How to Sustain Yourself Spiritually While Living Overseas

I remember when my team leader first spoke about learning to ‘self-feed’ spiritually as a part of living overseas. I didn’t understand what she meant then, during my initial missionary internship, but I certainly know now.

When we moved to Hungary long-term, I was pregnant with our third child. Hungary, like many non-U.S. countries, did not have child care options in most of the national churches. As a mom of young children, I entered a time when church attendance was scarce for me, and those circumstances would lead to floundering spiritually.

The struggle of being a missionary who couldn’t be fed spiritually by church pressed me to self-feed. By this I mean I developed the ability to be sustained spiritually outside of Sunday church or even mid-week fellowship. To be clear, it is very important to integrate into the church of our host countries. Yet, we also need to learn how to grow deep roots in our faith. 

Here are some ways we can feed ourselves spiritually. With time and practice, we can learn to let our doing define our being.

  1. Find consistent teaching or preaching which is gospel-centered: For me, this teaching came most through the ministry of Tim Keller. I felt such a shepherding presence from his consistent, biblically-sound, gospel-driven messages. I will never forget what it meant to repeatedly listen to the ‘Prodigal God’ sermons I had downloaded onto my iPod as I walked the hill by our Budapest flat. (His entire sermon collection is now available for FREE here.) I wept when he recently passed away as a testament to what his long-distance, yet, so close to the heart of God, ministry meant to me.
  2. Meditate on Scripture: When I became a mom, this discipline led me on a deeper journey to learning to self-feed. When I was pregnant with my daughter, I memorized Romans 8. While memorization is not necessary for meditation on Scripture, it is very helpful to know passages so well that we can recall them in part or as a whole. There is a reason why Psalm 119:11 talks about hiding the Word in our hearts so that we might not sin against God. This internalizing of the Word is a journey we walk for ourselves, not counting on any church or small group to do it for us.
  3. Connect with God through Your surroundings: Walks around our neighborhoods or cities are important anywhere we live. But, it is especially important to make what is foreign, familiar. When bill paying can be stressful, note the trees and the birds which perch on them, as we walk or ride or drive to pay a bill or speak our new language in relationship with native speakers or to do any anxiety-laden experience. As we do this, we learn to trust God anew that He is omnipresent and always with us and this world–His world.
  4. Learn to Prioritize Heart Community: Like a good missionary, I didn’t want to become so much a part of the expat community that I wasn’t forming relationships with nationals. While this is a valid concern, there are times when we just need to make sure we have present, solid community where we can share our heart struggles. Some of our best and most safe friends may be nationals, and that is beautiful. However, these relationships tend to take a longer time to develop. If we are feeling isolated, seeking safe, heartfelt community with other expats is not failing to bond with our host country. It is at times necessary to sustain ourselves for the long-term.
  5. Instead of Residing, Dwell: Psalm 37 became a key passage to center and focus me in my overseas journey. Verse 3b in my favorite translation says: Dwell in the land and feed on faithfulness. Dwelling means we find communion with God through being nourished by His faithfulness. Recognizing the steadfast love of God wherever we are in the world comes through the discipline of recounting God’s work on our behalf. We often do this by intentionally practicing thankfulness.
  6. Speak the Gospel over Ourselves Daily: The gospel-centered teaching I mentioned above is important to anchor us. But if we don’t internalize the message of our unmerited favor through the work of Jesus Christ, we will cut ourselves off from the life we desperately need. It is one of the greatest occupational hazards of missionaries that we would withhold from ourselves the gospel-bearing heart of God which we so dearly want to share with others. As our identity is lost through all that is hard and foreign, we cling more deeply to lives of performance. But there is no true sustenance if we cannot melt into that white hot and holy love of God displayed supremely through the gospel.

And in all of our days and ways, as we sustain ourselves, we must remember we are not being nourished in ourselves. It is only through the presence of Immanuel, God with us’ that we have that unending well of spiritual provision. It is His light which will face any darkness and never, ever, ever be overcome.

 photo credit

 

Why Missionaries Doubt (and what to do about it)

Alex and Anna

I’ll never forget meeting Alex* and Anna.* For me, it was like meeting Beyoncé or Michael Jordan. With admittedly fewer cameras and less bling.

Alex and Anna had served in Asia for ten years. My husband and I were in our early twenties. These people had been missionaries for nearly half our lives!

We’d read their beautiful, well-written articles. I’d fallen in love with the people of their host country. I’d prayed with Alex and Anna from afar, rejoicing when various friends were delivered from the fear of evil spirits.

Now we were actually meeting them.

We had so many questions—after all, we were about to launch as missionaries ourselves. But Alex and Anna seemed very… tired. Something was wrong, though I didn’t know what. 

Just a few years later, Alex and Anna left Christianity. In fact, they both chose to follow a new-age religion. One even became a practitioner.

How in the world had that happened?

I don’t know their whole story with doubt and faith. But today I wanted to share my story and shed a little light on a hidden topic: the doubts and questions missionaries battle every day.

Why Do Missionaries Doubt?

When I was a freshman in college, my mom converted to a non-Christian religion. This sent me on a quest to figure out what I believed and why. Specifically, I questioned the divinity of Christ. It was an intense search, mentally and emotionally exhausting. Hour after hour I searched the scriptures, praying for truth.

Finally, I accepted Jesus afresh as my personal Savior. Later, my husband and I launched as missionaries to India, determined to share our love of Jesus with the world.

Good story, right?

I had no idea that going to the mission field would bring up more questions than answers.

Now I’ve been in the field for over a decade myself. And I haven’t done any scientific studies to know for sure, but I have a theory that missionaries are more susceptible to doubt than many realize. There are four things I believe contribute to this.

1. Studying Worldview

Did you ever take a public speaking or debate class, and afterwards couldn’t listen to a sermon without analyzing it? Or how about an editing class, which left you unable to read a book without wielding a mental red pen? The learning we do in our professions changes how we see the world.

Missionaries are not immune to this. If we take classes in worldview, we learn to see worldview everywhere. We can’t watch movies without analyzing values, players, and tools. We become like amateur anthropologists.

All this investigation can make our beliefs, ideas, and worldviews seem like just another way of explaining life. As I delved deeper into my Indian friends’ worldview, I felt disoriented. If their beliefs stemmed from a human attempt to understand the universe, couldn’t mine, too?

2. Trauma

The next factor is trauma. You may find yourself wondering why God allowed XYZ to happen, to you, to your kids, or to your host people. Or why the peace that passes understanding is suspiciously absent from your life right now. You start wondering, even subconsciously, if you were right about God, after all.

I’ll never forget my moments of deepest doubt in India, kneeling on a hard mat on the ground, the smell of sandalwood incense floating in the window. Like Job, I could see only the mat in front of me—not the spiritual battle, nor even the entire physical battle. Like Job, I asked God why, and I waited a long time in the silence.

3. Asking Others to Question

At the same time we missionaries are analyzing worldviews and going through hard things, we are actively asking others to question what they believe is true–particularly church planters. We seek to do this in a life-giving way, and we do it because we believe Jesus is worth any price we may have to pay. That is the deep conviction that sends you to the field, right?

The thing is, when we ask others to question, we get in the habit of questioning. I faced an intense amount of cognitive dissonance in India. Was I asking others to question when I was not willing to do the same? Was I holding my own beliefs up to the same level of scrutiny I expected from others?

4. Spiritual Warfare

In the Biblical worldview, we do not wrestle against flesh and blood (Ephesians 6:12). Unseen forces desire to make us ineffective and faithless.

This became very clear to me when some of my doubts didn’t behave normally. I would find satisfactory or even great answers, but I still couldn’t shake residual unsettled feelings. I soon realized I needed heavenly help to move forward.

What To Do With Doubt

One of my colleagues lost a number of friends in a genocide. When she asked for prayer in her newsletter, a friend told her not to talk about such upsetting things.

After that, it was hard for my friend to know whom to ask for help. 

Missionaries face joys, traumas, and questions that might be hard for others to understand. Wondering if anyone will be able to relate can make it hard to ask for help.

Beyond that, missionaries often feel the pressure of being role models—like Alex and Anna, they realize they are their church’s Beyoncé or Michael Jordan. When I faced doubts, I would often remind myself that I had a responsibility to cast a vision for the unreached, to inspire people to sacrificial obedience of Christ. Why burden supporters with fleeting doubts? Shame, fear, and even the desire to be responsible can leave us feeling like there’s no one to turn to.

But I have come to believe that doubting on the field doesn’t have to be an emergency. Instead, it can be an amazing opportunity.

If you’re facing doubts or questions right now, I have three suggestions: confront your doubts, doubt with faith, and engage in spiritual warfare.

1. Confront Your Doubts

It takes time. It takes mental strain. It takes emotional space. And sometimes, we just don’t have those things.

At first, I tried to ignore my doubts. Because dinner needed made and babies needed burping, plus there were the unreached to reach. But ignoring problems sometimes makes them bigger. It magnifies them in our subconscious until they totally take over.

I couldn’t stay in that place of cognitive dissonance for long. So, I printed out a bunch of articles to read, and I prayed exhausting prayers. I knelt on the hard mat. I stopped avoiding it by surfing YouTube and got distracted by my Bible instead of my phone.

I believed that God should be able to handle my questions and that any faith worth believing should stand up to scrutiny. I put that belief to the test.

And God answered me.

2. Doubt with Faith

The first time you doubt, if you’re like me, you’ll panic and think all is lost. But I’ve learned to bring my doubts to Jesus quickly. And I’ve come to expect Him to answer. It’s not always instant, and that’s okay. I’m learning to surrender my questions because over time I’ve seen He always comes through. I’ve learned to expect that God will respond to me.

Along that same line, it’s also okay to take breaks during your search. When we believe we’ll hear from God eventually, we can laugh with our families, take vacations, and enjoy good books, even as we seek His face for answers. We can rest despite the discomfort of not knowing, because we count on Hebrews 11:6–that God is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him.

3. Engage in Spiritual Warfare

Though we wrestle with unseen forces, the hosts of heaven desire to see us victorious. I’ve learned various “tools” over the years: fasting; praying through the armor of God in Ephesians 6; rejecting bitterness by declaring forgiveness in prayer; doing prayer walks in my home; actively rejecting and resisting temptation; confession and repentance from sin; and singing hymns and spiritual songs. I’m also blessed to have a great prayer team back home and fellow workers who are men and women of prayer.

If you need an understanding prayer partner/team or new tools, I encourage you to do whatever it takes to fill those needs. 

For followers of Jesus, and especially gospel seed sowers, confronting doubts and engaging in personal spiritual warfare are critical elements of self-care. Just like our physical and mental health need nurturing and protection, so our need for assurances from God shouldn’t be ignored for too long. We might be tempted to delay asking our own questions in order to minister to others, but God desires to minister to us just as passionately as He desires to save the unreached.

Doubt Transformed

We give our personal testimonies all the time. I was lost, now I’m found. I was blind, now I see. We keep them succinct, which is important—but we can sometimes get the idea that our story with God is a one-time event, something linear and fixed.

But we are branches connected to a vine. Growing grapes takes time and skill. It requires the exact right amount of growth and pruning. The healthiest vines are in constant contact with a skilled vinedresser.

The truth is, our story with God lasts our lifetime. I love the lyrics to a popular Christian song: “If it’s not good, then He’s not done with it yet!” Since no one is good, not one, God is not done with me yet, either.

What a privilege that I can bring my doubts to Jesus, and He can transform them, one by one, into pillars of faith. 

What about you? How do you deal with doubt? Do you have a story of God meeting you in your doubts and renewing your faith?

 

*Names changed to protect privacy.

Can Faith and Fear Exist at the Same Time?

by Rebecca Hopkins

Anna Hampton and her husband Neal lived and worked for nearly 20 years in war-torn Islamic countries, including 10 years in Afghanistan, where they started raising their three children. She’s a mom, risk specialist, and member care worker who now trains workers in risk management, fear, and courage from a Christian perspective.

She’s just published her latest book, Facing Fear: The Journey to Mature Courage in Risk and Persecution, as a follow-up book to her first, Facing Danger: A Guide Through Risk. Her latest book delves into the practicality of fear in the context of witness risk—the risks that both local believers and global workers face. She offers tools that work in a variety of risky contexts.

I’m thankful for the chance to sit down and chat with her.

Tell me the differences in your two books.

My first book, Facing Danger is about a theology of risk. What does that look like functionally? How do we do risk assessment? That leads us to know how to mitigate or manage it. It’s very practical.

The Facing Fear book asks, “How do we be shrewd as a serpent?” Facing Fear is a better pre-field book because we can deal with our fears before we go, and we can be trained in situational awareness. The book can be used as a resource — it doesn’t have to be read straight through. Instead, you can turn to the chapter you feel you need right now.

There’s so much in your Facing Fear book. I felt like I could take one chapter and just spend a month thinking through it, talking through it, doing exercises through it. You’ve taken this one word, “fear” and you’ve written about all the complexities of it. Was that intentional? Did you go in knowing and having a very deep sense of, “This is really complex, we need to really dive into this?”

No. What started me on the path was an email from a team leader in Central Asia. Her team experienced an attack by extremists. One person had been killed, one person had been kidnapped, and the team had left the country and were regrouping in a border country. She wrote to me and asked, “What do I tell the team? How do we process our fears, because we’re preparing to go back in?”

What would you say to people who are planning to go in and could be killed the next day? That’s the lens through which I think and write and the way we respond pastorally to people.

But then the other thing that drives me is responses from the church. I sat through two international church sermons where they preached (too simply) on fear, and I was like, “Okay, that’s not true.” You can have faith and fear and not be in sin. So what’s the relationship? I want to know exegetically what the Bible actually says. I just started collecting research. And five years later, Facing Fear has helped me develop my thinking, although I don’t presume to have the final answer.

The church’s conversation around fear has morphed into a whole thing with COVID and responses to COVID and all that. But you are speaking to an audience who knows that, while they’re making dinner, there could literally be enemies at their gate. Tell me more about the people you are writing to.

I’m writing to Christ followers advancing Christ’s kingdom primarily in the most dangerous areas. Of 500,000 global workers, I’ve heard anywhere from 2 to 9 percent go to unreached people groups. Those areas are also often the most dangerous. Those working in these areas often don’t have much pastoral care. The front line needs support, needs a cup of cold water so they are strengthened to go another day to push forward his kingdom. That’s the heart behind my writing.

Is this going to be accessible to a nonwestern global worker?

That would be my desire. For example, a Chinese Christian may think, “This risk mitigation is a western thing, and it costs money.”

But actually, it doesn’t. The example I use is a house pastor on their way to the house church. If the Spirit tells you to go right instead of left because left takes you to the house church where the police are, but turning right means, “I don’t want you in jail today,” we’re going to turn right. But if you want me to go to jail today—because we know what happens in jail, we hear the stories of Chinese pastors in jail and how people come to Christ—then do that. Do what he’s called you to do. But it’s not an automatic thing that you have to go risk your life.

The main point is to listen closely to the still quiet whisper of the Holy Spirit and obey him. Experiencing fear in dangerous situations is normal; however, we don’t have to let it paralyze us. Without fear, courage is unnecessary. Courage is moving forward despite our fear in the next step of obedience. This message is for all Christ followers, from the west, the south, the east, and the north.

What has been missing from our conversation in missions about risk, fear, persecution, and martyrdom?

What’s been missing is a holistic response. There are not a lot of books that really address fear with practical situational awareness, our human physiological response, addressing fear management (our emotions), and with spiritual tools to learn to lean on God. Facing Fear tries to combine science and theology and emotions—a holistic response.

Unlike the majority world Church, the western Church hasn’t suffered very much, and so teaching on fear tends to stay at the surface level. We western Christians give simple answers that not only don’t help, they actually harm. This book does not give simple answers.

Additionally, there are not usually “answers” on many of the topics. For example, on the chapter on discernment and meaning, I describe what type of meaning will sustain us in danger and persecution, but to get to that point will require the reader to enter in to the journey of discerning their own meaning for their cross and suffering.

This book is a guide, not an answer key. It’s an invitation to deeper conversation about the intersection of risk, fear, and Gospel advancement in hard places. It goes beyond what we hear on a Sunday morning from the pulpit or read in pop-Christian books.

This book will challenge a simplistic binary worldview. It’s for those who want to go deeper, who want to leave the solid ground of the superficial and gain a foothold on the brink of the deep.

That’s a really good point about missionaries often being sent from more “stable” places, and so they may not have received that deep teaching on fear. They may know how to share the gospel. They’re going to learn another language or they’re going to learn how to raise support. But they don’t know how to truly enter into risk and make decisions and then recover from the trauma.

What else would you want somebody who’s considering reading this book to know about it?

Writing Facing Danger was therapeutic for me to work through our experiences in Afghanistan. But 2021, the year before I wrote Facing Fear, was probably the worst year of my life. It was an extremely painful, foundation-shaking year. I also had continued to gather so much research, I was overwhelmed by the material and needed to start writing. In January 2022, I cancelled everything in my life except what ministry trips were already scheduled, and just began writing. I wrote 10-15 hours a day.

I didn’t realize the effect of these months of writing and focus until the morning after I had turned in the manuscript to the publisher. On June 1, 2022, I stared at my blank journal page, considering how I felt, then wrote, “The storm is over.” It took me all summer to recover – I spent every day sitting on my veranda, crying and grieving. It was a storm to enter that day in and day out, and that is what the persecuted church faces every day, with very little break. By comparison, we know nothing of this type of oppression and pressure.

I appreciate you sharing the heart behind that. You suffered yourself in your own experience. But even writing this book has been an act of suffering. And entering into people’s suffering, with just a huge heart for them is really beautiful, but also hard and important.

A Life Overseas readers can get a 20% discount by using this link (or any of the links embedded throughout this interview). The discount should apply at checkout.

~~~~~~~~~~

Rebecca Hopkins (www.rebeccahopkins.org) is an Army brat, a former cross-cultural worker in Indonesia, and a freelance writer now based in Colorado. She covers missions, MKs, and spiritual abuse for publications like Christianity Today and The Roys Report. Trained as a journalist and shaped by the rich diversity of Indonesia, she loves dialogue, understanding, and truths that last past her latest address.

I’d like a refund for this cup of suffering

by Elizabeth Vahey Smith

“It’s not fair,” I whined in the backseat of the car, my sister next to me.
“It’s not fair,” I moped from the end of the line.
“It’s not fair,” I mourned, overlooked for a role I wanted.
“It’s not fair,” I gasped, taking the fall.
“It’s not fair,” I wailed, watching everything I’d built fall apart.

“But look at what God is doing through this,” they point.
“It’s not fair,” I say again.

I think it’s just awful that wonderful things come out of terrible things. I hate that you have to bury seeds for them to bloom. I hate that pearls come from irritants. I hate that delicious strawberries come from fields fertilized in manure. And I hate all of those things because I hate that post-traumatic wisdom only comes from going through tragedies.

Yeah, I guess if you have to go through hard things, it’s nice that something good can come from it. But why do we have to go through hard things to have the good things that come after?

I can point to the traumas and tragedies that have brought me to a place of being able to weave words into stories that present hard truths in soft ways. I cherish the times people tell me how these words altered the trajectory of their homes in ways that brought them closer to the unconditional love of the Father. But surely there is another way to learn this wisdom and pass it on?

Everything is possible for you, Father.
Take this cup of suffering from me.

And thus begins a sacred journey.

We all know that life’s not fair, but it makes it a bit easier to not have to go it alone. To know that the Lord has gone before us even in this. To know that the journey through unfair trauma and tragedy can take us to glorious destinations. To know that we have a comforter, a counselor, and a light to guide our path. 

I have a journey before me, but I’m standing at the front desk with a complaint, “Excuse me, sir, I specifically asked that this cup would be taken from me. And yet, behold, still there is a cup. I would like this to be rectified.” And Jesus comes alongside me to guide me. “Yet not what I will, but what you will,” He coaches me.

“I’m sorry, what?!” I’m doing double-takes as Jesus leads me forward on the journey. I am a reluctant follower. But I follow, nonetheless, and I see how the path I walk is neither new nor novel but a well-worn road.

My soul has been overwhelmed with sorrow.
I have felt betrayed.
I have stood silent against accusations.
I’ve had friends abandon me.
I’ve experienced pain.
I’ve had tragedy happen.
I’ve survived it.

But it’s interesting, isn’t it? That’s not the end. The story, the journey, it isn’t over yet. Jesus isn’t yet at the right hand of God, and I have no wisdom to offer anyone yet.

It seems that after the death of Christ, we stop focusing on his humanity. We talk extensively about the agony of the cross, which makes sense because all four of the Gospel writers draw us into this tragedy. The curtain is torn. Darkness falls. And the focus shifts from Jesus to the perspective of those left behind. That makes sense for the Gospels. What was Jesus doing at this point? We hear about the work of Jesus conquering Death in the epistles, but his followers didn’t know these things.

Even on Easter morning, the focus doesn’t shift back to Jesus. We continue to follow the story of the women and the disciples. Jesus just appears and disappears until he finally ascends. That’s how the authors wrote their gospels, so it makes sense that we would follow along that way. 

We receive so many emotion words from the women and the disciples. I can imagine Luke interviewing people and hearing from their perspective, “We were so frightened; we thought he was a ghost. Even when we saw he wasn’t a ghost, we still couldn’t believe it. We were amazed and overjoyed” (Luke 24:37-41). How was Jesus feeling during this? The eye-witnesses were too gobsmacked to notice and give account. 

Thus, the sacred journey continues. 

My eyes fixed on Jesus; I see how my journey overlays His.
I’m aching and weary.
The moment of trauma is over, yet my body is still on high alert.
My skin feels electrified. Every brush of my own clothes sears my skin.
I feel like my back’s been flayed.
And I look toward Jesus.
I don’t know how his back is doing, but the wounds of his hands and his side are still gaping.
Honestly, it’s a miracle he’s even alive.

We each come across a couple of our friends, but they don’t recognize us.
Our friends recount our own story to us, but they totally miss the point.
I’m furious and think, “How foolish you are!” (Luke 24:25)
I explain to my friends, and He explains to His, in a way that they don’t miss the point.
And then Jesus walks away.
 
“No, no, no,” I call him back. “These are our friends, our people.”
I’m clinging to what I know.
He keeps walking until his friends urge him to stay, even though they still don’t recognize him.
It’s like he wants me to be willing to walk away from people I’ve grown away from.
I’m not ready for this lesson.

When he comes back, I’m glad.
I watch them eat together.
In the common monotony of everyday life, his friends finally recognize him.
But it’s only two people.

It happens again.
Different people. More cherished friends.
They don’t understand what’s happened either.
“You’ve changed,” they tell me.
“Why are you troubled? Look at me. It’s me!” I implore them.
My words echo His, as Jesus tries to convince his friends he’s not a ghost.
They believe: we’re each still who we are.
Now what?

“Do you have anything to eat?” Jesus asks.
He invites us back into the common monotony of everyday life.
We eat, we talk, we tell the story again.
It’s hard to tell every time.

The hardest part is reconciliation, so I hang back and watch.
Jesus comes to Peter.
Peter recognizes him and dives off the boat to greet him. Classic Peter.
Jesus invites them to eat.
I take notes. Always start with food. It brings people together.
Three times, Jesus asks Peter if he loves Him.
I’m thankful for this interchange.
I don’t have to be content with one apology and be expected to get over it.
I can request reassurances in proportion with the damage rendered.

Finally comes the conclusion.
Finally comes the ascension.
Finally the journey ends. 

Trauma is like any other story. It’s got a setting and rising action before the conflict and climax. And it ends with cleaning up all the leftover messes. Often the leftover messes of a trauma are the relationships: reconnecting, repairing, reconciling, and settling back into normal rhythms. This is a hard part of trauma that is often overlooked. Many times this hard part takes a lot longer than we expect. 

In this time following Resurrection Sunday and leading up to Ascension Sunday, we hold sacred the long journey through trauma and tragedy to the good that God has in store for us: the wisdom that these experiences give us. And as much as I cherish that wisdom and the goodness God has for us through the hard things, I’m going to stay mad about the awfulness of how this broken world functions. I can do both. 

I refuse to get over how awful it is that good things come from hard things. 

I will hold this space for those of you still in the early stages of your journey, for those of you banging your fists on the front desk, demanding a refund for this cup of suffering, insisting that it’s not fair. I’m here to say, “You’re right! It’s not fair! And most importantly! You’re not alone.” 

For those of you further along who are activated and who feel disconnected from their communities, who wonder why it had to happen like this, who wonder why it’s not getting easier in the wake of tragedy, I’m here to say, “You’re right! It’s not fair! And most importantly! You’re not alone.” 

For those of you who have seen the beautiful things that the Lord has wrought out of the awful things you’ve lived through, who are turning back and grieving for themselves that they ever had to endure that, I’m here to say, “You’re right! It’s not fair! And most importantly! You’re not alone.”

And I can point out to you the Way, the Truth, and the Life. He walked with me through the valley of the shadow of death, and He will walk with you.

It seems agonizingly unfair that much of wisdom, strength, and personal growth comes from difficult and painful journeys. Not just the hardship, but the recovery, coming back to people and them not recognizing you, being met with doubt, and having to convince people of the journey you’ve been on. 

In this season, we remember the sacredness of this journey, a trauma-versary that changed the world forever. The Lord has gone before us. But moreover, he goes alongside us, today, at whatever stage of the journey we’re in. 

Trauma doesn’t make us stronger, but continuing onward through the hard things toward healing does. 

And I hate that for us. 

~~~~~~~~~~

Elizabeth Vahey Smith is a TCK mom who spent 5 years in Papua New Guinea as a missionary. Now her family explores the globe full-time as worldschoolers. Elizabeth works remotely as the COO for TCK Training, traveling often for work and always for pleasure. She is the author of The Practice of Processing: Exploring Your Emotions to Chart an Intentional Course. Follow her travels on Instagram @elizabeth.vaheysmith and @neverendingfieldtrip. Learn more about research-based preventive care for TCKs @tcktraining.

Photo by Matt Palmer on Unsplash

Magic Charms and Contingency Plans

“A few nights ago, Mama F came to me terrorized, begging and screaming for the basil plant in our yard.” 

I lived in Tanzania for 16 years, and this was one of the most extraordinary stories I heard.

I have a friend, an American I’ll call Allison, who has lived in a remote village in Tanzania for decades. Often when they visited the main city, they would stay with us. 

It was on one of these visits that she told me a story that sounded like it came straight out of the New Testament: mind-blowing to those of us from western, secular cultures, but not uncommon in the rest of the world. What struck me about this story was not just the supernatural aspect, but how at our heart-level, no matter our worldview, we cling to things that feel more certain than God. We idolize our contingency plans. 

But first, the story. 

One of Allison’s neighbors, Mama F, declared faith in Christ and started attending a Bible study. Allison praised God for this, not knowing that the story was just beginning.

This is how Allison told it:

“A few nights ago, Mama F came to me terrorized, begging and screaming for the basil plant in my yard. I saw that something had taken hold of her four-year-old daughter. She was clenched in her mother’s arms, writhing and gurgling, and foaming at the mouth.  

Hearing Mama F’s cries, other neighbor women gathered, and we all followed as she ran back to her house, smearing my basil plant on little F’s head. Baba F, the father, had run for the witchdoctor to buy emergency witchcraft to ward off the attack. Mama F would not accept my westernized offer to take them to the hospital.  

We women entered her home, everyone wanting to help. One woman shook and rubbed a live chicken over little F. Another brought a pouch with herbs to burn and handfuls of dirt to make a mud mixture to smear over her body. Mama F frantically gulped a liquid from a cup and spewed it onto her daughter. Then she placed knives under her armpits, wrapped F in banana leaves, and tied a black cloth charm around F’s wrist. The ladies burned weeds so that smoke filled the room. Meanwhile, F was writhing and foaming, enveloped in darkness.

As I walked that night with these women I love who were so fear stricken, so desperate to save this child in the only ways they knew of, I prayed out loud for His Light to shine in this living nightmare. He enabled me to speak simple, childlike words in this dark chaos of despair. ‘God is able to help and heal F. This witchcraft will not work. May I pray for her in Jesus’ name? I can ask for help from the Almighty God because I believe Jesus shed his blood to pay for my sin so I am forgiven. Please let me pray for her.’  

But I knew I needed to say more. ‘Mama F, because God is holy and only He deserves glory, you have to stop this witchcraft. He wants you to see it is by His power and grace alone that F is healed. Please remove the knives and the leaves.’

Miraculously, they agreed, and placed her in my arms.

I squatted down on the dirt floor, holding that precious, terrorized little girl in my arms and I prayed. I felt the conviction of the Holy Spirit that this was not just a physical need for healing, but spiritual. So, in Jesus name, I prayed against the powers of darkness over this little one; I rebuked Satan and told him to leave; I entrusted F into God’s arms of healing and protection.

God heard and answered! As I prayed, the convulsions and foaming and gurgling ceased, and F lay peacefully in my arms. I heard the women’s voices declare, ‘Wow! The prayer is working! Jesus Heals! God hears the prayers of Christians! Let’s go find more Christians to pray for her!’ 

We returned to my house where my teammates were waiting. With F still in my arms, exhausted but at peace, my teammates and I lingered with our neighbors in our front yard, praising God for His healing in word, prayer, and song.”

But the story was not yet over.

Allison continued, “Mama F attended the ladies prayer group again and gave praise to Jesus for his healing of her child. Then a few days later, F came to our home to play, wearing her charm necklace again.  

I spoke to her mama that God does not share His glory with another. F does not need the charms for her protection when we cry out to the one true God. She agreed, but the necklace charm remained. I told her there is no need to fear, nor appease the forces of darkness. But the necklace remained.”

Allison sat in my kitchen on a Wednesday and told me what happened just the night before:

“Tuesday evening, the terrors came again to F. Since we were here in the city when the attack came on, little F’s family sought the help of our teammates, who together prayed for her, but this time she was not responding. They agreed to take her to the clinic in the neighboring village.  

When I received word of this, I asked if she was still wearing any charms. She was. My husband called Baba F and exhorted him to remove the charms, as God will not share His glory with another. Meanwhile, the doctor was not able to help F. So they brought F to our local evangelist where they cut off her charm necklace and began to pray for her again. She was immediately restored to normal.”

When Allison finished her story, my reaction was to cry, “Glory be to God!” It is, indeed, truly a remarkable story–especially for those of us who assume that this kind of thing ended in the book of Acts. But it would be a shame for those of us from westernized cultures, who scoff at magic charms and witchdoctors, to think that God isn’t trying to teach us the same lessons that he was teaching little F’s family.

He wants the glory alone.  

And his glory is never evident in contingency plans.

I’ve thought about this often since I heard Allison’s story. How often do I have a contingency plan? How often do I say the words that God is faithful, but in the back of my mind, I agonize over solutions to worst case scenarios?

Sure, I say I believe in heaven and that life is only a shadow of what’s to come. But really, I want to enjoy that shadow with as much comfort as I can muster and as much pleasure as I can wring out–just in case this is all there is.

Sure, I know that God is the rightful king and sovereign over the universe. But I’d also really like to be under a government that is safe, powerful, and holds to all of my values–and I’m anxious if I don’t get that.

Sure, I believe that Scripture tells me that God will provide for all my needs.  But I cling to that steady savings account and regular income, just in case.

I know there’s a balance here, because God expects us to be wise and prudent with the tools for protection He gives us. God often chooses to care for us through the grace of life insurance, modern medicine, or social security. But when I go to sleep at night, where is the source of my peace? Where is the line between taking wise precautions versus tying my safety nets to my wrist like a magic charm? I must ask myself: Am I trusting in God, or am I trusting in my contingency plans?

I wonder if sometimes, God is just waiting for us to cut off the magic charm. Because He will not share His glory with another.

*A version of this post was originally published at Not Home Yet.

A Childhood Erased

MCS School South

In June, the boarding school in Pakistan where I spent my childhood closed her doors. No longer will children respond to the gong of a bell that goes off for meal times. No longer will high schoolers gather outside the hostel, shyly sitting with The Boy that one has liked for so long, hands brushing against each other through the conversation and laughter of their classmates. No longer will staff and students alike have to shout over the roar of monsoon rains on tin roofs. The pine trees will no longer hear the whispered joys, sorrows, and prayers of students. Steel bunkbeds will no longer capture early morning tears of homesickness. There will be no more chapel, no more tea time, no more study halls, and no more graduations. Never again will the school song, so long ago penned by my father, be sung in that setting.

An era will be over, and with it – part of my life will seem erased.

Last night I watched memories of Murree, put together by my dear friend, Paul. With my husband and younger daughter by my side I was able to experience again the thick fog of Jhika Gali and the hairpin turns of roads. I heard one last gong of the bell and laughed as a monkey, captured perfectly on film, ran toward me and then away.

I have known about this closing for some time. The school was founded in 1956, a wonderful and admittedly rare happening where missionaries of every denomination got together and worked to build a school for the children of missionaries and nationals who were serving in Pakistan and neighboring countries. This year, after 65 years of service, the doors to the school will close. The last class has now graduated. Murree Christian School will no longer be a concrete place with walls and windows, students and administrators. Instead it will be relegated to memories in people around the world and, surprisingly, a wikipedia page of its own.

My friend Robynn and I occassionally text back and forth about our school closing. Ten years apart, we had similar experiences at MCS. Times of sorrow and sadness to be sure – but that is not the only story. Our stories are stories of much laughter and learning, of grace and growth, of the pure joy of youth. About two months ago I texted to Robynn “Our childhood is slowly being erased.”

A closing ceremony that brought hundreds of us together on ZOOM was planned for July. As it grew closer to the time of the ceremony, the more I felt an urgent sadness that needed to be voiced. MCS holds so many stories. I somehow never thought that the day it closed would really come. As my dear friend Robynn says so well:

Deep relationships were formed. Faith was nurtured. It’s difficult to capture in words what this hidden place has meant to many now literally scattered the world over.

Robynn Bliss

To be sure, we live in a different era. The school had dropped in size to a miniscule number. Staff are hard to come by and finances more so. Schools cannot stay open simply to be receptacles for childhood memories. In fact, the beauty of the times I visited back after graduation lay in the fact that it was still a living, vibrant place. New students and staff that (shockingly) did not know me had their own memories and events, their own life stories. A terrorist attack shortly after 9/11 changed the school in unimaginable ways, taking away the freedom that we students from the seventies had. Dwindling class sizes made it the more difficult to justify the cost of keeping up the buildings and grounds. Less people were comfortable sending their children to boarding school. There are many reasons to close and the decision to close was more difficult than I can imagine.

What does an adult do when they feel their childhood is slowly being erased? The tendency would be to grasp at whatever I can to keep the picture of what I had.

Instead, I open my hands and I give the pencil back to God. From the beginning it is he that wrote the story of MCS. It is God who gave the vision, God who sustained the decades of life, God who loves the people who entered and left the large, stone building to forge their way in a world beyond.

As I have thought more about MCS closing, I have released the idea of my childhood erased. That is giving the closing of a man-made, though wonderful, institution too much power. Instead I’ve thought about the stones of remembrance that I take with me from my childhood and this place that shaped me.

The idea of stones of remembrance comes from the Old Testament book of Joshua. The Lord tells Joshua to choose 12 men, one from each tribe. They are to go and pick up a stone from the middle of the Jordan River, at the spot where the priests were carrying the Ark of the Covenant. They were to carry the stones to the place where the people would spend the night. There they would put them down to serve as a sign. These were stones of remembrance. They served as a sign to the people present and to future generations that God was there, that he was faithful, that he did not leave his people.

What are the stones of remembrance in my life that connect to MCS? What rocks can I point to, stones of surety that declare “God was here.” What can I list that point to a life of faith, built on a stone foundation?

My stones of remembrance are imperfect people who taught me how to forgive and fellow students and dear friends who taught me what it was to press on. My stones of remembrance are the laughter that drowns out the memories of homesickness and the growth that leans into discomfort. My stones of remembrance are brothers who share blood and friends who share memories. My stones of remembrance are rocks of trust and knowing that somehow, all would be well.

I am gathering the stones, I am putting them down in writing, so that I too can tell future generations “This is what shaped me, this is why I am here.” Because it’s good to remember.


At every graduation and important event, we sang our school hymn, voices raised to the rafters of the old church building turned school. Some of us sang with immense talent, others just sang. Though all were lost in those moments in their own thoughts, never knowing that most would look back on these times and the song itself with deep longing. I leave you the final verse here – a reminder that no closing of anything is powerful enough to erase childhood.

Lord with thanks and praise we honor Murree Christian School
May her life and fame and service for thee ever rule

Built upon a firm foundation, in God's hands a tool,
Shaping lives of dedication, Murree Christian School

In all our lives we go through times where places and people we love change, where we recognize that life will never be quite the same. What are your stones of remembrance for those times? Where can you point to rocks of trust and a foundation that holds even when the building changes?

Note: This post was originally published at Communicating Across Boundaries.

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

Fear of Flying

I have a fear of flying. This is a problem because as an expat, I travel fairly often and fairly daunting distances. The worst moment is not takeoff or landing, during which I grip both armrests and whisper, “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.” The worst moment is not even when we hit turbulence, during which I take deep breaths and close my eyes. The worst moment is when the planes have just reached their cruising altitude and the pilots ease up on acceleration. There is a sudden quiet. No more thrusting, no more ear-rattling noise to confirm the plane’s operational capability. Just quiet, peaceful soaring. It is in this precise moment when all obvious effort diminishes that I fully expect the plane to drop.

The silence is disturbing, the ease disconcerting. I find the noise and strain, the bustle and ruckus of takeoff far more reassuring. We can’t possibly remain in the sky if there is no evidence of labor, if all I need do is lean back against the headrest and read a book.

Like with airplanes, on earth I am most comfortable in the place of effort and hard work. The expectations are clear – namely, effort and hard work. There is the bustle and ruckus to dwell on, to distract from feelings of guilt, doubt, failure, timidity, terror.

But the thing is, in all that noise, in the rattling chaos of exertion, I can’t hear Jesus. 

Sometimes in my faith journey these moments arrive when all the working and the accelerating vanishes and the bottom drops out, like on the plane, and I’m sure this whole thing is going down. But it is in precisely those moments, when I enter silence and begin to rest, that I become aware of nudges I wouldn’t have noticed with my foot on the accelerator.

Nudges toward intimidating, risky things, big and small things, things I can’t see the ends of or guarantee the results of. Like starting a running club. Like signing up for a marathon. Like stopping at a makeshift restaurant and asking the women if I can sit for a few days and learn from them. Like working with the local newspaper. Like saying, ‘I will trust you Lord,’ regarding our school choices for my kids. Or saying ‘yes’ to a literary agent or a publishing house.

My stomach lurches and squeezes and I grab onto the armrests and whisper, “Jesus.” And he whispers back, “In repentance and rest is your salvation. In quietness and trust is your strength.”

See, the thing about soaring, the thing I find both frightening and exhilarating is, airplanes are designed to do it. So I’m going to try, in those quiet moments, to lean into what I am designed for, to continue saying, “Jesus,” and continue saying, “Yes,” and I’m going to enjoy the ride.

What do you need to say ‘yes’ to so you can soar?

The Beatitudes for Cross-Cultural Workers

Blessed are the language learners, for theirs is the gift of idioms and verbs, of words and communication.

Blessed are the visa holders, for they shall never forget what it is to live as a guest in a country.

Blessed are the homesick, for they shall know and understand longing and displacement, the themes of our time.

Blessed are those who weep for injustice, for they shall be comforted by a God who cries out for justice to roll down like the waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

Blessed are the culturally humble, for they shall see the world and faith through the eyes of curiosity and questions.

Blessed are the jetlagged, for they shall have time to drink tea and pray.

Blessed are the lonely, for they shall be connected to the pain of humanity and better understand the value of connection.

Blessed are those in transition, for they shall know more fully the joy and privilege of home.

Blessed are those who miss their fathers and mothers, their siblings and their friends, for they shall discover friends that become as close as sisters and brothers, and families that transcend blood and borders.

Blessed are the translators and the doctors, the businesspeople and the nurses, the developers and the diplomats, the farmers and the planters, the harvesters and the homemakers, the educators and the writers, the linguists and the administrators – for together they shall work to build God’s kingdom on earth.

Blessed are the visionaries and the dreamers, the builders and the plodders, the idealists and the realists, the wishful thinkers and the critical thinkers, the intelligent and the blessedly naive – for the Kingdom is made of such as these.

Blessed are you who know and love the God who invited you into his story; you who were created and formed, equipped and placed. May you know and love him a little more each day. May you delight in His story and rest in His love.

Blessed are those whose strength is in you, who have set their hearts on pilgrimage…..they go from strength to strength until each appears before God in Zion.*

Psalm 84:5 & 7

Decision Making and Transition

In all my years of coming and going, of moving and transition, I’ve never experienced anything like the transition and confusion that the last months of pandemic chaos have brought into our world. Its impossible to quantify the amount of grief and loss that people around the globe and in this community have experienced. I wrote this piece eight months ago when I was living, breathing and eating transition and the impossible decision making that goes with transition. I hope it helps some of you during this time.

The other night I woke up to fierce wind and rain. On the right side of the house an alley way created a wind tunnel and I could hear the wind howling through it. This house is still new to us and the sounds are unfamiliar. I lay listening for while, thinking of the fierce wind, of storms, and of the comfort of my bed within the storm. There is something deeply comforting about feeling safe during a storm. It is a privileged comfort. 

I don’t always feel that way. There are times when storms make me feel deeply afraid. But not the other night. 

For those who have been following along with me, my journey and the sometimes storm of our transition continues. 

During this time I’ve found it difficult to make decisions. It makes sense. We made a massive decision a year and a half ago that included many smaller decisions along the way. Then in May, a decision was made far above us that changed our lives. This resulted in us making another massive decision and smaller decisions along the way. The result is that I have felt trapped in decision making. 

When I am feeling low, the questions are heavy and unrelenting. How do I know what decisions are right? How do I decide what to do next? Our lives were turned upside down two years in a row. What does that mean? Did we make the wrong choice even though it felt so clear at the time? Or did we make the right choice, and nothing and no one could have predicted what came next? Asking too many of these questions is not healthy. It spins your head and your heart and you end up not trusting yourself with any decision. 

One of the ways I have chosen to walk through this season is by reading Emily Freeman’s latest book The Next Right Thing. The subtitle of the book is “A Simple, Soulful Practice for Making Life Decisions.” 

Before Freeman even addresses decision making, she introduces some foundational concepts that are key to being in a place where you can make good decisions. 

Her first concept is to become what she calls a “soul minimalist.” Clear clutter and create space for silence. It’s this that sets a foundation for making decisions. “The world is run by worn-out people, and our soul is often lost beneath the piles of our everyday life.”

“Good decisions require creativity and creativity requires space. This space is necessary for you to speak out against the injustices you see in the world, the problems you know you can help solve, and the beauty you long to deliver.”

Emily P. Freeman in The Next Right Thing

Her second concept is the powerful practice of naming the narrative. Naming those hidden things that are affecting our decision making. This has been a hard, painful process for me. Naming grief, disappointment, dead dreams, and anger are not easy, but the process of doing this and being honest with my emotions has been significant. 

Freeman’s third foundational concept is examining our beliefs about God, discovering the disconnect between what we say we believe and how that works out in practice. This is an eye-opening exercise. While many of us say we believe and trust in God, our daily lives are more like those of practicing atheists. Inside we are a bit like two-year-olds convincing ourselves we can “do by self,” while on the outside we choose the right words and phrases to make our beliefs about God sound good and safe. What happens when we are honest, and we admit the disconnect between our actions and our beliefs?

Reading this book and taking an in-depth look at these concepts as I move forward in decision making has pushed me to grow in meaningful ways. 

“Just because things change doesn’t mean you chose wrong in the first place.  

The Next Right Thing by Emily Freeman

When we left for Kurdistan, we had no idea that we would be back here a year later, trying to make sense of a dream cut short, of a closed door. It would be easy to look back and accuse ourselves of making the wrong decision in the first place. But I don’t think that’s true. I think we made the right decision. 

I’m think we made the right decision for a lot of reasons – probably the most significant being who we became as a result of going. From learning more about empathy and incarnational living to being humbled by all the areas where we fell short, it was an important process in who we are and in who we are becoming. 

I’m convinced God is less interested in where we end up then He is in who we are becoming. Whether we’re employed or unemployed, encouraged or discouraged, filled with vision or fumbling in the fog. More than anything, our Father just wants to be with us.

The Next Right Thing by Emily Freeman

I have read and reread the words above – “Whether we’re employed or unemployed, encouraged or discouraged, filled with vision or fumbling in the fog. More than anything, our Father just wants to be with us.” 

In closing, I think of an episode of the new season of The Crown that we watched last night. In this particular episode there is a tragedy that takes place in a mining town. Many have died, most of them children. The queen is slow to make the decision to go and there are many reasons and excuses as to why. When she finally does decide to go, it’s clear that people just want her to be with them, to bear witness to the pain they are going through, to sit with them in their sorrow. 

Our Father just wants to be with us…” No matter our decisions, whether they are big or small, whether they will change lives or just our next hour, these are words to live by.

On Safety and Sanity

“Safe passage cannot be bought. We have no holy passport to protect us and so we venture forward, fragile maps in hand, flying our banners of courage and of hope.”

Call the Midwife, Season 6

When life feels like it is too much, and I can’t make sense of our broken world, I turn to Call the Midwife, the television series based on a midwife’s memoir of working in the East End of London. I’m only half kidding when I say that.

News on the world stage is of quarantines and evacuations because of the new coronavirus, a virus affecting world economies, social structures, and everyday living for millions of people. News in your particular area may not only be coronavirus, but also local storms and tsunamis, civil war, or other threats to your safety.

In the midst of any of these, the questions for many become what will happen next and how do we keep sane and safe?

These are both good questions. The first we have little control over. Anyone who has lived overseas for even a short time knows that there are things you have no control over. From viruses to visas, you enter a life where you are regularly asked to give up your timetable and your control. If you insist on keeping them, they will mock you during a night where you toss and turn in your bed. The reality is we don’t know what may happen next.

The second question may seem to offer a few more options, but there is much unknown there as well.

Rachel Pieh Jones, writer and longtime contributor to A Life Overseas, writes about safety in a stunning essay called “The Proper Weight of Fear.” In the essay she describes having to flee Somaliland after three expatriates were murdered at the hands of terrorists. At one point in the essay she describes questions that she and her husband were asked before leaving for Somaliland. “The second question after weren’t you afraid was were you safe? Of course we were safe. Of course we were not safe. How could we know? Nothing happens until it happens. People get shot at schools in the United States, in movie theaters, office buildings. People are diagnosed with cancer. Drunk drivers hurtle down country roads. Lightning flashes, levees break, dogs bite. Safety is a Western illusion crafted into an idol and we refused to bow.

“Of course we were safe. Of course we were not safe.” are perhaps the most honest phrases that describe a life overseas. My first memories in life are of blackouts during a war between India and Pakistan over Kashmir. My parents’ had the only room in the house that did not have a window so it was safe to have the light on. We would gather and listen to the BBC World Service and drink hot cocoa, after which my mom would read to us until we fell asleep. Safe? Not safe? Who knew?

How do we keep sane and safe during coronavirus warnings, wars, evacuations, and sometimes just plain traffic that seems to disregard human life? When it comes to decisions on safety, our lives stopped resembling those of our peers a long time ago; even so there are times when events happen that urge us to think more seriously about where we live and and weigh the inherent risk in staying or leaving.

Here are a few things that may help:

Start with the Psalms. If ever there was a model of crying out to God in times of despair and in times of hope, it is in the Psalms of David. They offer the full spectrum of feelings and responses to life and death situations. Reading these regularly is a good practice. You are not alone. You have never been alone. CS Lewis says “We may ignore, but we can nowhere evade the presence of God. The world is crowded with Him. He walks everywhere incognito.” The Psalms are a comforting reminder of that truth.

Connect with those you trust and those who can help you work through your feelings and decisions. You may want to reach out to your parents or other family members in your passport country, but you know that their worry will cause you great stress and make you second guess your decisions. As much as you love them, they may not be the best people with whom to review your options. Pick the people that you share with wisely. Make sure that they can walk you through your decision making without passing on their own fear over a situation that they may not fully understand.

Keep as regular a routine as you can. Whether you have young children or older teenagers, keeping a routine is critical. Particularly at bedtime so that everyone can get a good sleep. Family meals (even when food may be rationed), bedtime stories, gathering together for games is critically important during times of uncertainty and crisis. Keep those routines going throughout the time of crisis.

Be careful of the amount of news you discuss in front of your children. Our world is over saturated with news and information. It makes people miles away from a crisis afraid, let alone you who are directly affected. Discuss the news in age appropriate ways with your kids. With older children, answer their questions with concrete information. Don’t have the news going nonstop on either a radio, the television, or your phone. It will not keep you sane – it will make you crazy. Keeping current on information is important, but there are ways to do it that preserve your sanity.

Policies are your friends. If your organization has a policy, then trust that it was made for a reason. Let it be your friend. Let it guide your decisions. I say this to health organization supervisors all the time. “Let policies be your friend.” They don’t exist to be mean and arbitrary, but to guide and protect when you may not have the strength to make the decision on your own. You may disagree vehemently with the policy, but policies are often made to keep people sane and safe for the long term, not to burn them out in the short term. Rachel and her husband Tom did not want to leave Somaliland when they had to leave. They had only been there a year, and their lives were turned sideways. But they trusted a policy, and they left. It was the right decision.

Don’t make decisions out of fear. Fear is not good currency. It will bankrupt you quicker than you can imagine. Make decisions based on reality and with regard to your organization’s policies, not based on fear of the “what ifs.”

End with the Psalms. Start with the Psalms and end with the Psalms. They are good bookends. They keep all of life together in a clear image of human struggle and response.

“How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
    How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I take counsel in my soul
    and have sorrow in my heart all the day?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?

Consider and answer me, O Lord my God;
    light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death,
lest my enemy say, “I have prevailed over him,”
    lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken.

But I have trusted in your steadfast love;
    my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
I will sing to the Lord,
    because he has dealt bountifully with me. – Psalm 13, ESV

I don’t know what is going on in your world. I don’t know what your struggles are, what threats may assault you from without and within. What I do know is that you are infinitely precious to God on this life journey. I offer these words of traveling mercy from my friend Robynn:

When the ride gets turbulent, when oxygen masks dangle in front of us, reassure us of your nearness and help us to breathe. Thank you that you travel with us. Thank you that you promise to meet us at baggage claim. Thank you for the hope of our Final Destination. But until then, we ask for your traveling mercies.Christ in your mercy, hear our prayer.

Robynn Bliss

May you venture forward, flying your banner of courage and of hope.

Why I Am I So Surprised When Crisis Strikes?

These days, I’m tired of being in crisis mode. Seriously, enough already.

My husband and I have spent the last two years fretting about visas. We’ve watched our team evaporate, one by one, due to visa issues. A couple of times, my husband got very close to needing to leave the country. For months and months we kept thinking, This is all going to work out, right? Doesn’t it always? And we were surprised to discover that actually, it doesn’t always work out. 

On top of that, the last few months have been some of the most stressful of my life. 2020 came in with a bang, with almost constant crises hitting me from all sides. Thankfully, my family is fine (crisis is different from tragedy), but I’m an administrator at a school where it feels like the next wave of problems comes rolling in before I can finish with the previous ones. Many days I am just gasping for breath. Taking the next step. Focusing on the dozens of tiny fires so that I don’t have to face the inferno that could be looming in the future. 

Anyone else out there feeling like that these days? With the recent trend of countries closing in on themselves and locking out outsiders, travel bans, tensions rising between nations, and well, that little virus that’s affecting an entire continent of billions of people….I’m guessing that many of my fellow overseas workers might be in crisis mode too.

And I sit here and I just want it to go away. Kind of irritated, actually, that God doesn’t just let up. Maybe because I’ve bought into the American dream or maybe because I’m just plain selfish, but I have this ingrained expectation that I deserve a little peace and quiet every once in a while. Like, I’ve met my quota for stress, God; you owe me an easy ride from here on out.

Why are we so often surprised by what’s happening in the world? Nations rising up against nations? Economies collapsing? Epidemics circling the globe? Plagues of fire and floods? 

What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.

Yet, we’re astonished when the crisis hits us. No wonder every generation believes they are living in the End Times. All of us think, Certainly no generation has ever faced what we have! Which means we probably just need to study more history. Or maybe live overseas for a while longer, observing the lives of our non-western brothers and sisters.

Peter wrote, Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.

We read this, yet still we are surprised. When pressed against the wall, in crisis mode for week after month after year, we think something strange is happening to us. No, God, my life is not supposed to be like this. Not for this long, anyway. Why aren’t you fixing it?

We are surprised because we are forgetful, aren’t we? We forget that Paul was in prison when he told his readers to Rejoice in the Lord always. We forget that Jesus told his disciples that the peace He gives is not dependent on life’s circumstances. We forget that this life is just a blip on the screen of eternity. Yes, one day all things will be made new, but until then, we forget that we aren’t supposed to find Heaven here on earth.  

The chaplain at my school, Sheshi Kaniki, recently exhorted our staff as we are passing through these times of crisis. He told us, “Nothing you experience will ever be worse than what you have already been saved from.”

Amen. Maranatha.  

Passages cited: Ecc. 1:9, I Peter 4:12, Phil. 4:4