beyond our country’s borders, extending to all the places, embracing all the peoples.

I hope you are encouraged. I hope you are challenged. I hope you are reminded that you are not alone. This can be a hard gig, for sure, but you are not alone.

If this is your first time here or your thousandth, stick around, browse around, let us know what you think, how you’ve been helped, and what you’d love to see in the future. We’d absolutely love to hear from you!

 

With much love from Phnom Penh, Cambodia,
Jonathan Trotter

 

Third Culture Kids / Missionary Kids
10 Questions Missionary Kids Would Love to be Asked
10 Questions Missionary Kids Dread
To the Parents of Third Culture Kids
Funny Things Third Culture Kids Say
8 ways to help toddlers and young children cope with change and moving overseas
6 Permissions Most Missionaries’ Kids Need
An Open Letter to Parents of Missionary Kids
3 Ways to Care for the Heart of Your Third Culture Kid
10 Ways Teachers Can Support Third Culture Kids
Sexual Abuse on the Mission Field
3 Ways to Care for the Heart of Your Missionary Kid
My Kids Are Not Little Missionaries

 

Rest / Burnout / Self-Care
margin: the wasted space we desperately need
Please Stop Running
Ask A Counselor: How in the world can we do self-care when . . . ?
Living Well Abroad: 4 Areas to Consider
8 Ways for Expats Who Stay to Stay Well

Top 10 Digital Photography Tips

Family / Marriage
Missionary Mommy Wars
A Christmas letter to parents, from a kid who doesn’t have any
Nine Ways to Save a Marriage
The Purpose of Marriage is Not to Make You Holy
Why “Did You Have Fun?” is the Wrong Question
Failing at Fatherhood (how moving abroad ruined my parenting)
When the Mission Field Hurts Your Marriage
Dear Single Missionary
Homescapes MOD
I’m a missionary. Can I be a mom too?

 

Cross-cultural living & ministry
3 Kinds of Selfies You Should Never Take
Missionaries are supposed to suffer . . . So am I allowed to buy an air conditioner?
Introverts for Jesus: Surviving the Extrovert Mission Field
To My Expat Friends
What Did I Do Today? I Made a Copy. Woohoo!
The Teary Expat Mom, Shopping
One-Uppers
A Cautionary Tale: Expats & Expets (What not to do)
The Introverted Expat
5 Tips for Newbies About Relationships with Oldies (From an Oldie)
The Aim of Language Learning

 

Missiology
Please Don’t Say, “They Are Poor But They’re Happy.”
Let Me Make Your Kid a Buddhist
How to partner with a poor church without screwing everything up
Rice Christians and Fake Conversions
Responding to Beggars
10 Reasons You Should Be a Missionary
There’s no such thing as the “deserving poor”

 

Theology in Missions
The Idolatry of Missions
When the Straight & Narrow Isn’t
Rethinking the Christmas Story
But Are You Safe?
When Missionaries Starve
Why I Will Not Say “I Never Made a Sacrifice”
The Gaping Hole in the Modern Missions Movement {part 1}
Is Jesus a Liar?

 

Cautions
10 Reasons Not To Become a Missionary
In Defense of Second-Class Missionaries
The Cult of Calling
Want to see what a porn-addicted missionary looks like?
Telling My Story: Sexual Abuse on the Mission Field
When Missionaries Think They Know Everything
Visiting Home Might Not Be Everything You Dreamed
Misogyny in Missions
The Proverbs 32 Man
Stop Waiting for It All to Make Sense

 

Grief & Loss
Outlawed Grief, a Curse Disguised
When Friends Do the Next Right Thing
Ask a counselor: how do we process loss and grief?

 

Transition
What If I Fall Apart on the Mission Field?
Beyond Culture Shock: Culture Pain, Culture Stripping
Dear New Missionary
5 Mistakes I Made My First Year on the Mission Field
Why I Quit My Job as a Missionary to Scrub Toilets
Jet Lag and Heart Lag
When You Start to Pick Your Nose in Public…
You Remember You’re a Repat When . . .
Going Home

 

Short Term Missions
What to Do About Short Term Missions
Stop calling it “Short Term Missions.” Here’s what you should call it instead.
Your Short-Term Trips Have Not Prepared You For Long-Term Mission
The Mess of Short Term Missions

 

Relationships with those who send
A Letter to Christians Living in America from a Christian Living Abroad
Dear Supporter, There’s So Much More I Wish I Could Tell You
Staying connected with your family and friends when you live overseas
How to Encourage Your Overseas Worker
When Your Missionary Stories Aren’t Sexy
Facebook lies and other truths
Please Ask Me the Non-Spiritual Questions

 

If your favorite article didn’t make the list, put the title and link in the comments section and let us know why you love it. Thanks again for joining us here. Peace to you.

 

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

One Simple Way to Bless TCKs

“My book is called Misunderstood because that is how many young TCKs feel.” – Tanya Crossman

It’s true. Many kids grow up among worlds and end up feeling completely and totally misunderstood. They may feel misunderstood by the societies they’ve grown up in and the societies they’ve returned too. They may feel misunderstood by the nuclear families they’ve grown up in and the extended families they’ve returned to.

So what do we do?

What can parents do? Parents who know they don’t understand all the ins and outs of growing up globally?

Well, what do we do when we interact with anyone we want to get to know better? Read a book? Google them? Ask other people? Read an article? Maybe.

But typically the best solution is just to treat them like the unique human beings they are and start asking questions.

I think that one of the simplest things we could do to help the TCKs in our life to feel more seen, more loved, and less misunderstood, is to get better at asking questions.

And of course we have to care about their answers.

 

“Smart parents give their kids lots of answers, but wise parents ask their kids lots of questions.” – Unknown

 

Questions give value and open the door to deeper intimacy. Questions are Christ-like, with one scholar identifying 307 individual questions that Jesus asked during his earthly ministry.

It’s hard to ask questions, though, because I have to shut up long enough to listen to the answers. Most of us simply prefer giving answers to asking questions.

Oh that we would excel in question-asking! And not because we’re trying to control or manipulate, but because we’re genuinely interested in what people have to say.

Like TCKs.

One teenager who grew up overseas said that she would love to be asked “any meaningful question by someone who was truly interested in knowing the answer.”

No two stories are the same. I’ve had teenagers here in Cambodia thank me for NOT being a TCK. I was a bit confused until they explained: “Sometimes, adult TCKs come in here and think they know everything about us because they grew up abroad too. But they have no idea!” Apparently, I earned points for knowing what it was that I didn’t know, which caused me to keep asking questions.

May we all know what it is that we don’t know. And may that knowledge lead us to ask questions.

May we echo the angel of the Lord in Genesis 16 when he asked Hagar, “Where have you come from?” and “Where are you going?”

May we communicate to the TCKs in our life that we care about where they’ve come from. That we care about their stories; the good stuff and the hard stuff. May we communicate to the TCKs in our life that we ALSO care about where they’re going. That we care about their hopes and their dreams. And their fears.

And at the end of the day, may they feel, as Hagar did, seen.

Understood.

Of course, we can’t fully know or understand anyone, but we can keep asking questions, we can keep being interested.

We can keep reading their book, even if it’s as small as a passport.

 

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Tools & Resources

The Key Jar: A fantastic list of questions in PDF format. I screen captured this thing and then just keep it on my phone. Occasionally, when I’m out with one of my kids, I just pull it out and say, “Hey, do you want to do the questions?” Some of my kids like it more than others, but I can tell you that it’s generated TONS of fascinating conversations that we wouldn’t have had otherwise.

Gottman Card Deck: Although it’s designed for couples (you can easily see why), there are some great questions on here that are totally appropriate for kiddos. If you’re like me, new or unique questions are hard to self-generate. I can do, “How was your day?” but it’s a bit harder to just come up with more involved questions. So I use an app. Not all the time, but sometimes. This app is free, so try it out and see what happens.

If you’re interested in more of the story about Hagar and how asking questions is Christ-like, here’s a link  to a message I preached at an international church this year: The Questions of God, Hagar, and Genesis 16. [Links to the podcast on iTunes and mp3 download.]

Tanya Crossman’s article on A Life Overseas: Parallel Lives: TCKs, Parents, and the Culture Gap

A popular list of questions MKs would love to be asked, by Taylor Murray. [MKs and TCKs are not the same, but the majority of these questions seem to apply to both.]

 

Photo by Mitch Harris on Unsplash

To the “Non-Missionary” Living Overseas

image

You are the one who is not a missionary. You are the Christian whose husband is with the foreign service or military. You are the Christian whose wife is a physician in a well-known hospital far away from your passport country. You are the business or military or foreign service family who moves too many times to count.

And you come to this space for respite and encouragement; to learn and to grow. But sometimes, you wish the conversation was more geared toward you.

You don’t know the missionary vocabulary. You don’t raise support. You have many missionary friends, but there are times when the conversation becomes unrelatable. Loneliness and sometimes even inferiority cloud your vision. You may have even felt veiled criticism when it comes to your house and your possessions. You can’t necessarily talk about how your spouse was “called” to what they do, because, was it a “calling?” It made so much sense. You watched doors swing wide open when he passed the foreign service exam. You watched government beauracracy work with extraordinary efficiency as paper work was completed. You have watched miracles as your kids have been moved from the proverbial pillar to post, and yet they are still okay with this journey that you are on.

So, no – you haven’t heard a “call,” but that doesn’t mean you haven’t seen miracles. God has not orchestrated the details of your life any less than the one who bears the title “missionary.”

You are the Christian who wants to be a part of this conversation, but sometimes feels alien.

You are welcome here! We need your voices, we need your perspective.

For years, my husband and I tried to join a mission organization. We knocked on so many doors that our fists were raw with frustration. For sure, he had a great job and we loved where we lived, we loved what we were doing. We loved that God had brought a group of people into our lives that were not Christians, people who we cherished, and they cherished us. People with whom we could share our faith journey and the grace we had tasted– but it didn’t feel good enough. We felt like we needed that stamp of approval from the mission community. The stamp never came.

Instead, God did something so much better. He changed us. He opened our eyes wide to the world around us and showed us that we were in exactly the right place for such a time as this. We relaxed and settled into the life that he had given us, instead of trying to be something and someone that we couldn’t be.

So if that is you today — know how much this community needs your perspective. You are an influencer in your own right, within the context where God has placed you. You are the ones who open your beautiful homes wide and allow others to come and rest. You are the ones who feed people blueberry muffins when they haven’t seen a blueberry for a long time. You are the one who walks among non-Christians daily, and you have so much to teach us by your life.

Don’t let the vocabulary frustrate you – you may not be raising missionary kids, but you are for sure raising third culture kids, and the denominator is the same. Continue learning, growing, and giving to the community around you. Continue praying for the people who God has put in your foreign service or military or business or education path.

There is no limit to the ways God can use people who call themselves by His name. He doesn’t care if the field is engineering or education; diplomacy or relief work. He is still the one who shapes our lives and gives us grace to live where he has placed us.

So know this today: You are welcome. You are needed. You are living out a life overseas and that’s what this is about.