Tending to the Garden of Expat Emotions

by Lauren Swenson

It was so strange to me, the day when someone asked our names at church as if we were total strangers. We’d played volleyball several times together, had a host of mutual friends, and attended the same service regularly. I asked him, “Do you seriously not remember meeting us before?” His response was, “Oh I’ve lived here long enough that I’ve decided not to make any friends until I know they’ll be staying in Nairobi for a while. How long have you been here?” (Two years, and we met you within the first month or two.) “What do you do?” (We’re building a CrossFit gym.) “Oh, so you own a business! Yes, maybe you’ll be here a while.” He then proceeded to give us his name – again – and he told us he’d try to remember our names this time.

Surprisingly, although this weirdly frank conversation is not the norm, there have been quite a number of people we’ve met who ask prequalifying questions like “How long have you been here?” or “How long do you intend to stay?” or “What organization are you with?” to try to gauge if there’s a possibility of a longer-term relationship or if it’s going to be a short-lived acquaintance.

And I can say truthfully now, I get it. I get why people try to hedge their expectations. It hurts. I find myself grieving over the loss of friendships regularly here. I find myself saddened by the reality that we live in a place where people very regularly move on.

Strictly from a professional standpoint, we have trained with, invested in, and brought on fourteen people who joined us and then left, and we have two more highly integrated individuals who are moving on in the immediate future. The majority of these people are driven by worthy aspirations and have made meaningful life-moves for themselves, so of course I celebrate those realized hopes with them.

But ouch.

It’s not easy being left behind, rebuilding and finding new people to fill spaces that belonged to someone else who uniquely fulfilled their role with us, with our story and aspirations and structure.

I find myself grieving, because I give, invest, pour into people, and then the gaps appear, and the process has to start all over again. It’s disappointing when I have to slow my own progress to go back and train a new teammate.

I grieve because saying goodbye so often makes me feel isolated and alone, and like my story matters little compared to others’ stories.

Maybe someone more mature than me could take the losses in stride. What I do know is that I don’t want to grow heart-calluses that keep people at arms’ length, so I choose to dive in to understand, invest, know, and trust. But is there a way to do this without it hurting?

And in a context where life is not easy and opportunities are sought after like the rare treasures they are, I hurt at the heartbreak and hardships so many face. The never-ending toil of trying to find enough work to put food on the table at the end of each day. The lack of quality public education that puts tremendous burden on families to put children through school. No money for rent, people dodging landlords praying their home won’t be padlocked, possessions seized and tossed into the street. I am not here to work with the poor and disenfranchised, but in the course of my regular life – friends, neighbors, consultants – the realities are humbling, desperate, and overwhelming.

What do I do when this unsettling grief seems to circle around me? It’s not a distant discomfort; it is very present and tangible.

In some ways, it’s a good thing to grieve like this; it is evidence that I am present and alive – feeling, empathizing, caring – in my relationships. As a matter of principle, I want to be all of those things with people, and I believe I am choosing the right priorities.

What troubles me is how I feel when I give myself to training, believing, raising up, trusting, and investing my time, ideas and often finances, and I don’t feel it reciprocated with the loyalty of longevity. Somehow I feel betrayed, like I’ve been used (or am being used) as a steppingstone.

Yet those words war against another reality: I can literally say that one of the joys of my life is being a conduit of grace and hope and being an equipper, someone who can be relied upon and who helps others see a way forward. I desire to be living part of others’ pathway to seeing God’s providence and purpose in their lives, and I feel like I’m operating in my giftings when I do so. I feel my own purpose in being a steppingstone.

It feels like more than a matter of semantics, this steppingstone question. The tension in equipping others and releasing them. The pain of relationship and community. There isn’t a lighthearted quip or pearl of wisdom to nicely qualify and take care of the discomfort that seems like a constant ache in me. I am convinced I can’t make a mental decision, alter a belief, or take a vow that will make the grief disappear.

Instead, I find myself imagining a garden: soil and flowers and crawling things with a stone pathway meandering through it. The hedges don’t guard on the inside of the garden; rather, they keep what isn’t necessary from disturbing the space within. Inside the garden there are park benches awaiting conversations, a table awaiting the opportunity of a shared meal, the bird bath welcoming song, the green grass hoping for small feet to run and tumble through it.

I don’t want to hedge against good grief. I want to be a place where the sadness I feel is because my life is that garden, and my heart has been the steppingstone that welcomed guests in and has seen them leave, better than when they arrived.

Help me, Jesus, to know how to do this well, because sometimes it hurts more than I want it to.

Originally published here.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Feeling compelled to influence a part of the world just beginning to embrace fitness as a lifestyle, Lauren and Bryant Swenson and their three teenagers relocated to Nairobi, Kenya in 2016 to open a CrossFit gym. To keep family and friends connected with their journey overseas, Lauren started a blog, which has become her own soul-nurturing chronicle even as life abroad stretches her faith and understanding. Through her writing, Lauren desires to be an authentic and faithful voice, and to foster the togetherness, teachability, tenacity, and transformation that define their purpose in Africa.

Something New is Being Built

by Kate

“Where is that sound coming from?” I asked my roommates as we all woke, jet-lagged, on day two in our new country. The construction had started early. We stared out our kitchen window trying to locate the sound, but all we caught glimpse of was a dry, brown field.

The next day, we awoke to the same noise and gathered in my roommate’s room to see if her window gave a better view. All we got was a different glimpse of the same field. The loud noise persisted for weeks, as did our search for the source.

There were no answers, only our silly grumblings about a noise that caused annoyance and loss of sleep. Our grumbling soon dissipated, and we accepted the new life we would be living.

It wasn’t long before I began walking my Middle Eastern neighborhood. I’ve always loved walking. Give me a path around a lake or just a sidewalk, and I’ll put on a podcast and put my feet to the pavement for as long as I can. These walks soon became daily and felt almost holy.

One day, maybe a month in, I decided to go for a stroll around my new neighborhood. As I turned the corner, I saw some old wood scattered on the sidewalk and street. Next to it was a big pile of concrete waiting to be mixed. I looked up at the house and saw men tearing down part of the side of it. It was clear they were preparing the way for something new to be built.

“Huh, that’s how I feel,” I said to myself, my eyes puffy from the tears I had just cried about missing my family and feeling unknown in this foreign land. “So this is where the noise is coming from,” I thought. It turns out that the call to prayer isn’t the only thing that can be heard at a distance in a concrete jungle; you can also hear construction.

On that day in July of 2019 when I first found the source of the noise and felt God whispering, “This is what I’m doing in you,” all I knew was what I was losing, what was being torn down.

Later as I stood on the big balcony of my rooftop apartment, despite hearing the loud noise, I thought, “This is the house I have chosen, and I love it and wouldn’t trade it for the world.” And it’s the same with this strange life I have chosen to live. I wouldn’t trade it for the world, but I hate the loss . . . and the tearing down? It’s painful.

The truth is, while trainings and courses are beneficial, they can only prepare you so much for living abroad. It’s not until you have a one-way ticket that things get real. And I guess in some ways I’ve numbed the pain of loss. It’s easier to just pass by and say, “That’s annoying,” and run off to a friend’s quiet apartment. But the reality is that noise still is there, and I know it.

I never could have imagined the pain of five friends and family dying while I was overseas, crying on my couch alone as I watch their zoom funerals. Or the loneliness that comes from someone asking how I am doing and putting on a brave face because I wonder how they’ll judge me if I answer honestly. It’s like suddenly in this new life I don’t belong anywhere. I hate watching my best friends’ kids grow up over FaceTime. I hate seeing my mom bawl and not want to let go of me as I walk through security at the airport.

I feel loss as I walk the streets of my desert city, staring at the ground so as to not stare in the eyes of men, making sure I’m wearing loose clothing and cardigans that are long enough. I miss the fun, short-sleeved Kate I can be in America, and I feel as though I am somehow more silenced than I have ever been in my life. I could never have been prepared for my body being overtaken with sickness, lying in the hospital relying on an IV and medicine to bring my body back to health. They told me before moving overseas that all of me — the good, bad, and ugly — would be exposed living abroad and guess what? They were right.

It’s almost as if, when I asked where the loud noise in my neighborhood was coming from, so too I asked God as I cried myself to sleep, “Where is this coming from? Why is this so painful? Is this even worth it?”

But maybe most impactful was the loss of comfort in how I knew and engaged with God. Small groups and worship nights? Forget it. Being completely immersed in a different culture and religion forced the loss of knowing and believing all the right answers. I even sometimes lost the belief that God was good and had my best in mind. That He was out for my joy and that His power could change my neighbors’ and friends’ hearts. As I sat with friends who are refugees, and as they told me stories through tears about the bombings and rapes they have experienced, I lost any ability to ignore evil in this world.

Just as my roommates and I complained about the noise, all I could do was fall on my face before God and cry and question — until that too, exhausted me, and it seemed easier to ignore it all.

But remember that concrete waiting to be mixed next to the wood that was torn down?

About a year after passing by that house, God answered a prayer for my friend and me to be invited into that exact home. As we sat eating dates and drinking chai, our neighbor told us that they were building an elevator onto their house for their elderly parents.

And in that moment all I could think of was, “Something new is being built.”

The loss, the grief, the pain, and the tears may always persist.

And something new is being built. The invitation to grieve the losses has also been an invitation to experience God adding new parts to me, to my friendship with Him. I would have never known what was being added unless I got up close and went into the home of our neighbor. I would never have known this story if I hadn’t asked what was happening or seen the wood on the ground.

So too it has been with my loss. The easy route is to skip the street with the construction. To hear about it, complain about it, and become numb to it.

That is one way to live.

But I’ve come to learn that I should always say yes to God’s invitation. My “no” always leads to missing out — on knowing God in deeper, life changing ways. So I have a choice.

Will I come face to face with my loss and also come face to face with God — who is deeply acquainted with all my ways and is out for my good and joy more than I can imagine? Or will I refuse to answer that invitation?

Spring came around and one day my roommates looked out our kitchen window. We saw a green field and flowers blooming.

There is loss and there is new life.

May I be faithful to accept God’s invitation into both.

~~~~~~~~~~~~

Until she moved to the Middle East three years ago, Kate had always lived near Washington, D.C. Kate takes her faith and fun seriously and is eager to invite others into both. She can often be found sitting on a cushion on the floor drinking chai with friends, fumbling her way around town in Arabic, or learning what it means to rest well while living abroad. With a big sports history in her past, she will always say yes to shooting hoops or doing anything active outside with friends. She loves connecting with friends new and old — you can find her on Instagram at @myfriend.kate.

Long Distance Funerals

My uncle passed away in January. I was able to day-trip (a 3.5 hour drive each way) for the small family funeral and wake. Some of his favourite music was played, one of his favourite poems was recited, we poured over old photos of him through his life, and we scoured the books lining the walls of his library looking for those we’d read before. I was very glad to be there to support my aunt and to remember my uncle well, in all his aspects, and to share him with others who knew him well.

Soon after I realised it was the first family funeral I had attended in 15 years. This speaks largely to good fortune: in the 15 years I lived outside Australia, only three of my relatives passed away. But being far from family when death occurs is a common experience among the globally mobile.

Back in 2013 I was invited to speak to a group of high school students at an international boarding school on the subject of death. For one week, their health teacher had allowed all her classes to choose between several optional units, including first aid, bullying/violence, and basic psychology. This class, with students from China, South Korea, Thailand, and Eastern Europe, chose a unit on death and grief, and I was invited in as a guest speaker.

I am in no way an expert on death, but I have a lot of experience walking with Third Culture Kids through grief experiences. Loss is a constant and ongoing part of international life.

We went over the Five Stages of Grief: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. We talked about what these stages might look like, and some words/phrases/attitudes often linked with each stage. We talked about how grief is different when we are far away from the people we are grieving. We talked about the many other losses we grieve, especially those connected with international living – moving away, friends moving away from us, physical or emotional distance between us and our relatives, etc.

I shared several personal stories with them. I talked about the deaths of my two paternal grandparents and the big differences in those grief experiences. When my Grandma died, I was still living in Australia, and I spent several days in her home with my family for the funeral. When my Grandpa died, I was living alone in China, and I didn’t go home for the funeral.

My grandparents were wonderful people who lived very full lives and were well-loved. While I was obviously sad to lose them, to no longer have them as part of my life, and to lose the opportunity to know them better as an adult, neither loss was particularly traumatic. The importance of telling the stories was, rather, the difference in the grief experience and grieving process in each case. This was something that resonated strongly with the students, most of whom were living far away from their families.

The students also shared their own stories. Some talked about the deaths of dearly loved grandparents they hadn’t been able to properly grieve — and perhaps didn’t know how to properly grieve — due to the distance separating them. Others talked about deaths that hit closer to home: friends, nearer relatives, even people who shadowed their lives after memories had faded. Many talked about the difficulty of having no one to share these experiences with, having no outlet for their emotions and memories. It was a poignant conversation and a powerful experience.

More than anything, it instilled in me the difference that presence makes during times of grief, and especially when losing loved ones through death.

*****

During the pandemic over the past two years, lack of presence surrounding death has sadly become a much more common experience. Due to hospital regulations, many people have been unable to be with loved ones in person as they pass. Others have been unable to travel to see their loved ones during illness or for funeral gatherings, due to border closures and travel restrictions. What has always been difficult for the globally mobile suddenly became impossible for many, even those in the same country or city!

I lost my Nana at the start of the pandemic after a long illness (not related to Covid-19). I knew it was coming, and that I probably would not be able to afford the time and money to return to Australia for her funeral. But when the time came, I did not even have the option. New border regulations meant that if I did go, I’d be isolated until after the funeral anyway.

When we think about funerals, how can we be sensitive to the needs of the globally mobile (and anyone who has difficulty attending), especially during pandemic conditions when this is so common? I have five suggestions for planning funerals that help support those who are grieving, whether in person, from a distance, or both.

1) Remember who the funeral is for

While we strive to honour the departed loved one during their funeral, the function of funeral services, memorial services, and wakes is largely to provide comfort and an outlet for the grief of those they left behind.

After my uncle’s funeral, my aunt told me about a conversation they’d had years earlier in which he passionately declared that he never wanted a funeral held for him. She planned one anyway, because it wasn’t for him. It was for her, and for everyone else who cared about him, to gather and say their goodbyes. Creating space for those goodbyes and for the sharing of memories is incredibly important for the grieving process each person is going through.

2) Give as much warning as possible

Give people time to make arrangements, whether to get time off work or to arrange childcare and/or travel. The further away people are, the more important this is. Sometimes a funeral can be delayed several weeks to make this more manageable for people far away. If the actual funeral must be held quickly (there are many reasons for this), consider having a memorial service later, to provide an opportunity for shared grieving.

On the other hand, I have also been in situations in international communities where it was important to hold a memorial service quite quickly. For example, when schools begin their summer breaks, these communities tend to scatter around the world. The bottom line for any funeral or memorial should therefore be knowledge of what is best for the communities grieving the person who died. This might mean holding more than one memorial, spanning different times and places.

3) Include children

Small children are often kept away from funeral and memorials. A two- or three-year-old child, however, can of course be very attached to a person and in need of participating in shared grief. While this may look different for children, it is good and right to include them in the community as we grieve together for the person we have lost. This is no less true for children who live far away from their relatives.

When I was about three, my great-grandmother (whose engagement ring I later wore as my own) passed away. I was not included at her funeral, and I was extremely upset when told I could not go! I said to my parents (quite indignantly, I’m told) that I knew and loved her too. They thought this was a good point, and from then on children were always invited to our family funerals. When my Nana died last year, her three great-grandchildren (ages 2, 3, and 5) all travelled with their parents to be at her funeral. There are now pictures of them dancing and playing in the grassy field outside the wake, which are precious to everyone. Attending the funeral helped the five-year-old in particular understand that her great-grandmother had died, even though she rarely visited, because she was there as part of the community event marking her Nana’s life.

4) Make sure the real person is represented

Every funeral should look different, because every individual is different. My sister and I agreed that the eulogy given by my uncle’s eldest son was powerful to us because we recognised our uncle in every line. The man he described was the man we remembered. The music and poetry he loved (things we all knew about him) had a prominent place in the service.

Those who are physically distant already feel far away from the event of a funeral, and the space it holds for shared grief. If eulogies and other elements of a funeral or memorial are generic and/or do not represent the real person their friends and family know, this can be alienating. This makes those who are physically far away feel alone in their grief.

5) Create space to share memories of the departed loved one

This can be formal or informal. The important thing is that everyone has a chance to stop and remember who this person has been to them, and how this person has impacted their life. I really appreciated that my uncle’s service included a time of silent remembering after the eulogies, where we were given space to remember him individually while listening to music he loved. This time allowed memories triggered by what I’d heard to bloom into full consciousness, giving me stories I wanted to share. Later at the wake, it was a delight to share those stories with those who knew him, and to hear their stories in return. Spending time looking through photo albums my aunt had prepared (complete with dates and captions) was also very powerful. So was going through his beloved library of books, remembering him that way.

These moments are often what is missing for those who are far away when funerals happen. A livestream of an event, when available, is rarely interactive; it doesn’t allow those who are far away to engage in sharing memories and actively reflecting. But there are other virtual options to help provide this space for those who can’t be physically present. Group video calls, shared online documents, word clouds, virtual post in note boards, virtual memorial tools, and so much more can be creatively utilised to allow those who are geographically separated to collaborate in honouring and sharing memories of a loved one who has died.

One other thing to keep in mind: if only one person is missing and unable to be at a funeral, keep them in the loop. Most people in this situation feel the distance keenly, feeling isolated and left out. Most want to hear about what’s happening, want to share in the process, and especially to share in the storytelling and group remembering that accompany funerals, memorials, and wakes. So call them, talk to them, share stories with them. Being the only one away can be very lonely, as I and the international students I mentioned earlier can attest to.

*****

This is an edited version of blog posts that first appeared on tanyacrossman.com here and here.

When God is Disappointing

The disappointments just keep piling up like dirty laundry in a teenage boy’s bedroom. We were required to leave our overseas home of sixteen years three months early. We didn’t get to say proper good-byes. We finished out the school year in front of screens, including my job as principal. We lived out of suitcases like vagabonds for several months. We didn’t get the chance to reconnect with most friends in the States before we needed to move into a new life. Now that we’ve begun that new life, we’re forbidden to connect here also. The pools are closed, the churches are closed, the schools are closed. Roadblocks are preventing us from all the avenues we usually use to join a new community. Of course, they say I could join an online Bible study (with strangers). That sounds positively dreadful.

I know I shouldn’t complain, and yet I do. This was never what I envisioned as our departure from a country we deeply loved. Now that life is going on without us, our wounds stay open. This is never what I envisioned for our entry back into our passport country. Isolation, a life on hold, waiting and waiting and waiting for the day when it will feel like our new lives have actually started. “Build a RAFT,” they say. “That’s how you transition well.” If transition is supposed to be a raft, then ours has leaks, and we’re not even sitting on it, but holding on to the sides for dear life as we are thrown down the rapids. And we have no idea where or when the end will be.

I know it’s good to grieve, but often it’s turned to bitterness. There’s a lot of finger-pointing going on these days, and I find myself jumping on that bandwagon. I look for someone to blame. Someone in authority over me is making bad decisions and deserves to be vilified. Someone needs to be fixing this mess. And before I know it, I realize that I’m actually blaming God. And then I feel smugly justified in feeling irritated with God because I am prevented from doing good things. After all, my plans for how I was going to love people in my new community were really great. What were you thinking, God?

Yes, I realize how stupid that sounds. Reminding God how much he needs me is a great way to recognize how arrogant I really am. 

There are many things God routinely has to teach me, but the One Big Truth that he keeps coming around to is his sovereignty. He is running the universe; I am not.  

I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come. I say, ‘My purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please.’

That means COVID was not an accident. Every single disappointment, from closed schools, to canceled graduations and vacations, to the roadblocks to ministry–all are meticulously ordained by a sovereign God.

I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the Lord, do all these things. (Is. 45:7)

Some say this belief means I think God is wicked. How can a good God allow so many bad things? Isn’t it obvious that human sin and supernatural evil are the causes of bad things? Indeed. But even evil must fall under God’s sovereign will. If it doesn’t, what would be the alternative? We would have a weak God who isn’t powerful enough to stop evil when he pleases. That’s not a God worthy of our worship.

Margaret Clarkson wrote, “The sovereignty of God is the one impregnable rock to which the suffering human heart must cling. The circumstances surrounding our lives are no accident: they may be the work of evil, but that evil is held firmly within the mighty hand of our sovereign God…. All evil is subject to Him, and evil cannot touch His children unless He permits it. God is the Lord of human history and of the personal history of every member of His redeemed family.’”

Some say this belief makes me fatalistic, that if God is calling all the shots, then where is human choice? Why would we work to make the world better? Why should we plan, vote, protest, strategize? But Scripture is clear that God’s sovereignty does not negate our responsibility. Yes, of course, we push back evil; we strive to extend grace; we fight to bring redemption. But at the end of the day, we rest in knowing that even when we (or those around us) mess up, fail, even destroy–even then, God has allowed it; God has a purpose in it. 

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord.

Sometimes we just need to remind ourselves that God is in control. It’s an easy platitude; we put it on t-shirts and coffee mugs. It can become stale and irrelevant if we say it and don’t mean it; if we write it and don’t live by it. Bitterness, complaining, and unrighteous anger are good indications that it’s time for another reminder. 

Living with the knowledge of God’s sovereignty means that when I’m disappointed, I can grieve the loss without becoming bitter. When I reach the end of my ability to change my situation, I can rest instead of fret. It means that when my plans go haywire, I can trust that God knows what’s best better than I do. He is master of my time, my money, and my health, so I don’t need to let the loss of those things cause me stress. And even when I am prevented from doing my version of good things, I can find freedom in remembering that God doesn’t actually need me. 

Elisabeth Elliot wrote, “You either believe God knows what He’s doing or you believe He doesn’t. You either believe He’s worth trusting or you say He’s not. And then, where are you? You’re at the mercy of chaos not cosmos. Chaos is the Greek word for disorder. Cosmos is the word for order. We either live in an ordered universe or we are trying to create our own reality.”

A Letter to My Son About Covid Grief

by Shannon Brink

I wrote the following letter to my son about the grief that he is feeling right now. Our family had to come back suddenly to Canada and it’s not the Canada we looked forward to, nor the one we left.  I hope it resonates and encourages other TCK parents out there who are needing to express similar things to their kids.

 ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Dear Oldest Child,

I know we have already asked a lot from you. We moved you across the globe. You said goodbye to all you had known. You entered into a place that never quite felt like home. The dust on your feet, falling asleep under the heaviness of a mosquito net, forced to be in spaces and places that felt uncomfortable for so many reasons.

I know you have dreams too. You wish you could be a soccer star, but you haven’t had the chance to be on a real team. You wish you could ski down mountains, but there is no snow where we moved. You wish so many things, and we have kept you from them as we’ve embarked on a journey towards our own choices and calling, with you along for the ride.

And you have grieved. Often silently, sometimes loudly, and we have felt the weight of it.  We have grieved family gatherings and playgrounds. We have grieved easy outings and libraries and oh so many things.

You have been so patient. We have counted down days to come back to your home and native land. You have made the lists, stated the hopes, and built your expectations for this special short time, this one gap where you could enjoy all the things you remember and long for. This time when you could take off the foreign face and be familiar. A place where you could play with your childhood friends in our cul-de-sac, and enjoy all the things your hearts have longed for.

We had made oh so many plans in those 2 years for this time now. Just as you got comfortable in this new place, we had to bring you suddenly back to where all your hopes lay.

But nothing is as you hoped.  You couldn’t stay in the house of your earliest memories.

And now here we are.  I had hoped this day wouldn’t come, but here it is.

You didn’t get to go to summer camp.  I know this was your only chance in maybe 5 years. I know I have told you it will change your life as it changed mine. I know I told you it would be one of the best things in your childhood, and now you cannot go. I know that’s the last thing that you were hoping for, after everything else had fallen through. Now it’s not happening either.

You have grieved more than most kids. It’s not really fair, you’re right. How could it be, that we could be so close to all that you had missed, and just when we needed a break from all that was unfamiliar, all that was difficult and uncomfortable, you are thrown back into the fire of uncertainty and confusion. This isn’t the home you left. This isn’t the childhood of your dreams. It has changed.

But remember, dear one, it’s not over yet. God hasn’t changed. Not even a little bit. My childhood will not be your childhood. My experiences will not be your experiences. I know this feels like too much to ask of a 10-year-old, and in many ways it is. Still, I believe this will build in you a resilience that is real and will steer you well in the days ahead.

I know your hopes are crushed, and I feel your pain too. In the midst of all this pain and disappointment, I still believe your childhood will be richer than you think because of our extravagant, loving Father, who will give you all the experiences you need to become the person He is shaping you to be.

This is hard. It’s another loss on a mountain of losses. I am crying my eyes out because it pains me so badly to see your pain. God counts all of our tears mixed together, every one. He has a bright future for you, and He won’t let you down. Our faith will just have to grow stronger together.

I’m so sorry.  We love you, we see your pain, and we’re here with you.

-Mom

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Shannon is a mother of 4 kids, a nurse, a writer, and a missionary in Malawi. Her family is currently residing in Vancouver, Canada because of COVID. Her writing explores the awkward spaces of life like waiting, grieving, calling, and transition, which seems to become increasingly relevant in our lives and in our global story. She has just finished her first book. Find her at shannonbrink.org.

A lament for the griefs we don’t have time to grieve

by EC Nance

April and May are usually a grieving season for mission communities. This year it has been particularly rough. Schools closed without warning. People evacuated with a day’s notice. Graduation ceremonies moved online. Children face the prospect of never seeing friends again, without having done the leave-taking. I wrote the following poem as a reflection on this crazy season.

 

I live in a community that lives
in a semi-permanent state of grief
always separate
always strange
always leaving
always being left

but this season
the rhythms of grief
have been interrupted
so the fruit is left on the tree
to swell
sagging with tears

the separations
too rough
the strangeness
too jarring
the leaving
too fast
the being left
—well, what is left
but a splitting
where there should have been
a harvest feast.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

EC Nance lives with her family in SE Asia where her husband works at an MK school.

When Re-Entry is Hard

by Lauren Neal

No one can prepare you for re-entry, not even your closest friends and family who have walked alongside of you through this season. Neither can a countless number of books and podcasts nor accumulated hours spent in therapy. Oh, or copious amounts of Cabernet Sauvignon and rum (Barbancourt to be precise).

Re-entry, often disguised as the word “transition” (but dear Lord, if you ever catch me using the t-word just slap me across the face), is like re-birth. But this time, you’re not a screaming, crying infant; you’re a screaming, crying adult, and you come out of the womb with the expectation to walk and talk, and spell out your 5-year-plan to the acquaintance you run into at the grocery store, not out of interest, but out of obligation. Except you’re tongue-tied and heart broken and wondering how to choose from the umpteen flavors and brands of ice cream that will actually remain frozen in the trunk of your car on your ride home.

Home.

That’s a funny word now. Well, no. It’s not really funny at all. It’s actually rather frustrating and confusing and debilitating because the aisle, where you’ve just experienced this uncomfortable encounter, feels foreign in spite of its familiarity. Former normalities just don’t feel normal anymore. I personally envision home as this imaginary place where I could somehow supernaturally pull Haiti’s coastline up to the border of Cincinnati, along with all the other places that have claimed the people I love, and squish together my two houses and merge together my two lives and live happily ever after, together. But alas, that seems like a rather lofty task and unfortunately, Ohio’s geographic coordinates might prove to make that an unfeasible reality.

So now, I’m stuck holding a basket full of overpriced luxury food items in a grocery store smack dab in the middle of the Midwest, trying to muster up the strength to tell said acquaintance that I, in fact, have no plan. Yep, you read that right. Zero plan. Talk about an utter disappointment. (If you’re reading this and realize we’ve had one of these encounters, don’t worry—it’s not you, it’s definitely me).

After recovering from my conversation, I get in my car and turn the key in the ignition, and drive back to my residency in a mere three minutes, all without hitting any potholes or laying on my horn five times or receiving the middle finger accompanied by a slew of profane Creole expletives. Then, I park and I climb the stairs of my apartment only to feel the rush of the air conditioner as I open the front door, a reminder that Haiti is so far away. Finally, to ease that hole in my heart, I reach for the ice cream pint, a trusted emotional remedy, and eat it straight out of the carton because, come on, ice cream fixes everything (at least momentarily).

Dessert aside, it’s been a whole year and a half since I returned from Haiti, and yet I still feel caught in the phase of re-entry, filled with a million questions.

Who am I?

What is my purpose now?

Does anyone even care about me anymore?

Why don’t people ask?

Do they even know how hard this is?

Will I be stuck in Cincinnati forever?

Will I ever live in Haiti again?

When will I get over this?

You know how when you come back into the United States after being abroad and you go through customs, there are those TSA security guys who do one final check of your passport, like a just-in-case precautionary measure? They typically ask you where you’ve been and why you’ve been there. And after they’ve confirmed that the photo and information on the passport is, in fact, you, they’ll close your little book of adventure stamps, your pass to international freedom, and hand it back to you as they proclaim, “Welcome home.” Two simple words, yet unparalleled gravity.

Welcome home.

While I lived abroad, this expression delighted me. It was exhilarating like I’d just accomplished something genuinely extraordinary. But on December 20, 2017, this once uplifting gesture felt numbingly defeating. Soul-crushing. An audible end of an era. Welcome home. Home? Where is home now? Little did I know then, as I held back tears in the international quarters of the Atlanta airport, that it was only the first of many comments to come that would provoke feelings of failure.

No one can prepare you for re-entry. No one can prepare you for when you’ll feel the emotions or why you’ll feel them. (Thank God my computer monitor is large enough at work to shield those moments of vulnerability.)

There’s no formula. No step-by-step guide. No “Re-Entry for Dummies.” No 5 Ways to Conquer your Re-Entry for Ultimate Success articles or webinars (is it just me or is there a list for everything now?).

The intensity of a purpose-filled life was so real. The thrill. The excitement. The notion that every day was new. Don’t get me wrong. Even now, in Cincinnati, Ohio, every single day has purpose, and I’m such an advocate that every twist and turn, every choice and every missed opportunity, is woven into chapters to form our individual journeys and collective stories, each uniquely whole.

But it’s just different now, and in a way I struggle to articulate. There are high-highs and lower-lows. As an introvert, I often choose to hermit myself because sometimes I feel like my presence can be a burden. They don’t want to hear about Haiti again, right? Bless my sweet friends who put up with my tireless venting.

Many days, I feel like I’m aimlessly treading into an unknown abyss, like I’m moving forward but with no real direction. The precision of my former “calling” has now all but dissipated entirely, and I feel like I’m piecing together a puzzle with no resolve.

I miss my life as I dwell on the memories and scroll through social media. I forget about the stuff that ultimately led to my burnout and romanticize the good and wonder, was it really that hard? Though I know in my heart that yes, it really was that hard.

Now, even after a year and a half, I spend my short commute to work vocalizing my need for a grateful heart, praying that God would help me to get through another day, that I might find contentment right where I am, hoping his hand will guide me as I piece together this complex puzzle.

Throughout this season, I’ve, no doubt, experienced significant, life-giving healing and restoration thanks to a community of people who have carried me when my feet could not support the weight of my body. But it doesn’t discount those moments of pain and struggle and grief. Sometimes, the guilt and the deep wounds I harbor inside unexpectedly surface to remind me that perhaps this process will last a lifetime.

Sometimes, I go to happy hour and I shop online and I eat ice cream out of the pint and I enjoy my life.

Sometimes, I wallow in self-pity and I feel overwhelmingly discouraged and I cry and I loathe my life.

Yet, in spite of all of that, God is sovereign. And I choose to trust that his purpose always prevails even when my hope grows dim and my faith is distant.

It’s okay to feel all these things at once and it’s okay not have everything figured out. It’s okay to trudge through the barren wasteland. And when you’re tired, it’s okay to stop and to sit and rest. And then, it’s also okay to fall flat on your face and sob uncontrollably. But, on the other hand, it’s okay to be happy and to feel proud of your progress, to relish in the small victories and to forget about the pain. After a long season in the desert, it’s okay to feel rehydrated and refreshed. And finally, it’s okay to question and doubt and feel angry about former theologies and beliefs you once had, the same ones that even led to your second home in the first place.

My friend, wherever it is you find yourself, let me shout it from the rooftops: It. Is. Okay.

And next time you’re in the grocery store and you have one of these awkward run-in’s, give yourself a little extra grace. Whether it’s been a week, a month, a year, or ten years, you have the permission to feel exactly what you are feeling. The departure from your second home doesn’t devalue or diminish your love and affection for it. It just makes the separation that much more difficult.

Most importantly, don’t be afraid to reach out when you need to, to share the feelings weighing on your heart, and to confide in those who have loved you along the way. They may not may understand all the pieces of your story, but they’ll remind you that you’re not alone. Because after all, we’re in this together.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Lauren Neal is a writer, a photographer, and a recovering missionary. Though her heart is in Haiti, her feet are planted in Cincinnati, Ohio, where she’s learning to pick up the pieces of a new life. An introvert, she enjoys spending time with her family and close friends. And of course, on occasion, she indulges in her favorite, Graeter’s mint chocolate chip ice cream. You can find her online at www.laurenneal.com and on Instagram.

A Book is Born: Serving Well is now available!

Jonathan and I are thrilled to introduce you to our new book, Serving Well. It is our deepest hope that this 400+ page book will encourage and equip cross-cultural folks through the various seasons of life and ministry.

It’s available on Amazon here. If you’re in the States, our publisher is also selling the book with a 20% discount here.

You can read the Serving Well press release (with book excerpt) here.

From the Back Cover
Are you dreaming of working abroad? Imagining serving God in another land? Or are you already on the field, unsure about what to do next or how to manage the stresses of cross-cultural life? Or perhaps you’ve been on the field a while now, and you’re weary, maybe so weary that you wonder how much longer you can keep going.

If any of these situations describes you, there is hope inside this book. You’ll find steps you can take to prepare for the field, as well as ways to find strength and renewal if you’re already there. From the beginning to the end of the cross-cultural journey, Serving Well has something for you.

 

Early Reviews for Serving Well
Serving Well is an important voice in the search for honest, experienced conversation on living and working cross-culturally in a healthy and sustainable way. Dig in!”
– Michael Pollock, Executive Director, Interaction International and co-author of Third Culture Kids

Serving Well is more than a book to sit down and read once. It is a tool box to return to over and over, a companion for dark and confusing days, and a guide for effective and long-lasting service. Elizabeth and Jonathan are the real deal and Serving Well, like the Trotters, is wise, compassionate, vulnerable, and honest. This needs to be on the shelves of everyone involved in international, faith-based ministry.”
– Rachel Pieh Jones, author of Finding Home: Third Culture Kids in the World, and Stronger Than Death: How Annalena Tonelli Defied Terror and Tuberculosis in the Horn of Africa

Serving Well is a must-read book for missionaries and for those who love them. This is a book you really need if you are ‘called to go, or called to let go.’ In Serving Well we read both the spiritual and practical, simple and profound, funny and compelling in chapters written by Elizabeth and then Jonathan Trotter; hearing from each their voices and their hearts, the struggles and the victories, ‘the bad days and the good days’ of preparing to go and serving well overseas. Their down-to-earth yet godly insights were born from living overseas and from authentically wrestling with the ‘yays and yucks’ of missionary life. They draw wisdom from both Scripture and sci-fi authors, Psalms and funny YouTube videos, encounters with Jesus and encounters with cops looking for a bribe. Take two books with you to the mission field: the Bible, and Serving Well.”
– Mark R. Avers, Barnabas International

Serving Well is deep and rich, covering all aspects of an international life of service from multiple angles. It is full of comfort, challenge, and good advice for anyone who serves abroad, or has ever thought about it, no matter where they find themselves in their journeys. It is also really helpful reading for anyone who has loved ones, friends or family, serving abroad–or returning, to visit or repatriate. Jonathan and Elizabeth Trotter are both insightful and empathetic writers, full of humility and quick to extend grace–both to themselves and to others. Their writing covers sorrow and joy, hope and crisis, weariness and determination. Best of all, from my perspective as someone who has worked with TCKs for over 13 years, it contains an excellent collection of important advice on the topic of raising missionary kids. Choose particular topics, or slowly meander through the entire volume piece by piece, but whatever you do–read this book!”
– Tanya Crossman, cross cultural consultant and author of Misunderstood: The Impact of Growing Up Overseas in the 21st Century

“Overseas workers face a barrage of junk when they arrive on their field location: identity issues, fear/anxiety issues, and faith issues. I have worked with missionaries for well over a decade now and see how these common themes cry out for a grace-filled approach to truth and authenticity. The Trotters live this out loud, intentionally seeking a way to minister out of their own pain, striving, humor, and failure. Keep this reference close at hand!”
– Jeannie Hartsfield, Clinical Counselor, Global Member Care Coordinator, World Team

“This book is the definitive guide to thriving in cross-cultural ministry. The Trotters have distilled years of experience into pithy chapters filled with helpful tips and wise insights. Put it on your must-read list.”
– Craig Greenfield, Founder, Alongsiders International, author of Subversive Jesus

“In this must-read missions book, Jonathan and Elizabeth unearth the underlying motivations of the cross-cultural call. Penned with copious compassion and startling transparency, Serving Well is sure to make you laugh, cry, and, in the end, rejoice as you partner with God in His global missions mandate.”
– David Joannes, author of The Mind of a Missionary