What Missionary Kids See on the Field Part 2: Support that Lessens the Impact of Witnessed Trauma

In my previous post (What Missionary Kids See on the Field Part 1: The Impact of Witnessed Trauma), I shared data from TCK Training’s latest white paper (Sources of Trauma in International Childhoods) along with wisdom from many A Life Overseas authors. As we sifted through information on what can be a difficult topic, we kept in mind these two key points:

  1. We are not comparing the experiences of missionary kids to a theoretical ‘perfect’ childhood they could have had elsewhere.
  1. Not every potentially traumatic event is experienced as trauma by each individual.

This means that often there is no clear ‘right’ answer; different people (different families, different children) will need different things. Setting blanket rules is unlikely to address every situation. Instead, we are going to talk about principles.

My last post included four suggestions for ways we can support families, and in this post I will expand these ideas with practical tips and more wisdom from the ALO team. 

  1. Protect children where possible.
  2. Fight the normalisation of trauma.
  3. Provide support to both parents and children.
  4. Continue support after they leave the field.

Protect children where possible

Knowing that witnessing potentially traumatic events is linked to increased risk should cause us to think carefully about taking our children to places where this can occur.

Part of determining field suitability should include a careful assessment of the level of trauma, including witnessed trauma, likely to occur in the location. If the risk is high, additional supports should be in place. If traumatic events end up happening frequently, a change of location may be warranted. 

How do we make these momentous decisions? Anna Hampton’s thoughts on Risk and the Cross Cultural Worker are so helpful here: “A theology of suffering asks a different question than a theology of risk asks. When I was a young mom facing daily threats of all kinds but especially kidnapping and murder, I needed to be able to evaluate what God was calling me and my children to that day. We hadn’t suffered the reality of kidnapping, but we were facing the risk of it. So how was I to think, to process my emotions, hear God’s voice, and then make a decision on what I was to do?” 

A lot in life cannot be predicted, including how individuals will react to and cope with potentially traumatic events. Flexibility and a willingness to change plans is important – in life generally, but especially in high risk areas. Sometimes a location changes from low risk to high risk very suddenly. Sometimes a single event changes how individuals within a family feel about their emotional and/or physical safety. 

Being willing to sacrifice our plans in order to protect children is crucial. If we sacrifice children in order to continue the plans we had made, there is something wrong with our priorities.

I love how Kay Bruner writes about this in Ask A Counselor: No Child Soldiers, No Child Sacrifice: “We are not called to deliberately – or carelessly – traumatize our children for God’s sake. When traumatic events occur, we should be the first ones at our child’s side bringing care, concern, and healing…Please don’t take your children into active danger, thinking that this will somehow make you a better kind of Christian.” 

Fight the normalisation of trauma

Just because something happens regularly does not mean it is normal. When potentially traumatic events happen regularly, we must actively fight against them being seen as ‘normal.’

Whatever happens regularly during your childhood becomes your normal. Children can adapt to anything – including, sadly, horrible abuse and devastating traumas. Believing these events are ‘normal’ does not, however, stop them from affecting a child’s psyche. This means that in order to process the impact of the abuse and/or trauma they have suffered, an individual must first recognise that what they went through was not normal. 

Many missionary kids normalise abusive and/or traumatic events they experience during childhood – to the point of not mentioning them to adults in their lives, including their parents. This is something we see over and over again at TCK Training, when Adult TCKs dismiss dramatic events and inappropriate behaviour from others as potential sources of trauma because “that was normal where I grew up” or “that happened to everyone.”

Adults in their lives unwittingly contribute to this every time we downplay things that make children feel uncomfortable or unsafe. In addition, while phrases like “Don’t worry, this is normal here” or “You’ll get used to it after a while” may be intended to comfort, they instead teach children to ignore their feelings because what is common is normal. We think that by putting on a happy face, we can make a scary situation okay, but we’re wrong. 

Anna Glenn writes about the problem of pasting a smile over pain in Toxic Positivity in Missions: “Toxic positivity is a reaction that stems from fear and shame rather than faith. It focuses on self-reliance to ‘power through’ and create or shine our own light rather than calling us to step into the light through surrender to the one true God. Toxic positivity is a shallow substitute for the hope of the gospel and a genuine relationship with Christ.” 

Instead, we all need to be brave enough to sit with difficult emotions and to sit with children and young people experiencing difficult emotions. We need to call out the wrongness in our world, even when it happens frequently around us. We need to acknowledge that witnessing potentially traumatic events is evidence of the brokenness of this world – not something to dismiss, but something to mourn. It is something that impacts us, and even the smallest child, on a soul level – because the world should not be this way. 

“We need to recognize these stressful events as threats to the mental health and stability of international families. When we recognize them as such, we can mobilize to acknowledge and debrief these events.” – Sources of Trauma in International Childhoods

Provide support to both parents and children

We need to think about the entire family unit. Children do not live in isolation, but with parents and caregivers who live in the same environments and therefore are likely witnessing the same or similar potentially traumatic events. They may even have witnessed more events from which they have sheltered their children.

Just because parents are adults does not make them immune to the impact of witnessing traumatic events. On the contrary – the impact of traumatic events flows through them to their children. The whole family needs support when living in environments where traffic accidents and violence are occuring. 

“The stress of bearing witness to trauma is easily brought into the home, impacting family dynamics and parent-child connectedness.”  – Sources of Trauma in International Childhoods

Parents need support to process what they have witnessed so that they can be emotionally available to support their children. Unfortunately, in many cases these occurrences are normalised, and families do not feel they are ‘allowed’ to need or want help to work through witnessing events that happen regularly. Yet regular debriefing (and crisis debriefing when a significant event takes place) should be a key part of how families are cared for to ensure long-term health and thriving for each person. 

When these potentially traumatic events are ignored and families do not receive adequate support, the impacts do not go away over time – they fester. As Abigail Follows writes in The Myth of the Ideal Childhood, “We can think of a trauma as a ‘heart wound’ – a wound that needs tending, otherwise it will get infected – a wound that can heal with the right treatment.”

In addition to targeted support, supportive communities that surround families in these situations are incredibly powerful. As I wrote recently in It takes a village – including for missionary families, “The communities supporting families living abroad are essential to these families’ long-term thriving. If we want to see missionary kids thrive long term, we need more than good parenting advice; we need to be the community these families need.” 

When potentially traumatic events occur regularly, when missionaries and their children see these soul-injuring sights in the course of their daily lives, it takes a toll. Anna Glenn writes poignantly on this in The Untold Stories of Returned Missionaries:

“For many missionaries who are serving in underdeveloped nations where hunger, disease, and violence run rampant, the horrors that they have witnessed day in and day out may have grown to be too much. We all know that death and pain are a part of life, but when you see people, people you know and love, dying from easily preventable causes nearly every single week and you see bodies on the side of the road mangled to the point of being unrecognizable, your psyche is forever impacted and sometimes there are just no words.”

Given that these words were written in the content of missionaries who have returned to their passport countries from the field, this leads us to our final point:

Continue support after they leave the field

The impact of witnessed trauma doesn’t end when we leave the environment in which it occurred. Unfortunately, upon leaving the field many missionary families lose the supportive community who understood those experiences. Taking care to support missionary families through the lens of accumulated trauma can make a big difference.

This means acknowledging that what feels safe/unsafe may be different for them – especially for children who grew up in a different environment – and that what triggers unsafe feelings may be different. 

Often this includes exposure to media coverage of other countries, including but not limited to countries where the family lived previously. Lilly Rivera brings up an important point in Reading the News When Crisis Hits: “Reading the news can be a triggering experience if you have gone through traumatic experiences yourself. The injustice, violence, and pain can make you feel paralyzed, angry or really upset.” 

I also appreciate this perspective from adult MK Aneurin Howorth in Devastating Secrets of Living Abroad: “The trauma we carry around as TCKs usually manifests itself through mental illnesses once we are adults. The counselor Lois Bushong says that most TCKs tend to only start going to counseling once they are in their 30’s. I am not yet in my thirties, but already, increasing numbers of my classmates report having mental health issues, almost exclusively struggling from unresolved trauma or grief on the mission field. Being a TCK does not stop when we become adults; both the blessings and the curses will follow us forever.” 

The impact of witnessed trauma does not always manifest immediately; sometimes it is a slow burn, which is why long-term care and support is important. It is also why TCK Training is running research on both the good and hard experiences TCKs had during childhood, as well as their strengths and struggles as adults – we want to know more about the links between these so that we can better support TCKs as they grow. (Learn more about the survey here).

 

Resources referenced:

Risk and the Cross Cultural Worker

Ask A Counselor: No Child Soldiers, No Child Sacrifice

Toxic Positivity in Missions

Sources of Trauma in International Childhoods (TCK Training)

Debriefing Resources (TCK Training)

The Myth of the Ideal Childhood

It takes a village – including for missionary families

The Untold Stories of Returned Missionaries

Reading the News When Crisis Hits

Devastating Secrets of Living Abroad

Impact of Childhood Global Mobility on Adult Wellness (TCK Training Survey)

Photo by Transly Translation Agency on Unsplash

Sounding an Alarm on Social Media Evangelism

Excitement and awe were palpable in the dimmed hotel ballroom as I stared at the presenter’s screen. The young speaker, who appeared to be in his early 20s, was explaining how Facebook was proving to be a strategic way to share the gospel and allow people to learn about scripture safely and privately. Facebook users could view his page that was filled with scripture verses, and if they commented or liked the content, he would send them a link to an online Bible in their language. It was clear to all of us that this was a revolutionary way to broadly share the gospel with people who might not have the courage to ask for a Bible in person. 

Since that day in 2011, Christian ministries and indeed the world have experienced massive shifts in how we communicate, connect, and share information with one another. With smart phones now outnumbering people globally, social media platforms have morphed from a means of connecting with loved ones to a ubiquitous medium of communication and marketing. People separated by thousands of miles can now easily form a community that does not require physical proximity.  

A Double-Edged Sword

With every innovation comes both blessing and curse, and social media has been no exception. What began as a medium of socializing is now a powerful advertising tool. Social media platforms’ ability to market to the audience most likely to purchase a product is at the heart of many marketing strategies. Since social media platforms can quickly learn details of users’ preferences, personalities, and socioeconomic status, they are able to disseminate individualized content that is curated for each user’s ever-changing preferences. With increased usage, users grow dependent on social media to meet their needs for interpersonal connection, news, entertainment, and general events in their community. 

Dependency on these apps has turned into outright addiction for many users, and the problem of social media addiction has turned from concerning to an outright crisis both in the U.S. and around the world. The tentacles of social media addiction reach far beyond how a user spends their time. Mental health experts and former social media insiders are sounding alarms on how social media is purposefully addicting youth and young adults and making them depressed, anxious, and suicidal. 

We know far more today than we did 12 years ago about the mental health hazards of social media use, and we have a greater awareness of social media companies’ incessant use of unethical practices in addicting and exploiting their users. Nevertheless, Christian ministries are promoting social media use for evangelism, and doing so with little regard for the well-documented accompanying hazards.  While some would argue that the “end” (users hearing, believing, and accepting the gospel) justifies the means, it would be irresponsible for Christians to neglect a careful examination what exactly the “means” is. While we cannot deny the fact that social media can and has been a way of exposing people to the gospel, we must start recognizing that no one, neither users nor administrators, are inoculated against the harms of this medium’s addictive and exploitative nature.

Exploitative?

Social media companies can give users content that is personalized and helpful. Based on their searches, posts, and likes, expectant mothers can expect ads for baby gear and nursery furniture. A grad school student might find their feed peppered with study aids and paper-writing tools. But what begins as a simple search for ten minutes is, by design, often extended into viewing other similar or related posts, and that added time viewing more content gives the platform evermore data on the user’s preferences. The apps purposefully remove “stop cues” like an actual end of a page or a blank screen at the end of video reels. There is limitless content that the platform is able to offer up to its users, so people who see no harm in spending hours upon hours on social media may do so without realizing that they are becoming addicted. 

This practice becomes increasingly unethical among users who are unwittingly using a service that is likely to harm them. Social media use is just as ubiquitous in low-income countries as it is in wealthy areas of the world with a broader understanding of internet addiction. Nevertheless, impoverished and low-income regions tend to be where social media evangelism efforts are being deployed. These areas have far fewer resources to educate populations on mental health hazards, so there is consistently a minimal understanding of addictive internet use.  Consequently, low-income countries offer up highly vulnerable and captive audiences to social media companies, who then sell that audience’s attention to anyone willing to pay for it. This is Exploitation 101: offering a service that seems highly beneficial while concealing its hazards in order to exponentially benefit and enrich the service provider. 

Seizing upon the dependable attention of social media audiences, Christian ministries join the fray by purchasing a piece of that attention. For a fee paid directly to the platform, evangelistic ministries can buy ads and broadcast to audiences most likely to view their content and respond. In order to grow their online audience (and thereby attract more users to their page), account pages can pay for likes, views, and follows. These accounts are often being run hundreds or thousands of miles away from the target location in order to protect the identities of Christians who live nearby, as these are often places with a history of hostility towards Christians. 

Users who view evangelistic pages are often presented with content and videos full of grace, hope, and love. For some, it is the first time they have ever read scripture, and it speaks to them in a deep, profound way.  Users who respond to the ministry’s social media content with questions or a desire to learn more are encouraged to call or meet in person with a local Christian who speaks their language and understands their culture. The hope is that people who are genuinely interested in knowing Christ will go beyond just text exchanges on a screen and begin a relationship with people who care for them. 

The question of ethical practice here is not about the message being offered to vulnerable social media users. It is about the medium by which that message is being conveyed and its incendiary methods of creating markets of hungry consumers. Yes, Christian ministries are offering a message of truth and hope to these markets. But is paying the drug lords who run the market an ethical practice? And are Christian ministries taking the time to inform their patrons of the health hazards of the medium they are both using?  

Beyond the Target Audience

The target audiences of social media evangelism are not the only vulnerable parties in these efforts. Those who are tasked with responding to inquiries are also falling prey to social media’s addictive devices, but their unhealthy habits or full-blown addictions are easily cloaked in the language of urgency for the gospel and “lives on the line.” Since this type of work is increasingly becoming a full-time job for globally minded Christians, we must recognize the addictive nature of social media ministry as an occupational hazard. Some responders are staying up into early hours of the morning to correspond with people who have reached out, and others report a hesitancy to create boundaries around ministry time on social media and personal time in general. 

The church should never shy away from entering dark places to carry in the light and love of Jesus, and we have a rich history of doing so. Ministering to people who are trapped in substance addiction, sex trafficking, and systemic abuse is the work of the body of Christ. However, we have historically done this work with diligence and awareness of the systems of oppression that can just as easily ensnare and brutalize us. We need to treat social media outreach in much the same way we would treat ministry in night clubs, casinos, or red light districts. The people on the inside may just be passing through, but they are very possibly there because they do not know how to leave. This may mean that people who put their faith in Christ as a result of finding hope on social media were indeed there because of an addiction to the platform. And this may mean that they need recovery rather than an invitation to work as social media evangelists or responders. 

Installing Guardrails

There was a road in the mountains of Eastern Afghanistan where the guardrail was completely destroyed, giving way to a frighteningly clear view of a bus skeleton far below. While the guardrail had certainly been in place on that treacherous road, it did nothing to deter a bus full of passengers that veered off course. 

The best boundaries are both strong and visible. Seeing them helps you keep a healthy distance, but bumping up against them protects you when you fail to notice. In using a tool as powerful, addictive, and controversial as social media platforms to spread a message of hope, Christian ministries need to ensure that guardrails are well-established to avoid doing harm to vulnerable populations. This could mean refusing to use strategies of engagement that are addictive in nature, such as rewarding users’ viewing of a video with another video. It could also mean transparency about how their respondents’ information is being saved, stored, and shared. This particular issue requires imagining how you would feel if, in an existential search for connection and hope, a person responded to your need while keeping a detailed record of your messages in a database and shared it with donors who funded the campaign. A guardrail could also mean that ministries begin disseminating information about social media addiction right alongside their regular posts. When using targeted ads, it could mean researching and adhering to rigorous standards of ethical advertising. 

Likewise, Christians who are taking part in social media evangelism ministry need clear guardrails with regular accountability on when, where, and how much time they spend on the platform. Since social media platforms make both accidental and purposeful viewing of pornographic content easy, we must also inquire of a person’s current internet habits and personal history with pornography use before inviting them to make social media work their full-time job and ministry.  The Kingdom of God is not dependent on any social media platform. It has been advancing since Jesus blew the doors off and began inviting everyone into his family. As we assess the time, space, and resources God has provided for us today, may we work with both compassion and conscientiousness of the realities of oppression and sin that will be present until the day of Christ’s return. And until that day, may the Holy Spirit guide us in serving people with love, respect, and dignity to the glory of God the Father. 

How to Sustain Yourself Spiritually While Living Overseas

I remember when my team leader first spoke about learning to ‘self-feed’ spiritually as a part of living overseas. I didn’t understand what she meant then, during my initial missionary internship, but I certainly know now.

When we moved to Hungary long-term, I was pregnant with our third child. Hungary, like many non-U.S. countries, did not have child care options in most of the national churches. As a mom of young children, I entered a time when church attendance was scarce for me, and those circumstances would lead to floundering spiritually.

The struggle of being a missionary who couldn’t be fed spiritually by church pressed me to self-feed. By this I mean I developed the ability to be sustained spiritually outside of Sunday church or even mid-week fellowship. To be clear, it is very important to integrate into the church of our host countries. Yet, we also need to learn how to grow deep roots in our faith. 

Here are some ways we can feed ourselves spiritually. With time and practice, we can learn to let our doing define our being.

  1. Find consistent teaching or preaching which is gospel-centered: For me, this teaching came most through the ministry of Tim Keller. I felt such a shepherding presence from his consistent, biblically-sound, gospel-driven messages. I will never forget what it meant to repeatedly listen to the ‘Prodigal God’ sermons I had downloaded onto my iPod as I walked the hill by our Budapest flat. (His entire sermon collection is now available for FREE here.) I wept when he recently passed away as a testament to what his long-distance, yet, so close to the heart of God, ministry meant to me.
  2. Meditate on Scripture: When I became a mom, this discipline led me on a deeper journey to learning to self-feed. When I was pregnant with my daughter, I memorized Romans 8. While memorization is not necessary for meditation on Scripture, it is very helpful to know passages so well that we can recall them in part or as a whole. There is a reason why Psalm 119:11 talks about hiding the Word in our hearts so that we might not sin against God. This internalizing of the Word is a journey we walk for ourselves, not counting on any church or small group to do it for us.
  3. Connect with God through Your surroundings: Walks around our neighborhoods or cities are important anywhere we live. But, it is especially important to make what is foreign, familiar. When bill paying can be stressful, note the trees and the birds which perch on them, as we walk or ride or drive to pay a bill or speak our new language in relationship with native speakers or to do any anxiety-laden experience. As we do this, we learn to trust God anew that He is omnipresent and always with us and this world–His world.
  4. Learn to Prioritize Heart Community: Like a good missionary, I didn’t want to become so much a part of the expat community that I wasn’t forming relationships with nationals. While this is a valid concern, there are times when we just need to make sure we have present, solid community where we can share our heart struggles. Some of our best and most safe friends may be nationals, and that is beautiful. However, these relationships tend to take a longer time to develop. If we are feeling isolated, seeking safe, heartfelt community with other expats is not failing to bond with our host country. It is at times necessary to sustain ourselves for the long-term.
  5. Instead of Residing, Dwell: Psalm 37 became a key passage to center and focus me in my overseas journey. Verse 3b in my favorite translation says: Dwell in the land and feed on faithfulness. Dwelling means we find communion with God through being nourished by His faithfulness. Recognizing the steadfast love of God wherever we are in the world comes through the discipline of recounting God’s work on our behalf. We often do this by intentionally practicing thankfulness.
  6. Speak the Gospel over Ourselves Daily: The gospel-centered teaching I mentioned above is important to anchor us. But if we don’t internalize the message of our unmerited favor through the work of Jesus Christ, we will cut ourselves off from the life we desperately need. It is one of the greatest occupational hazards of missionaries that we would withhold from ourselves the gospel-bearing heart of God which we so dearly want to share with others. As our identity is lost through all that is hard and foreign, we cling more deeply to lives of performance. But there is no true sustenance if we cannot melt into that white hot and holy love of God displayed supremely through the gospel.

And in all of our days and ways, as we sustain ourselves, we must remember we are not being nourished in ourselves. It is only through the presence of Immanuel, God with us’ that we have that unending well of spiritual provision. It is His light which will face any darkness and never, ever, ever be overcome.

 photo credit

 

I’d like a refund for this cup of suffering

by Elizabeth Vahey Smith

“It’s not fair,” I whined in the backseat of the car, my sister next to me.
“It’s not fair,” I moped from the end of the line.
“It’s not fair,” I mourned, overlooked for a role I wanted.
“It’s not fair,” I gasped, taking the fall.
“It’s not fair,” I wailed, watching everything I’d built fall apart.

“But look at what God is doing through this,” they point.
“It’s not fair,” I say again.

I think it’s just awful that wonderful things come out of terrible things. I hate that you have to bury seeds for them to bloom. I hate that pearls come from irritants. I hate that delicious strawberries come from fields fertilized in manure. And I hate all of those things because I hate that post-traumatic wisdom only comes from going through tragedies.

Yeah, I guess if you have to go through hard things, it’s nice that something good can come from it. But why do we have to go through hard things to have the good things that come after?

I can point to the traumas and tragedies that have brought me to a place of being able to weave words into stories that present hard truths in soft ways. I cherish the times people tell me how these words altered the trajectory of their homes in ways that brought them closer to the unconditional love of the Father. But surely there is another way to learn this wisdom and pass it on?

Everything is possible for you, Father.
Take this cup of suffering from me.

And thus begins a sacred journey.

We all know that life’s not fair, but it makes it a bit easier to not have to go it alone. To know that the Lord has gone before us even in this. To know that the journey through unfair trauma and tragedy can take us to glorious destinations. To know that we have a comforter, a counselor, and a light to guide our path. 

I have a journey before me, but I’m standing at the front desk with a complaint, “Excuse me, sir, I specifically asked that this cup would be taken from me. And yet, behold, still there is a cup. I would like this to be rectified.” And Jesus comes alongside me to guide me. “Yet not what I will, but what you will,” He coaches me.

“I’m sorry, what?!” I’m doing double-takes as Jesus leads me forward on the journey. I am a reluctant follower. But I follow, nonetheless, and I see how the path I walk is neither new nor novel but a well-worn road.

My soul has been overwhelmed with sorrow.
I have felt betrayed.
I have stood silent against accusations.
I’ve had friends abandon me.
I’ve experienced pain.
I’ve had tragedy happen.
I’ve survived it.

But it’s interesting, isn’t it? That’s not the end. The story, the journey, it isn’t over yet. Jesus isn’t yet at the right hand of God, and I have no wisdom to offer anyone yet.

It seems that after the death of Christ, we stop focusing on his humanity. We talk extensively about the agony of the cross, which makes sense because all four of the Gospel writers draw us into this tragedy. The curtain is torn. Darkness falls. And the focus shifts from Jesus to the perspective of those left behind. That makes sense for the Gospels. What was Jesus doing at this point? We hear about the work of Jesus conquering Death in the epistles, but his followers didn’t know these things.

Even on Easter morning, the focus doesn’t shift back to Jesus. We continue to follow the story of the women and the disciples. Jesus just appears and disappears until he finally ascends. That’s how the authors wrote their gospels, so it makes sense that we would follow along that way. 

We receive so many emotion words from the women and the disciples. I can imagine Luke interviewing people and hearing from their perspective, “We were so frightened; we thought he was a ghost. Even when we saw he wasn’t a ghost, we still couldn’t believe it. We were amazed and overjoyed” (Luke 24:37-41). How was Jesus feeling during this? The eye-witnesses were too gobsmacked to notice and give account. 

Thus, the sacred journey continues. 

My eyes fixed on Jesus; I see how my journey overlays His.
I’m aching and weary.
The moment of trauma is over, yet my body is still on high alert.
My skin feels electrified. Every brush of my own clothes sears my skin.
I feel like my back’s been flayed.
And I look toward Jesus.
I don’t know how his back is doing, but the wounds of his hands and his side are still gaping.
Honestly, it’s a miracle he’s even alive.

We each come across a couple of our friends, but they don’t recognize us.
Our friends recount our own story to us, but they totally miss the point.
I’m furious and think, “How foolish you are!” (Luke 24:25)
I explain to my friends, and He explains to His, in a way that they don’t miss the point.
And then Jesus walks away.
 
“No, no, no,” I call him back. “These are our friends, our people.”
I’m clinging to what I know.
He keeps walking until his friends urge him to stay, even though they still don’t recognize him.
It’s like he wants me to be willing to walk away from people I’ve grown away from.
I’m not ready for this lesson.

When he comes back, I’m glad.
I watch them eat together.
In the common monotony of everyday life, his friends finally recognize him.
But it’s only two people.

It happens again.
Different people. More cherished friends.
They don’t understand what’s happened either.
“You’ve changed,” they tell me.
“Why are you troubled? Look at me. It’s me!” I implore them.
My words echo His, as Jesus tries to convince his friends he’s not a ghost.
They believe: we’re each still who we are.
Now what?

“Do you have anything to eat?” Jesus asks.
He invites us back into the common monotony of everyday life.
We eat, we talk, we tell the story again.
It’s hard to tell every time.

The hardest part is reconciliation, so I hang back and watch.
Jesus comes to Peter.
Peter recognizes him and dives off the boat to greet him. Classic Peter.
Jesus invites them to eat.
I take notes. Always start with food. It brings people together.
Three times, Jesus asks Peter if he loves Him.
I’m thankful for this interchange.
I don’t have to be content with one apology and be expected to get over it.
I can request reassurances in proportion with the damage rendered.

Finally comes the conclusion.
Finally comes the ascension.
Finally the journey ends. 

Trauma is like any other story. It’s got a setting and rising action before the conflict and climax. And it ends with cleaning up all the leftover messes. Often the leftover messes of a trauma are the relationships: reconnecting, repairing, reconciling, and settling back into normal rhythms. This is a hard part of trauma that is often overlooked. Many times this hard part takes a lot longer than we expect. 

In this time following Resurrection Sunday and leading up to Ascension Sunday, we hold sacred the long journey through trauma and tragedy to the good that God has in store for us: the wisdom that these experiences give us. And as much as I cherish that wisdom and the goodness God has for us through the hard things, I’m going to stay mad about the awfulness of how this broken world functions. I can do both. 

I refuse to get over how awful it is that good things come from hard things. 

I will hold this space for those of you still in the early stages of your journey, for those of you banging your fists on the front desk, demanding a refund for this cup of suffering, insisting that it’s not fair. I’m here to say, “You’re right! It’s not fair! And most importantly! You’re not alone.” 

For those of you further along who are activated and who feel disconnected from their communities, who wonder why it had to happen like this, who wonder why it’s not getting easier in the wake of tragedy, I’m here to say, “You’re right! It’s not fair! And most importantly! You’re not alone.” 

For those of you who have seen the beautiful things that the Lord has wrought out of the awful things you’ve lived through, who are turning back and grieving for themselves that they ever had to endure that, I’m here to say, “You’re right! It’s not fair! And most importantly! You’re not alone.”

And I can point out to you the Way, the Truth, and the Life. He walked with me through the valley of the shadow of death, and He will walk with you.

It seems agonizingly unfair that much of wisdom, strength, and personal growth comes from difficult and painful journeys. Not just the hardship, but the recovery, coming back to people and them not recognizing you, being met with doubt, and having to convince people of the journey you’ve been on. 

In this season, we remember the sacredness of this journey, a trauma-versary that changed the world forever. The Lord has gone before us. But moreover, he goes alongside us, today, at whatever stage of the journey we’re in. 

Trauma doesn’t make us stronger, but continuing onward through the hard things toward healing does. 

And I hate that for us. 

~~~~~~~~~~

Elizabeth Vahey Smith is a TCK mom who spent 5 years in Papua New Guinea as a missionary. Now her family explores the globe full-time as worldschoolers. Elizabeth works remotely as the COO for TCK Training, traveling often for work and always for pleasure. She is the author of The Practice of Processing: Exploring Your Emotions to Chart an Intentional Course. Follow her travels on Instagram @elizabeth.vaheysmith and @neverendingfieldtrip. Learn more about research-based preventive care for TCKs @tcktraining.

Photo by Matt Palmer on Unsplash

Finding Your Rhythm for Every Season

by Elizabeth Vahey Smith

Steam rises from a green coffee mug that sits in a shaft of sunlight on a bedside table. A pile of rumpled white covers that might cover a sleeping person lies out of focus behind it.

I know exactly how I want to start each and every morning. It looks like waking up before my alarm, dawn light setting aglow the edges of little sleeping faces. I kiss foreheads and little lips scrunch up until my children resettle into their sleep. It looks like the steam from my coffee dancing in the cool fresh air of the morning. It looks like an undisturbed hour on my patio with my coffee, journal and Bible, and an excessive number of highlighters. It looks like a bit of exercise before a shower, and working on breakfast with a second cup of coffee as my kids stumble into morning hugs and snuggles.

I know exactly how I want to start each and every morning.

And then dawn breaks. 

This morning is different from the one I wanted. 

We’re leaving next week and are in the midst of farewells. My kids went to bed late, so naturally they woke early and cranky. I need to pack the house, and I’ve got 15 million errands to run and a lunch date with a friend at noon. Coffee is getting cold as I unpack kitchen tools to make grumpy children breakfast, and I’m persistently plagued by this one tennis shoe I’m sure I packed three times already. I’m in the car, throwing granola bars at the snarling children in the depths of the vehicle, and I’m missing, desperately missing, my morning routine. 

Grieving that my favorite morning rhythm was ruined by reality.

Guilty that I shirked things that are important to me.

Ashamed that I can’t seem to do it all some days. 

Oftentimes we develop rhythms during seasons of peace and orderliness. We develop our routines based on things that are important to us, and we make them routines because we want to make sure they happen in our lives. But for the globally mobile, it seems that seasons of busy and even seasons of total chaos are common. 

The natural response is to skip the routines until we shift back into easier days. But the globally mobile life is full of prolonged and frequent seasons of busyness and chaos, of transition and resettling. Rhythms get so long forgotten we don’t shift back into them at all. The moments of self-care for our own well-being, the moments of connection with our families, are lost in the hustle. 

Instead of throwing out the whole concept of routine when there’s no way to accomplish the ideal routine in a season of chaos, we can shift our rhythms to match the season. 

In addition to a Thriving Rhythm during seasons of peace when we have time for growth ––

Have a Striving Rhythm for a season of busy hustling or even when the emotional toll of the season is making life seem harder. 

Have a Surviving Rhythm for those seasons of total chaos or deep grief and despair when just one more thing seems too much to bear. 

Have a plan in place to modify your routines so that transition, changes, and urgent needs don’t throw everything off. 

How to Set a Rhythm for Each Season 

I find that three sets of rhythms – thriving, striving, and surviving – are adaptable to most seasons of life, but if you have some very specific seasons (i.e. during school/school break or village living/town living), you can create custom rhythms for those seasons, too. 

1) Make a list of daily priorities. 

If you already have a routine, then this would be the “why” for the items on your to-do list. For example, do you run everyday because exercise is important to you or because you value getting outside or because it helps you manage your emotions? 

2) Outline a Thriving Rhythm. 

A Thriving rhythm is a realistic routine based on your real-life seasons of peace that makes space for the things that are priorities for you. It doesn’t have to be a morning routine or an hour long. This is an attainable rhythm for you during a season of peace. It will look different for everyone. If you don’t already have a Thriving Rhythm, you can create one from the priorities you just made. If you already have one, it will be helpful to see it written out. 

3) Outline a Striving Rhythm. 

Looking at your priorities and your Thriving Rhythm, ask yourself what it would look like if you only had five minutes for each task, or half the time you scheduled for your Thriving Rhythm. If you can’t spend an hour doing a morning devotional, what could you do in five minutes? If you normally take five minutes to cuddle your kids in the morning, what could you do in two and a half minutes? 

4) Outline a Surviving Rhythm. 

Looking at your priorities, Thriving Rhythm, and Striving Rhythm, ask yourself what your absolute bare bones are. You have 10-15 minutes, maybe not even consecutively. How do you fit in your priorities even during the seasons of chaos? Knowing that “nothing” is often what happens when chaos throws off our Thriving Rhythm, what is better than nothing? 

For everything there is a season. (Ecclesiastes 3:1a)

The varied seasons of life are normal, and it’s normal to have different capacities and different levels of routine in those different seasons. What needs to be normalized is giving ourselves grace and flexibility while not neglecting the bare bones – the most important things that keep us grounded even when life is hectic. We can be consistent and steadfast in the things that are important to us, even if the rhythm sounds different to match the current climate. 

Through these rhythms we can invest in self-care and connectedness, so that even in the unsettled, hectic, difficult, or just simply busy seasons, our families feel heard, prioritized, safe, and emotionally supported. 

We set the rhythms for our families. Let’s shift with the seasons but not be thrown off by them. 

I went to bed with my hair wet so I didn’t have to worry about drying it. I kiss my children awake, and then we roll into the kitchen together. “Snackle box is in the fridge. It’s breakfast-on-the-go today,” I say as I tap my YouVersion notification for the verse of the day while I get coffee brewing into a to-go mug. My kids each pull out their own tackle box full of small snacks and load into the car. Running errands counts as exercise, right? 

Photo by David Mao on Unsplash

~~~~~~

Elizabeth Vahey Smith is a TCK mom who spent 5 years in Papua New Guinea as a missionary. Now her family explores the globe full-time as worldschoolers. Elizabeth works remotely as the COO for TCK Training, traveling often for work and always for pleasure. She is the author of The Practice of Processing: Exploring Your Emotions to Chart an Intentional Course. Follow her travels on Instagram @elizabeth.vaheysmith and @neverendingfieldtrip. Learn more about research-based preventive care for TCKs @tcktraining.

Where is God in My Grief Tower?

by Lauren Wells

A wise man who looks a lot like Indiana Jones (and also happens to be my father) once said that in moments of deep grief you’re faced with a decision: either cling to God and let him be your source of comfort, or run from him and wade through the grief on your own. 

You can’t make it through the expatriate life without experiencing the touch of grief. Grief is temporarily or permanently losing something that you loved. Living a life of high mobility, constant goodbyes, and exposure to big and little traumas causes griefs to steadily stack up along the way. I’ve written a couple of books on this metaphor, which I call the Grief Tower. 

For many expatriates and their children (Third Culture Kids), grief comes in consistent stones of varying weight stacking one on top of the other. On their own, each stone might not feel very significant, but together they create a tall, wobbly tower that will eventually crash if this grief goes unprocessed. 

When my company (TCK Training) debriefs families, we go through the process of writing out the family’s Grief Tower Timeline – putting paper and pen to the big and small hard things that have happened in the family’s life. Sometimes these butcher’s paper timelines are the length of the kitchen table. Sometimes they roll through the kitchen, down the living room, and out the front door. 

As we excavate years’ worth of grief, a quiet question often fills the room. Where was God in my Grief Tower? This life I was called to has created this tower of grief – not just for me but for my children, too!

Even when we trust God’s sovereignty and believe he works all things for the good, the waves of grief still hit us hard. And when this happens, we respond both to our grief and the grief of others with whatever internal narration we’ve come to adopt. Our personal storylines tend to subconsciously ripple into an assumption that God responds the same way to our grief that we as humans do. 

When people say, “Look at the bright side,” we think the right thing to do is to stay positive. We forget that God invites lament. When people say, “He works all things out for the good,” we forget that when it doesn’t feel good in the moment, God is still there to empathize, comfort, and acknowledge that this feels so hard. When people say, “You’re so strong for how you’re handling this,” we don’t remember that God doesn’t expect us to be strong. We forget that He is strong so we don’t have to be. 

At TCK Training, we believe that TCKs should feel and know the love and goodness of God in how they’re cared for. In these raw spaces of grief we have to remember that God’s response is not to “stay positive,” “toughen up,” or “look forward” — and neither should ours be (whether to ourselves or to others). 

Instead, He invites us to lament and ask, “Why?” 

He allows us to mourn deeply and to take time to focus on the grief. 

He reminds us that we don’t need to be the strong one because he is strong for us

When we work with TCKs who turn away from God in their grief, it is most often because they have come to believe deeply that God’s responses to grief are a pep talk, a “get over it,” or an “it could be worse.” I think, perhaps, their belief comes from how they’ve been responded to, and that perhaps how they’ve been responded to comes from the subconscious beliefs held by those responding to them. 

I encourage you to ask yourself the following questions: 

How do I respond inwardly to my own grief?
Does this influence how I believe God responds to my grief?
Does that belief influence how I respond to the grief of those around me? 

May we grow in our response to grief and learn to offer the compassionate heart of God both to ourselves and those around us.

Photo by Piotr Musioł on Unsplash

~~~~~~~~~

Lauren Wells is the founder and CEO of TCK Training and the Unstacking Company and author of Raising Up a Generation of Healthy Third Culture Kids, The Grief Tower, and Unstacking Your Grief Tower. She is an Adult TCK who spent her teenage years in Tanzania, East Africa. She sits on the board of the TCK Care Accreditation as Vice Chair and is part of the TCK Training research team focusing on preventive care research in the TCK population.

Fighting My Inner Cynic

 

We were hosting another vision trip for bright-eyed twenty-somethings, and I found myself trying desperately to stifle another eyeroll. A recent college grad was explaining his plans to move to Afghanistan and eventually completely revamp the entire education system. 

“Oh, would you try to do that before or after your closest friends are kidnapped and killed?” 

“How innovative of you! I bet none of the countries that have poured billions of dollars into the country have ever tried such a thing! It’s a good thing that you’re here and can show them how it’s done.”

These are things I was tempted to say, but by the grace of God and the knowledge that I could unleash my eyerolls later, I kept my thoughts to myself.

If you have been on the field for more than a few years, perhaps you are familiar with the cynicism that so easily creeps into the consciousness of the field worker. It’s the uneasiness we feel when new co-workers arrive, but their excitement and fervor feel more like ignorance than vibrant ambition to us.

It’s seeing new teammates talk about the great spiritual conversation they had with a friend but privately thinking that it will not ever really go any further than that. After all, you have had many similar conversations.

There’s no denying how jaded we can become after experiencing countless disappointments and atrocities. Like tire tracks on a dried-up dirt road, my mind had created expectations for disappointment, for nothing to actually turn out well, and for people I love to eventually leave the field. 

What had happened to me? I came to the field with so much excitement and hope. But the difficulties and disappointments had taken such a toll that I could not even respond with a kind word to our young friend’s enthusiasm. Granted, his ideas were lacking historical awareness, but my attitude towards any lofty plan or vision was one of sheer cynicism rather than tempered optimism. 

For most of us, our expectations have been forged by the fact that life on the field can be brutal. Endless goodbyes, evacuations, and friends who had been murdered had all taken a heavy toll on my own ability to retain any sense of optimism. While I had dealt with the trauma of the painful events, I had not acknowledged the fact that my mind had been trained to expect the absolute worst. And I wanted everyone else to expect the worst, too.

I would really love to tell you that I had some special encounter with Jesus or a few breakthrough sessions of therapy that completely turned around my critical attitude. I wish I could report that I now listen to people’s well-meaning aspirations and feel the urge to empower them rather than poke holes in their dreams. But that would not be entirely true.

Not long after feeling convicted about what a downer I had become, a friend and fellow worker came to stay with us. She also happened to be a mental health professional, and she too was feeling the cynicism sneak in when spending time with new arrivals. Together, we prayed for a renewed spirit of joy and compassion when met with the tender naiveté of our friends. 

She asked me what I was like when I first landed in Afghanistan, and I confessed that I secretly thought that I was going to be like Mother Teresa. She shared her own misguided expectations of being in perfect, harmonious friendships with all of her teammates and local friends. We both laughed until we cried as we remembered our hopes that had been blown to smithereens by the ruthless realities of life on the field. We, too, had once been the newbies with preposterous ideas. The only difference was that we did not have the audacity to actually voice them out loud upon our arrival. 

This little moment of clarity did help me to approach short-term visitors and field hopefuls with more tenderness and grace. My friend encouraged me to share my stories with them in a way that was personal rather than didactic. Our stories of heartbreak, disappointment, and times of despair are both true and relevant. 

Rather than telling someone to adjust their expectations, a story gives listeners the option of taking in new information and assimilating it into their own perspective. The difficulty, of course, is that many stories are painful to retell. It is far easier to say, “Trust me, you are about to have your heart ripped from your chest and repeatedly stomped,” than to tell the stories of friends’ tragic deaths. It is more expedient to let newly arrived ladies know that it’s only a matter of time before they are sexually assaulted on the street than to share with them personal experiences of violation. But lasting relationships and trust are not built on ease and expedience. 

When I am really honest with myself, I have to admit that I want people to believe what I say simply because I have experience they do not have. This is unreasonable, pretentious, and ultimately says a lot more about my pride than anyone’s naivete. 

Jesus could have quite easily told his listeners, “Trust me . . . I’m actually God and I know everything.” Instead, he approached the crowds and his disciples with relatable stories and agricultural metaphors. He explained hidden realities with the familiarity of the mundane. Despite his intimate knowledge of each person he encountered, he still took the time to ask questions. “Who do you say I am?” “Where is your husband?” “Where have they all gone?” “Are you going to leave, too?” The compassionate curiosity of Jesus exposes my pride and impatience. 

The freshness of new field workers also tends to highlight how much my faith has changed. Sure, my expectations have been weathered by hardship, but my belief that God is truly a salvager of the perverse, atrocious, and devastating has taken some blows. I want to believe that the wreckage I see is not the end of the story, because my hope is still in the all-powerful God who has promised to make all things new. But asking God for the improbable now requires a painfully honest examination of my heart, because the temptation is to expect disappointment rather than relinquishing the actual fear of failure and disappointment to Him. 

When new co-workers arrive with a head full of dreams and hearts full of hope, their excitement and joy have the potential to ignite new ideas, bring fresh perspective, and remind us to expect beautiful gifts from the Father. The Spirit of God has birthed dreams in their hearts and a fire in their bones, and it may look entirely different than anything I have ever imagined.

That new field worker will eventually be a seasoned one. The hardship and heartache will eventually take up residence, and they will need the refreshing and reassurance that we have also needed. 

As we welcome new arrivals, may we choose to bless their dreams and listen to their hopes with tenderness. May we hold space for them when the disappointments feel crushing, and may we find fellowship together in both joy and heartache. 

Dethroning My Missionary Hero

During my first year on the mission field — twenty years ago now — I read Elisabeth Elliot’s only novel, No Graven Image. I immediately regretted it. 

Elisabeth Elliot was my hero. Her books about her first husband’s life and martyrdom significantly influenced my decision to become a missionary. Her emphasis on steadfast obedience, no matter the cost, inspired me to do hard things for God. 

But her novel absolutely mystified me. It’s the fictional story of a young missionary — Margaret — in South America, working to translate the Bible for a remote tribe. An Indian family befriends her and the father, Pedro, becomes her closest ally in her translation work. I don’t remember much about the story except for how it ends: Pedro dies — and it’s Margaret’s fault. 

As a 24-year-old idealistic Elisabeth Elliot fan, this was incomprehensible to me. Why on earth would Elisabeth write such a thing? It felt depressing and cynical and almost anti-missionary. Sure, Elisabeth’s own husband had died on the mission field — I knew bad things could happen — but he was a martyr, a hero. And his death inspired a whole generation of new missionaries. That story had a happy ending….right? So why write a novel about missionary failure, where the ending is actually worse than the beginning? God wouldn’t let that happen in real life….right?

I ignored the story. It didn’t match my perception of Elisabeth, missions, or God. My brain didn’t have a category to fit it into, and I consciously made a decision to forget about it.

And then, 20 years of missionary life happened. Yes, I saw many victories, but an equal number of tragedies. The local pastor who abused his adult daughter. The American missionary with six kids who had an affair with a local woman. Families who left the country because of irreconcilable conflict with teammates. Students we poured into for years, only to have them lose their faith on a full-ride scholarship to Harvard. 

Many times, the world swung crazily around me, shifting perceptions of God and myself. Why did I come here? Am I doing any good? Is this really what God wants me to do? At times I paced the room, raging against injustice or abuse perpetrated by people of God, accusing myself of not doing more to stop it. God, we obeyed you when we came here; why are you not fixing this? Changing this? Why did you let this happen?

Recently I read the biography written by Ellen Vaughn, Becoming Elisabeth Elliot. Vaughn filled in my manufactured picture of Elisabeth’s life: not just a hero, a fearless missionary, a martyr’s wife, but a woman who wrestled deeply with obeying God. Yes, she followed Him into the jungle (with her toddler!) to live with the tribe who murdered her husband, but she also cried herself to sleep from grief. She struggled with resentment and selfishness when she shared her home with another missionary family. And conflict with a colleague eventually took her off the mission field entirely.

As I read this biography, my memory plucked No Graven Image out of a dusty corner of my mind. Vaughn writes, “By the end of her time in Ecuador, Betty had puzzled over what the word missionary even meant.” And I realized that I should have paid more attention to the lesson Elisabeth was trying to teach me in her story of Margaret and Pedro: God is God; I am not. We don’t often get happy endings; my job is simply to obey. Her novel was far more insightful than I gave it credit for. I had to learn the hard way.

Vaughn quotes Elisabeth: “Faith’s most severe tests come not when we see nothing, but when we see a stunning array of evidence that seems to prove our faith vain. If God were God, if He were omnipotent, if He had cared, would this have happened? Is this that I face now the ratification of my calling, the reward of obedience? One turns in disbelief again from the circumstances and looks into the abyss. But in the abyss there is only blackness, no glimmer of light, no answering echo… It was a long time before I came to the realization that it is in our acceptance of what is given that God gives Himself. Even the Son of God had to learn obedience by the things that He suffered. . . . And His reward was desolation, crucifixion.”

My hero had stared into the abyss more than I realized. And her understanding of God came from the abyss, not in spite of it. Vaughn explains that Elisabeth learned that “God’s sovereign will was a mystery that could not be mastered, an experience that could not be classified, a wonder that had no end. It wove together strands of life, death, grace, pain, joy, humility, and awe.” 

I came away from Elisabeth’s biography with a far more imperfect, cracked, patched up image of her than I had twenty years ago. But that’s true of how I see myself and missions too, for that matter. Knowing that she fought through grief and doubt and failure into a more beautiful understanding of the goodness and sovereignty of God gives me hope. If Elisabeth could get there, I can too.

Ellen Vaughn writes, “The only problem to be solved, really, is that of obedience. As Betty noted, futility—that spirit-numbing sense of despair—does not come from the thing itself, but from the demand to know ‘why.’… For Betty, the question is ‘what?’ As in, Lord, show me what You want me to do. And I’ll do it. And in that acceptance—’I’ll obey, whatever it is’—there is peace.”

Sick and Far Away

We all know what it’s like. It’s the fever that comes over us late in the evening. We think we’ll sleep it off, but by morning it’s far worse. It’s accompanied by terrible dysentery. We still hold out for the hope that it is a 24-hour virus, only to realize it is not. Or it’s the croup that comes over our 18 month old in the night. We wake to a strange bark. What could it be? It sounds like a sick dog has made its way into our apartment. Uneasy, we suddenly realize it’s our precious toddler. Rushing into his bedroom, we see him standing up in his crib with his favorite sleep animal. He cries out “Mama” in a hoarse whisper, struggling to breathe. We gather him up and turn the shower on full steam, praying to the God who made him, who loves him.

There are thousands of other scenarios that we could describe. Often, the outcomes are wonderful. The fever and dysentery resolve; the croup is stilled and the next day we get to a pediatrician; the stitches are placed by a kind doctor who speaks our language and we tear up in gratitude. But there is a point in any of these cases where everything feels urgent and hard. Depending on where we live, we may rue limited medical care in ways we never think about when we are healthy.

These are the stories of being sick and far away. Stories where we have only our gut feelings, and Where There is No Doctor to guide us. Loneliness often overtakes us, knowing we are at the mercy of our new neighbors and friends, knowing that our moms, sisters, and doctors are far, far away.

As I write this, I’m sitting in Istanbul, Turkey. After being bathed in fog for several days, the sun has finally broken through and brightens my room. We are all sick. As my ever wise sister-in-law says, “I’m pretty sure it’s not a ‘sickness unto death,’ but it sure feels like it.” From across the room I weakly nod in agreement, my fever rising and causing chills over my body.

Sick and far away. Lonely, tearful, in pain.

And yet, sickness and disease is part of the human story. In my favorite read of the year, Prayer in the Night, author Tish Harrison Warren reminds us that for centuries priests would come pray for people and tell them to make a will. It’s not because of lack of faith. Prayer was for healing, but if healing did not come, a will was a smart way to care for those you left behind. It’s because life is what it is — a broken version of the original plan. It still holds much joy, hope, beauty, and goodness. It also holds far too much pain, sorrow, sickness, and death.

Since I was a little girl, these times of sickness have often brought help from unexpected places. At four years old, with a raging fever brought on by Malaria, a couple from my parents’ organization arrived at our house in the middle of the night to get us to care and safety. At 30 years old with the toddler with croup, a kind friend told me about an excellent pediatrician who made house calls. At 34 with a raging fever and my husband traveling, friends who had no idea I was sick showed up just at the right time.

Often, but not always. The reality is that help doesn’t always come. As thankful as I have been for help that has come, I have also witnessed the tragic deaths of community members, permanent loss because of sickness, outcomes that have made me cry out in sadness and anger, and weep for months. “Pray for healing and make a will” played out in real time. We walk through the door of permanent loss that death brings, slowly learning to embrace our existence where longing is a breath away, and we accept sadness as a permanent fixture of the gladness. Yet, sickness and death have brought me close to the one who understands pain and sickness like no other. I don’t understand this mystery, and I never will. But I lean in. I don’t know any other way to be, any other thing to do.

In this world that offers many contradictions and paradoxes for people of Christian faith, there are also some clear hard core truths. One truth that we cling to is that God loves this world: he loves his creation. He entered it through the person of Jesus to walk with us, weep with us, get sick with us, rejoice with us, and heal us. At times of sickness, I cling to my limited understanding of God’s love for this world; his awesome love for a creation that he continually runs toward, limitless in his creative ability to grab our hearts. As my fever rises, I marvel that he loved it and us enough to reconcile all of creation to himself and renew it through that reconciliation. This faith that I’ve pledged my life to points me to a greater reality than the one that I see and to the feverish, achy body that I now feel.

In her recent newsletter, “Do Good Better,” Rachel Pieh Jones writes powerful words about anemic faith vs. painful faith. Her words resonated deeply as I lay on my brother-in-law and sister-in-law’s couch groaning with sickness, wishing my faith was less anemic. I offer them here as a benediction to this piece.

“Was Jesus happy, comfortable, and safe when people wanted to throw him off the cliff? When he had no place to lay his head? When his family fled to Egypt? When he was beaten, spit on, mocked, stripped, and murdered?

This idea creates an anemic faith that cannot withstand the buffeting winds of a real human existence. It creates an idol out of God and utterly misunderstands God’s character. It provides no language for dealing with pain or fear. It leaves no room for forgiveness, for courage, for endurance, for patience, for lament, for reality. …I want to talk about painful faith. Faith that cries out, ‘This hurts! This is not justice! Where are you God?’ In my darkest moments, the times when I couldn’t breathe because of grief or fear or rage, the times I had to stop driving because I couldn’t see, had to lay down on the kitchen floor because I could no longer stand, had to hurl stones from cliffs and scream, lost my voice from crying, you know the moments. You are a human, you’ve had them too. In those moments, faith hurt. It hurt because it didn’t heal anything, it didn’t solve anything, it didn’t take away the emotions. But faith pointed me in a direction. I knew where to aim my sorrow and anger and confusion.” –Rachel Pieh Jones in “Do Good Better

When the Backpack is too Heavy

Sheila Walsh tells a poignant story of her son wanting to leave home at the tender age of six. Evidently he set out with his backpack and jacket, heading toward a pond near home. She, wanting to allow freedom but aware of his young age, kept a watchful eye from a window where she could ensure safety as well as give him his independence. After a short time he was back at the door, offering no explanation other than a six-year-old going on sixteen response of “It’s good to be home!”

Later that night as she was tucking him in, she brought up the adventure and asked him about it. His response was matter of fact “I would have gone farther but my backpack was too heavy.”

As I listened to her, I was overwhelmed by the truth in a child’s simple comment.

I would have gone farther, but my backpack was too heavy.

Sheila Walsh

These days, I feel like this child. My backpack feels so heavy, the things I carry too weighty. My adult kids and their lives; friends I know who are aching from pain, some that can be spoken and other that can’t; patients and family members struggling beyond believability; worries and fear about the future and regret about the past – a backpack so heavy I can scarcely move.

It’s all mixed together with the good stuff so I’m not always sure what the good stuff is. Sort of like my kids backpacks used to be at the end of a semester, where a mashed up moldy sandwich, an apple, and crushed chips are crumbled up together in what used to be a brown lunch bag, but mixed in with this is a perfectly good juice carton and packaged granola bar. Instead of sorting through, I throw all of it away.

I’ve always thought that the primary lesson to this story was the obvious one – a heavy backpack preventing a child from the joy and distance of the journey. If I just lighten my load I would go farther, make more of an impact, be freer to serve. And to be sure, this is critically important. But dig deeper and the symbolism goes farther.

This little six-year-old knew exactly where to go to remember who he was. and where to drop off his backpack. He knew the way Home. He knew that Home was light, and love and Mom. He knew that there would be no condemnation, just warm chocolate chip cookies, cold milk and a listening heart. He knew that at home he could rest and move forward, his burden gone. He knew home was a place to be reminded of who he was.

As I think about the times I turn around because the backpack is too heavy, I hope I have the sense of a six-year-old who goes back home, and drops off his back pack. I hope I can go back to Jesus, the source and author of love, where condemnation is erased and the load is lifted, replaced with his yoke, his burden. Back to the Church, where I can be reminded of who I am, back to the Author of all that is good and holy and right.

I don’t know where in the world you are today and what things in your backpack make it too heavy. It may be transition and displacement. It may be loss of place. It may be the burden of betrayal or feeling like you’re wasting your life. It may be a struggling marriage or longing for a life partner. It may be the sorrows of your children and their needs that keep you up at night. It may be chronic illness, depression or anxiety. It may be the death of one you love.

I do know that whatever it is, home and rest are waiting. Not home the place, but Home – the person and presence of Jesus.

A Global Pandemic and Ambiguous Loss

In 1999, researcher Pauline Boss, introduced the concept of ambiguous loss with these words: “In the world of unresolved grief, there is a unique kind of loss that complicates grief, confuses relationships, and prevents closure. I call it ambiguous loss. It lies at the root of much depression, anxiety, and family conflict.

While religious communities traditionally have comforted those who lose a loved one from death—a clear loss—less attention is paid to ambiguous loss. This is understandable as there is no official notice or ritual for such unclear loss. Yet, the trauma devastates people. Traditional therapies are insufficient because closure, the usual goal in grief therapy, is impossible. With faith communities so often the central support system for people who are suffering, knowing about this more nuanced and complicated loss is important.

She goes on to say: “I do not pathologize. Depression is, of course, a symptom that needs treatment… in the case of ambiguous loss, the cause lies in the external environment. It is important for people suffering from this kind of traumatic loss to know that it is not their fault.”*

Ambiguous loss is believed to be the most stressful kind of loss. Death brings finality and closure and you are allowed and expected to mourn. Ambiguous loss brings none of those things. There are no sign posts. Instead, the grief process is frozen.

Ambiguous loss is unclear, traumatic, externally caused by illness/work/leaving (not by individual pathology), confusing and incomprehensible.

Ambiguous loss can freeze the grief process. People can’t get over it, they can’t move forward, they’re frozen in place. 

Pauline Boss

I can’t think of a better description of the losses people are feeling during this worldwide pandemic. Quick pack-ups and overnight border closures, family separations and job losses, death with no or limited funerals, grieving alone – all of it has contributed to lack of closure and a prolonged and ambiguous grief process.

There are two types of ambiguous loss:

  • Type One: Occurs when there is physical absence with psychological presence. This includes situations when a loved one is physically missing or bodily gone. While there are catastrophic examples of physical ambiguous loss (including kidnapping, terrorism, ethnic cleansing, genocide, and natural disasters such as earthquake, flood, and tsunami) the more common examples of physical ambiguous loss are divorce, adoption, and loss of physical contact with family and friends because of immigration. This would be the most common type with third culture kids and expats. There is a physical absence, but you know the place you left, the friends you left, are still psychologically present. You see pictures of your adopted home, but you are no longer there. Your children see their school friends through social media, but physically, though the place remains, you are gone. You may never get to visit again.
  • Type Two: Occurs when there is psychological absence with physical presence. In this second type of ambiguous loss, a loved one is psychologically absent—that is, emotionally or cognitively gone or missing. Such ambiguous loss occurs from Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias; traumatic brain injury; addiction, depression, or other chronic mental or physical illnesses that take away a loved one’s mind or memory. Psychological ambiguous losses can also result from obsessions or preoccupations with losses that never make sense, e.g., some suicides or infant deaths.*

Identifying ambiguous loss is a huge step. I remember first reading about it several years ago, how just reading about it did something powerful in and for me. Realizing I wasn’t alone, that there was a name for my experiences, was a pivotal point in better understanding what I needed to do.

There were several steps to my process, and I write them here cautiously, knowing that there is not a one-size-fits-all approach to facing ambiguous loss.

Naming it as ambiguous loss was an important first step. Finding a name for what I was experiencing was huge. You can’t cope with something unless you know what it is. At six years old, I waved goodbye to my parents as they stood on the platform of a train station in Southern Pakistan. I strained my head to wave, crying the crocodile tears of a child that knows that they are leaving their primary source of security, but not having words to express it. I strained to watch my parents through the window until the platform was out of sight, finally succumbing to the comfort of kind adult chaperones. I knew that my parents weren’t dead, but their physical absence brought profound loss. It would be the same for all but two years of my childhood until I turned 18 and left home. Finding out about the concept of ambiguous loss was deeply comforting to me. I thought back to many childhood events like this one, realizing I had never grieved the losses because I didn’t think there were any. Naming is an edenic act, and when we name something we open up a door to understanding that is otherwise impossible. In this Pandemic year, it is important to name the ambiguous loss. If you had to pack up with little notice and no goodbyes, if you did not have time to build the RAFT to float yourself and your family, it is probably true that what you are experiencing is ambiguous loss. The place you left still exists; the work and your place within the work may still be there, but you aren’t. Soon, someone else will take your place because though people are not replaceable, positions must be replaced. Naming this is critical to moving forward. If you do nothing else but name it, you are still on a step toward healing.

Use both/and thinking. It’s not one or the other – it’s both. We have both the anxiety of no closure and the opportunity of unexpected change and relationships going forward. Absolute thinking is not helpful with ambiguous loss or the pandemic in general. F. Scott Fitzgerald said this, and it is perfect for thinking about both/and thinking:

The test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

F.Scott Fitzgerald

This both/and thinking is important for us and for our children. We acknowledge the losses even as we begin to write our names in the land where we find ourselves.

Find meaning in the present. Not acknowledging ambiguous loss can cripple us to finding meaning in our present reality. What is the meaning in your present reality? Where have you found meaning that is unexpected? Perhaps you have found meaning in the act of waiting. Perhaps you have had unexpected time with aging parents. Perhaps you used to long for more time with your kids, feeling like their childhoods were on fast forward in the movie of life. Suddenly, all of life has slowed down and it feels impossible to dream, to look forward to anything. Maybe there is meaning in the impossible.

Reconstructing identity is a third step in facing ambiguous loss. Moving, death, job loss, changing friendships – all of this affects our identity and our perception of our identity. Who are we without what we had? Who are we when we are not in our adopted countries using hard-earned language skills? Who are we without the brother, mother, son, or daughter that we have lost to a country or place far away? Who are we apart from our friendships? Who are we when ministry is gone? All of these questions are a part of reconstructing our identities. Ultimately, in my faith journey I’ve recognized that identity is not about where I am, for that is too fickle and can change through pandemics, military takeovers, natural disasters, and job loss – indeed everyone of those things have affected my life at different points. Instead, my core identity has to be about being beloved by God and recognizing I am part of a bigger picture in His world.

Building resilience, not seeking closure. The goal is not closure, and we make a mistake if we think that is possible. That’s the thing with ambiguous loss – the goal changes from closure to building strength and acceptance of ambiguity. We may never get to say proper goodbyes, we may always wonder “What would have happened if we stayed?” We may always long for something that we can’t even voice. I’ve been learning a lot about being grateful for those things, for they are indeed gifts. We live in a world of displaced people and refugees; indeed that is the story of our time. It is a gift that we know what it is to grieve loss of place and people. Understanding ambiguous loss is in itself a gift. It allows us to enter relationships with hope but without the guarantees that we so long for. This is far more what our world needs than a security and belief that what we have will be there forever. This is true for individuals, and it’s true for a family. As a family adapts to change, stress, and ambiguous loss, it builds resilience and this becomes a part of the larger family story. The larger family story will have a pandemic chapter, but it’s not the only chapter. It’s one of many.

Discovering new hope. As we move forward, we discover new hope. Hope in a future that will continue to hold the hard and unknown, yet entering it with a greater reality of the presence of God. Hope in the words from the book of Hebrews that He who called us is faithful. We may never know the whys, but can it be enough to know Him? I speak truth when I say that some days it is enough and some days it isn’t. I cling to the days where it is enough, where He is enough. And I’m getting better at facing the days when He is not enough, where I pray the Jesus prayer all day long and into the night.

Lastly, God is far more concerned about who we are than about what we do and where we live. If we lose everything, He still loves us. Before He called us, He loved us. I’m sitting with that hard truth, praying that I will know it in my soul. I pray that wherever you are today, and whatever your losses, you may know this hard but glorious truth. He looks at you and He loves you – and though all around you may be loss and grief, that truth is a reality.

*https://www.ambiguousloss.com/about/faq/

A Global Pandemic and Lives Interrupted

In our house we have a saying. “Don’t speak while I’m interrupting!” Other people don’t find it quite as funny as we do. We are a family of interrupters, none worse than me and my husband.

Sometimes I wonder if that statement is what God might say to me with a gentle grin as he upends my life with interruptions and changed plans.

A few years ago I wrote about my brother and his wife having an encounter with the Great Interrupter. In their case the encounter put them in a place of selling a home of over 15 years, leaving a church of the same, leaving a community where they have loved hard and were loved back, and leaving the only home their children remember. They embarked on a mid-life journey to begin a life in the Middle East. Like a train heading one direction only to switch mid-journey to another set of tracks, so was their interruption. Who needs a mid-life crisis when the Great Interrupter is in your life?

Seven years after their interruption, my husband and I had our encounter with the Great Interrupter. We ended up in the Kurdish Region of Iraq in a 2-year commitment at a Kurdish university that would end up being cut short after a year with another great interruption. While I loved the first interruption, despite the myriad of details and hard goodbyes, I hated the second. I cried every day for a month in Kurdistan and then more once we arrived back in the United States.

And the thing that made me the angriest was when people said to me “There must be some reason for this.” “Yes,” I would respond somewhat politely. Inside I was more honest – Don’t you think I freaking know that in my head? It’s my heart that hurts. Or the even more honest “Shut up!”

And then came a global pandemic and around the world we have seen lives interrupted. Our plans were all going so well! We had dreams and businesses, ideas that were turning into reality. Then just like that – bam! Borders closed and we left the countries we loved. Or we stayed, only to be housebound for weeks on end, unable to meet with people we had come to love, stymied at every turn. Even worse, some have encountered the death of those they love and that interruption feels unbearable.

The words “God’s in control” that are so easy to say when things are going well are suddenly impossible. Collectively we’ve been shown just how little control we actually have and it’s maddening. Out of one side of our mouths come screams of “NOOOOO!” and out of the other comes the socially acceptable “But God’s in control! God’s got this!” The war in our heads is brain crushing and headache inducing.

As a community at A Life Overseas, even before the pandemic we knew intimately about these encounters with the Great Interrupter. When your life seems to be heading one way, the trajectory clear, and then in a slow but steady encounter with the Great Interrupter you realize that your life is being disturbed. No longer can you settle comfortably in the familiar because the voice of the Great Interrupter is strong and powerful, compelling if not always clear.

These interruptions are not easy. How can we possibly do this? What should our next step be? Is this the end of our life overseas? When will I get to see my aging parents again? What do we do in the future? How do we worship? How do we move forward at all. These questions and more are part of our inner dialogue and our outer conversations. There are also the physical and emotional symptoms and feelings of being out of control. Sleepless nights, anxiety, a nervous stomach, checking our email, phones, and the news constantly, tears, irritability, anger, and depression are all the human parts of coping with these interruptions.

Can we, can I, believe that within this quite obvious lack of control, accompanied by our physical and emotional discomfort, there is a safety net woven by God to catch us? A safety net created with the deepest love and whispers, not shouts, of his presence? Can I believe that interruptions are not mistakes, rather they show us God’s care in ways we might never understand without them?

Throughout history God has interrupted people’s lives, moving them from comfort to the unknown and asking them to trust along the way. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses and more are in the ranks of those whose lives were interrupted and who walked in faith. To be honest, I’m less interested in them then I am in their wives. What could the untold stories tell us of these women and their faith journeys? What would they say to me, to you about trust? About faith? About God’s whispers in the hard parts of the night?

I don’t come to you with answers today. I come with these words, committed to memory many years ago, for these are the words that I hear whispered in the still of the night during these interruptions:

“I know that my redeemer lives,
    and that in the end he will stand on the earth.
And after my skin has been destroyed,
    yet in my flesh I will see God;
I myself will see him
    with my own eyes—I, and not another.
    How my heart yearns within me”
*

What is the story of your interruption during this pandemic? How did your life change? Are there words you remember in the dark parts of the night? Words whispered in your heart? Please share them and know – You Are Not Alone.