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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.