What’s in a Screen Name?

by Kat Borba

This year I did something that was really hard for me. I changed my Instagram name. 

What a ridiculous thing to call “hard.” In the grand scheme of life and death, who cares about the name listed next to my pictures of kids and pets and sunsets? Except, for me it was something that had tethered me to Japan. It was something I hadn’t felt I could fully release. I created the account when I lived in Japan, and my Instagram name reflected the person I was in that place. “JapanKat” might not have been the cleverest of names. I’m not even sure I gave it all that much thought when I chose it. But as the years went on, it became linked to my identity. I was JapanKat. 

When we returned to the States, the thought of changing my username was too much. It would be one more severed tie to a place that still held a piece of my heart. So I kept it. I would tell myself that I’d only been gone a little while. I just wasn’t finished being JapanKat. 

But that “little while” morphed and stretched. Babies were born, and jobs were changed. We moved, and moved again. Time marched on, yet my Instagram name stayed frozen in place. Occasionally I would think, maybe it’s time for a fresh start. But I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. Would changing my name be a betrayal of the woman who made that account? Could I be ok if I cut the last outward tie to my former home? What if God called us back?

In the midst of my questioning, God spoke a soothing word to my anxious soul. I am more than my screenname. I am more than my job. I am more than the place where I live. I am more than my past, and I am more than my future.

So after eight years, and much wrestling, I opened my account and changed my name. I’m not going to lie: it stung a little. It seems silly to share how much I agonized over what to be called now. After much internal debate, I decided on “Katerpiller.” It felt right. If I’m going to be pouring so much of my identity into a screen name, it should reflect change and growth. Tears were shed that day. They were tears of release, tears of mourning the person I thought I was, and tears of accepting the truth of who I am in Christ. 

That next Sunday at church, we sang a familiar song. But this morning, the refrain felt like it was written just for me.

I am who you say I am.

And so I am. 

I am his beloved. I am his delight. I am his daughter. I am chosen by him. 

This is true no matter where I live and no matter what I do. My identity is in God: my father who loves me, my Shepherd who leads me. 

And it is also true that I can hold Japan in my heart as a gift from God. I can treasure that chapter of my life without finding my identity in it. And maybe that’s the point I’ve been struggling to understand. I must not define myself by where I live, by my job description, or by how I serve. I am more than all of those things, because God says so. It’s not that I discount these things. I’ve been shaped and forever changed by living and serving in Japan. That experience has made me who I am. Yet, it is not who I am. The distinction is blurry and hard to hold down. I’m sure I will struggle to keep my identity where it belongs: in Christ. 

But if one day God does call us back to Japan – or to anywhere else on this earth – I hope that I go firm in the knowledge that I am not defined by where I live or what I do. No, I am a daughter of the King, and I am defined by Him only.


Kathryn Borba served as a missionary in Japan for three years. Then God called her and her family to return to the States. She now lives out her calling to serve the nations through missionary support, encouragement, and education.

Maybe I Should Stop Asking God to Use Me

by Andrea Parker

We came to Kenya in January 2015. After four months of language school, we arrived at the mission hospital where we were to live and serve, just in time for a mass exodus of families. To put this in perspective, the expatriate community went from over 40 kids to 3 within two weeks of our arrival. For some, it was leaving the field for furlough. For others, it was a permanent departure. Regardless of the reasons, we arrived when many were leaving, and they left jobs that needed to be picked up. We were new to the mission field and eager to begin serving after years of preparation.

Because of the paucity of people available, upon our arrival, my husband was asked to take over leading one of the training programs at the hospital. We were told that: (1) There was no one else available to take on this particular role that needed to be filled, (2) my husband was the obvious choice to do it (largely due to point 1), and (3) There were less than two days to turn things over to a new leader before the person currently running the program was leaving. 

My husband didn’t feel prepared, didn’t necessarily want to take on the role, and felt a bit overwhelmed by the idea of leading a training program as a brand-new missionary. Yet, he was available to fill the role.

And God brought us here to use us, right?

At the time, we didn’t think too much of the situation. After all, it was an anomaly. Surely, missions isn’t always like this?


Spoiler Alert
Over these past six years, we have observed that, unfortunately, our experience was not an anomaly. We’ve seen similar situations time and time again, for ourselves and others. New missionaries on the field, those returning after leave, expatriates, and Kenyans.

There is always too much to do in missions and never enough people to do it all. So, when our primary goal is to get it all done, our focus becomes how we and others can accomplish the work. This often and unfortunately means giving preference to the programs that we want to see succeed and the good things that we want to see achieved over the people with whom we serve, live, and work. This approach has increasingly grieved us as we’ve seen the damage done to those we care deeply about. It’s been one of the contributors to the burnout we’ve experienced over the past year.


Our Identity
In a recent time of cross-cultural worker debriefing, we learned to think about identity, or how we think about who we are as people, like a three-legged stool.

The three legs of that stool are:

  •       Value – who we are as children of God and as God’s image-bearers. This is inherent, immutable, and universal.
  •       Significance – what we do. This includes our jobs, roles, hobbies, and the positions we hold.
  •       Community – where and with whom we belong. This is our group, our tribe, those who know us, accept us, and give us our sense of inclusion.

For all of us, one or two of these tend to be stronger, but a healthy identity requires some balance of the three.

My husband and I realized through our time of debriefing and processing how much our identity is derived from our significance and what we do. Who are we? We’re surgeons, missionaries, parents, and educators. I’m a wife. He’s a husband. I’m the Assistant Program Director of the surgical residency. He is the Director of Research for the hospital. My work is important to me, and my identity is tied to doing it well. When my competency at any (or in some cases, many) of these roles is drawn into question, my sense of identity is rocked.

My idea of what it means to be a “good missionary” is often based on whether I or others perceive that I am doing enough and doing it well.

I don’t think we’re the only ones who form our identity from our significance. While I can’t say it’s uniquely American (I don’t have knowledge of enough cultures to make that claim), I do think that for many Americans, significance is the major component of identity. One only has to think about the typical questions asked in getting to know a new person. Right after the introduction comes the question, “What do you do?”

As American cross-cultural missionaries, we carry this cultural value with us. We not only derive our identity but define our success and, in some cases, justify our existence in missions based on what we do. How many patients do I treat? How many roles do I have? What am I doing? Am I busy enough? At times, we almost wear our jobs, our roles, and our busyness within those tasks like a badge of honor.


Our God-Image
“In the beginning, God created man in His own image, and man has been trying to repay the favor ever since.” Voltaire

I’ve heard this quote in various forms, attributed to several authors and thinkers, but this is the oldest version I can find. It strikes me as profoundly accurate. Each of us has a conception or an image of God. While we like to think that our idea of God most closely reflects the reality of who God is and what God is like, our image is shaped by our experiences. Often, this is the behavior of or messages we receive from those we trust or who are authority figures for us.

If my parents were perfectionists and had high expectations for my performance, I may see God as first and foremost holy, unyielding, and expecting my perfection. If I had a Sunday school teacher who taught me about God’s grace and forgiveness, I may come to see God as primarily loving. Sometimes, it is a cultural perspective that informs how I think about God. If my culture values a certain characteristic, I may come to see God as having that characteristic. The way we conceive of God informs how we imagine that God thinks of us. It also determines how we think about ourselves and how we relate to and lead others.


Godly grit versus godless grind
My American culture prioritizes significance and emphasizes an identity dependent on what I do. Because this is the case, it is easy to assume that God emphasizes the importance of significance in identity as much as I do. This has the potential to profoundly impact the way I view and treat myself. Do I reduce myself to the jobs I do, the roles I play, or my accomplishments? Or do I elevate my own identity based on those roles, jobs, and accomplishments? What happens if I apply that paradigm to others? Do I reduce others to their roles? Do I think of them more highly when they have more tasks? Or when they’re accomplishing great things?

If we reduce ourselves and one another to purpose, utility, roles, responsibilities, jobs, callings, tasks, and accomplishments, it becomes dehumanizing. The complexity of identity should encompass who we are as image-bearers of God and our belonging in community. A unidimensional idea of identity drastically diminishes the value we assign to ourselves and others. I wonder if this doesn’t augment the godless grind, the unpleasant and unholy cycle of just enduring that results in burnout, rather than promoting Godly grit, a divine perseverance and passion that allows us to thrive long-term.


Why would I not ask God to use me?
I’ve begun to wonder if, in asking God to use me, what I’m doing is asking God to prop up my identity by increasing my significance. Over these years of missions, I have found myself feeling guilty if I think I am not doing enough or if I think that others will think I’m not doing enough. If I see a role going unfilled, I have tended to ask the question, “If I don’t do it, who will?”

I fall into the patterns of comparison. If I’m not taking call every other day or leaving the hospital after dark when someone else is, am I really doing enough to earn my spot in missions? Unconsciously, I can turn that same attitude on others. Are my colleagues pulling their weight? If I see a role going unfilled, I may ask the question, “Why isn’t that person doing it?” At times, I conflate what I or others desire with what God desires.

Perhaps it reflects that I don’t trust God’s control if I constantly fill the gaps in my human effort, regardless of the consequences.

This has caused me to reflect. What if I stopped asking God to use me? What if, instead, I asked God to prune me or to grow others with me in community? Would that strengthen the part of my identity that comes from community? Or what if I asked God to give me a deep, transformative knowledge that I am God’s masterpiece and that those I encounter daily are God’s works of art? Would that strengthen the worth and value part of my identity? Would it help me understand God in a more holistic way?

I have a deep desire to be a part of what God is doing in this world. I want to participate in kingdom work. But my identity desperately needs more balance. I don’t want to create God in my image of hyper-valuing tasks. I don’t want to reduce myself and others to jobs, roles, and duties. I don’t want to dehumanize or devalue others. I don’t want to prioritize programs over people. I want my ministry to be holistic and life-giving.

I want Godly grit, not godless grind.

I feel like I’ve begun to have a sense of the problem, at least in my own life. But at times, fixing it seems impossible. I’m still learning how not to feel guilty about things going undone. I’m still learning how to approach my life in missions without a myopic focus on what I’m doing and how well I’m doing it. I’m still learning how not to view others through the lens of productivity and performance. But maybe part of it begins with asking God to help me know my worth and develop my community, but not to use me.

Originally published here.


Andrea moved to Kenya with her husband and daughter in 2015 to begin serving at a mission hospital. As a general surgeon, she strives to show the love of Jesus through the provision of compassionate surgical care to those without the means to otherwise receive it. She also helps to train young Christian, African physicians to become surgeons and to disciple them in their walks with Christ. Even after writing this blog, she finds it difficult to express who she is without discussing what she does.

I Belong to You

by Laura Hope

As a child, my parents moved often. We left Israel when I was 3 years old only to move from state to state in the USA for the next ten years due to my father’s work. When we came back to Israel when I was 13, I struggled with a sense of belonging and my identity. As the years went by, I continued to struggle. Living as a Christian amongst Muslims and Jews was complicated. As a teenager, I learned the art of adapting and becoming like a chameleon to fit in. 

After an attempt to set fire to the congregation we attended, a fear came over me and I did not talk much about my faith.  I remember when I was just 13, the next-door neighbor kids stoned my brother and me because we were seen attending the Feast of Tabernacles. Their parents were invited to go and they happened to see us there, and the persecution began. When we left the apartment, they amazingly apologized for that incident. After my car accident at age 17, I broke free from some of that fear and the Lord helped me to share my testimony to most of the Aliwhites and Druze in the Golan. In the year 2000, there was a huge open door.

After completing my BA in Theology in Jerusalem, that fear of not belonging came again. Being born in Israel and spending many years in Metulla in a Jewish village, with a family that had a ministry to the Arabs, I was misunderstood by many Arab and Jewish believers who either thought I loved the Jews too much or that I loved the Arabs too much. I felt I would always be a foreigner and never fit in or belong, even though I was born in this country.

At one point I was seriously trying to do DNA testing to find out if we did have Jewish heritage because of Jewish names we had in our family from Holland. But in the end, I felt it was chasing the wind and it could hinder possibly other open doors God was giving me. When it came to marriage, I wanted someone on equal terms as myself.  That meant someone who would accept me for who I was and to whom I would not have to prove myself. 

When Remi came into my life, I did not feel that it mattered to him what I was. He could have cared less if I was Arab or Jew or African. He just liked me and pursued me. I was attending a seminar shortly after we were married, and someone who always made me feel rejected and nervous walked into the room. Remi whispered in my ear, “Do not worry, you belong to me now.” Somehow that woke me up and gave me a huge sense of security.

I think this is what God wants us to remember. God wants to whisper in our ear and assure us that we belong to him. We are not our own. If we can hold on to the promise of the one to whom we belong, we will find our hearts at home. It is easy for me to forget whom I belong to! In a land of so much insecurity, one can easily lose their focus on eternity and how our kingdom is not of this world.

Recently, my son was having trouble at school, and I was questioning whether it was time to move him to a different school or home school him. We resolved the issue and he is still in the same class. When I told an acquaintance that I was struggling with whether to home school him or not, she asked me a question: “Do you want your son to suffer from not belonging as you have?” This person felt it was more important that he felt as if he belonged to the group, and then find private lessons tailored to him.

I must say I do not want my son to have to deal with this feeling of not belonging, but the other half of me wants him to realize that as believers there is something more important than fitting in. If we can hold on to God and allow him to place his love as a seal on our hearts, we will find security that will not be shaken. Because truly we are like Father Abraham who himself was a stranger or alien in the promised land.

We are strangers believing by faith that we will reach a Golden City of the New Jerusalem that is to come. I want my son to base his sole identity NOT in his school or his peers, but on the one to whom he belongs. Whom do you belong to? To whom have you given your heart? Does it belong to your Beloved, the King of Kings?

God wants to cover us like a mother hen and bring comfort to his people. He wants to sing over us with songs of love. He wants us to know deep down and say, “I am my Beloved’s and He is mine.” Knowing this down deep will bring a deep sense of security that the world does not give.

If you have ever suffered from the feeling of not belonging, I want to invite you to look to the One whose heart is so ravished by you! Our God takes delight in you, and he wants you to belong to him. He wants to place his seal upon you so you will never forget that you belong to Him. He wants to sing over you with songs of joy.

Lift up your eyes and find comfort from under his wings. Let him surround you with the wings of his presence so that you know that it does not matter where you went to school, where you have lived, where you are from, or what job you work at, but what most matters is that you never forget that you are not your own, you belong to your Beloved.

Originally published here.


Laura Hope grew up as a third culture kid, she has been directing the Heavenly Light Bookshop since 2009. She has a blog, poetofdreams.com. She holds a BA in Theology. She has two boys nearly 8 and 7 years old. Her hobbies are herbalism, exploring ancient Biblical sites, and art. She is currently residing in Jerusalem and she loves to encourage and inspire others in their pilgrimage of the heart.

On Welcoming the Third Culture Kid

One last time

We are in the midst of summer, but I am already hearing and feeling the groans and pangs of how quickly the summer has gone. Summer flies by, especially when you are in transition.

Soon college towns will begin to see old students return and many new ones come in. Among those old and new are those who have lived as third culture kids, those who blend in with the crowd, even as their insides scream “other”.

Once I was one of them. I entered into my college years with hidden fears and insecurities, many of them because my insides and outsides were at odds.

Some of you are parents who are saying goodbye to your own third culture kids and the pit in your stomach is indescribable. Who will come alongside your kids? Who will walk with them in this next stage of life when you are a world away?

This is for those who work with third culture kids who are entering their university years or those who are welcoming third culture kids into their churches, communities, or families. 


  • Let them talk about their past. They have left so much, let them talk about what they have left.
  • Ask probing questions
  • Take them out to a restaurant that may serve foods from the country(ies) they called home
  • Seek to understand through the lens of cross-cultural adjustment. Don’t assume that they identify with their passport countries.
  • Offer space for them to process their grief
  • Encourage them to connect and find their safe spaces
  • Seek to understand some of the losses that they have experienced
  • Let them question their faith in safe ways
  • Understand that while there is a general TCK perspective, each TCK is unique and experiences the world and change in their own ways. Allow them to surprise you.
  • Help them to do it afraid. What do I mean by that? Tara Livesay in a blog post called Do it Afraid talks about feeling afraid, but doing things anyway. She gives the illustration of her son Isaac learning to walk, how even when he’d left his “wall of safety” and walked into her arms, he would still get afraid. But he did it anyway. Tara says this: “Practicing doing scary things doesn’t really make me perfect at it. I’m still afraid sometimes. I don’t know how to stop being afraid completely and consistently. I’m not finding ‘perfection’ as I continually practice facing both my rational and irrational fears.I only know that sometimes – I have to do it afraid.” So help them to do it afraid.
  • Help them “remember rightly.” We TCKs tend to go two ways with our memories and stories – either we remember them as perfect, or we dismiss them as absolutely horrible. It can be difficult for us to remember rightly. In my recent trip to Iraq, I was speaking to the art therapist about stories, and remembering our stories correctly. She said that as we tell our stories over and over, we have a tendency to embellish. Either we make them better than they were, or worse. The important thing is to remember them rightly; seeing our past with clear vision so that we can move forward in peace.
  • Gently challenge them on any visible or invisible bigotry. Yes, TCKs can be bigots. See Exploring TCK Bigotry for more on this.
  • Learn to speak the language of ‘elsewhere.’ It’s not that hard. There’s no grammar or syntax involved and there is no morphology. Prefixes, suffixes, or infixes are absent. You don’t have to worry about past tense, or present perfect or superlatives. All of us have spoken the language of elsewhere at some point – whether as a tourist or as a resident. This is the language that reaches across the divide and attempts to understand the one who is “other.”


  • Tell them to “get over it already!” Instead pose honest challenges to them like: “What would it take for you to live more effectively in your passport country?” or “Western countries are experiencing more and more diversity. What might your TCK background offer to the community?”
  • Deny their experiences by saying “Everyone feels insecure in college. Everyone misses home.” Denying the experience of the TCK denies their life.
  • Let them wallow. There is a difference between honest grieving and wallowing in self-pity. The one heals, the other destroys.
  • Put a time limit on their adjustment and their grieving. We are all different. We grow and adjust at different rates. So don’t put time limits on the TCK. Allow them room even as you continue to love and challenge them.

I’ll close with this thought from Nina Sichel, author and adult TCK:

“So when she comes to you, don’t ask her where she’s from, or what’s troubling her.  Ask her where she’s lived.  Ask her what she’s left behind.  Open doors.  And just listen.  Give her the time and space and permission she needs to remember and to mourn.  She has a story — many stories.  And she needs and deserves to be heard, and to be healed, and to be whole.” from The Morning Zen: The Trouble with Third Culture Kids

Readers – what would you add to this list of dos and don’ts? 

Blogger’s Note: Elizabeth Trotter writes an excellent article using Physics to explain Third Culture Kids. Take a look at it here!

For more essays on third culture kids, take a look at Between Worlds: Essays on Culture & Belonging as well as the newly released Worlds Apart: A Third Culture Kid’s Journey

This post was adapted from a piece originally published in Communicating Across Boundaries. 

We Need Each Other

by Renette

The African saying ‘Ubuntu’ never resonated with me. I knew the definition for years: “I am what I am because of who we all are.” But it wasn’t until recently that I came to realise how much truth the saying holds.

We commonly ask one another to ‘tell me more about yourself’ or even ponder it ourselves: ‘who am I?’ If we are all born with certain traits, quirks, mannerisms, weaknesses and strengths, are we aware of them from the beginning or do we only realise these things when provoked by other people?

The Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) personality test gives an explanation of who you are by defining how you are energized, take in information, make decisions, and organize your world. These short codes (INFJ or ESTP) give an outline of how our brains processes the world around us.

If we can so easily be defined by a 10-minute test, why is it that we keep on learning about ourselves as we grow older? Aren’t we who we are and that’s it?

Going back to ubuntu (I am what I am because of who we all are), this can sound a bit ‘new age,’ but take a minute to think about it. I am angry, because you did something that activates an emotion within me or I am patient because I‘ve learnt that people do things differently or I need time alone to process things because I’ve learnt that spending too much time with people drains me.

Do you see the connection? I learn who I am by spending time with people. I need people to know who I am; I need people around me so that I can grow; I need people so that I can identify my strengths and weaknesses.

To be able to answer, ‘who am I?’ I need to rub shoulders with people from different cultures, backgrounds and with different interests. Here is one guarantee in life: No matter how weird people are, you will always grow in who you are, and who you are supposed to be, when you spend time with new people.

Yes, there are people I do not enjoy the company of, but yet I need to meet them so that I can know I don’t like people who are A, B, or C. We need opposites in life to know what we are opposite of.

One way to learn about our strengths is through words of affirmation from others. I think complimenting one another is healthy, but often a compliment focuses on what someone does and not on who they are. In the Bible, we learn that we should encourage one another as encouragement boosts and reassures who someone is – it lifts them up. 1 Thessalonians 5:11 (NIV) says “Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.”

When I encourage someone, I am highlighting something beautiful, something different and positive about them. Bringing to light a strength that might have been hidden, I am saying “I can see this talent, skill, or characteristic that God has given you, and I want you to know that it shows.” Through encouragement we help each other to grow in our Christian character and to find out who we are.

This is how I build my definition of ‘me.’ But how many times have you just shrugged off a compliment or an encouragement, denying the validity of it? I have witnessed so many people not claiming or owning up to words of affirmation, dismissing the encouragement because they fear they will become proud. Or maybe it’s that they do not believe what was said, so they shrug it off as untrue.

It is easier to take a compliment when you believe it’s true, than to accept a compliment you don’t believe in. Why do we brush off compliments that make us feel uncomfortable? If I receive a compliment that makes me uneasy, it’s a great opportunity to examine why I don’t believe in what was said – why do I think I’m not beautiful or why am I uncomfortable when someone compliments my relationship with God?

God created people so that we can be in relationship with each other; so that we can see Him in others, tell them about what we see, affirm them, edify them, and thus build and strengthen the body of Christ, the church.

I am still finding myself. I find myself in others when they see something that awakens a part of me. I find myself when someone provokes an uncomfortable feeling within me. It is all in me – some parts are just sleeping and will only be awakened when I care deeply or am disappointed or see injustice.

The wrongs and rights of others help us find our full selves. We find out more about ourselves when people challenge us, question our methods and reasoning, or provoke our emotions.

We need to learn that others can help us dig deeper and explore the hidden parts of ourselves.

We need people. God created relationships. He created people for us, to complete us, to make us fully realise who we are. I am who I am because of who we all are: it is through others that we learn who we are.

reprinted with permission


After completing her degree in mathematics education, Renette decided to go on an adventure and worked as an au pair in São Paulo, Brazil. After 2 years of learning Portuguese, visiting various places in South America, and accidentally encountering an anaconda, she felt the call to return to Africa and join OM (Operation Mobilization). Renette is an associate financial developer with OM Africa Area, making regular field visits to facilitate the relationship between donors and ministries. During her free time, she enjoys discussing odd scenarios with friends and mastering the art of a good cup of coffee.

Dear Life Abroad — I’ll keep my identity, thanks.

“Loss of identity.”

It makes every list doesn’t it?  Right near the top.  Up there with rootlessness, culture shock and horrible toilets.

When you take a two column, pros and cons approach to life abroad, the word “identity” rarely makes it into the pro column.  In fact, if you compiled the sum of all of the pro-con lists out there and put them into a full disclosure, up front and honest sales pitch for a life overseas, you’d be hard pressed to convince a single person to sign on.

“Adventure that will change your life forever.  Exposure to amazing people, traditions and foods.  Community like you’ve never experienced.  Frequent flier miles galore.”

“Oh and your identity is going to be stripped to the point that you will question everything you ever believed to be true about yourself.”

“Sound good?”

“Click here to sign up.”

You would think that living abroad is a first cousin to a witness protection program, which always sounds cool at first — and then you think it through.  New life, new home, new friends but your old life will be gone forever.

I get it.  I really do.

I have expatriated (moved abroad), repatriated (moved “home”) and then expatriated again.

I have felt thoroughly incompetent both far away and in my own country.

I have questioned deeply my role, my calling and my ability to contribute to anything significant.

I have felt lost, confused, broken and paralyzed.

BUT  (and this is a huge BUT).


On the contrary, living cross-culturally has shaped my identity.  Stretched it.  Molded it.  Changed it to be sure, but there is nothing missing in who I am because of where I have been.


Here are three quick thoughts on identity and living abroad.



It’s funny to me that college doesn’t get the same bad rap that living abroad does.  The identity gap between who we are on day one of university and who we are at graduation is the most pronounced of our lives.

Scratch that.  Puberty — then college — but still.

When we talk about the college years we generally say things like, “that’s when I found myself,” or “that’s when I discovered who I really was.”  We don’t often say “that’s when I lost my identity” even though we may be a dramatically different person.

Everything changes us.

College.  Job.  Marriage.  Kids.  Accomplishment.  Tragedy.

All of it becomes a part of who we are.



Here’s where I think the rub is.  I can’t prove it with science but I’ve watched it happen over and over.

Something clicks inside of our brain when we move abroad that convinces us that we have stepped into a time space continuum.  It’s the same basic concept that makes us feel like our kids haven’t changed a bit while their grandparents think they’ve grown like weeds.  We tend to fixate on the last point of connection and even though logically we reason that time continues in other places too . . . it’s still a shock when we see it in person.

Our lives are so dramatically different abroad and the contrast is so vivid that when we return we presume that we are simply stepping back through the portal . . . into the same place . . . with the same people.

So it stands to reason that we should be the same as well . . . but we’re not.  In fact, all of the people involved have never stopped moving forward.

Life abroad is unique in that it is one of the few major life experiences that is marked by a sense of “going back” at the end.

College might be different if we graduated and went back to high school.

That would be a loss of identity for sure.



Every year about this time I get to have a lot of conversations with people who are finishing their time abroad.  I’ll give you three guesses what the most COMMONLY REPEATED FEAR that I hear is.

Here’s a clue:  It’s NOT, “I’m afraid I won’t even know who I am.”  That comes later.

It’s NOT,  “I’m afraid I won’t fit back in.”  That’s a big one but it’s not number one.


It generally goes something like this:  “I’m afraid I will slip back into my old life and just become who I used to be.  I don’t want to forget what I have experienced and who I have become abroad.”

That doesn’t sound like a LOSS of identity to me.  It sounds like a rich and wonderful ADDITION.

Here’s the kicker — not a single one of those people would say life abroad was ONLY rich and wonderful.

They tripped and bumbled just like the rest of us but through it all they found something in the experience that they never, ever want to let go of . . . to the point that they fear losing it.


For me — “IDENTITY” goes in the pro column.

Anyone else?



10 Reasons a Missionary Needs an Identity Rooted in Christ

You know this: A missionary needs an identity rooted in Christ, and not in being a missionary.

You also know this: Who you are matters. If God didn’t care about each of us being unique, why go to the effort of multiple hair colors and textures, body types, heights, skin colors, and sports teams?

Being a missionary is something to take pride in, the problem many of us run into is that with our mouths we say, “My identity is ultimately in Christ.” But too often with our hearts we believe, “My identity is wrapped up so much in being a missionary, it’s really where my value as a person lies.”

Being a missionary is good and worthy and important (and fun and we get to go to cool places!), but it is not supreme. It cannot bear the weight of being the most important part of your identity, only Christ can.

10 reasons

We know this! But it is so important we get it right. Because this is what’s at stake:

  1. Your worth is not in what you do or how much you are paid. Your worth is in Christ. The world values money and status. The church, sadly, can also place higher worth on certain roles. In this case, the world and the church are wrong. You are worthy because you are a precious child of God. You are the very Imago Dei.
  1. The amount of transition missionaries tend to experience can lead you to unfairly link identity to a city, an organization, or a people group. All virtuous, yes. All will experience change.
  1. Many of the fields and assignments for missionaries have instability built into them. Your visa may be assumed to be a shoe-in, but we serve at the pleasure of governments that can change their minds. We have landlords that can change the contract. We live in countries that experience conflict. Hello, COVID, I’m looking at you too!
  1. No matter how great your family is, your hometown is, or your internet connection is, being a missionary influences your sense of belonging.
  1. It is more discussed now than it had been, but because you may be support-based, there is a pressure to perform. An identity in Christ relieves the pressure to perform, as it is based in love, not works. In a recent newsletter I wrote: “The last three years I have set out like I was in a courtroom and you were the judge. I have presented evidence that your faith and support in me are not in vain. In part, I wanted to educate you about XYZ ministry. But a greater part was to let you see exhibit A: look at what Amy is doing! and exhibit B: look at what Amy is doing over here! and exhibit C: More doing folks! I have crossed another line in my newsletter-writing career. I feel secure here. You know what XYZ ministry is. You know who I am. You know the heart of what I am trying to help foster in the world. The spirit of scarcity is not the the Holy Spirit I follow.”
  1. The results of your work are not always seen. I’m working on a project involving my newsletters from the mid-90s and in rereading them, I’m reminded of people we had been investing in and praying for. In many cases, they did not become Christians. But that was twenty years ago and I’m wondering where they are spiritually now.
  1. Someone will always have better behaved children, a “more spiritual” walk, superior language skills, or a more harrowing medical story.
  1. You may be allowed to do things on the field that you are not allowed to do in your passport country (like preach or serve communion). Or vice versa.
  1. You know Sabbath and other spiritual disciplines are important. When you are a missionary, you might practice them because you “should” or feel guilty because you are not practicing them. Instead, when your identity is in Christ, you might not have less internal struggle as to how challenging they can be, but you will have less guilt and more assurance in your position in God’s heart.
  1. It shows you really believe Jesus when he talked about coming to him like a child and coming to set the captives (like you) free. Or when He spoke on the importance of being a servantnand the command to not be anxious about anything in our lives.

I love being a missionary (most of the time). I love that I have been exposed to many countries and people and different ways to be human. I love it. What I don’t love is when I confuse my role in the kingdom of God with where my true identity lies.

This list reminds me of what it means to be a missionary whose identity is rooted in Christ, instead of a Christian whose identity is rooted in being a missionary. My hope and prayer is that it’s done the same for you.

Travel Delusions


It cost me 436 US dollars to renew my passport. I was planning to do it for half the price when I got home later, but I ran out of pages.

That’s right, I ran out of passport pages.

A fact that I was pretty proud about – until it cost me a significant amount of time and money which I did need for other purposes.

And it made me think: spending time overseas is a source of pride: well looked upon, and much boasted about. We talk about how great seeing the world is because of the people you meet, the lessons you learn, the priceless experiences you accumulate. (Also, it’s fun.)

But there is an almost mystical quality attached to travel that is worth reanalysing.

I always said that one of the great and truly valuable things about spending time overseas is you learn more about yourself, about who and how you really are. You get perspective.

You learn that you are attractive to the opposite sex.

You learn that you are good at things.

You learn that you’re interesting.

You learn that your privileged childhood has shaped you for better or for worse.

You learn that you are stronger than you believed – or you learn to be strong.

You learn that you can make a difference.

You learn that friendship can be temporary and sweet at the same time.

You learn what home means to you – or that the word “home” doesn’t mean anything anymore.

Well, these are the things I thought I’d learned.

Yet I’m starting to feel I need to unlearn most, if not all, of this. Not because any of it is wrong, per se. But what about those who haven’t travelled – because they can’t afford to, or because they stay home and do cool things there? Are they ignorant? Are we wanderers any wiser, any more informed, any more self-aware than they are?

Being “well-travelled” deludes you into thinking you know yourself (and the world, and people in general) better. Like when you backpacked for six months, or when you volunteered for two years, you were somehow attaining a higher level of self-fulfillment.

But am I really the best judge of who I am?

And then there’s what other people say about me. To those in my destination country, I’m the cool foreigner who speaks their language, with that cute and impossible-to-place accent. To those in the country I left behind, I’m the one who travels – the adventurous one; I’m the missionary, the justice fighter – the inspiring one.

But do what other people say or think about me determine my identity and self-worth?

Both benchmarks are such relative standards, vulnerable to the highs and lows of life. When things are good, I am on top of the world. When things take a turn for the worse, when I find myself alone and wondering what is it I’m doing here again because things aren’t going to plan – who am I then?

When my ministry is falling apart – who am I? When I’m not even actively involved in ministry (heaven forbid!) – who am I? When I come home and I’m no longer the interesting foreigner (but not quite local anymore) – who am I?

My identity is an evolving concept, a work in progress. Up to a point, travel casts light on different aspects of what I am like and the direction I am taking in my life. The time that I spent in Spain, in Ecuador, in Bolivia, has undeniably been a significant influence. I wouldn’t think the way I think, do some of the things I do, be the person I am today if not for those formative experiences.

That said, travel in and of itself doesn’t give value to my existence; nor should I define myself by the fact that I have travelled, or by some romantic idea of “the person I have become” as a result of my travels.

I’m not going to lie: it’s great being the cool foreigner, the missionary, the justice fighter. They’re not inaccurate descriptions of who I am and they’re not personas I should deny. But they do not justify my worth as a human being.

Because ultimately, my Maker is the one who gave me value when He created me, and I’ve decided He is the one who defines me.

The more I travel, the more I need to keep reminding myself of this. My identity in my Maker is truer and more constant than any other concept of identity that I create for myself, or that others have created for me.

In the barrage of experiences and voices vying to define me, this truth is all too easy to forget. As a result, I am continuously stripping off the other identities thrust upon me and created by my own ego, and striving to put on Christ.

Adapted from original.


2016-01-21 08.22.08Hsu-Ann Lee was born in Malaysia and grew up in Canberra, Australia, before being led to serve in South America. There, she was the “missionary” working with youth in southern Ecuador and the “justice fighter” sharing the stories of survivors of child sexual violence in Bolivia. Currently based in Sydney, she savours opportunities to speak Spanish, and continues to blog about faith, culture and being a Gen Y expat who doesn’t have it all worked out at http://suansita.wordpress.com.

When your work is taken away from you


My husband and I moved to rural Cambodia in March 2011, and through the summer of 2012, I volunteered in a missionary clinic as a registered nurse. I helped set up the clinic, registered patients, assisted with procedures, and visited patients in their homes— a volunteer job that was meaningful and fulfilling. I was also finishing my bachelor’s degree in nursing online.

But in June 2012, the missionary doctor closed the doors of the clinic and went home for a year’s furlough. I continued studying online and volunteering with small projects, but my world of work and influence shrank. After I finished my online studies in December, I found myself a very reluctant housewife with a blank calendar and few commitments.

I’ve always been a “go-getter” – a woman with a lot of drive and ambition who finds new challenges for herself. That year, however, I plunged into a depression I couldn’t shake. I tried finding part-time work with my husband’s organization and developing health education programs for other charities in town. But there were no positions in my husband’s office or with the other charities.

I felt frustrated, unfulfilled, and dissatisfied.

Why would God put me in a country like Cambodia and not give me a specific role to play? Why were my talents and time being wasted? Why couldn’t I find some way to use my nursing skills?

Slowly, over the course of a few months, God showed me why. Through prayer, his Word, and deep conversations with other Christians, I found purpose in the darkness. He gently drew the idol out of my heart: finding my identity outside of Jesus.

It was true. I’ve always found satisfaction, even pride, in describing myself as a nurse. I held challenging jobs that were respected by others. I had a role to look forward to when I woke up and a way to feel good about myself. But when it was taken away? I felt worthless.

I didn’t feel like Jesus was enough for me.

I believed the lie that I needed to create my own identity through my work, efforts, and titles. Being his daughter, his redeemed child, didn’t factor into my thoughts when I evaluated myself. I sought to be recognized and defined by my work, instead of the work Christ did for me.

God had to strip away all that was holding me together – a long and painful process. But now I know why God allowed those props to fall out of my life. I’m not defined by what I do; I’m defined by what Jesus did for me, and even now, how he changes me and leads me. Who I am in Christ is far more significant and lasting than any identity I could build on my own.

Once in Christ, our identity doesn’t change. It’s not threatened by other people. It can’t be held up in comparison to others, either to make us feel better about ourselves, or worse — because we can’t take credit for who we are. God is working in me and through me to make a new creature, with a new heart that longs only to glorify Him.

Now we’ve returned to the United States, and I’m still tempted to find my identity in a place other than Jesus. As long as I’m in this broken body on earth, I won’t stop struggling with the temptation to look away from Christ. But he is faithful to forgive, to strengthen, and to redeem. That’s what I want to identify with and be recognized by: his steadfast love for me.

Originally published here

WhitA travel junkie, RN, book nerd, and recovering expat, Whitney Conard recently moved back to Kansas City, USA after three years in Cambodia with her husband and son. She blogs at Journey Mercies about pursuing Jesus, loving people, living justly, and exploring the world.

An Anniversary That Snuck Up On Me

Twenty years ago on August 8th (my mom’s birthday), my parents drove me to Denver International Airport, dropped me off (per my request), and I flew off to several weeks of new teacher orientation in California before heading to China.

Erin, Amy, Cynthia

Oh my word. Erin (my teammate) and Cynthia (province mate) seem to have dressed in a more timeless fashion than I did.

Remember when vests were the rage? Or pleated shorts? Or fanny packs? Or little bangs? I don’t think I have traveled internationally in shorts since that flight. And truth be told, we got all checked-in and our flight was cancelled so we spent the night at an airport. Then for the second day in a row I put that outfit on, thinking it was a fine way to travel.

One more photo from our first month in China:

Erin, Amy, Random man

Our school took Erin and me on a day trip soon after we arrived. In my photo album I’ve written, “Mr. Yao brought this man with us to practice English.” Ha :)! What I should have written was, “What in the world was I thinking with my sock and footwear choice?!” Notice how nicely everyone is dressed and I’m sporting a cow t-shirt? Erin and I, like good Americans, dressed for comfort. Everyone else dressed for the photos. Oh, sweet Amy, so much to learn.

This man-child was not even conceived when either of those pictures was taken.

I repeat, not even conceived. This is what twenty years looks like: a grown man.

James and Amy

This month marks twenty year of being on full time support. My first support raising goal was a couple of thousand dollars for training and a flight to China and then $650 a month. I remember wondering where $650 was going to come from, it seemed like so much money. Now, needing about four times that amount, I’m thankful God eases us into stages of life.

I’ll admit it wasn’t that hard for me emotionally to go on full time support because I thought it was only for two years. For someone to “eddy out” (using rafting terms) of the flow for how most Westerners earn money for a couple of years when I was young, didn’t seem a big deal.

But to have relied on supporters’ generosity as they’ve listened to the prompting of the Holy Spirit over the years, has not always been easy. There is a certain level of pride to have “worked for your money.” We westerners respect and understand pulling our own weight.

There is a certain level of humility and gratitude to have relied on others to have “worked for your money.” We Christians respect and understand living according to rules of a different Master.

I love my American side, but sometimes she does battle with my True Self, wondering if I’m doing enough, if supporters will move on to the next sexy Christian project (the need around the world is great and your resources are limited, I truly do understand), if they’ll think that a fanny-packed clueless twenty something is more endearing than a mid-life apparently not-going-to-get-a-real-job forty something.

We love beginnings and endings. Or I should say, I love beginnings and endings. But the middle? You can wonder where the shore is when you’re in the middle of a journey.

Twenty years. I never would have thought it. I imagine as you look around you, you’ve also got parts of your journey that surprise you. And humble and delight and have formed you. I’m flooded with gratitude for these twenty years.

For the faithfulness shown to me by friends, family, and supporters via letters, emails, calls, asking family members about me, their prayers, and their money.

For the faithfulness shown to me by God who has sat with me in loneliness, laughed with me at team meetings, grown me through his words and the words of others, and reminded me to live in the present with an eye to the future and a gratitude for the past.

Here’s to fanny packs, black socks, and the timeless love of God for people!

Clink (that’s our metaphorical glasses clinking).

And just because I can’t help my gregarious self, I clink again. To God and his faithfulness. To fellow travelers. To the Broncos winning the Super Bowl!*


What have been the blessings and challenges of others “working for your money.”


*You can take the girl out of Denver, but taking American football out of her heart is nearly impossible.