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