In October of 2001, my wife and I boarded a flight and moved our family from the US to our new home in Asia. Nearly ten years later, in June of 2011, we moved back to our old home in Joplin, Missouri. Those dates may not jump out at you, but the first was one month after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The second was one month after an F5 tornado destroyed about a quarter of Joplin, killing 161.
When you relocate to a different culture, your world is turned upside down. How much more so when the earth itself seems to be tilted off its axis.
Some of you are making a cross-cultural transition right now, in the midst of a global pandemic, a global recession, and far-reaching upheavals confronting racism. So much emotional multitasking. So many unknowns. You’re not only tackling culture stress or reverse culture stress, but you’re trying to get used to a new normal when the old normal is challenging enough already.
There’s another term for new normal. It’s abnormal (at least for a while).
Speaking of culture, you have your own “cancel culture”: cancelled flights. cancelled church services, cancelled good-bye gatherings, cancelled welcome parties, cancelled support, cancelled camps, cancelled vacations, cancelled retreats, cancelled trainings, cancelled conferences, cancelled debriefings, cancelled classes, cancelled job opportunities, cancelled leases, cancelled assumptions, cancelled plans.
And when you get to make your trip, your first experience after you land is to self-quarantine for two weeks.
Please don’t just shrug all this off. Don’t dismiss the added stress that these increased challenges bring. Don’t simply put on a bigger smile as you push yourself harder. Rather, acknowledge the difficult circumstances and give yourself grace. And, as always, but especially now, understand the need for help in navigating your transitions.
“Every time there’s transition,” TCK-expert Ruth Van Reken tells Columbia News Service, “there is loss.” She’s talking about Third Culture Kids and Adult Third Culture Kids, but her words can apply to anyone moving between cultures. She goes on to say,
So when people are feeling strange about their situation I ask them, ‘What did you lose?’ Because where there’s loss, there’s grief. And when there’s no language for it, it comes out at your boss or in your marriage.
How wonderful it is to have someone to understand, to ask you the right questions. But sometimes you arrive into situations where everyone else is also going through some kind of transition, dealing with loss, and experiencing grief. Sometimes when you want to share your story, it’s as if those around you are saying, “Get in line.” Sometimes their stories seem more important than yours and you decide to hold yours in.
I’m a big proponent of intentional preparation and debriefing surrounding cross-cultural transitions. Skilled leaders know what to ask, how to listen, and what to say. They can start a conversation in chapter two, skipping the preface, because they’re already on the same page with you. And they give good, empathy-filled, heartfelt hugs.
But you may find that hard to come by right now. Groups can’t meet together. Ministries are postponing sessions. And hugs are extremely hard to come by. If that’s the case for you, I’d encourage you not just to skip everything until schedules are back on track. Instead take advantage of what’s available now—video sessions online, phone calls, or email conversations. I know from experience that it’s easy to put off things like this. Whether we’ve landed in our host or passport country, it’s common to want to hit the ground running and not spend the time needed for soul searching and soul care. So we wait for the day when getting together with someone will better fit into our schedules. But waiting can easily last forever as we become busy (overwhelmed?) with other aspects of life, as funds are spent elsewhere, and as we get in the rut of making excuses . . . until we decide it’s simply too late.
Even if you take part in something “virtual” now, you may still find it isn’t quite enough for you or your family members. If something seems to be lacking, don’t think of that as a deficiency on your part. If you’re suffering from Zoom fatigue, you’re not alone. Understand that while alternatives to face-to-face may be the best options available right now, they aren’t necessarily ideal for you. If you need more, something “with skin on,” I’d encourage you to commit to adding some kind of in-person version later, when that becomes possible. It won’t be easy, but if there’s a cost involved, set aside money for it or let your church know how important it is to you so they can help you afford it even if by that time your support has waned or funds have been diverted. Tell others how much you need it so they can help hold you accountable if your plans fade away.
And in between deliberate member-care events, recognize the opportunities to commune with fellow “travelers.”
When we transitioned back to storm-wrecked Joplin, we returned to a place full of transition, with people navigating their way down roads where the landmarks and street signs had violently disappeared. Some had lost family members, some their homes, some their jobs. Schools and a hospital were destroyed. Their losses were so much bigger than ours, but we joined the ranks of those affected by the storm. Across the road from our short-term housing, our church had erected a couple tents for distributing food and household items. I spent some time volunteering there, with instructions to help visitors “shop” but mostly to listen to them share about their tornado-caused wounds—physical and emotional—and to offer prayers. It was good for me to listen to their stories—and even nine years later, there are still stories to be heard.
Listening is a wonderful gift to give to others, and some people are able and desirous to return that gift. When you show that you care about the details of their lives, they want to return the blessing. They understand the shared emotions, even if the circumstances aren’t exactly the same. Praying for others is a wonderful gift, too. And some people will ask you how they can pray for you. They understand that prayer is a bridge to God and also a connection for those who pray together.
During turbulent times, the outside turmoil can disrupt your best-laid plans for inner calm. This is my prayer for you—that you’re able to engage in the grieving and the talking and the listening and the sharing and the praying and the giving and the receiving that you need to create that calm, no matter how long it takes.
(Peter Katona, “More and More Americans Consider Themselves ‘Hidden Immigrants,’” Columbia News Service, February 27, 2007 (archived at Wayback Machine)
I saw a headline a couple weeks ago that pressed down on my chest like a heavy stone. It read, “‘Don’t You Love Us?’ Millennials Say Their Parents Are Making Them Feel Guilty for Turning Down Invitations to Come Over for Passover and Easter.” While the lead-in question is directed at young adults, asked by parents who don’t understand why they won’t be sharing a holiday meal together during the pandemic, it could just as easily be asked of health-care workers or grocery-store employees by loved ones wondering why they are putting themselves at risk by going to work every day.
So this is another thing that cross-cultural workers face that is similar to what’s been brought on by COVID-19: the questions.
Hands up. When you decided to work overseas, did any of you hear “Don’t you love us?” or something similar, from parents, siblings, children, or close friends? How many of you have heard it more than once, maybe each time you say goodbye?
When we make decisions based on our convictions, when we decide to do something difficult or out of the ordinary because we believe it to be right, our actions often affect others, especially those closest to us. And they have questions, and those questions can land with a thud.
That weight on my chest is because my wife and I have heard a couple of those questions ourselves, and the effect still lingers. How about you? Here are some more examples:
- Can’t you serve God here?
- How can you be so sure?
- Why can’t someone else go instead?
- Are you taking your children with you?
- What will happen to our grandkids?
- Aren’t you being selfish?
- Can’t God talk to me, too?
- Why do you have to save the world?
- Why are you leaving me?
- Why would God want you to hurt us?
- Can’t you stay?
- How will you ever get married?
- When will this be over?
- Do you know what this is doing to us?
- Why can’t you get a real job?
- What about all your plans?
- What if . . . ?
It’s not just the words that are said, it’s the meaning that lurks behind and between them. We have complex relationships with those near to us. They’re the ones who know our emotional wrinkles, nooks, and crannies. They’re the ones who know the words that can slip into the hidden spaces, spaces where our own doubts sometimes live.
All these questions need answers, right?
Maybe not. But if answers are in order, what should they be? Well, that depends on the person, the relationship, the situation, the setting, and the timing. While I can’t offer up specific replies, I can suggest an attitude.
I don’t tend to take these kinds of questions well. I too easily hear them as attacks or passive-aggressive challenges (“Wow, I was only asking!”). And I live in a culture that celebrates “clapping back,” “pushing back,” “shutting somebody down,” “destroying someone,” and “counterpunching.” At best, I lean toward responding with a chilly silence.
But I think age and experience (that’s what it’s taken for me) have taught me a better way. I’d rather put effort into thinking about where the questions are coming from. We often say “consider the source” to discount something said because we don’t trust the one saying it. But “consider the source” can also apply to the emotions leading to what is spoken. Yes, some mean words come from mean places, but most of our loved ones are asking their questions out of fear or concern or shock or disappointment or grief or confusion or misunderstanding.
Knowing that, I need to be able to give people the benefit of the doubt, to wait, leaving space in the conversation when necessary—and then, when I’m able, stepping into that space with empathy, compassion, grace, and love.
I’ve learned this from better examining my own motivations and actions over the years, knowing I wasn’t always the best at communicating them to others. I’ve learned this from seeing godly family members of cross-cultural workers type out their honest, desperate questions—in all caps—wondering if they’re allowed to feel that way. I’ve learned this from having grown children of my own, children whose principled decisions aren’t always going to fit with my closely held, best-laid plans.
There’s something else I’ve learned—that when I feel a heavy weight, it helps when I can share it with people who understand, people such as you. Thanks.
(Erin McDowell, “‘Don’t You Love Us?’ Millennials Say Their Parents Are Making Them Feel Guilty for Turning Down Invitations to Come Over for Passover and Easter,” Insider, April 9, 2020)
Then Jesus went with his disciples to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to them, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee along with him, and he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.” Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.”
On February 15, at five o’clock in the morning I received a phone call from my oldest brother. My second brother, Stan, had died tragically from a fall in Thailand. The news traveled fast to our large extended family. From Thailand to Saudi Arabia to Istanbul, to Greece and on to California, New York, and Boston and several parts between, the news stunned all of us with its magnitude.
Within a few short hours, a couple of us had tickets to Thailand. It was the beginning of the spread of the coronavirus beyond the borders of China, and along with the throat catching grief of death and loss was the background worry of travel and an epidemic that was rapidly crossing borders to become a pandemic. We went anyway.
My brother worked alongside farmers in Central Asia, teaching them more efficient and effective ways of farming and working the land. He loved God’s good creation. His life, his work, and his photography reflected the tension of seeking out and searching for glory in the midst of a broken world that groans. For Stan, there was glory all around – nothing was mundane.
A couple of days after we arrived in Thailand, surrounded by the beauty of a grief-laden garden, eleven of us gathered to remember my brother. The depth of love and bearing witness to grief that we shared as a group was indescribable. We spent four days together – four days of grieving which meant we wept, we laughed, we ate, we reminisced, and we talked about how we were angry at him for leaving us too soon.
Within days after arriving back in the United States, our world had changed. Suddenly dinner table conversations became about working from home, shelter in place, the number of fatalities, and borders closing in countries all over the world. The solidarity that we shared as a group together in Thailand, grieving my brother and taking comfort in each other’s love and grace, was overshadowed by a global pandemic. Suddenly the vice grip of grief and loss became a world-wide vice as the death toll began to rise in country after country. My brother’s death faded in people’s memory. He was just one more dead in a world where death was becoming numbers instead of people. With gallows humor we talked about putting an engraving on his as-yet unordered tombstone with the words “He did not die of COVID-19,” but realized it would be far too expensive.
We waited with dread, knowing that the church where his memorial was to be held would be cancelling the service. We would have to postpone grieving with others who loved him, with my mother who had lost her son, with my oldest brother who had not been able to make it to Thailand because of a separate tragic death, with friends from around the world who were sending expressions of love and grief through cards and messages.
In the meantime, we were still spread around the world. We waited anxiously as different family members made plans and then watched them fall apart as borders closed and planes stopped flying. We welcomed some family back and began communicating daily with other family who were staying in their host countries. Our collective grief spilled over in messages and phone calls, trying to comfort each other, to see silver linings where there were only frayed edges.
I felt the grief of my brother’s absence in every statistic I saw of those who had died from the pandemic. I felt it in every article I read that took the statistics and changed them into actual stories of those who had died. Who were they? Who had they loved? Who would miss them? Who would mourn their absence for years after the pandemic ended?
And where was God in all of this? God of the individual and God of the masses, God of the broken-hearted and God of the joy-filled. God of Gethsemane, another grief-laden garden at the foot of the Mount of Olives where Jesus reckoned with the mission he had come to accomplish. Where he, overwhelmed with sorrow, poured out his human heart before the Father.
We see Jesus, in the mystery of being fully man and fully God, taking friends along with him to bear witness to his sorrow. And yet, in his hours of great grief, they fell asleep. They disappointed him. Anyone who has known grief knows the pain of grieving alone, the discomfort of awkward interactions where people don’t know what to say, and the sense of disappointment when our friends don’t understand. In this time of worldwide grief, we are witnessing families broken apart by grief, unable to honor those who have died and bear witness to each other’s grief. Yet, it is in this place of deep sorrow that we find a comforter and counselor.
So it is to this garden that I go today; a garden significant in this Holy Week for Protestants and Catholics around the world. A garden that stands as a symbol of grief and the costly weight of the journey to the cross.
It is here that we see Jesus in his frail human state speak of his soul, overwhelmed with sorrow. We watch as he begs the Father to “Take this cup from me.” We feel his grief, we see his sorrow, we enter into his suffering. We bear witness to his journey to the cross.
The journey of Lent leads us to the Garden of Gethsemane. We don’t stay there forever, but right now, let us pause a moment and gather in Gethsemane. Let us stay with the broken world of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday – with the cry that echoed to the Heavens “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” Let us stay with the grieving and those who have lost, let us bear witness to pain, to suffering. Let us grieve for our broken world and let us do it together. Let us not be alone in our suffering, but let us journey to the cross as a people who are living out the “fellowship of his sufferings.” And there, at the foot of the cross, let us fall down and weep.
[Scripture from Matthew 26: 36-39]
For the past few weeks, our minds have all been collectively spinning. Many of us have spent hours wondering and praying, either out loud as we lay in our beds or silently within our own heads, about what we should do. We’ve turned it over and over again in our minds, examining it from every angle possible, hoping to see something we hadn’t seen before that will finally make it all clear.
But it’s been difficult. There’s been so many questions with answers that we just can’t predict with any reasonable certainty. In light of what is going on, what is going to happen to us? What will be the potential effects on my health or my family’s health? On our financial situation? On our ministry and those we have felt called to serve? What will people here think of us? What will people there think of us? Where is God calling me to be right now?
Amidst this COVID19 outbreak around the world, should we stay or should we go?
For many of us, that has been the biggest and heaviest question on our minds recently. For some, this decision still needs to be made. While most commercial flights are cancelled, situations are rapidly changing and last-minute government-operated evacuation flights are still popping up sporadically and forcing families to constantly re-evaluate.
For most though, the decision has already been made and you are where you are for the foreseeable future. For some, that decision was yours to make. But for plenty of others, that decision was made for you…whether by your sending agency or home church, by airline cancellations, or by your host or passport country’s government policies that have kept you put where you are.
Some are happy with the decisions that have been made. Some though are understandably upset that they were never given the chance to make a decision at all. Some are satisfied with where they’ve ended up and others are disappointed. Some consider themselves “stuck” abroad while others consider themselves “stuck” at home.
Some people feel like others are overreacting, while some people feel like others are underreacting. People are getting angry and disappointed with the “others” for “not getting it.”
Some people feel that those that are going back are living out of fear rather than faith. Meanwhile some feel that those who stay are ignoring the facts and living out of ignorance or misplaced confidence.
Some people think it is selfish to stay (potentially putting extra burden on what is already an exhausted health care system in a developing country and extra burden on your donors if you do get sick) and others think it is selfish to go (placing your own well-being over that of another).
Missionaries who go back to their passport countries or are already stuck in their passport countries might wrestle with regret or guilt of feeling like they are leaving certain people behind or abandoning them. Meanwhile, missionaries who stay in their host countries, might also wrestle with regret or guilt from those who might want or need them to come “home.”
What are we to do??
As always, let us all who hope in the Lord, first be strong and take heart (Psalm 31:24). There is no universal “right” answer here. In these types of situations, there is no choice but to respect one another’s decisions and extend grace to our fellow missionaries. Because either way, the decision was most assuredly not an easy one…no matter how it might have appeared outwardly. We can’t ever truly know anyone else’s entire situation (medical, financial, emotional, spiritual) and it is not our place to judge. We don’t know what God has laid on their hearts or what He has called them to do. We don’t know if they are obeying or disobeying the Holy Spirit’s stirrings in their hearts. We can’t see the future to know what was right for this family versus that one. Only God will ever know that.
As Christians, we believe in the sovereignty of God’s Will and we can trust that God will use and work good in whatever decision that was made. Just as God calls some to literally “go” abroad into the mission field, He calls and also needs some to stay. Likewise, God has called some people to stay and some people to go.
So to those who stay and to those who go…
Rest assured, that the same everlasting truths still hold true for us all. Remember that God is still the one in control. Remember that we are not prisoners of fear, shame, guilt, or regret. Remember that you are no less or no better than anyone else, we are all human. Remember that you are still called to serve and give generously, no matter your geographical location. Remember, now more than ever with our minds and worlds shaken and turned upside down and inside out, that we are called to show grace to one another and be patient in love. Remember to be kind. Remember to pray for and check in on each other, many of our friends are struggling. Remember that this is not the end, He is still bigger than it all.
Know that you are worthy and that you are loved by your Heavenly Father, no matter what and no matter where you ended up. Have confidence that He is still working in and around you, through you and in spite of you. No matter how you feel about where you are, your calling is still the same. Continue to lay your life down as a daily offering upon the alter and keep striving to use your words and actions to share the hope, peace, love, and joy that you have found in Christ.
Most of all, remember that whether you stay or go, you still have a purpose right where He has you.
Last weekend, my wife and I used Facebook to video chat with two of our sons, their wives, and our four little grandkids. That’s what you do when your children are serving in a faraway land. That’s what you do, too, when your children, like ours, are close by but COVID-19 protocols tell you to stay home.
When we started out overseas, our parents weren’t computer savvy and Skype hadn’t even been invented yet, but I know how important video conferencing has now become for ocean-separated families wanting to stay in touch. And my recent experiences back in the States have got me thinking about what cross-cultural workers could say about how to live life under the cloud of a pandemic. While people all over the world are scrambling to deal with challenges that have popped up in a matter of days or weeks, cross-cultural workers have been tackling similar problems for years.
Now I know I’m preaching to the choir here, but I’d like to consider the things that cross-cultural workers often take for granted that those “at home” might gain from. Typically, it’s easy for senders not to seek your input: “What is there to learn from people who do abnormal things because they live in abnormal places?” But as we get used to a new normal, at least for a while, we all have things to learn.
So with all the dialogue going on now about how to cope with “social distancing,” “sheltering in place,” and “quarantining,” I hope those of you living and working abroad have opportunities to contribute. You have a lot to share.
Here are some examples I’ve thought of:
You and your loved ones have dealt with extended separation and know how to navigate holidays and special events at a distance. You are masters at video chatting online, wrestling into submission Facebook Messenger, FaceTime, Zoom, Skype, Google Hangouts, and more, with sometimes spotty internet and electricity. And you’ve developed even more ways of connecting grandkids to Grandpa and Grandma when face-to-face isn’t an option.
Some of you already knew about the uncertainties of dealing with epidemics, because you’ve served populations hit by them before. Some of you work in areas affected by war, famine, and poverty and have seen staples and medical supplies run low. Some of you are aid workers or medical personnel who have to weigh personal and family safety against helping the ill and needy. Some of you are in places where that safety must take into consideration political unrest and religious persecution, as well. Some of you live where fear hangs in the air.
Many of you deal with compromised health environments every day. You and your neighbors often wear face masks to keep out air pollution when you’re outside or to keep in germs when you’re felling sick. You have to be your own food inspectors and make decisions on what unknowns you’re willing to accept. You take a myriad of vaccinations and precautions to fight off diseases and parasites not common in your passport country (sometimes getting them anyway). And you can’t drink the water.
You have made an art out of cooking meals when familiar ingredients are absent or in short supply. And you’ve created networks for getting the word out when certain items hit the shelves.
Some of you know what it’s like to function in the absence of toilet paper.
And some of you have learned the skill of saying hello without hugging or shaking hands.
Many of you know the challenges of working at home and teaching at home while you’re also living at home, often in a small apartment with no yard outside your door. You have long dealt with the need to find a balance—or rhythm—for your different roles, giving attention to self-care as you care for others.
For Christians around the globe, this coronavirus has birthed a new interest in house churches, as large gatherings have been discouraged or banned altogether. It’s birthed a lot of good questions, too, questions many of you have been pondering for a long time. What are the benefits of meeting in small groups? What are the challenges? What makes a small group “church”? What elements are necessary for a church service—singing, praying, preaching, teaching, sharing needs, taking communion?
What resources are available when the Christian gathering you’ve depended on is no longer available? Out of necessity, you’ve put together a plethora of books, blogs, devotionals, online retreats, Facebook groups, videos, Twitter feeds, and podcasts that help nourish your souls.
Many of you have had to find unique ways to do ministry when the community you serve isn’t close by. How do you care for people you don’t see often? How do you reach out to people who don’t live in your neighborhood, city, or even country?
You know from experience that change brings loss and loss brings grief—and losses should be acknowledged and grief should be expressed. You know that not all losses are tangible or easy to describe, and hidden grief can surface in unhealthy ways.
You’ve learned that small, continued stressors have a cumulative effect, that a drip, drip, drip can overflow one’s capacity as easily as a burst from a firehose.
You’ve learned also that difficult times require safe people for honest sharing, people who are willing to listen, really listen, to the unvarnished truth.
Is doing cross-cultural work the same as living during a pandemic? Usually no—COVID-19 has brought increased difficulties to everyone. But you have faced some similar circumstances. Do you have all the answers? Probably not, unless things have changed drastically since I was overseas. But you do have lessons to share, lessons often learned through trial and error, which can be good teachers.
As we all come together to confront this challenge, please take your seat at the table and join the conversations that are circulating. I hope you’re invited in. We’ll need to keep our chairs apart, though, so maybe you can help me figure out Zoom.