When I first heard Christ say, “Follow me,” I was sixteen years old. I often wondered what kind of cross I would carry for choosing to follow him. I pictured myself living in a hut in a mountain village or maybe in a “barrio” similar to the slums I would drive by on my way to school. I knew that it wouldn’t be easy, that there would be loss, pain, maybe even persecution. And it’s true – it has been, at times, grueling and crushing. What I didn’t foresee then was that following Christ could also mean, at times, abundance.
But here I am years later, living overseas and recently moved into a house that is better than anything we had hoped. Not only is the house built on two plots of land, perfect for our kids to play and explore, inside the house is spacious as well. We have a dedicated guest room with its own bathroom and a lower level that is airy and perfect to host large gatherings. We have a separate dining room to host multiple guests, and my husband is able to have an office to more effectively work from home.
And the view, oh, the view is breathtaking. Because our house sits at the top of a hill, it overlooks a precipitous narrow valley, ringed by mountains. We can see a small town that sits on the mountain across from us, and at night, the cheery lights from the houses greet us in the distance. Secluded by a row of tall cypress trees, the house has a farmhouse feel. When you sit in the veranda that overlooks the valley, the twittering of Palestinian sunbirds with their turquoise plumage and playful flight simply delight the senses.
For years I’d been saying I wanted to have a house that was guest-house material, a place that would be lovely and restful, a place where others could come to get away, “preferably with a gorgeous view,” I’d say. This house is all that and more (for the same rent we were paying before!). A few days after we moved, I told my husband, “I feel like my soul grew two sizes.”
But not long after, I found a nagging restlessness in my heart. I couldn’t relax into enjoying our home. We don’t know any other expats in this country with a space like ours. A voice kept whispering, “God wouldn’t be this kind to you, you don’t deserve it. Did you somehow manipulate him into giving it to you?”
When our functional theology is about what we deserve, we quickly turn to self-atonement strategies to cope with undeserved gifts. “We will steward this house well. We want it to be a blessing to others,” we say. And while this desire to be a blessing is absolutely real and good, what if that is not the primary reason why we have this house? What if our Father is this kind? What if, before we think about how we can use this home for the good of others and the kingdom, we receive this gift with both hands and simply savor the rich love of our Dad who sees us intimately?
We are not just servants living on mission for the purposes of the King. We are his actual kids – deeply beloved, thoroughly delighted in. What if, as we are giving out to others, he wants us to taste all that He is and all that we are to him?
As overseas workers, do we have a theology of abundance? I have been pondering this question for months. When generous friends gift us time away on what feels like an extravagant vacation, when God provides the perfect car for the needs of our family, or when God blows us away with increased monthly support that we didn’t sweat hard to raise, do we have a functional theology that allows us to relish all that grace? Without guilt, shame, or fear?
Our theology of abundance not only allows us to receive grace, it also helps us when we are living very different lives than Adoniram and Ann Judson lived in Burma or Jim and Elisabeth Elliott among the Quechua people in Ecuador.
“We have left it all to follow you.” Peter’s words ring in our ears. Have we? We have cars, A/C units, and grocery stores with western-like goods. We can text with our families across the oceans and within seconds, get a reply. In some ways, at times, our sacrifice seems less significant because the lack we experience is not the same. And so the abundance we enjoy in comparison to theirs makes us feel a bit like a fraud, like we are in some way second-class workers, not as “hard core” as those of old.
But their devotion to Christ is not measured by their sacrifice but by their faith in him and their day-to-day dependence on the Spirit. God is not measuring the strength of our sacrifice either. Rather, he asks whether Jesus is our only source of confidence for the life he has given — with its gifts, sorrows, and responsibilities.
What if the abundance in our life is rich soil for growth when it is enjoyed by faith? What if this bounty in resources and capacity is a gift that enables longevity, allowing us to be stable and grounded enough to care for the overwhelming needs of those around us?What if the God who cares for us according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus delights to tend to the souls and bodies and minds of those he sends out to serve him? What if he knows how much we need to hear, “I see you?”
I hope you know I am not saying we can only feel seen in abundance. Neither am I advocating the pursuit of abundance. I know the destructive power of prosperity gospel theology and the trap it can be in ministry. I am a firm believer in the importance of a robust theology of suffering. I am, after all, a lay counselor, passionate about holistic soul care. But a robust theology of suffering is not complete without a theology of abundance.
Our Father’s generosity is to be received gratefully, joyfully. His kindness is to be stewarded and leveraged. When we do that with Christ-confidence we are, like Mary Oliver wrote, “half crazy with the wonder of it.” We delight in the foolishness of grace that lavishes us with everything our Father is for us. Not because we have done so much in following Jesus, but because He won it all when he led ahead of us.
I’m sitting at my desk in our guest bedroom when the bells from the church across the street begin to ring. They began at eight in the morning and they end at ten at night, giving us a full ten hours without being reminded of the time.
This is new for me. While hearing the call to prayer was a sound embedded into my childhood, I rarely heard church bells. These church bells also tend to peel out the tune of “God Bless America” a bit too often for my liking.
But this morning, as though sensing my despair, I heard the sound of “Amazing Grace.”
Amazing Grace – that hymn sung by believers and non-believers with its haunting melody and stunning truth.
Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound That saved a wretch like me I once was lost, but now am found Was blind but now I see
Most of us know the history of this song. John Newton’s past as a slave trader, his conversion, his stepping into grace and writing a song. But nothing is quite as simple as the short histories that we read, In fact, it took him three more slave trading voyages before he’d had enough. It took him even longer, 34 years longer, to write a “blazing pamphlet” called “Thoughts Upon the Slave Trade” – a publication used by John Wilberforce, a member of British Parliament, to put forward a bill to abolish the slave trade. Newton died six months after the bill was passed in 1807.
I relate with this history. We often take baby steps along our journey toward understanding better what it is to love our world and seek justice as Jesus would, only to look back in stunned disbelief that it took us so long. We look back at our excuses and they seem so pitiful.
And yet – Grace.
Most of us at A Life Overseas are deeply involved in organizations, projects, and with people around the world where injustice is a daily reality. I would submit that it is easier to face injustice in countries and places that we don’t legally belong to. We can see these and have an outsider’s view even if they are a daily part of our work. Turn the camera on our passport countries and suddenly it gets personal.
At least, that is how it’s been for me.
If you , like me, are mourning and longing for a better world; if you, like me are praying for your passport country, wherever it is, and the injustices you see there; if you, like me are longing to do more, longing to fight injustice wherever you see it, feeling guilty about not doing enough yet completely overwhelmed with all that life has brought you in the past weeks – displacement, death, sickness, loss of friendships, goodbyes, uncertainty, inability to plan for the future – I offer you this prayer today.
O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in your good time, all nations and races may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ our Lord…..
Grant, O God, that your holy and life-giving Spirit may so move every human heart, that barriers which divide us may crumble, suspicions disappear, and hatreds cease; that our divisions being healed, we may live in justice and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Book of Common Prayer – Prayer for the Human Family and Prayer for Social Justice
In closing, may you soak in these words from Eugene Cho:
“Chaos ensues. Anxiety rises. Lament is in the air. Yet, Christ is our anchor. Hold tight. Be steadfast. Resist the empire. Be compassionate. Pursue justice. Stand with the oppressed. Fight for the vulnerable. Seek God’s Kingdom. And keep pointing people to Jesus. “
For the past few weeks, our minds have all been collectively spinning. Many of us have spent hours wondering and praying, either out loud as we lay in our beds or silently within our own heads, about what we should do. We’ve turned it over and over again in our minds, examining it from every angle possible, hoping to see something we hadn’t seen before that will finally make it all clear.
But it’s been difficult. There’s been so many questions with answers that we just can’t predict with any reasonable certainty. In light of what is going on, what is going to happen to us? What will be the potential effects on my health or my family’s health? On our financial situation? On our ministry and those we have felt called to serve? What will people here think of us? What will people there think of us? Where is God calling me to be right now?
Amidst this COVID19 outbreak around the world, should we stay or should we go?
For many of us, that has been the biggest and heaviest question on our minds recently. For some, this decision still needs to be made. While most commercial flights are cancelled, situations are rapidly changing and last-minute government-operated evacuation flights are still popping up sporadically and forcing families to constantly re-evaluate.
For most though, the decision has already been made and you are where you are for the foreseeable future. For some, that decision was yours to make. But for plenty of others, that decision was made for you…whether by your sending agency or home church, by airline cancellations, or by your host or passport country’s government policies that have kept you put where you are.
Some are happy with the decisions that have been made. Some though are understandably upset that they were never given the chance to make a decision at all. Some are satisfied with where they’ve ended up and others are disappointed. Some consider themselves “stuck” abroad while others consider themselves “stuck” at home.
Some people feel like others are overreacting, while some people feel like others are underreacting. People are getting angry and disappointed with the “others” for “not getting it.”
Some people feel that those that are going back are living out of fear rather than faith. Meanwhile some feel that those who stay are ignoring the facts and living out of ignorance or misplaced confidence.
Some people think it is selfish to stay (potentially putting extra burden on what is already an exhausted health care system in a developing country and extra burden on your donors if you do get sick) and others think it is selfish to go (placing your own well-being over that of another).
Missionaries who go back to their passport countries or are already stuck in their passport countries might wrestle with regret or guilt of feeling like they are leaving certain people behind or abandoning them. Meanwhile, missionaries who stay in their host countries, might also wrestle with regret or guilt from those who might want or need them to come “home.”
What are we to do??
As always, let us all who hope in the Lord, first be strong and take heart (Psalm 31:24). There is no universal “right” answer here. In these types of situations, there is no choice but to respect one another’s decisions and extend grace to our fellow missionaries. Because either way, the decision was most assuredly not an easy one…no matter how it might have appeared outwardly. We can’t ever truly know anyone else’s entire situation (medical, financial, emotional, spiritual) and it is not our place to judge. We don’t know what God has laid on their hearts or what He has called them to do. We don’t know if they are obeying or disobeying the Holy Spirit’s stirrings in their hearts. We can’t see the future to know what was right for this family versus that one. Only God will ever know that.
As Christians, we believe in the sovereignty of God’s Will and we can trust that God will use and work good in whatever decision that was made. Just as God calls some to literally “go” abroad into the mission field, He calls and also needs some to stay. Likewise, God has called some people to stay and some people to go.
So to those who stay and to those who go…
Rest assured, that the same everlasting truths still hold true for us all. Remember that God is still the one in control. Remember that we are not prisoners of fear, shame, guilt, or regret. Remember that you are no less or no better than anyone else, we are all human. Remember that you are still called to serve and give generously, no matter your geographical location. Remember, now more than ever with our minds and worlds shaken and turned upside down and inside out, that we are called to show grace to one another and be patient in love. Remember to be kind. Remember to pray for and check in on each other, many of our friends are struggling. Remember that this is not the end, He is still bigger than it all.
Know that you are worthy and that you are loved by your Heavenly Father, no matter what and no matter where you ended up. Have confidence that He is still working in and around you, through you and in spite of you. No matter how you feel about where you are, your calling is still the same. Continue to lay your life down as a daily offering upon the alter and keep striving to use your words and actions to share the hope, peace, love, and joy that you have found in Christ.
Most of all, remember that whether you stay or go, you still have a purpose right where He has you.
My husband and I are no strangers to new homes. When we move to a new place, we unpack and settle in like we are gunning for a new HGTV show, Instant House. When people share that they still have boxes unpacked after years of living somewhere, I am baffled. Do you not need that stuff? Usually within a week of moving, we’re 90 percent unpacked. That’s just how we roll.
And when people visit, they take a look around and say, “Wow, you’re doing so well!”
It is a phrase people throw around a lot, “doing well.” It feels like the finish line we are all racing toward in transition. I want to be the one to get there first. I’ll run across, triumphant, hang my gold medal around my neck, and others can look at me and say, “Wow, look at her. She’s doing so well.”
But maybe an instant house or a jump back into productivity are not what denotes “doing well” in transition.
When we moved back to the U.S. after 13 years overseas, I joined a process group with about 10 other women. Most of them had lived overseas, so they understood at least on some level the disruption I was experiencing.
As the new kid on the block, I hoped I might find friendship in this group. At the least, I wanted them to think well of me. The challenge was that I was a hot mess. Every week something seemed to surface tears for me. Invariably, I found myself on the receiving end of empathy-a place that is a gift, but one I wasn’t accustomed to needing.
If anyone asked us, I imagine we’d all say we want to bring our authentic selves to others while we’re in transition. But if you’re like me, you want your authentic self to be cool and put together. I was anything but put together that spring and it terrified me. I was sure no one wanted my messy self.
Yet all that crying and processing with those women was healthy. It did forge new friendships with women who saw my true, undone self and loved it. My vulnerability drew them to me, rather than drive them away. All the grief and loss I felt found a place to be held, which was exactly what I needed.
What if doing well in transition means we look messy? What if it means the boxes stay unpacked for a while because instead we’re doing soul work? What if it’s needing to stop regularly just to have a good cry? What if it means we do less but feel more? What if it looks like us not being ourselves because we’ve lost part of who we were and we’re willing to grieve the loss before we scramble back to creating identity?
We don’t have to buy the world’s idea that doing well looks like an ordered life. Doing well is owning our current reality and living it truthfully, trusting that God will give us the grace we need to walk it well.
So leave the boxes unpacked if you need to. Do one less thing if it means you let your soul rest for a bit. Give your grief the space it deserves. Let others step in and love your undone transition self right where it is. Our hearts are on their own timelines in transition-let them take the time they need, even if in the meantime we look a little messier.
The question came as Jesus was beginning His last journey to Jerusalem. It came as He was heading toward His most heart-rending task, as He was starting the long descent toward death: “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
We all know the story. A young, rich, religious man calls Jesus good and then asks Him how to achieve eternal life. Jesus first scolds him for calling anyone “good” but God. Then, feeling genuine love for the man, Jesus tells him to follow the commandments and proceeds to list several of them.
The man defends himself. “I’ve obeyed all these commandments since I was young,” he says. But Jesus informs him that there is still something he hasn’t done – namely, to sell all his possessions, give the money to the poor, and follow Jesus. The man’s face falls when he hears this, and he goes away sad, for he was a very wealthy man.
I’d always glossed over this incident, thinking it might not apply to me. (I’d also neglected to notice until now that it occurred just before Jesus enters Jerusalem for the last time.) But this month as I again worked my way through the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry, it suddenly struck me: the story of the rich, young ruler is my story.
“I’ve obeyed all these commandments since I was young” — once upon a time I said those words out loud, too. I’d just been confronted by my own sin, and I was shocked. I remember protesting, “But I’ve spent my whole life trying to follow God!” My statement was just another version of the rich, young man’s statement; it was just another version of pride.
And like the man, my face fell too. When I saw my attitude for what it was — sin — I did an abrupt U-turn. I interpreted my sin as the worst of all sins and became very depressed. My sin wasn’t a sin that could be forgiven, you see. A sin like mine didn’t deserve God’s grace and forgiveness. Where before I had thought I was better than others, I now thought I was worse.
I rolled around in my sorrow and self-pity until a friend gently pointed out that I was exhibiting reverse pride: the kind of pride that says my sins are so bad they can’t be forgiven. I had flipped from the regular old pride of thinking I was a good person to the insidious, upside-down version of pride that said I could never deserve God’s forgiveness.
But my goodness was never good enough anyway, and reverse pride is a sin to repent of, too. So Jesus basically said the same thing to me that He said to the young man: “There is something you still lack.” That something was a humble awareness of grace. Because in the end, Jesus didn’t ask me to give up all my possessions. (Moving to Asia isn’t the same thing.)
What Jesus has asked me to give up is the idea of myself as someone who has done good things. He’s asked me to give up the idea that I’ve followed the commands well. Because I haven’t. And He’s asked me to give up the idea that any sin is beyond His reach, including the prideful belief that I have no (or very small) sins.
As Jesus watched the man in this story walk away, He explained to His disciples how difficult it is for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of heaven. His announcement left the disciples wondering who in the world could be saved – because to a certain extent, we all trust in both riches and our own good works.
But here is where the story gets good, because Jesus told His disciples that “What is impossible for people is possible with God.” And He kept walking toward Jerusalem to make the impossible, possible. He kept walking toward Jerusalem to make the man’s question irrelevant. He kept walking toward Jerusalem to demonstrate His genuine love for us and to give a very un-good humanity the goodness that belongs to God alone.
Whether we’ve done “all these things” since our youth or not.
Today we’ll be exploring the last three lies from the book, and next month we’ll officially close out the series with an author interview. (I’m super excited about the interview!!! I bet you couldn’t tell that, could you??)
“I have to be perfect”
I grew up hearing sermons about the “goodness and severity of God” and about God not hearing the prayer of the sinner. Girls Bible study times were filled with questions like, “If women are to remain silent in church, is it a sin to whisper in church to ask someone the song number if I didn’t hear it announced?” and “How long should my shorts be?” So by the time I entered ministry at the age of 19, no one had to tell me I needed to be perfect; I already knew I needed to be perfect. And not only did I know I needed to be perfect, I knew everyone else needed to be perfect as well.
At the same time, I knew everyone wasn’t perfect. As a teenager, I knew my church friends were being physically and sexually abused at home, but no one would ever dare talk about that at church, where their dads were leaders. This taught me that the families around me weren’t perfect; it also taught me that they needed to appear that way. Furthermore, it taught me that the rest of us needed to treat them as though they were perfect. The appearance of perfection mattered more than actual righteousness.
Those are my stories; your stories will be different. Yet our collective stories may have taught us something dark and devious: that ministry and missionary families are (or should be) holier than everyone else. Our stories may have taught us that in order to serve God, we need to be super human. At the very least, our stories may have taught us that we need to project an image of perfection. Sometimes we extend this expectation to others and become judgmental of their non-perfection; other times we require it only of ourselves.
Of course, none of us is perfect. We all know this very well, because we all wrestle with our own sin natures. So we can become discouraged when we fail to meet our self-imposed (or church-imposed) “shoulds” over, and over, and over again. The pressures placed on missionaries, ministers, and their wives and children are often unattainable and put them at risk for depression. The painful irony here is that since they’re “supposed” to be perfect and not have any “major” problems, there’s shame both in the depression (or other mental health issues) and its appropriate treatment.
To illustrate this, Sanford once took an informal survey at a PK conference, asking for a show of hands of people who had been diagnosed with depression, placed on anti-depressant medicine, or hospitalized for depression. 80% of attendants raised their hands, at which point a woman in the back piped up with “But we’re not allowed to be!”
James says in his letter that “We all stumble in many ways,” and John’s first letter tells us, “If we claim we have no sin, we are only fooling ourselves and not living in the truth.” So the truth is, we can’t be perfect, and we don’t have to be. Yes, some of us are better than others at appearing perfect, but nobody actually is perfect. We sin, we mess up, we fail. Regularly. I repeat: we don’t have to be perfect. We don’t even have to give the impression.
Now this is much easier to say than it is to live. All those things I’d learned in church? Well, they had impacted my conception of God and who I was in relation to Him. I hadn’t realized it before, but I had zero theology of Grace. I thought I needed to prove my worth and earn my salvation. It was only about eight years ago that I began deconstructing these harmful beliefs. For about four months that year, I met with a counselor once a week. I spent lots of time in prayer with my Bible study group, and I read lots of Paul: Ephesians, Galatians, Romans. (I’m unabashed about my love for Paul.) Over and over and over again I listened and cried and danced to Chris Tomlin’s cover of Matt Maher’s song “Your Grace Is Enough.” These things transformed my thinking about sin and grace.
That year was a turning point in my walk with God and my understanding of Grace. I relinquished the old ways of thinking — though I confess they still creep back to haunt me from time to time. In those times, I have to return to God and ask Him to renew my mind yet again. (And yes, when I forget Grace, I still sometimes beat myself up by thinking, “I should understand this better by now!”)
Our attempts to be perfect cripple our experience of Christ. His perfection, and His perfection alone, undergirds the entire Gospel. And the Gospel is completely counter-cultural, in every culture. This is why we sometimes struggle to accept it: it seems quite literally too good to be true. Except that it is true! Grace, full and free, releases us from the requirements we feel from church members and supporters (and ourselves) to meet some impossible standard of perfection that Jesus already met. In Christ Alone, our hope is found.
Grace isn’t necessarily easy medicine to swallow for us perfectionists. I would often cry my eyes out in a counseling session and then be so exhausted I could sleep for the rest of the day. A single blog post cannot easily dismantle our beliefs surrounding God’s approval and our efforts. Unraveling our thinking is, frustratingly, not an overnight process. I do believe, however, that it’s a process He is faithful to fulfill.
“I’m damned if I do and damned if I don’t”
This phrase reflects the Either/Or mindset that has plagued me for so much of my life. It’s this kind of black-and-white thinking that has gotten me into so much inner turmoil: If I make one mistake, then I must be a total failure. And depression ensues. The “damned if I do and damned if I don’t” attitude also gives way to futility: If I can’t do something perfectly, then I won’t do it at all. This goes for “spiritual” things like Bible reading and also seemingly less spiritual things like interpersonal conflict and offering apologies.
The tragedy of Either/Or thinking is that it doesn’t acknowledge paradox or complexity. It doesn’t acknowledge that sanctification is a process. It doesn’t acknowledge that we are not fully regenerate yet and that no, we are not there yet. These are truths my beloved Apostle Paul acknowledged. (Romans 7 and Philippians 3, anyone?)
Brennan Manning said, “When I get honest, I admit that I am a bundle of paradoxes. I believe and I doubt, I hope and I get discouraged, I love and I hate, I feel bad about feeling good, I feel guilty about not feeling guilty. I am trusting and suspicious. I am honest and I still play games. To live by grace means to acknowledge my whole life’s story, the light side and the dark.” According to Manning, living by grace means embracing all the ANDS of our lives. (Don’t you just love Brennan Manning??)
When AND isn’t a part of our collective vocabulary, we tend to believe we are judged as either 100% good or 100% bad, with no middle ground. We feel stuck. We know everything is not all right, both in our own personal lives and in our families’ lives, but since image is more important than reality (as we discussed earlier), we don’t feel the freedom to tell the whole truth. In a way, this is a consequence of believing we have to be perfect — and if we’re not, we just better keep our mouths shut about it.
I still don’t know why I didn’t feel free to tell anybody about my friends being abused. I wasn’t being abused at home; so why should I have been scared to tell anyone about my friends, whom I loved? Perhaps I had picked up on the idea that the Church is “supposed” to keep silent about these things. Just let the leaders lead; the abuse they perpetrate against their children at home has nothing to do with their reasonable service at church. Just let the teachers teach; the pain they inflict on their children at home has nothing to do with their reasonable service at church. The unspoken rule becomes: Keep these things secret. Don’t ever tell the truth. Speak up, and you’ll be punished. Speak out, and you’ll be judged as rebellious.
It’s hard to keep the ugly truth bottled up all the time, and it tends to leak out in one way or another. One way it leaks out is by escaping into another world. In particular, Sanford says people use food (either binging, binging and purging, or restricting) and sex (mostly porn) as escapes, as some of these can be hidden, at least for a time. He says the truth also tends to slip out in sarcasm, which sometimes seems bitter and angry. However, sarcasm and escapes may not be our main problem: they may only be the mechanism we’re using to tell our stories.
So what is the cure for “Damned if I do, damned if I don’t”? I believe it’s to allow ourselves to say AND. It’s to allow ourselves, as Brennan Manning said, to be honest and admit we are a bundle of paradoxes, and to allow each other to say it as well. It’s when we acknowledge our whole life’s story, the light side and the dark side, that we can begin to live by Grace alone.
“God is disappointed with me”
The lies in this series are all somewhat related, and this last one closely follows “I have to be perfect.” It represents the fear that if I’m not perfect, then God will be mad at me. That if I make a mistake (or several), He’ll disapprove of me. We can spend our whole lives trying to make God happy with our behavior. Working, working, working, trying so very hard to please Him.
This one is listed last in the book because it’s what Sanford calls a “holy heresy about God.” The others lies are about myself and others, but this one goes straight to the heart of God. Sometimes when we grow up in church, we get the idea that God is just waiting for us to make a mistake so He can bring down His wrath, and punish us once and for all. We get the idea that we don’t deserve His love and aren’t good enough to earn His forgiveness. Not that He delights in us and sings over us, not that He loves us with an everlasting love and has saved us by His own Hand.
If that’s the kind of angry, vengeful God we know, we might end up walking away from Him.
I won’t even pretend to have all the answers here for how to deal with this lie. It goes really deep and takes a lot of time to shed. What I hope to do is to give you some resources that have helped me deal with this lie. I pray they can deepen your intimacy with God and strengthen your trust in His love.
Beginning to walk in the assurance of God’s unconditional love for us is an intensely personal journey. We walk part of it together, in safe community. We must also walk some of it alone, in the secret places of our hearts. It’s when I close the metaphorical door of my prayer closet and meet with God one on one that He touches me most personally and most deeply. I pray God will grant more and more of those sweet times of fellowship to all of us.
RESOURCES FOR ENCOUNTERING GOD
I mentioned Brennan Manning earlier in the post. The summer after I finished that four-month stint of counseling was my first introduction to Brennan Manning. My husband led our youth group through the Ragamuffin Gospel, Visual Edition. It’s an abridged version of his original work, with art. It was a balm to my soul and cemented in my mind the things I’d been learning that year.
This year I’ve been going through the daily devotions in Manning’s Reflections for Ragamuffins. Each day has a Scripture and a selection from his other writings. This year I’ve been on a journey to know God’s love more, and this book has been a big part of that.
A Life Overseas writer Kay Bruner recommends Abba’s Child. Although I haven’t read it, I love Manning enough and trust Kay enough to recommend it here.
I’d never read anything from Henri Nouwen before this Lenten season, when a friend of mine in Phnom Penh gave me a copy of Show Me the Way. It’s a collection of excerpts from his many books, and it’s profoundly affected my relationship with God. I loved Nouwen’s Lent book so much that I asked my friend for more recommendations (though I haven’t been able to get my hands on them yet). Again, I love Nouwen enough and trust my friend enough to include them below.
Jeanne Guyon wrote a book called Experiencing the Depths of Jesus that affected author Timothy Sanford so deeply that he recommends it in his Parsonage Heresies book. I plan to read it this coming furlough.
I know I’ve recommended Paul’s letters already, but I love Paul so much, I’ll say it again. Especially Ephesians, Galatians, and Romans. Hebrews is also helpful, but then, we don’t know who wrote that.
The book of First John. Also helpful is Beth Moore’s explanation of the life of John and his relationship with Jesus. Moore’s Beloved Disciple Bible study rewrote my understanding of the Apostle John.
The Psalms. I’ve often felt God’s love through the Psalms. (And I’m betting you probably have too.)
I Corinthians 13, viewed as a letter to you, from God. We know that God is love, and I Corinthians 13 is one of our best descriptions of what love looks like practically. I Corinthians 13 therefore gives us a glimpse into how God sees and treats us. This is an exercise Sanford recommends that made a big impact on me when I first read it a year and a half ago. Write it out in your own handwriting, use your own name, and ask God to show you His great big heart for you.
Music is a huge part of my connection with God. In particular, worship music from the International House of Prayer (IHOP) has opened up a whole new aspect of God for me: His passionate love for me and my reciprocal love for Him. IHOP music leans toward the charismatic end of the spectrum; two really gentle introductions to their music are listed below.
Unceasing, especially “Alabaster Box” on Track 5 and “I am Yours” on Track 12
JOY, especially “Every Captive Free” on Track 5 and “Marriage Wine” on Track 3. “My dad, He’s not angry. He’s not disappointed with me. My dad, He’s not angry. He’s smiling over me”
And a bonus: a new Chris Tomlin song I just heard at church this spring. Let the words sink deeply into your soul, healing all the cracks in it, the cracks that tell you God doesn’t love you or is angry or disappointed with you. It’s true: Jesus really does love you.
Now it’s your turn to share. What things have helped you accept Grace and receive Love from God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit? This is where we practice Safe Community and help each other along on the road to healing and wholeness, truth and light, peace and hope.
Our community at A Life Overseas knows what it is to leave and return. We know the anticipation of arrival and the tears of goodbye. We know the nervous stomach and gnawing unease of a new place and the warmth and comfort of an old place. And we know grace – oh how we know grace in all of this.
But sometimes we forget what it is to live out that grace in practical ways. My friend Robynn has earned wisdom in this area. When I returned from Turkey in November and felt anxious and uneasy it was Robynn I contacted. When an overwhelming sense of homesickness attacks me, it’s Robynn I text or call. So it is her words I offer today; words that articulate what it is to give ourselves grace in a world of living between.
Last year we returned to India – a place where we lived for fifteen years. It was a trip of a life time. We visited our old lives, old haunts, favourite places and people. We ate delicious food at every stop. We cried at old memories and laughed at new jokes. Our children were steeped in the places of their early childhoods. It was rich and full and we left with hearts overwhelmingly grateful. What an undeserved joy to be able to travel back again to that precious place!
However, coming back to my regular routines has been difficult. I anticipated grief and a sense of loss, but that’s not really what’s characterized my return. A friend recently inquired on Facebook as to how I am doing. My response to her was, “I have this relapse of culture shock. I feel at odds once again. That nervous uneasiness has reentered my stomach. I feel overwhelmed and easily anxious.”
Each time I try to explain what’s circling inside my soul to friends, in person or online, they respond gently, kindly, “Give yourself grace!”
Just give yourself some grace.
It was a big trip. You were gone a long time.
Give yourself grace!
You planned for it most of last year. It was a big deal. For heaven’s sake…you just went to India!
Give yourself some grace!
But I have no idea what that means. Looking it up in the dictionary does little to help. I don’t know how to do that. What does it look like to give myself grace? I’ve spent some time stewing on this. If this is the advice I repeatedly receive, I owe it to advice givers and, perhaps also, to myself to figure this out!
Here’s what I’ve come up with. Here’s what I think it means to Give Yourself Grace:
It’s going to take time. It took time to prepare for the trip. There were passports to renew and visas to apply for. The kids had to finish up their school work. Christmas presents had to be bought in advance. Bills would need to be paid while we were gone, plants would need watering. It all took a lot of time to organize and coordinate and arrange. It’s going to also take time to come back in. Returning requires time too. Unpacking, putting away suitcases, sorting through mail, making to do lists. There will be photos to sort through, piles of paper work to process, routines to reestablish. These things all take time.
Whatever you’re feeling is normal and to be expected. At least I hope this is true. I remember once in a moment of profound grief after the death of a close friend, a psychologist who was related to the family said, “Whatever you’re feeling is normal.” That actually brought a lot of comfort at that time. I was feeling some sadness but I also felt anger and exhaustion; I felt bitter and guilty at not being more upset than I was. Her pronouncement over my emotions gave me some relief and some freedom. I find myself repeating that over my heart when I don’t even necessarily know what I’m feeling. Emotions are so complex. How can I sort through them all? Surely, whatever I’m feeling just now is normal and to be expected!
You can expect waves of grief and relief. There are these moments of deep sadness after saying goodbye to South Asia, to close friends, to the place, even to myself. (I often leave large chunks of me there!). But there are also waves of relief. Life in India is hard work. Electricity is unpredictable. Pollution is intense—both in the air and on the ground. If I’m completely honest with myself, I also feel some relief that I don’t have to contend with those things every day. The relief is mixed with the grief which is mixed with equal parts of guilt and sorrow. It’s an odd cocktail but it’s the cup I’ve been given to drink.
You can anticipate some cultural confusion. When you switch a baby from breast-feeding to bottle feeding and then back to breast-feeding often the baby experiences some “nipple confusion.” As earthy as the metaphor might be, I think it describes some of what we feel when we return to our beloved places and then reenter our regular placements. We are confused. Our souls are unsettled. We knew a particular way and then we became used to a different way and now we’re back to the old way, but only temporarily and now we race to what was sort of familiar and yet now not so much. There has to be some cultural confusion….some yanking of our tethers, our leashes. We are whiplashed from culture to culture. You can expect to be out of whack!
There’s no rush. What’s the hurry? Where’s the deadline? It’s going to take time. (I think this really is the heart of “give yourself grace” and it begs repeating….)
Tap into God’s grace, his “unmerited divine assistance.” He specializes in going with people from place to place. He goes before and behind, encircling those he’s fond of. Certainly he understands and he can help. Ask him for some of that “divine assistance!”
“You know when I sit down or stand up. You know my thoughts even when I’m far away. You see me when I travel and when I rest at home. You know everything I do. You know what I am going to say even before I say it… You go before me and follow me. You place your hand of blessing on my head.” (Psalm 139:2-5)
Maybe the dictionary can help! Give yourself, “a temporary exemption: REPRIEVE,” a “special favour,” or, “disposition to or an act or instance of kindness, courtesy, or clemency.” In other words be nice to yourself! Pamper yourself. Make yourself a cup of hot tea. Sit quietly in your favourite chair. Watch a cathartic something that will make you cry! Watch something that will make you laugh out loud! Read through your journal again. Pour yourself a hot bath. Be very nice to yourself.
Resist the urge to return too quickly. Try not to rush back in. Breathe deeply. Move slowly. Go ahead and do the next thing on your list but don’t hurry. Your poor body has been around the world and back again. Let your soul catch up! Come home slowly.
Make to do lists. It’s pathetic, I know, but one thing you’re likely feeling is completely out of control! And of course you are! Regaining control is a mirage….it can’t really happen. But there is something to be said about doing the next thing. And it’s easier to know what that is when you have some good lists to work from.
So this is what I think it means to Give Myself some Grace! And it’s what I’m trying to do just now. The return journey from India is a lot longer than the one that took us there. I’m giving myself grace.
Folks,I’m a bit in survival mode here at the moment. I’ve been without a car all week. We have an uncharacteristically grumpy, teething baby. We have a feverish two year old who only wants Mama… all the time. We have a Daddy who is leaving on Sunday for a week. And we have two very tired parents, because what we don’t have is nearly enough sleep.
Yesterday, however, I decided that when people here ask me how I am, I’m going to try to avoid giving them the shell-shocked stare of someone under siege and then launching straight into a disjointed account of my biggest problem of the moment. That goes for this blog, too. So this month I’m not going to write a post exploring how to cope with epic toddler tantrums (although if you’d like to see me write on that at some stage, let me know). Instead, I’m going to post something more light-hearted that I wrote four years ago.It’s about grace that I experienced in – of all places – an airport.
Until this morning I had thought that perhaps my capacity to invent new and stupid things to do in airports had finally been exhausted. After all, it’s been almost two years since I’ve done something dumb on an epic scale.
Given my track record, two years is a pretty long time to go without a major self-inflicted airport disaster. In two years I have not left my wallet at home and gone to Colorado without any money or credit cards. I have not neglected to get a visa for Czech Republic and been stranded in Germany. I have not sat, content, at the wrong gate in Chicago airport until a mere twenty-seven minutes before my flight to London left from an entirely different terminal. I have not shown up at the airport for a flight to Washington only to be informed that I was supposed to be on that flight all right, just a week earlier. I have not misread a flight itinerary for a trip to Ghana as leaving on Tuesday, not to realize until Monday at 9am that it actually left on Monday at 4pm. I have not lost my bank card and then had to hastily borrow a thousand dollars in cash from church friends before a Sunday departure for two weeks in Kenya. I have not illegally entered home country number one as a tourist on the passport of home country number two after realizing, on the day of departure, the implications of the fact that my passport for home country number one had expired.
And, in a particular triumph, I have not been rude to any incompetent immigration officials, in any country.
In other words, I’ve been good these past two years. Really, really, good.
So good, I thought that maybe these days of tragi-comedy airport disasters were over. I truly hoped so. Because, contrary to what some of my nearest and dearest may believe, I don’t do these sorts of things on purpose. These sorts of situations are in no way fun while they’re unfolding. They make my palms sweat, my heart race, and my general stress levels spike (which, given that most of them have occurred during my travels as a stress management trainer, is a particularly aggravating irony). They are a serious assault on my image of myself as smart, competent, organized, and independent.
I am not quite sure why, but a disproportionate number of these incidents seem to involve airports. And so it was this morning.
This morning I got to Grand Rapids airport in Michigan an absurdly safe two hours early for my domestic flight. I spotted my gate number – B1, found a nice chair in the sun, rejoiced over the free wireless, and paid no attention to the surrounding chaos until I heard the words “final boarding opportunity” and “Chicago” right after one another.
I slammed the laptop shut and jumped up, wondering how it had gotten so late, only to turn around and see that between me and gate B1 stood… security screening.
Security screening, which I had completely forgotten I had not yet passed through. Which, in fact, I had completely forgotten even existed.
And there was a very long line of people stretching away from it down the terminal, past where I stood.
So I want to say a very sincere thank you to the woman at the head of the line who let me go in front of her when I showed up panicked and begging. And to the half a dozen people behind her who came to my defense and said it was alright for me to totally disregard my rightful duty to the line, “they didn’t mind at all”, when the security people accosted me with a belligerant “ma’am” and demanded to know if I had waited my turn.
Not only were these people in line kind, they were nice about it too. They smiled at me, which I totally did not deserve.
It was, in a pure form, grace.
Hours later it all still leaves me drenched in shame and shaky gratitude and determined to treat gently those who cross my path very flustered after just having done something unbelievably silly. Perhaps even to treat gently those who are doing something unbelievably silly but aren’t the least bit flustered or regretful.
And to smile at them.
Have you experienced grace from strangers lately? Do share the tale…
I am 30 weeks and a gazillion eons pregnant. My belly is the size of Canada and my brain is the size of a mustard seed (and, trust me, this mustard seed isn’t up to moving any mountains). Pregnancy and childbirth – it’s a Serious Design Flaw, if you ask me. And it’s not like there aren’t better systems out there on the market. Kangaroos, for example, have a perfectly reasonable reproductive system in place.
(Please note, if you’re tempted to mention Eve, original sin, or anything to do with apples in the comments, don’t. I’m in no mood.)
So I’m currently hanging out with our toddler in the land of ice cream and honey (also known as Australia) awaiting the birth of our second child. Meanwhile my husband, Mike, is starting a new job in Laos, overseeing an in-country move, finding a house, buying a car, etc. He won’t be here for another two months.
I was going to write something about pregnancy and cross-cultural living but, well, mustard seed. Instead, I’m going to share an unpublished piece I wrote shortly after we moved to Laos called You Owe Me Grace. This piece still makes me laugh and think. I hope you enjoy it.
You Owe Me Grace
Ever since my husband, Mike, and I moved to Laos three months ago, perhaps the single word that has best described life is, “eventful”. Few weekends, however, have been as eventful as this last one. This weekend was the first time we bought a puppy home, the first time we cooked dinner in our new place, the first day we took possession of a golf cart as our household vehicle, and the first time we crashed it.
The town where we live, Luang Prabang, is small enough to navigate without a car. We’re still debating whether we’ll get a motorcycle or make do with our feet and bicycles, but while we figure it out we’ve decided to take our landlord up on her offer to use the golf cart that was parked on the property when we first arrived.
I’d like to be able to explain how this afternoon’s accident happened, but I’m not entirely sure. I’ve seen Mike safely navigate four wheel drive trucks backwards down dirt tracks barely wide enough to fit a bicycle (though, come to think of it, how we got stuck down that track in the first place could be the subject of a whole other article, and I’ll tell you right now it certainly wasn’t my fault). I’ve been Mike’s passenger on the back of motorcycles and in cars that he has capably piloted on three continents. I’d say without hesitating that he is a better driver than I am.
Except, apparently, when it comes to golf carts.
The golf cart’s not hard. I mean, sure, it doesn’t have lights, or turn signals, or power steering, or brakes that work well. You can’t see out the plastic windshield at the front very well because it’s all scratched up. And you do have to come in the house on an angle or you’ll bottom out. But, still, the thing is significantly smaller than the width of our driveway, which is why I remain puzzled as to how exactly Mike managed to ramp the curb while turning into the house and then drive full speed into our gate.
As “full speed” here was approximately the velocity of a decrepit ride-on lawnmower, no one was hurt – unless you count the abdominal strain undoubtedly experienced by the three neighborhood men standing nearby during their subsequent laughing fit. These men didn’t even try to pretend thatit wasn’t the funniest thing they’d seen all month, and I can’t say I blame them. How often do you get to see two foreigners, carrying three kilos of tomatoes and drinking iced coffee out of a plastic bag, pilot a golf cart into a stationary object?
“I think it’s OK,” I said to Mike after we came to a standstill, laughing a little myself and having no clue whether what I’d just said was in any way true.
I hopped out and stared at the front of the golf cart. It was leaking a black, oily-looking, fluid.
Mike was considerably less amused than the rest of us.
“I don’t think it’s OK,” he said, grim, as he got out to survey the damage. “If that’s oil, then it’s definitely not OK.”
The neighborhood men had wandered over to take a closer look.
“Bo di,” I said to them, shrugging.
No, they agreed with my rudimentary Lao, “cannot do”. The men went on to say many other things, too, but goodness knows what they were. The options are endless, really. They could have been offering to help us push the cart into the driveway, or they could have been inquiring as to whether we had the brains God gave a water buffalo. Even if I could speak Lao fluently, however, I’m still not sure I would have been able to understand them given that they were still laughing hysterically during the entire one-way exchange.
As Mike and the neighborhood men maneuvered the cart into the driveway I totted the tomatoes, destined for that night’s adventure in “make your own pasta sauce”, into the house. I was chopping away by the time Mike came in.
“I can’t believe I did that,” he said.
“Honey, it’s really OK,” I said. “No one was hurt. It can be fixed. It’s not a big deal.”
“I know,” Mike said, sighing. “But I feel stupid.”
“Yeah,” I said supportively. “I can see why.”
This didn’t quite make him laugh, but it came close.
“You’re taking this much better than I am,” he said. “That’s really good.”
I thought this last statement over while I did the rest of the chopping, and 36 tomatoes later I’d realized something that I’m not at all proud of.
By far the largest part of me genuinely isn’t thatfussed about the golf cart. Accidents happen. The money and hassle that will be involved in getting it fixed are annoying, sure, but they are completely overshadowed by the much more important fact that no one was hurt.
But I also realized that there is a small and grubby part of me that can be secretly glad when things like this happen to Mike – a part of me that claps its hands and makes a notation on a mental list of, “silly things that Mike has done in the year and a half since we’ve gotten married”. This list has things on it like: parking ticket in LA (two), leaving a bank card in an ATM, and… driving the golf cart into the gate.
I’m not sure whether it makes it better or worse that I’m not cataloging these incidents because I’m secretly more frustrated than I act when they happen. No, what is happening is much more self-centered than mere repression. The small part of me that rubs its hands in glee at moments like these is happy because I know, I just know, that one of these days I’m going to do something dumb on a scale so epic that Mike cannot yet fathom it. I’m going to book non-refundable international airtickets for the wrong day, or write off a vehicle considerably more expensive than the golf cart, or give the wrong bank account number when I’m trying to transfer money internationally.
Oh, wait, I’ve already done that last one.
The point is, part of me is glad to tell Mike that a dented golf cart is no big deal because I’m hoping – no, expecting – that when I do this next silly thing Mike will smile serenely and tell me everything is fine. Because he will, after all, owe me grace.
Somehow I don’t think that’s exactly the spirit of what Jesus had in mind in Mark 12:31 when he instructed us that we should love our neighbor as ourselves, even if my actions in being unruffled by golf cart mishaps seem to check the box.
Oh well, I’m sure Mike will give me more opportunities in the months and years to come to get my attitude and my actions in a decent place at the same time. And who knows, I may even give him some. After all, there’s a first time for everything.
How do you handle these sorts of mishaps (which can happen a lot when you’re living overseas)?
Have you ever caught yourself feeling “owed” grace? How do you combat that?
Lisa McKay – author, psychologist, sojourner in Laos
Do I have your attention? (if not, keep reading…there will be a giveaway later on!)
Do you really think missionaries view themselves as a Messiah to the people they reach?
No, but this complex starts with a small thought, attitude, or even temptation.
That temptation is rooted in arrogance.
Missionaries being arrogant?
Aren’t the words associated with missions, words like “service, suffering, and sacrifice?” How could that lead to arrogance?
Our perceived external humility in serving others, can easily lead us into internal pride.
Being a missionary feeds our human desire to be indispensable or needed. It feels good to hear people say they could not make it without us.
I listen to young missionaries proclaim their desires all the time:
“To rescue people out of their poverty.” “To help those who cannot help themselves.” “I know I have something to offer these people.”
If we are not careful, this youthful zeal can work its way deep in our hearts. It begins with a legitimate desire to help. Slowly, subtly, this godly desire turns into an air of superiority. Pride at its root says “I am better than them.”
I’ve had numerous times in my missions career where my desire to give and serve was superseded by a focus on what I was getting out of the work, or at least what I thought I was earning from God.
For me, it stemmed from a false perception which believed climbing the ladder of good works endeared me more to the Father.
If we have a misunderstanding of grace and our acceptance from God, our service can quickly become a merit badge of honor. Worse yet, it could be a way to work off our bad deeds, attempting to balance the cosmic scales of good and bad.
I meet many missionaries who are doing great things, but for the wrong reasons.
I’ve been one.
Jesus reserved some harsh words for these people, the Pharisees. (Matt. 23:27)
As missionaries, is our service an attempt to climb the ladder to God? Do we desire to be indispensable to those we serve, because deep in our hearts; we must be for us to feel “ok’ with God. If people don’t need us, have we lost our value, losing one of the greatest tools we have to earn the acceptance of God?
I realize these are drastic examples.
We must ask ourselves if we can see even a hint of this attitude as we look in the mirror.
How often in our marriages do we serve hoping to be noticed, rather than being motivated by love? It is the default mode of the human condition and is more common than we would like to admit.
Our society tells us the only way to success is to be bigger, better, faster, or stronger. We owe it to ourselves to evaluate our missions and service in light of the free gift of grace.
Are we giving to get? Is our service more for those we minister too or for our own personal peace of mind and security with God? If people did not “need” us, would we feel less valuable?
Applying grace to our missionary lives is not a once off event, but rather a continual journey of soul-searching and contemplation. We may begin to find success in one area, only to have another rear its head. For the rest of our lives (and ministry), we will need to apply the message of grace on the missions field.
How have you experienced this temptation? What tips can you offer to avoid a “Messiah Complex”?