Heaven’s Embrace

Pictured above: Mami Banla meets my daughter, Elaina, for the first time.

Eight Cameroonian mamas adjusted their head coverings and stopped their chatter to watch the colorless foreign family spill out of a truck and into their lives one day in the remote mountain village of Lassin. Father, mother, and four kids poured out of the vehicle, all with gecko-pale skin that the sun threatened to slice right through. Their hair looked unmanageably “slimy.” That’s the only word one chuckling mama could use to describe it.  

The women had heard from the leader of their large, extended family that this foreign family was to come live many years among their nest of eight clay huts and two block houses. The mamas respectfully greeted the strangers and then got back to work making cornmeal mush and spicy spinach to share with them that night.

That was my introduction as a seven-year-old to the eight ebony women who would spend the next 13 years sharing life with me on the Kinyang compound.

We shared space. Bamboo stools in small, smokey clay kitchens, cooking in the dark over open fire, waiting hours for beans to cook to fill rumbling tummies.

We shared life. Gathering minty eucalyptus branches for firewood, pounding clothes clean at the waterfall, hunting for bats in a land void of light pollution, tugging goats home to safety at dusk.

We shared family. Papas, mamas, and babies eating spinach and corn out of shared bowls, hauling heavy baskets of vegetables and dried fish home from the market, working together to save a roost of dying chickens, even a formal adoption ceremony of the six white foreigners into the Kinyang compound, complete with food and traditional clothes. 

We shared comedy. Listening to my best friend’s deep belly laugh as they told traditional folklore around the night fire, discovering sugar cubes together for the first time, playing hide and seek in thatched kitchens, and three kids piled high on my bike as we raced down dirt roads. 

We shared healing. Watching a mama boil eucalyptus and citrus leaves in a cast iron pot to “chase” my fever, praying life into a baby slipping into death, later naming that baby Kembonen or “Blessing,” driving friends on death’s door to the mission hospital two bumpy hours away, and mourning, nay, screaming grief out the healing and healthy way when loved ones died.

We shared education. Making a sprawling dollhouse fantasyland out of braided grass on the soccer field, twisting horse hair snares to catch live birds for pets (and secretly collecting the horse hair to begin with), quickly escaping the wrong side of a green mamba.  

We shared tragedy. My mom fishing two Fulani boys out of the bottom of a swirling river using only a rope and a hoe, visiting and praying over a deeply mentally disturbed woman, praying for the salvation of a boy whose body was being hollowed out by HIV/AIDS (the first case I witnessed), a baby falling into a fire.

We shared death. Losing one of my new best friends to traditional medicine malpractice, quietly staring at another best friend’s tear-stained cheeks as he stood over his father’s grave, two family friends being poisoned in a Salem-style witch hunt.

We shared new life. The most beautiful baby girl I’d ever seen with piercing ink eyes named Sheyen (“Stay and See”), a sweet nonverbal soul born into our compound family and named Peter, a young mama working in her cornfields up until the day of delivery, my mamas holding my own baby girl for the first time.

We shared love. Sharing meager amounts of corn, chickens, and firewood, being hugged tight by eight mamas when I went off to boarding school, and many years later, those same eight mamas washing my body with a bucket of water and dressing me for my traditional wedding to a very white husband who had to pay my bride price through a translator.

Love has a heavenly manifestation in Lassin. It is a literal physical embrace called “Ngocè,” specific to the region and used when someone has been away so long, you’re not sure if you’ll ever see them again. Short life spans, limited transportation, and no media communication at the time all contributed to the very real threat that you may never see someone again if they go off to the big city for college, boarding school, or a job. 

If and when they do return, you drop everything right out of your hands, run to them, grab them with every fiber in your body, pat their back, and squeeze their arms almost in disbelief that they are standing in front of you. It is a symbol of astonishment, of amazement, of deep understanding of shared experiences, and of intense joy at reunification. It’s recognizing the gift of a moment you don’t deserve but are so glad to have. Ngocè is endowed through blood lines or adoption into a family, as we were.  

I first experienced the Ngocè embrace from my mamas at age 12, after coming back from our first year-long furlough in America. I was back home, and I knew it. I experienced it again after coming home from boarding school in the capital city and when I brought my man home to negotiate a bride price of goats and rice with my mamas as a respectful (and fun) gesture. And again, years later from my dad, when I stepped off the plane from America to celebrate the 20-year project of the Nooni New Testament translation in Lassin.

A visiting friend happened to record the Ngocè heavenly embrace when I returned to Lassin that final visit for the New Testament dedication celebration. I hadn’t seen the video in years and pulled it up on youtube last night. Tears stung my eyes and a lump formed in my throat when I watched my dad, my mom, and my mamas Ngocè me back home. Just watching it felt intensely like coming home, and it broke open a piece of my heart that comes alive when I’m really, really home.

I can’t help but wonder if that’s exactly how I will meet Jesus in heaven. Running, arms flung open, in disbelief at the beauty of the moment and amazement at a new but long-awaited reunification, accepting a grace I know I don’t deserve but am so glad to have. We’ve shared space, life, family, comedy, healing, education, tragedy, death, new life, and love even longer and even more intimately than my Lassin family, he and I. The Ngocè embrace is the only way I can picture my first moments there with the one who so loves me. 

I love the Olympics

Today is the opening ceremony for the Olympics and to say that I love the Olympics might be an understatement.

I love, love, love the Olympics! This year COVID will be an unwanted influence and will make for a unique experience; but I’m still excited and you can guess what I’ll be doing for the next two weeks.

Like many of you, I’ve been both inside and outside of my passport country during the Olympics. We’ve gotten to experience how different cultures and countries both cover, experience, and celebrate them. Even ignore them.

One particularly painful taxi ride in Beijing comes to mind. I was stuck in traffic and the taxi driver was listening to an Olympic summary show on the radio.

Announcer: This is the national anthem when So-and-so won the gold for such-and-such event.

The national anthem was played. It was inspiring and fun to relive that moment.

Announcer: This is the national anthem when THIS famous athlete won the gold for this other event.

The national anthem was played. It was inspiring and but less fun to relive that moment. Why is the traffic not moving?!

Announcer: This is the national anthem when So-and-so won the gold for yet another event.

The national anthem was played. And I realized that I was going to be trapped, listening to the national anthem on repeat until Jesus came back or the traffic finally started moving.

Anyone else discover that are different sports than the ones you thought were key sports in the Olympics? Hours of badminton and pingpong . . . to say nothing of every single moment of diving being telecast. I’m all for diving, but hours and hours and hours and hours? No thank you. Where’s the track and field? Where’s the swimming or gymnastics?

You might think these experiences have dampened my enthusiasm. You, my dear friend, would be wrong. I understand that the Olympics are flawed. That in many ways they mirror what is wrong with our world and the inequity many experience daily.

But the Olympics are also a foretaste of heaven.

—The many flags and countries.

—The athletes and teams who get to showcase their talents and hard work.

—The inspiring stories and humanizing of the athletes and the obstacles they’ve faced.

—The inspiring of what I could do with my own body. (As a young child I distributed trashcans around the family room and “hurdled.” Every single Olympics I come away marveling at how God has made the human body. Amazing, amazing, amazing.)

—The taste of different cultures.

—Let’s not forget the playing of the national anthems. Though annoying on repeat in a taxi cab, they reflect an athlete playing for something greater than just him or herself. As the atheles stand on the podium and watch the three flags flutter, the athletes look up to a flag that represents more than just them.

—The surprises! The heartbreak of those who thought they’d win and didn’t. Those who experienced injury or illness at such an inopportune time. And the lesser known athletes who succeed far beyond their wildest dreams.

To my fellow Olympian Lovers, I raise my metaphorical glass to you and say, “To the next two weeks and to the many countries we love! May God remind the world how very much He loves it.”

Let the games begin! Thank you Tokyo for all you have overcome to bring us together.

P.S. For years I have contemplated what sports will be like in heaven. (I told you, I really love sports!) So I’ll d thinking about this also during the Olympics. What sport would you loved to see in a perfectly redeemed form?

Living Well Abroad: 4 Areas to Consider

My day job here in Cambodia is serving as a pastoral counselor. In a typical week, I meet with clients from Asia, the Americas, Australia, Europe, and occasionally Africa. And whether these clients are missionaries, NGO workers, or international business people, they’re all trying to figure out how to live well here. In Cambodia.

I was recently asked to share at an international church on the topic of Living Well abroad. I gave it all I had and presented my compiled thoughts and hopes. This article is an extension of that presentation.

It’s not short and it’s not fancy. But it is pretty much all I’ve got. 

My hope is that this article might serve as a resource, a touch point, for you and your team/org/ministry/family/whatever. If you’d rather listen to the podcast of this material, you’ll find some links at the very end. All right, here goes!

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How long were you in your host country before you cried really hard? You know, one of those famous UGLY cries that no one sees but certainly exists? Was it sometime in your first year? Month? Week?

For me, it took about 27 hours.

Our theme verse for those early days was 2 Corinthians 1:8, “We think you ought to know, dear brothers and sisters, about the trouble we went through in the province of Asia. We were crushed and overwhelmed beyond our ability to endure, and we thought we would never live through it.”

But we did.

For as Paul Hiebert writes in his seminal work, Anthropological Insights for Missionaries, “Culture shock is rarely terminal.”

Theory can only get you so far. At some point, you have to get your feet wet and Nike the thing. That’s what this article’s about. It’s an attempt to give some practical, hands-on, nitty-gritty, [insert random epic language here], rubber-meets-the-road, advice.

Much of this comes from my own experience of transitioning a family of six from the suburbs of mid-west America to the concrete vistas of Phnom Penh. The rest comes from observing lives and stories in that enigmatic place we call “the counseling room.”

The four specific areas we’ll consider include Living Well Abroad…

  1. Theologically
  2. Spiritually
  3. Relationally
  4. Psychologically

 

1. Living Well Abroad: Theologically
How we think about God matters. Of course it does. You already know that. But we sometimes forget that our theology also plays a vital role in how well we fare on the field.

First, we must remember that productivity does NOT equal fruitfulness. Indeed, our aim is not even to be fruitful, but to stay attached to the Vine from which all fruit comes. Our aim is to know him and his heart, to “remain in him.” Staying attached to the Source, hearing his heartbeat, is the only way we will be able to do “the will of him who sent us.”

There is sooooo much to do and God does not want you to do it all. Let me repeat: There is sooooo much to do and God does not want you to do it all.

He does not expect you to kill yourself in his service. Now, you might die in his service, of course, but it should not be because you’re a workaholic.

If you want to thrive abroad, you can’t try to meet your deep insecurities through making someone (a missions boss, a sending church, God) happy. No amount of productivity will heal the wounds in your soul.

In fact, trying to meet your own deep emotional or psychological needs through missions will tear you up. And it won’t be good for those close to you either.

Resources:
Margin: the wasted space we desperately need
Please stop running
The Idolatry of Missions

 

1.a. Simple prayers are your friend. 
For me, after we’d gone through a really rough patch (misdiagnosed typhoid fever, culture stripping, bad news from home, etc.), I clung to one simple cry-prayer: “I will worship the Lord my God; I will serve only him.” It’s a declaration from Jesus at the peak of his temptation. It’s what Jesus fell back on at the very end. So I did too. And honestly, for a while, it was the only prayer I prayed.

That being said, in Matthew 4, when Jesus made that declaration, Satan left him and angels came and ministered to him. I’m not a businessman, but that seems like a pretty good trade.

Speaking of Satan…

 

1.b. Your theology of Satan matters. A lot. 
Don’t give Satan more credit than he’s due. Don’t blame him for everything.

Why not? Well, it’ll keep you from taking responsibility for your own stuff, and it’ll keep you from doing the hard interpersonal and INNER personal work that you need to do.

Here’s my general rule: don’t blame Satan for things that are reasonably foreseeable.

If it was reasonably foreseeable that eating that street food would give you giardia, don’t blame the devil when you get sick and can’t leave the bathroom! I’ll be really sorry you’re sick, but you don’t need to bring the devil into it to garner my compassion and prayers.

If you ignore Sabbath and run yourself ragged, don’t blame Satan when you feel depressed and burned out. Don’t blame the natural result of your workaholism on “the darkness.” [Note: I am NOT saying that depression and burnout always result from a missionary’s failure to Rest. But if a person has been burning the candle at both ends and then starts to feel the flame, it’s not fair to blame the devil.]

Proverbs 7:6-9 provides a noteworthy example of reasonable foreseeability:

“While I was at the window of my house, looking through the curtain, I saw some naive young men, and one in particular who lacked common sense. He was crossing the street near the house of an immoral woman, strolling down the path by her house. It was at twilight, in the evening, as deep darkness fell.”

The wisdom literature doesn’t blame some massive evil scheme for this guy’s sin. Its lesson for us? Do the hard work of not being naive. Do the hard work of getting some common sense. And don’t open your computer at night or visit the red light district when you’re lonely and it’s dark.

Resources:
Before You Cry “Demon!”

 

1.c. You need a robust theology of Heaven. 
You want to live and thrive abroad long-term? You’re going to have to have a pretty good grasp of Heaven. I’m not talking about end-times theology, I’m talking about the reality of eternity, for the saved and the lost.

Resources:
Heaven, by Randy Alcorn
When you just want to go home
The Gift of Grief

 

 

2. Living Well Abroad: Spiritually
There are two powerful words we need to understand deeply. Those words are “Yes” and “No,” and they are sacred words indeed.

Initially, when you move abroad, you don’t know anyone and you’re probably in language school, so you can say yes to everyone and pretty much everything. But watch out, because your ratio of yeses to nos will have to change. If you want to stay healthy, you will have to start saying no to more and more things. And if you don’t make that transition well, if you don’t learn to say no, you will end up saying yes to all the wrong things.

Recently, I heard a preacher boldly state: “Satan is always trying to get your yes.” Indeed, from the beginning, the Liar has been getting people to say yes to stuff that will make them say No to the Father. And it continues.

Balancing our yeses and nos can get tricky, triggering our Fear of Missing Out or our fear of being completely overwhelmed, which is why I love that Justin Rizzo, a musician at the International House of Prayer, sings about “the beautiful line to walk between faith and wisdom.”

Learning when to say yes and when to say no requires both faith and wisdom. After all, it is possible to say yes to too much because of our “faith,” and it is possible to say no to too much because of our “wisdom.”

Again, this is precisely why we need to spend time connected to the Vine. We must remind ourselves often of this truth: The most fruitful thing I can do today is connect with the heart of Jesus.

May God give us the grace to serve with both faith and wisdom. Not as opposite ideas, fighting for domination, but as buffers and guardrails, keeping us from veering too far to one side. Or the other.

 

3. Living Well Abroad: Relationally
Life abroad can be bone-jarringly lonely, so connecting with friends is vitally important. Those friendships might surprise you; they might be with expats and nationals and folks you first found strange. But whatever the case, deep connection with other human beings IRL (in real life) is crucial to whether or not you “live well” abroad.

Resources:
Velvet Ashes (this links to their articles tagged “friendship”)
10 Ways to Nurture Healthy Friendships

 

3.a Marriage
I’ve been living with my best friend for nearly 17 years. And frankly, we’d like to stay friends. If you’re married, I’d like for you to stay friends with your spouse too. Here are some ideas that have helped us…

– Google “First date questions” and screen capture the results. Next time you’re out on a date or alone together, whip out your phone and get to know each other again.

– Be a tourist for a night. Pretend you don’t speak the language and go where the tourists go. (I realize this might not apply to everyone, but I know it’ll apply to some.)

– If you have kids, try to get away for 24 hours. Because even 24 hours away can feel like forever. And when you’re away, don’t talk about work or the kids. (And if you don’t have anything to talk about besides work and the kids, take that as a sign that you need to get away more often!)

– Read a book about marriage. I’m continually amazed at how little effort we put into the one relationship that we want to be the deepest and longest and best.

– If a book is too much, check out The Gottman Institute on Facebook. Follow them and read an occasional article. 

Dudes, remember this: your wife lives here too. If you’re doing great but she’s really struggling, you gotta push pause and figure it out. Are you both thriving?

And when it comes to arguing, remember the age-old adage our marriage therapist said over and over and over: “If one person wins, the couple loses.”  : ) 

Resources:
3 Ways to Care for the Heart of Your Wife
Marriage is the Beautiful Hard
The Purpose of Marriage is Not to Make You Holy

 

3.b. Parenthood
We moved to Asia when our boys were six and seven and our girls were one and three. And the loss of how I used to parent nearly killed me. Really. Most Saturdays, I’d get depressed and overwhelmed by all the good we had left behind. Here’s a snapshot of what helped me…

Be Creative. Early on in transition, creativity is very hard to come by. You’re exhausted and on the edge already, so ask around. Ask other parents, “What do you do for family time here? Where?” Just remember, what works for one family might not work for your family. That’s OK. Find the things that work for your family, and then do those things. Boldly.

Remember, use other parents and their ideas, but don’t judge yourself by other parents and their ideas. Some ideas will work for others that will not work for you. Figure out what’ll work for your family. Then do those things.

Be Crazy.The Cambodians think we’re crazy, and maybe they’re right. We have a badminton court on our roof and a ping pong table in our garage. And we use our moto as a jet ski during rainy season. Maybe I am crazy, but I’m also not depressed.

Spend Cash. If you need to spend some money to share a fun experience with your family, spend it. And don’t feel guilty about it. Now, if you feel like God doesn’t want you to spend it, then don’t. But if you’re afraid of spending money because of what your donors might think, that’s a pretty good reason to go ahead and spend it.

Don’t let your kids grow up thinking that the most important question when discussing a family activity is, “What will our supporters think?” That question destroys kids.

 

Resources:
Failing at Fatherhood (how moving abroad ruined my parenting)
3 Ways to Care for the Heart of Your Third Culture Kid
3 Ways to Care for the Heart of Your Missionary Kid

 

4. Living Well Abroad: Psychologically
At various points in our overseas journey, Elizabeth and I have needed debriefing, coaching, and counseling. In fact, so many of the good things in our life and ministry have been directly influenced by specific psychological help.

One area that’s so simple (and important) to talk about is meta-emotions. Simply put, meta-emotions are what you feel about feelings.

Don’t freak out on me just yet. I know this sounds like a Pixar movie.

But honestly, a healthy question that we need to ask much more often is this: How do I feel about what I’m feeling?

For example, if you feel angry at your host country and then feel GUILTY for feeling angry, your feelings of guilt will actually block you from dealing with the root of your anger. Does your anger make you feel like a bad person? A bad Christian? Like you’re a failure because you don’t even like the people you came to serve?

You see, how you feel about your feelings will make a huge difference with how you handle them. Do you keep talking to God about your feelings? If you’re ashamed of your feelings or believe that you shouldn’t have them, chances are your praying will cease forthwith. And that’s not cool.

An illuminating question in all of this is, “How were emotions handled in my family of origin? Did I grow up in an emotion coaching home, where emotions were safe and expression was easy? Was I taught how to feel and name and share my feelings?”

If so, that’s awesome. It’s also pretty rare.

Did you grow up in an emotion dismissing home? Were emotions anything but safe? Did you hear, “Don’t be sad/angry/whatever”?

In your family, did emotions hurt people? If so, I’m sorry. The first step is to acknowledge that this is the case, and maybe see a counselor.

Why does this matter? Because meta-emotions will massively impact what you do with your feelings, and what you do with your feelings will massively impact how you do with life abroad. 

 

Resources:
Meta-Emotion: How you feel about feelings
A Life Overseas Resource Page
Here’s an 11 minute video outlining a tool I use with about 90% of my pastoral counseling clients:

 

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This material was originally presented at an international church here in Phnom Penh. If you’d like to see the handouts and/or listen to the audio of that presentation, click here. The message is also available as a podcast. Just search iTunes for “trotters41” or click here.

The Gift of Grief and the Thing I Heard in Portland

“If we honestly face the sadness of life in a fallen world, then only our hope in Christ can preserve us from insanity or suicide.” – Larry Crabb

That’s an intense statement, and I sort of choked when I read it for the first time. But the more I chew on it, and the more I ponder my own life with its episodes of emotional and intellectual crisis, the more I think it’s correct.

Honestly
I spent three years working as an ER/Trauma nurse in an urban hospital in the States, and that bloody, chaotic trauma room forced me to “honestly face the sadness.” Those were dark days indeed; I was ill-prepared, psychologically and theologically, to deal with the darkness and the depth of the pain I witnessed. I was far outside of the Christian bubble, and reality bit hard.

For many people, moving across cultures, often to developing places, serves as their wake-up call. Missions becomes their trauma room, where they see suffering and poverty and grief up close and personal. People often move to Cambodia bright-eyed and in love, and then after a few months, or perhaps a year, the accumulation of the poverty and the corruption and the darkness forces them to “honestly face the sadness.”

Have you seen that happen?

Of course, the sadness was present in their affluent passport countries too, but money and familiarity have a way of disguising and hiding pain, like gold lacquer on cardboard.

But when the suffering is really seen, honestly, it does what Martin Luther wrote about nearly 500 years ago; it “threatens to undo us.” Of course, it doesn’t have to undo us, but it certainly threatens.

 

The Gift of Grief
“[W]hen we are able to maintain the fiction that life is tolerable at worst, and quite satisfying at best, we sacrifice an appreciation for the two center points of our faith: the Cross of Christ and His coming. The Cross becomes the means by which God delivers us from something not really too terrible, and the Coming is reduced to an opportunity for a merely improved quality of life.” – Crabb

In other words, when we blind ourselves to grief and the real sadness of the world, we risk turning the glorious reality of Eternity into a nice upgrade instead of the radical salvation of the universe and the epic righting of all wrongs that it certainly is.

Now, I hate grief. I really do. I don’t like being sad and I don’t particularly like listening to peoples’ sad stories. But for whatever reason, God has brought me to a place where I now regularly get e-mails from people that say, “Hey, I was told that you were the guy to talk to about my recent traumatic loss.” Awesome.

I think it’s because I don’t flee the feelings. And I don’t flee the feelings because I know that God can do amazing, restorative, centering, maturing, focusing, healing work through them. Not after the feelings, not around the feelings, but through them.

I am absolutely convinced that grief is a gift that the Church needs to learn to deal with. Grief has the potential to refocus us on the Eternal, if we’ll let it. Grief and loss guard us against the temptation to degrade Heaven into a distant and entirely non-applicable theory, instead of the life-altering reality that it is.

“When hints of sadness creep into our soul, we must not flee into happy or distracting thoughts. Pondering sadness until it becomes overwhelming can lead us to a deep change in the direction of our being from self-preservation to grateful worship.” – Crabb

Worshipful grief is potent and eyes-open.

It’s also evangelistic.

Worshipful grief communicates to those outside the Church that we’re not morons whose faith completely disconnects from reality. We are, in fact, in tune with the way things are precisely because of our faith. And because of our faith, we can grieve with hope, something that secular philosophy and humanism simply cannot provide.

What Happened in Portland
Portland is a beautiful city in the Pacific Northwest of the United States. It’s also where my sister lives, so last year I left a very hot and dirty and brown Phnom Penh and landed in a cool and beautiful and green Portland.

I bought blueberries by the gallon and ate them by the handful.

And I was angry.

Why do these people get to live here? In this place that’s so safe and gorgeous? Why do they get berries and public services and English? And why are they all in shape and appear to have just disembarked from a travel magazine?! (To be clear, I realize that not all of Portland fits this, but my sister lives in a suburb, and yeah, it pretty much all fits.)

There’s a public park close to her house, and they’ve got a fully shaded state-of-the-art playground with grass and towering pine trees. The whole place smells like a pine forest because the whole place is a pine forest. And did I mention it was also just a small city park?

Anyways, there was a trail around the lake and I of course took it. I passed picnics and happy people on stand up paddle boards. I passed ducks and geese, and I swear they’d all read the book “How to Pose for a Postcard.” I heard laughing kids.

And I was angry.

And then I got to a waterfall, clear and sharp, loudly mocking me with its falling waters. It was astoundingly beautiful and embarrassingly infuriating. And so I cried.

I cried to myself and I cried to God.

I mourned the loss. I grieved the fact that I lived in a concrete box with bars on the windows and karaoke and neighborhood cats that liked to work out their differences very loudly and very after-hours.

I did what I counsel people to do.

I named the losses, I felt the losses, and I talked with God.

And in one of those rare occurrences when I sense God speaking back to me, I felt God say, “Yes, you have lost something. Yes, you have given up some stuff. But what I have asked you to sacrifice I have not asked you to sacrifice forever. I have asked you to postpone.”

Now I was listening.

“I will bring you back here, on the New Earth, in Eternity, and all that is good and lovely and beautiful about this you will experience again.”

And then I cried some more, but different tears.

Sweeter tears.

His words, had they been preached to me by a hard-nosed theologian, would have grated and rubbed raw. But on that day, in a city park somewhere north of Portland, his words were like falling water, cooling and calming and stirring in me deep peace.

And his words still resonate.

His words reminded me of Truth my heart desperately needed – all is not lost. There will be a resurrection and the restoration of all things.

 

Why it’s a Gift
This oxygenating reminder, this reminder of Eternity, did not happen in spite of my grief. It happened because of it. It didn’t come through an attempt to erase grief or diminish loss. It came through mourning and boldly naming the loss.

And although I do not like it and I wish it weren’t so, grief is often the mechanism for drawing our hearts and souls back to God and the eternal intimacy he’s promised.

 

An Unforced Gift
Don’t miss out on the focusing ability of grief. It is a gift. But remember, like most gifts, this gift is best received without force. These are not truths to preach at someone in pain.

There are times for non-preaching, when grief bleeds and souls mourn. For these times, I still just recommend a gentle hug, quiet presence, and the often ungiven gift of silence.

Preach heaven to the Church. Preach Hope to the Church. But watch your timing. Preaching to someone in pain is an awfully cheap and cowardly substitute for simple incarnation.

 

The Gift of Music
Music can give voice to the soul, especially in the areas of grief and Eternity. In fact, mourners and poets often instinctively connect feelings of grief with longings for Heaven. One researcher, in his essay entitled “Recovering the Theology of the Negro Spirituals” showed the connection: “The eschatology of the spirituals emphasized heaven. Roughly forty percent of the compiled spirituals dealt with heaven as a primary theme.”

Likewise, for me, music is often a balm and lifeline. Here are a few songs about heaven that have ministered to me in my grief.

 

“We are citizens of heaven, where the Lord Jesus Christ lives.  And we are eagerly waiting for him to return as our Savior.”  Philippians 3:20

“I heard a loud shout from the throne, saying, ‘Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.’ And the one sitting on the throne said, ‘Look, I am making everything new!’ And then he said to me, ‘Write this down, for what I tell you is trustworthy and true.'”  Revelation 21:3-5

“My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.”  John 14:2-3

The Gift of Saudade

Marsea

We returned to our apartment in Cambridge yesterday after a long weekend away, and I felt a familiar longing. I turned to my husband and asked him if he felt like our home in Cambridge, was indeed ‘home’.

Because I don’t. Not always. Despite my work and church and friends and general life being here, the sense of ‘home’, of ‘belonging’ still seems to be just out of reach. I don’t feel this daily – I feel this when I return from being away. Because usually when I’ve been away, I realize no one knew I was gone.

Home is a place that when you return, people knew you were gone. They welcome you back. But in Cambridge, no one ever knows we’re gone. 

Almost two years ago I was introduced to the word ‘Saudade‘. I learned of the word from my husband, who in turn learned it from a Brazilian friend. I immediately came to love and rely on this word to express that peculiar longing that I never had words to express. I used it in writing. I used it in speaking. I particularly used it when connecting with immigrants and refugees through my job.

Saudade is described as “a vague and constant desire for something that does not and probably cannot exist, for something other than the present, a turning towards the past or towards the future; not an active discontent or poignant sadness but an indolent dreaming wistfulness.” – In Portugal of 1912, A. F. G. Bell

This is what I felt yesterday as we returned. Once again I had saudade. 

Ute Limacher, in a beautiful piece written for the series Painting Pictures, says that we can have ‘saudade’ for people, for places, and for moments. I’ve felt all three of these, sometimes all at the same time. 

I have come to realize that this saudade, this ‘indolent wistfulness’ will never be completely gone, and I’ve also come to be okay with this. It is a longing that nothing on this earth will ever fully meet. I have my moments of feeling completely at home, feeling like I belong, even as I ache for what I can no longer have, places I can no longer live, people I will no longer see. In a beautiful piece called “Saudade – a Song for the Modern Soul” Rachel Pieh Jones writes: “There is a peace and joy in belonging and an ache for what is not, for what can no longer be.”

As a Christian, perhaps the biggest mistake I could ever make is being too at home in this world, all my longings met, wrapped up in the temporal.

For beyond the reminders of worlds and lives past, saudade is the reminder of another world, another longing not yet realized. A reminder of a world where there will be no more sadness,where tears will be wiped from our eyes, where a lion and a lamb, earthly enemies, will lie down in peace.

So I’m coming to delight in this saudade, to recognize it for the gift that it is. I don’t want to fill it with something false, a shadow comfort of what is real. I want to live each day, accepting the inevitable saudade that comes — sometimes forcefully, sometimes quietly. C.S. Lewis says that if we “find in [ourselves] desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that [we] were made for another world.”

In saudade I recognize that I was made for another world.

Today is a new day. I am back to a routine and grateful for this routine. I feel at home in my skin and surroundings, and it is all the more precious because of saudade.

What about you? Do you find yourself with longings that will never be met in this world? 

When you just want to go home

I swim in the abyss of memories. People and places I cannot return to, and few know.

It is a morass I voluntarily enter, knowing it will hurt, but needing it still. Someone should remember these things.

Birthdays used to be happy occasions, full of cake and memories of years gone by. Now, birthdays are just full of memories of years gone. And places gone. And people gone.

Home, once lost, can never be regained. Another home can be built, to be sure, but what has been cannot be again. It is gone.

There is hope. But hope for the future does not remove loss from the past.

When does one grow up and forget their childhood? Thirty-five? Eighty-five? I think never. Something deep and strange happens when the heart goes back. When pictures show you things you remember feeling more than seeing. Like the faded painting on the wall – of water fowl and cattails — that I haven’t thought of in decades. My mom loved that painting. It feels peaceful, silently overwatching a family grow up, and then leave.

Another picture shows my late mom and dad in the kitchen, but what I see is the blue metal bowl with white speckles. It was part of the country kitchen I grew up in, the one with glass doors looking out upon green, or brown, or white, depending on the season. I see that bowl and hear the clank of metal spoon upon metal bowl, and I feel at home. No one else had metal bowls.

Oh how mysterious is the snapshot that elicits such emotions!

I look at the photos slowly, seeing the details. Looking for the background. The memories swarm, and I let them. Something deep within is washed by these shadows of what was. I need this cleansing. I need to remember my moorings.

I won’t be getting a call from my mom on my birthday. She won’t be telling me she’s proud of me, or asking about the grandkids. I won’t hear about how her journey with God is growing and changing.

My dad won’t ask about my work or ministry. We won’t talk about books or hawks or how tall the grass is.

A Pacific separates me from siblings. Time separates me from everything else.

For now.

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For the time being, I am time’s subject. Moving at its pace, regardless. But time is God’s subject, and at the end of all things, time itself will be changed, and we will reign with him “forever and ever.” Time’s thermodynamic authority will be renounced, along with its painful propensity to separate. No longer will time rob and decay, slowly pulling like gravity on the soul.

God will finally do something I never could, although I was told to often enough. He will redeem time.

And he will relocate.

In a physical, undeniably earthly way, he will come home.

“Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them.” (Revelation 21:3)

And when he gets here, He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.” (Revelation 21:4)

He’s longing for home too.

So, in my drownings and darkness, perhaps I am brushing up against the heart of God. Perhaps I am tasting his tears too.

I will never go home again. Until I do.

And that home will last forever, and not just in snapshots and pixels. It will last forever, in three-dimensional space, because of him. And all those longings, elicited by memories of home, will in turn be satisfied.

I will belong, with my own place at the table.

I will be at peace.

I will be wanted. There will be a mutual desire for presence. I will desire to be with God, and he will desire to be with me.

And then I’ll find my mom and dad and a blue metal bowl, and we’ll sit and talk forever about work, and grandkids, and maybe even grass.

And we will be,

Home.

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Sometimes, music can do something that words alone cannot, giving melody to the longings of a heart. 

I’ve added an instrumental piece to the end of the song, giving you space to linger, respond, cry out to Him, and remember.

I Will Bring You Home
by Michael Card

Though you are homeless
Though you’re alone
I will be your home

Whatever’s the matter
Whatever’s been done
I will be your home
I will be your home

I will be your home
In this fearful fallen place
I will be your home

When time reaches fullness
When I move my hand
I will bring you home

Home to your own place
In a beautiful land
I will bring you home
I will bring you home

I will bring you home
From this fearful fallen place
I will bring you home
I will bring you home

*Adapted from trotters41.com

Searching for Home

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It’s hard to describe the turbulence of soul that comes from being on the move, always unsettled. You cannot be still and breathe deeply. You cannot love the wild-growing front-lawn tulips too much, or the way the sunlight turns the living room into a golden elven forest in the afternoon. They will soon be gone. And with every big move, you are the new person all over again, trying to make friends at double-speed, weary of explaining where you came from and why you’re here.

We have lived in our current home in Taipei for thirteen months, the longest in any one place for nearly four years. This dubious “longevity” doesn’t prevent my gut fear of another uprooting. Experience leaves an imprint of expectation in our hearts. The nomadic lifestyle began in earnest when we finished seminary, after which a pastoral job and preparation to be missionaries led us to several different cities and even more homes. We moved twelve times in a span of two and a half years, and it hurt my heart terribly.

At nearly every house or apartment I resolutely unpacked everything, decorated the walls with my grandmother’s paintings and the children’s art, and brought cookies when meeting our new neighbors. I tried to make each place a home, even if it would not last long. And I grieved the loss of our previous home and the life we had built there.

I grew up in one place, but without knowing it, even then I longed to be home. I kept subtly searching for something that tingled like a phantom limb; it had to be there—my entire being reached out for it! Or was it only an untouchable dream?

I can relate to Peter when he tells Jesus, “See, we have left everything and followed you” (Mark 10:28). I reflect with some self-pity, perhaps like Peter, that we have left our family and our friends and our homeland to follow Christ. I know that dying to myself is the only path to life and abiding happiness, but even so, my heart is burdened in the midst of loss.

Jesus responds to Peter’s outburst with a longer-term view:

“Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life.” (Mark 10:29-30)

His words, though demanding, are a balm to my soul. God has fulfilled the temporal part of the promise many times over. We have been welcomed into the physical homes of fellow believers when we were in need, and our brothers and sisters in Christ are our family in every way. But even more so, the fleeting losses of following Christ are nothing compared to the eternal gain.

The ESV Study Bible notes that “Jesus assures the disciples that they have answered the call and are blessed.” This pain of being between worlds is not a logistical problem, but a sign of following His call. It’s not a sign that we are failures as missionaries, but that the redemption of the world is costly. Christ bore the greatest cost of all.

The home we long for is not a phantom or a dream: we were created to yearn for our Lord’s lovely dwelling place. “My soul longs, yes, faints for the courts of the Lord; my heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God” (Psalm 84:2). In his earthly life, Jesus shared in our homelessness. He left his perfect heavenly home to rescue us from our sin; he had no place to lay his head. And he will return to remedy our aching hunger with the ultimate Home he prepares for us even now, where there will be no more crying or pain because the former things have passed away.