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

This Pandemic Can Help Us to Identify With the World’s Poor

I was always blown away by the number of funerals. During the years our househelper in Tanzania worked for us, I lost count of how many times she asked for time off to attend a funeral for a family member. She was my age, but during those years she lost her mother. Her mother-in-law. A sister. More than one uncle. Several cousins. What was the cause? I would always ask. Malaria, typhoid, or many times, no one knew why. Disease and death were far too common. 

Experts will probably be asking it for years: Why are some developing countries seemingly less impacted from COVID-19 than more developed countries? Is it because they just are testing less? Have a younger population, get more sunlight, have more built up immunity? I’m certain some of those factors are true, but I also wonder if a central reason is because the effects of this pandemic haven’t changed much about regular life for the poor in developing countries. What feels shocking and abnormal to us is simply the way they have always lived. 

I’m listing some of these ways below, and I want to be clear that this is not about inducing guilt in those of us from affluent nations. I’m not trying to minimize the grief and loss so many of us have experienced this year. Instead, my purpose is to help us have greater compassion and empathy with the world’s poor. This pandemic can help us to identify with them in ways we had never been able to before. 

What’s new for us is normal for them. Here’s how:

Normalcy of deadly diseases

Yes, COVID-19 is a new virus, but for many in the world, they are already dealing with much worse. Statistics tell us that one and a half million people worldwide have died from COVID. Yet that same number of people die every year from tuberculosis, most of them from India, other parts of Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa. Like COVID, tuberculosis is also an airborne virus. It may not be a pandemic, but it is most certainly an epidemic.  

In addition, malaria kills over 400,000 people each year, the vast majority in sub-Saharan Africa (and some in South East Asia). Most of them are young children. There’s also HIV, dengue, typhoid, and rotavirus. For many people in the world, having deadly viruses lurk around every corner, in every cough, in households and churches, is normal life. 

Familiarity with death

Statistics tell us that in Central African Republic, the life expectancy is 53 years. In Nigeria, it’s 54 years. In Afghanistan, it’s 64 years. In contrast, the life expectancy of someone in the United States is 78, the United Kingdom is 81, and Australia is 83. 

Of course, every death is tragic, even in affluent countries. But perhaps my generation has never before been surrounded by such a high death rate right in our own communities. Let us remember that this is real life for many of the world’s poor. 

Stretched healthcare systems

For every 1000 people, there are 2.3 doctors in Canada, 2.6 doctors in the United States, and 4.2 in Germany. In contrast, there are .05 doctors for every 1000 people in Chad, .62 in Myanmar, and .16 in Zambia. Crowded hospitals? Doctors who can’t give their full attention to patients? Many in the world were already used to this. 

Unpredictable government restrictions

Shuttered churches with unrealistic rules, mask mandates, forced closure of small businesses–all these are things that many of us would never have thought possible in our countries. On top of that, the regulations keep changing on a daily basis, feeling like whiplash as we struggle to keep up. As those of us from liberty-loving countries are dealing with a clamp down on our cherished freedoms, let us remember those from countries where this has always been their reality. Many of them are our brothers and sisters in Christ. 

Substandard education options 

Many Americans are faced with a difficult choice: Allow their children to receive a substandard education online, or pay for private school. For many in the world, this has always been their dilemma. Government run schools are often overcrowded and very poorly resourced, and anyone who wants their child to get a decent education must make huge financial sacrifices. Homeschooling isn’t an option for working parents in poverty, and in some places, it’s even illegal. They either pay dearly or their kids don’t get educated. 

For them, this is not temporary.

We are all tired of the upheaval, aren’t we? We are weary of the chaos, the disappointments that keep piling up, the changing regulations. Everything feels uncertain, unpredictable, and that’s scary. We want life to return to normal. Yet for those living in war zones, in refugee camps, under unstable governments, that kind of turmoil is their normal. 

Hopefully, one day, the worst of this pandemic will be over. This virus will no longer be a huge threat, the death rate will even out, the healthcare system will recover, public schools will open, and restrictions will ease. But for the world’s poor, they will continue to live life in pandemic-type conditions, as they always have. Will we think of them? Will we remember what it felt like, and use that empathy to pray and give and go? 

Continue to remember….those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering. (Hebrews 13:3)

Let us resolve to never forget. 

Cultural Hope

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“But what on earth can I write?”

This was what I wrestled with last week as I thought about writing for A Life Overseas. Half of you are displaced, wrestling with when you can get back to your host countries and homes. Half of you are sheltered in place in various places around the world, struggling with what that means. All of you are wondering “Did we make the right decision?”

All of these realities are compounded by the unknown world beyond Covid-19. Some of you are farther ahead. I have friends in Shanghai that encourage me there is life beyond shelter in place and quarantine orders. My son in Greece will be able to attend church next week for the first time in eight weeks. Others are still cautiously waiting. Still others are grieving things beyond Covid-19, worried for things that cannot easily be shared.

All of us are in need of the deep healing that only comes from God.

A few years ago, my husband and I were in an art gallery. Various paintings by different artists were beautifully displayed in an open space. There was light and beauty all around us.

I don’t remember any of the paintings except one. And that one I will never forget.

It was two feet wide and at least three and a half feet long. It hung on a dominant wall in the gallery and, despite sharing the space with several other paintings, this was the painting that I could not stop looking at. It was striking.

It was a picture of an art gallery, much like the gallery we were in. Within the gallery in the picture was a painting of Jesus on the cross on the central wall. Looking up at the painting, hope and longing pouring from the canvas was a man in a wheelchair. The painting was called “Cultural Hope.”

It was a moment of awe as we in the studio stood, invited in to this private moment between Jesus and a wheelchair-bound man. It was reminiscent of stories long ago where in a crowded room a paralyzed man was healed – only this man was still wheel-chair bound.

I knew nothing of the artist. Nothing of what had inspired the painting, but I wanted to stand there forever. Was it the longing in the man’s eyes? Was it the distinctive connection between the two? Was it that moment of shared suffering between cross and wheelchair that shouted of pain and only whispered of redemption?

I walked away challenged and moved. While this man’s wheelchair was visual, my wheelchair is in my mind. While his paralysis was obvious, mine is hidden. But I, like the man in the painting, have looked up at the cross shouting with pain and hearing only the whisper of redemption.

Throughout history people have come to the cross. Sometimes they have come with their own pain, illness, and suffering, and other times they have come with the burdens of others. Sometimes they have come with the weight and fury of injustice and unfair systems. Always they have come with longing for comfort in a broken world – comfort that can be found in a Savior that entered our world and knows our suffering.

As I reflected on the world wide suffering, confusion, fear, and even anger, I remembered this painting. I remembered what it evoked in me as I entered the moment portrayed through the painting. It struck me that this is us during this time. We are the man in the wheelchair. We look up toward Jesus on the cross from whatever binds us, from those things that paralyze us. We come to the cross with shouts of pain, longing, confusion, worry, or fear. Our cries are general and our cries are personal.

“Will you hear our public cries for the world? Will you hear our private cries for those we love? Will you heal our lands of the many things that prevent us from flourishing? Will you heal us – not only of disease but of so many other deep wrongs? Will you heal our paralysis and help us to act?”

Will you heal; will you act?

Shouts of pain and only whispers of redemption.

The longer I stand before the cross, the louder is the whisper. It compels me, urging me to wait, reminding me that the cross was replaced by an empty tomb, that the painting goes beyond “cultural hope” to a living reality.

This is our cultural hope. This is our living reality. We can’t see it, but that is the very definition of faith. We hold out for “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” And, if only for a moment, we rest.

Hope as the Church’s Long Game

by Jacob Sims

March 21, 2020 – It’s a beautiful morning as the sun rises over Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The predictably sweltering heat and sticky humidity are not quite yet descended on the city as I make my way across Sihanoukville Boulevard just east of Independence Monument. 

In a mere 10-minute walking commute to work each morning, I pass the icons of affluence in a rising capital city — the towering, rapidly proliferating skyscrapers; the dramatic open parks; the army of ultra-luxury cars swerving around aging rickshaws. I pass state power in abundance as well — one of the world’s few North Korean embassies; the US Ambassador’s French-colonial mansion; the fashionable and imposing EU and Singaporean consulates. 

These temples of modern wealth and power sprinkled amidst crushing poverty are particularly perplexing this morning in a world gone mad with COVID-19.

In Cambodia as elsewhere, the poor are disproportionately affected by the crisis. Furloughs and lay-offs hit low income jobs first and hardest. Poor families are forced to choose between food and safety. Quarantining itself is impossible for millions of the most impoverished.

Regardless of economic status, fear is rampant and people are looking for a scapegoat. It is widely believed in Cambodia that western tourists and NGO workers are spreading the disease. The theory that the US Army planted the virus in Wuhan back in December is commonly accepted across the sub-continent. New visas from the United States and Western Europe were indefinitely barred several weeks back.

During my brief walk, I am eyed suspiciously as people make a concerted effort to keep their distance. Small children point at the westerner and mothers hurry them into a 20-foot bubble of extreme outdoor social distancing. 

Later this morning, the State Department issues its unprecedented Global Level 4 warning. Shortly thereafter, I find myself evacuated home. 

The situation here is no different. 

The open, interconnected, globalized world which this country helped create and seemed unassailable just a few weeks ago now feels very fragile, our future unknown.

Unemployment in the United States is at a record high. The stock market plunges in historic fashion. The country is on lock-down. Isolation-based anxiety is palpably boiling over.

Year-to-date, coronavirus is the leading cause of death in America, claiming more lives per hour than heart disease, all forms of cancer, the flu, or any other cause. 

Yet, the country visibly aches for rapid return to normalcy in a characteristically American prioritization of economic expediency over human life. We are paralyzed with fear. Our ability to control the illusory bubble which is modern American society is wholly upended.

And on and on it goes. Day after evolving day, the one constant in this ever-changing crisis is a persistent reminder of how earthly power yearns to protect itself above all else. As chaos looms and life becomes increasingly unpredictable, our world reveals its true nature. In our utter terror, we rampantly stoke prejudice; blame others for loss; and deny reality. 

— 

With so much uncertainty, so much division and fear, the key question posed in Stanley Hauerwas’ and Will Willimon’s 1982 ethical classic Resident Aliens remains prescient. What tools do we have as a global Church to ‘show the world what it is not’? 

On the surface, the global Church is impacted the same way as the rest of the world. Congregations around the world met virtually this Easter Sunday. In Jerusalem, for the first time in over 600 years, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher (built on top of Christ’s tomb) cancelled its Easter ‘Feast of the Resurrection.’ The last cancellation came as the bubonic plague was gripping the world and another wave of social distancing to curb a pandemic was required. 

But, we find our hope, ‘our difference,’ apart from our ability to meet freely and openly together. Historically, as a body of believers, our hope is directed at the unreasonable result of unbelievable suffering. As we celebrated Easter last month, we remembered this hope. We recalled that even as our church buildings were empty, the tomb is empty too.

If the Church is to distinguish itself, it must do so via this divine and historic gift — a perseverance in suffering well. 

We live in a society — particularly in our place as expatriates among the global powerful — which doesn’t often recognize the need to suffer. It is all too easy for us to resist suffering; blind ourselves to loss; delude ourselves into pushing away grief. 

We do this when we blame others for the unblameable. We do this when we foster or accept lies which deny the inconvenience of reality. We do this when we look for human solutions — when we look to our wealth, our power, our egos, our ability to travel and move freely — as barriers to the inescapable reality of pain. 

Yet, today, we find ourselves in a rare moment where our ascendant world is vulnerable to admitting that it is indeed suffering.

As David Kessler (coiner of the famous Five Stages of Grief typology) notes in a recent Harvard Business Review article, “we are feeling a number of different griefs. We feel the world has changed…and it has.”

As post-modern humans, we lack the tools to respond to grief effectively. Since we lack hope in the eternal, we seek to rid ourselves of suffering via other means. We deny. We become angry and blame others. We ‘bargain’ or try to use our own powers to correct the uncorrectable. 

Languishing in a German prison cell nearly eighty years ago, theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer noticed a similar trend. He pondered the tremendous grief of mortal death and dashed aspirations and unfulfilled human potential as a decimated continent suffered the virus of Nazi occupation. While recognizing the enormous loss, he also saw a larger gain. “That which is fragmentary may point to a higher fulfillment, one which can no longer be achieved by human effort. Strive though we might, the only work that matters was done by grace alone.”

As members of the historic body of Christ, we are offered this other path to the ‘fragmentary’ energies of ‘striving’ and ‘human effort.’ We are offered the very building blocks necessary to deal with suffering well. We are offered a chance to embrace pain as a catalyst for a meaningful life in a fallen world. As Paul states in Romans 5: 3-5, “…suffering produces perseverance, perseverance character, and character hope. Hope does not put us to shame. For God’s love is poured out into our hearts through the given Holy Spirit…”

— 

Beyond mere present pain and suffering, Kessler also notes the current prevalence of “anticipatory grief” — the feeling of uncertainty and despondency about the future when outlooks are grim. 

In spite of our denial, this feeling is natural today. This world of our own design feels a good deal more chaotic and less welcoming than it did just a few months ago. 

But again, as Christians, we are offered something more. In The Divine Conspiracy, Dallas Willard defines hope as “a joyful anticipation because of who we know God to be.” 

Through scriptural revelation and the inspiration of the living Church, we know God to be merciful and powerful and just beyond our ability to fathom. 

As the world attempts, with increasing desperation, to escape and deny its suffering and grief, we have an opportunity to accept these realities with hope.

Our hope then flows from faith in a force, a God, beyond our comprehension — beyond rational proof . This transcendent God desires union with us who are beyond love, and through that love, redeems us who are broken beyond redemption.

Without grounding in this sort of unbelievable faith, human existence — including a supposedly Christian one — is based on nothing more than illusions and rationalizations.

But, if we base our faith in the only realistic hope for humanity’s redemption — a God beyond our comprehension who loves us beyond our ability to receive it — we can start afresh the humble, courageous journey as travelers in the greater adventure of His glory instead of our own.

Perhaps then, we will confront the sin we see in the world with prayer instead of policies of further oppression.

Perhaps then, we can begin to hold our plans and even our very lives more loosely in an uncertain ‘fragmentary’ world.

Perhaps then, we will learn what it truly means to live by faith: a “confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we cannot see.” Hebrews 11:1

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Jacob works for an NGO fighting modern slavery in Southeast Asia. From 2015-2020 he led an international development consulting practice and served as adjunct faculty at the College of William & Mary — teaching and guest lecturing in courses on Education, Human Rights, Migration, and Global Health. He previously led humanitarian programs in northern Myanmar and co-founded a social justice organization in eastern Uganda. Jacob holds a Master’s degree from LSE and is currently preparing to publish his first book, WanderLOST: stories from the winding road to significance.

Entitled to Suffer

by Krista Horn

Several years ago, a missionary friend of mine made the difficult decision to leave the mission field because of serious health concerns that couldn’t be addressed in her host country.  She had spent a long time enduring physical suffering and attempting to find answers locally before her condition became so complex and so unbearable that she was forced to return to the States for medical help.  Once in the States she still endured a long and painful journey of recovery. In the midst of all that, my friend reflected, “In order to attain a theology of suffering, one must suffer.”

I have never forgotten those words.

They’re particularly poignant coming from an American worldview.  The American psyche does not accept suffering well. Our culture feels entitled to not suffer, as if all the hard work and thinking and planning and determination and zeal that were instilled in and passed down by our forebears grants us a “get out of suffering free” card.  This is our American Theology of Suffering: we have the knowledge and willpower to combat and defeat suffering if we choose to. We get confused at best, offended at worst, when we suffer anyway.

That perspective doesn’t seem to line up with a biblical view of suffering.

Living and working at a mission hospital in Africa has given us an opportunity to see how other cultures view and understand suffering.  While Americans (in general) experience comparatively little suffering and fight against it at all costs, Africans (in general) experience a lot of suffering and accept its existence in their lives as normal.  Death is known here. Death is fairly understood and even expected. And although death is greatly grieved, somehow it’s also accepted. While we struggle sometimes with how easily it’s accepted – we fail to understand the lack of “Why God?” in so many situations – we’ve also been learning something from our Kenyan brothers and sisters that is so hard for us as Americans: how to identify with our Savior through suffering.

Because of COVID-19, the entire world is suffering right now, and disciples of Jesus in this present age have an opportunity.  We have an opportunity to draw closer to Jesus and to know Him more by willingly walking down the road of suffering.

I would argue that “to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings” (Philippians 3:10, emphasis mine) is best done by suffering willingly.  I don’t mean welcoming suffering in a masochistic sense or never fighting against sickness and disease.  I mean that it’s beneficial to acknowledge that suffering is a part of this world and no one is exempt from it, and that for followers of Christ it’s beneficial to invite Him to use our suffering as a way of connecting with Himself – the man of sorrows who was familiar with suffering (Isaiah 53:3).

No one saw a global pandemic coming and no one saw the acute, increased suffering in our present world.  No one saw the sickness and death, the separation and isolation, the stress and anxiety, the financial failures and economic disasters.  No one saw a world imploding and crying out for answers.

Answers may elude us, but opportunities do not.  Opportunities abound for displaying kindness and compassion, for increasing our prayers and study of the Word, for choosing to connect and encourage each other in an era of social distancing, for giving of our limited resources because someone else has even more limited resources.  And another opportunity has presented itself: to identify with Christ through our suffering. 

Most of Paul’s writings on suffering refer specifically to suffering for Christ, for the Gospel.  “For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him” (Philippians 1:29).  The average world citizen suffering in this pandemic is not suffering for Christ, for the Gospel.  But that doesn’t exclude the reality that suffering for its own sake is opportunity to identify with Christ.

Paul tells of a time when his “brother, fellow worker, and fellow soldier” Epaphroditus became ill and nearly died, a circumstance that no doubt caused Paul great anxiety since he acknowledges that a deadly outcome would have spiraled him into “sorrow upon sorrow” with grief for his friend (Philippians 2:25ff).  God had mercy on Epaphroditus, and on Paul too. The life of his dear friend was spared. Yet I’m sure his experience of stress and anxiety (and for a time the loss of his fellow worker’s presence) caused Paul to lean heavily on Christ, the Savior who also knew stress and anxiety and the loss of His fellow workers’ presence.  I’m sure Paul turned to Christ for help and for comfort, and I’m sure Paul understood his Savior a bit more too.

Even for the times when our suffering is granted by God (such as Paul’s thorn in the flesh and of course Christ Himself who submitted to the “the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer” (2 Corinthians 12:7-10; Isaiah 53:10a), we can take heart that God’s grace is sufficient for us.  His grace sustains us, it teaches us, and it helps us to know Him more.

Charles Spurgeon, who was no stranger to suffering, once wrote: “Will the Head be crowned with thorns, and will the other members of the body be rocked on the dainty lap of ease?  Must Christ pass through seas of His own blood to win the crown, and are we to walk to heaven in silver slippers that stay dry? No, our Master’s experience teaches us that suffering is necessary, and the true-born child of God must not, would not, escape it if he could.”

As we walk this road of suffering during COVID-19, let’s acknowledge the opportunity before us.  It’s not an opportunity to fight against our current suffering because we’re entitled to not suffer.  Conversely, we have the opportunity to endure suffering as people who are entitled to suffer as followers of Jesus.  And maybe, if we’re willing, there’s an opportunity to develop a biblical theology of suffering as we lean into this time of identifying with and understanding our Savior, the Man of Sorrows.

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Krista Horn met and married the man who once took her on a date to go tree climbing, which just about sealed the deal then and there. After her husband slogged through seven years of medical school and residency (with Krista doing quite a bit of slogging herself between work, grad school, and becoming a mom), they left for the mission field with three boys 3 and under. Now they live and work at a mission hospital in Kenya. While her husband is busy on the wards, she stays busy with all the details of motherhood on the mission field.  When she’s not making meals from scratch or singing lullabies or chasing skinks out of the house, Krista loves to curl up with a book, bake chocolate chip cookies, and go to bed early.  Krista blogs at www.storiesinmission.blogspot.com.

To Know Him in Suffering

by Rachel E. Hicks

Our family recently watched the 2012 film adaptation of one of my favorite stories of all time, Les Miserables. In it, there’s a scene in which the reformed convict Jean Valjean crouches over the sleeping body of Marius, a fresh-faced young man caught between love for Valjean’s daughter and the fervor of revolution. Valjean has just realized that Marius could be Cosette’s future, could care for her and love her after the aging Valjean passes away. 

In the cradle of the Parisian barricade, while around him all the young men are sleeping for the last time before they sleep in their graves, Jean Valjean sings a prayer over Marius for God to “bring him home.” He prays for blessing, for protection over this young man, for him to get out of this alive and live a full life. He even prays that if need be, he might die instead—he whose life is mostly behind him now, who has never been able to rest, who has been on the run most of his life.

Little does he know.

Over the course of the next few hours, God uses Valjean to answer his own prayer. As men are dying all around him and the enemy is breaking through the barricade, Marius is gravely wounded and falls. Valjean becomes his own answer to prayer as he hoists the limp body over his shoulder and escapes through the sewers of Paris to get Marius to safety. 

As he emerges from the sewer pipes, exhausted and covered in human waste, his pursuer is waiting. Inspector Javert—who cannot comprehend mercy and whose world revolves around the law—has Valjean at his most vulnerable moment. Valjean is beaten and beyond weary. All he has the strength to do is to plead with Javert to let him get Marius to a doctor; then he will be Javert’s prisoner again. He seems not to even care anymore if he is taken.

Life is hard. Somehow we must stop being surprised at its hardness. 

Sometimes when we are at our most weary, we intercede for someone else in pain, feeling that breathing out those words from our lips is the most we can manage. And God gently replies, “Carry her. Visit her in her pain. You are bone weary and cannot get through five minutes without tears. But I’m asking you to take her to the doctor yourself. And bring her a home-cooked meal while you’re at it. Hold her hand in silence for as long as she needs you to.”

Why is it this way?

We pray for humility, God sends humiliations. We pray for eyes to see others how God sees them—He sends us to ghastly places and to people from whom we want to look away. We pray to know Christ better—He allows us to know Him in His sufferings.

To know Him in His sufferings. And in each other’s.

Crosses are made of solid wood. We see a brother carrying his cross and we pray that God would give him strength, or that He would make the burden lighter. In response, He tells us to go take it from him and put it across our own shoulders.

At the end of the movie, my son, a little troubled, remarked, “But the bad guys [the Thénardiers] never really got punished. They just went on living their lives.” A discussion ensued in which we mused on the fact that, yes, it’s true, the wicked and debased couple didn’t really get what was coming to them. They were never humbled. 

In contrast, Jean Valjean died having only experienced a little bit of peace at the end, a short but blessed rest right at the end of his days. He went quietly to his God, content and so very tired of living.  

And isn’t that the way life is many times? The wheat and the tares. The prosperous wicked. The good who die young. The unsung hero who quietly pours his very life out for others day after day, year after year. As we wound up the conversation, my daughter commented astutely, “Not a very American ending to the movie, was it?” (My kids are TCKs.)

What on earth is it all for? How do we not grow weary in doing good? How do we put one foot in front of another when we find ourselves burdened with being the answer to our own intercessions? 

It is no small thing to be the hands and feet of Christ in this world. But how desperately the world needs us to be. Some of us know how to intercede in power and persistent prayer. Others of us know how to walk out of our doors and “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly” with our God. A few saints do both well. Perhaps many of us do neither very well at all. Writer Brennan Manning says because we are the Body of Christ, He sweats, bleeds, and sheds tears through us. This is what a body does.

But you are not the Body of Christ by yourself. Neither am I. Maybe this is part of the secret to putting one foot in front of the other. 

If we know the love of Christ, and we keep betting our lives on the goodness of the Father, we understand that grace will be given us to keep doing good, one moment at a time (2 Corinthians 12:9). We will be keenly aware of our weariness, our need, as we love and serve. 

This is a good and necessary thing as we carry each other.

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Rachel Hicks is a second-generation TCK raising third-generation TCKs. She spent the bookends of her childhood in India, with moves to Pakistan, Jordan, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Hong Kong in between. She married her college sweetheart and managed to live in one place for seven whole years (Phoenix, Arizona) before moving as a family with two young children to Chengdu, China, where they lived and taught holistic ministry alongside a local partner for another seven years. They repatriated to the US in mid-2013 and now live in Baltimore, Maryland. Rachel is the new editor of Among Worlds, a digital publication of Interaction International. Her poetry and fiction have appeared in The Briar Cliff Review, Little Patuxent Review, Relief, St. Katherine Review, Off the Coast, Gulf Stream, and other journals. She is a Pushcart Prize nominee and the winner of the 2019 Briar Cliff Review Fiction Prize. She works as a freelance copyeditor. A few of her favorite things: electric scooters, spicy Sichuan food, hiking, and unhurried time to read. Find her online at rachelehicks.com.

Welcoming Broken Missionaries Back

John Chau’s death in November raised a complicated and important conversation about the role of Christian evangelism. I’m going to let that debate rage on Twitter and the New York Times and the Failed Missionary podcast. I want to launch a different conversation. I believe Chau’s dream, work, and death forces the church to consider what the push of evangelism will require not of those who “go” but of those who “send.”

There is a missing piece in that go-send picture because the one who goes out will eventually come back. How will be they welcomed back? What kind of support systems are in place? Who will be the “receiver” of the returned missionary?

This question is especially relevant in the context of evangelism among what are known as unreached and unengaged populations like the people on the North Sentinelese island, (“An unengaged unreached people group (UUPG) has no known active church planting underway,” the Joshua Project) because missionaries who go to these places are also often missionaries who return broken. How will they be supported?

There is a reason groups of people are unreached or unengaged. They are sometimes hostile to outsiders, remote, living in places of poverty or disease or isolation. They tend to live in areas not considered comfortable, beautiful, or safe. They may speak languages that are not written down, difficult to learn. Their cultures might be radically different from the Western culture out of which many missionaries come. They want to be left alone.

Reaching these people is hard. Slow. Discouraging. And it comes with risks. There may be bodies buried on beaches, like Chau’s. There will certainly be brokenness, pain, and grief. Those who have gone out rejoicing will return weeping. I’m not sure the sending church is ready for that.

The call of the church to raise up Christians who will go to the unengaged is not a triumphal call for heroes. It is a call to suffering and death and brokenness. Churches which actively promote this kind of mission work need to be prepared to receive their people back, along with all their sorrow, pain, and anger.

There needs to be strong support systems in place to help those who return.

Counseling, intensive therapy for all members of the family, marriage help, help in finding jobs, financial advisors, medical assistance, physical space in which to recover, nonjudgmental and safe ways for them to ask all the deep, hard, scary questions about God and faith that rocked their world while living abroad, opportunities for them to be angry. Time. I don’t mean a week or a month. I mean maybe a year, depending on what a person has walked through. Community, people willing to welcome the returned into their families and holiday traditions and Bible studies, even though that person doesn’t have a shared history other than a yearly visit or monthly newsletter.

And grace to recognize that while living abroad, the person sent out from the church has changed. Is the Church ready to welcome that kind of changed person back into their arms with tenderness and acceptance?

I have seen missionaries ask for prayer as they grieve the death of their child and the prayer request is rephrased as, “Pray for their work.” I have seen missionaries told to move on quicker after a family accident or to stop being afraid when death threats or sexual harassment bombard them.

The church dare not, dare not, pray for the unengaged to be engaged while in the same breath refuse to face the tragedy that will come with that engagement. This is dangerous and irresponsible, if the church is not prepared to deal with the consequences.

People who live abroad get broken there. Then they come home and their wounds go unacknowledged. They are heroes. They are brave. They are warriors.

Fine (sort of). But guess what? They are also weak, lonely, confused, shattered. Their marriages are damaged, their children have depression, their bodies are fragile and filled with parasites, their resumes have unexplainable holes, their job skills fail to translate. They are lonely, their faith has been pushed sometimes to the breaking point. They have seen poverty and the global realities of politics and their own ideas on these topics have been transformed. They are no longer welcome, when they speak from what they’ve learned, in the places which sent them out.

I certainly see churches ready to send people triumphantly out.

Please, dear Western Church, be willing and ready to welcome them brokenly back.

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Written by an anonymous worker

‘Tis the Season of Incongruity

Deck the halls with calls for charity! Fa-la-la-la-laaa, la-la-la-la!

‘Tis the season of incongruity! Fa-la-la-la-laaa, la-la-la-la!

#CottageChristmas or starving children? Fa-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la!

My heart is caught and I cannot win this thing! Fa-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-laa.

I don’t know about you, but I can’t do this. The sense of incongruity is overwhelming me this Christmas. I go from essays and photos of unbelievable beauty to my current reality, which includes messy, messy relationships, rain and mud up to my knees, no sign of Christmas lights and beauty,and long, long hours of no electricity.

I scroll through Instagram and the abundance of beauty is eye-popping. Pristine cottages bedecked with lights and color and living rooms with soft lights and all white furnishings with that splash of red and green color that just makes them pop. And then in the next picture, I catch my breath as I see a starving child in Yemen and an organization begging the world to take notice.  I breathe fire as I see another picture reminding me of the never-ending war in Syria and the continued devastation on people. And it hits home as I take my own pictures here in Kurdistan and I am reminded that there aren’t enough resources to meet the needs of the population, honor killings are still part of the landscape, and we can barely get funds for a single project.

‘Tis the season of incongruity – the season where the contrast feels too stark and I don’t feel like I have the ability to cope with these conflicting images.

And yet…

And yet, God’s story has always been a story of conflicting images. There is the image of the manger and the image of the cross, the image of judgement and the image of mercy, the image of truth and the image of grace. What I am seeing and feeling is nothing new to God.

God came into a world of contrasts. A world of the beauty and the broken. He came in a way that was so gentle, so unassuming – how could a baby threaten anyone? He came into a setting that was the height of incongruity – a king in a manger. For 33 years he lived as one who is unknown, going through daily life as we do – an image that is so mind boggling I stop thinking about it. We are told that he set aside greatness and “humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death” – a violent, horrific death. And then, the glorious resurrection and the words that we live by every single day: “He is not here! He is risen!”

My heart longs for peace and harmony in a world of broken incongruity. God is a God of mystery and paradox and he gently draws my longing and fickle heart into his own, asking only that I trust. So in this season of incongruity, this season where I just can’t with the images, I offer a fickle and contrary heart to a Savior who is my only hope. I can’t make sense of this world, but he can.

I hear the call to prayer in the mosque next door. It is followed by the many other mosques in the city, creating a cacophony of sound. I pause and pray to the One who makes sense of all this. The words of a Christmas carol come to mind and for now, I rest in those words.

Come, Thou long expected Jesus
Born to set Thy people free;
From our fears and sins release us,
Let us find our rest in Thee.
Israel’s strength and consolation,
Hope of all the earth Thou art;
Dear desire of every nation,
Joy of every longing heart.


Grieving an Unfulfilled Dream

by William Jackson 

The reality of living overseas is that you are going to grieve multiple things, deeply. Anyone moving out of their passport country has a dream. Some want to help HIV patients or people who have been trafficked. Others want to plant churches among the Unreached People Groups of the World.

Whatever your dream, it will most likely get crushed. Stomped on. And you are going to have to find a way to realize God isn’t a monster wanting to cause you pain. Grief will, one day, cover you like a blanket, and you will wonder, “How can I see beyond the current struggle I’m in?” The sooner you realize you are grieving, the better.

Countless books are written about dealing with grief after a loved one dies. Without minimizing such deep pain, we can notice that it is quite easy to get resources for these “common griefs.” The pill that is hard to swallow is what can missionaries do when they realize their dreams are dead or dying? The easy answer is to bring immediate comfort to the missionary dealing with grief. But, is this the right solution?

My family moved to South Asia almost 7 years ago. My wife and I were ready to give all, and we did, for the sake of seeing the Church built here. We lived with a Muslim family in a village for 11 months to better learn language and culture. God gave us a wonderful family to enjoy life with, and they still call us to come and celebrate their Islamic festivals with them.

At the end of our “enculturation period” we moved across country to an area with no churches. Over the years we managed to recruit 7 others to come with us and do the hard work of Church Planting. For whatever reason, and I’ll ask God one day, we didn’t see fruit. For 5 years we labored as a team with no converts. We managed to discover two Muslim Background Believers (MBBs) in the city with us, but for various reasons, we never saw trust built between them and some other MBBs living in the surrounding villages. Yet our dream didn’t unravel until team members decided it was time to move on.

Satan attacked our team in various ways. One couple had a conflict with me over team philosophy and left. Another couple had a different discipleship approach from us, so they departed. What made me realize that God was moving things drastically was when one of our single guys on the team began doubting the Christian faith altogether. What was going on?? I thought that I would deal with disappointment and frustrations on the mission field, but to see everything my wife and I labored to build just come unraveled was overwhelming. I floundered in grief before I even knew I was in it.

What is grief? It is simply “mourning the loss of something” (Hill 2018, 30). I had never thought of grief this way until I saw that my dead dream caused such intense agony in my spirit that I couldn’t see a path forward. I previously thought that grief was only something you had to go through when a person close to you died. I was wrong. Grief is an intensely personal issue that people go through, and different people grieve very differently. Some get angry, quiet, introspective, weepy, etc. You can’t always tell when someone is grieving.

In Dr. Hill’s book, she describes 3 stages of grief. They stages are 1) Anger / Denial. 2) No Hope. 3) New Beginnings. (Hill 2018, 31). I appreciated her mentioning that if we seek to build false bridges so that we skip from Villages 1 to 3, we aren’t helping anyone. Telling someone to believe a Bible verse about God’s sovereignty may not be the most useful thing. Making a false bridge doesn’t allow the person to walk the natural path of grief that they need to journey through.

In my experience with grief, it was helpful reading through several articles and books on grief. (You can see my list below.) It was also helpful to talk with a mentor about our current struggles and to reach out to our agency’s Member Care and Area Leader to say “Hey, we’re drowning here!” Just having people tell me that they understand the challenges and are praying for me was a help. (However, we should keep in mind that not all offers for help are actually helpful.)

Today I’m somewhere in between Villages 2 and 3. Thankfully, I can see that my grief has served a purpose. My entire life story wasn’t about creating a team that would be engaged in Church Planting work. This season of life has shown me how much God loves me even if my dreams fail. Even if I never see one person turn to Jesus, or disciple anyone, I’ll be ok. Being His child is more than enough.

I don’t have to achieve my dreams in order to be successful. In fact, I’m pretty sure God won’t allow that to happen. “It is liberating to realize that we don’t have to finish (or see our dreams fulfilled), all we have to be is faithful” (Hart 1995, 211). Even though my dream wasn’t fulfilled, the journey I went on through grief has grown me, so that perhaps one day, I can comfort someone else in their suffering (2 Cor. 1:4).

 

 

Articles and books on grief:

Hart, Archibald, Adrenaline and Stress: The Exciting New Breakthrough That Helps You Overcome Stress Damage. Thomas Nelson, 1995.

Hill, Harriet et al. Healing the Wounds of Trauma: Missionary Edition. American Bible Society, 2018.

Langberg, Diane. Suffering and the Heart of God. New Growth Press, 2015.

Lewis, CS. A Grief Observed. Faber and Faber, 1961.

The Holy Bible, New International Version. 2011. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

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William Jackson, along with his wife and two daughters, are in their seventh year in S. Asia. They enjoy life, spicy food, and the friendly neighbors God keeps bringing their way. Bazaaring, raising kids, operating in a foreign language and culture, and trying to “figure out” Church Planting are some of the ways God uses situations to humble him. He’s thankful that God has this all figured out.

Devastating Secrets of Living Abroad

By Aneurin Howorth

Moving abroad is a wonderful privilege filled with blessings. Those of us who grew up internationally are able to experience the richness of the world in a way which we couldn’t have otherwise. In short, it is great. Yet there is a price to pay. Life is often filled with death, loss, and grief to an unprecedented level. This pain takes its toll on the human body, often in the form of mental illnesses.

It is difficult to pin down what causes mental illnesses. Both genetic and environmental factors are at play. However, there are some situations where mental illnesses become easier to spot. Think high-stress situations such as dealing with pressure to get visas sorted whilst trying to find a school for kids. Or potentially dealing with cycles of loss as you say goodbye to good friends, not knowing when you will see them again. Or wrestling with questions of identity as re-entry into your passport country becomes painful. Any of these sound familiar?

This is particularly challenging for TCK’s. Whilst these challenges can wipe anyone off their feet, dealing with these difficult circumstances during your developmental years can be devastating to your mental health. In the years where humans’ brains are primed to learn about identity, culture, and belonging, we are pulled from one place to the next in painful upheavals. Whilst it does vary from TCK to TCK, the general trend is one of dealing with far greater stress and grief than your average child.

It then comes as no surprise that mental health is a bigger problem among TCKs than the global trend. Whilst data is notoriously difficult to obtain (turns out being all over the world makes it hard to collect data!), there is a connection between cross-cultural living and struggling with a mental health disorder. When this happens during one’s developmental years the issue is magnified.

Unfortunately, mental illnesses are not taken as seriously as they should on the mission field. For example, depression is the leading cause of disability in the world and seems to go hand in hand with missions work. Despite this, most missionaries don’t have an extensive knowledge of the issue. I have many MK friends who struggle with depression, anxiety, bipolar, or other mental health problems (I, myself, am ill with a suspected somatization disorder). Missions is messy and painful work, contributing to mental illnesses in MKs.

The severity of these illnesses varies, but they cannot be ignored. I would not be surprised if many of you reading this know of someone who has tried to, or has, committed suicide. I went to an MK school in Kenya (RVA), which I loved. Yet, every year multiple people struggled with mental illnesses. I am not writing this to reflect badly on my school. Whilst the school is far from perfect, mental illnesses are part and parcel of missions work. Suicide is a terrible consequence of mental illnesses, but not the only one. The destruction they cause is pervasive and casts a menacing shadow over every area of our lives. It is a topic nobody seems to consider until the situation is already devastating.

One of the curiosities of mental illnesses is that they tend to show up later in life for us. 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. [1] 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.

This is not a TCK-specific problem. Many cross-cultural adults report bouts of depression after transitioning culturally. This is often the case when people return to their passports culture.

The reality is that anyone who lives a stressful lifestyle, moves a lot, has had to say lots of goodbyes to friends, places and languages, struggles with questions of identity or belonging during their formative years will be more prone to mental illnesses. Obviously, missionaries (including MKs) fit right into these categories. It is something that we will have to deal with, whether we want to or not. I can guarantee that every missionary knows someone who has a mental health problem. They might not be aware of it because of the painful and secretive nature of these illnesses, but they affect almost all missionary families.

To their credit, mission organizations are ahead of the game in member care. They are the best international groups in this regard. However, with mental illnesses we still have a long way to go.

Here are some thoughts on how we can fight mental illnesses: they can only be fought as a team. Given that we are all one family under God, it is something we should all care about.

1. Have a well-rounded theology of suffering. We should not expect a comfortable life as Christians, but rather the opposite. We live a broken world in desperate need of God’s grace. There should be a constant dialogue around suffering, both its inevitability and how to rejoice in it (think Colossians 1:24 or James 1:2). Without this understanding we will grow inconsolably despondent in tough times. For a brilliant book on this check out The Call to Joy and Pain by Ajith Fernando.

2. We need to be proactive in conversations about mental illnesses. This is not a topic we should only learn about when we encounter its consequences. It needs to be part of all healthy discussions about being a cross-cultural missionary. If you have kids, it is crucial to bring them up discussing them. Not only do they have a decent chance of being ill in the future, but they will also play a key role in supporting other TCK friends who are likely to struggle with mental illnesses.

3. We need to have a proper understanding of mental illnesses as medical issues. Missionaries cannot go onto the field thinking that mental illnesses are spiritual failings or defects. This attitude will crush them, their children, or their friends when they encounter mental illnesses (regrettably this is still common). Whilst suffering from a mental illness is tough spiritually, medically speaking it is as physical as breaking a leg (although it’s more complicated because our brains are inspiringly complex). If you trust a doctor to fix a broken bone, please trust doctors as they tell you that mental health is physical too. (I can provide a plethora of evidence for anyone interested.) Like any problem, proper education on the topic will allow us to be supported and get the help we need quicker.

4. Pray for all those suffering from mental illnesses. It is a terrible burden and cannot be carried alone. Feel free to get in touch with any questions. Please keep this conversation going.

 

[1] Bushong, Lois. Belonging Everywhere and Nowhere: Insights into Counseling the Globally Mobile. (Indianapolis: Mango Tree Intercultural Studies, 2013), page 47.

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Aneurin Howorth grew up up in East Africa as an MK. Both his parents are British, but he has an American accent from time spent at Rift Valley Academy. Aneurin is passionate about mental health and the relationship it has to living internationally. He believes we need more discussion around these topics and blogs about both at https://noggybloggy.com/.  He is currently studying for a Master of Science in the psychology of mental health at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. You can contact him here or on his personal blog.

6 Ways to Support a Woman Experiencing Pregnancy Loss

by Nikki Simpson

From my personal experience of pregnancy loss, I’ve learned a great deal about how to support women going through a miscarriage or pregnancy loss, both close by and from far away. Here are some ideas:

 

1. Ask how she is doing today.

If you’re around others or it’s not a good time of day, maybe ask in private, or ask if they’d like to carve out a better time for them to talk about it.

It’s not necessary to have gone through the experience yourself to be supportive of them. Maybe even say: “I’ve never gone through this, but I care about you and am here for you to listen about your experience.”

Leave room for pause: presence is powerful. Read their journals. Share their burden with your time and attention. It might mean all the difference to them, especially if they are feeling far from God and His love. You can be His love to them that day.

 

2. Ask how can you can help, but be specific.

“Let me know if there’s anything I can do for you” is a wonderful sentiment, but someone going through trauma and loss needs to be given choices like a toddler. Their brain is fried. Remember how I said “shock makes your brain go numb”?

For a local friend, try this instead: “Which night can I bring you dinner: Wednesday or Thursday?” “I would love to have your girls over. Does right now work from 12-4 or tomorrow morning from 8-12?”

Handing them a frozen meal as they come to pick up their kids is a good way to kill 2 birds with one stone! A frozen meal overseas is the equivalence of a restaurant gift card: use it whenever it’s convenient.

If your friend is far away, you could say: “When you are back in the States, our family wants to provide a special get away for you and your family to look forward to. May we do that for you? If so, does the 3rd week of the January work for you?”

The griever doesn’t want to put anyone out. And the giver need not extend beyond what they are able to do. So come up with a plan and offer it to her. It’s a win/win.

 

3. Check in regularly.

Texts or calls don’t have to be made everyday. Initially, everyday texts may be important. Even if the griever doesn’t get back to you, she sees your call or email and is reminded that she’s not alone. She sees that she’s not forgotten. She sees that her baby is not forgotten.

Let her lead. If she’s fine, great, be fine together! Laugh, eat ice cream, do something enjoyable. But if she’s not doing well that day, let her not be ok. Let her be messy and wrong and raw.

But, do remind her of truth afterwards: the truth of God’s love, the truth of your faithful friendship, the truth that she’s doing the best she can and that she’s not alone.

Some people just need to verbally process and figure out how they feel as they talk. So mourn with those who mourn. And, remember, you’re not supposed to cry more than her! But if you do, she’ll love you for your tears for her.

 

4. Remember this is a long journey, so stay committed to her.

Losing an unborn baby feels like an invisible loss. Most people didn’t even know he or she existed since they were never born (or let’s face it: announced on Facebook). But the mom and family know. The mom made plans in her mind and already envisioned a nursery. The dad pictured being pummeled by 3 girls in fairy dresses or throwing ball with his first son. They miss what they had (growing pregnant tummy) and what they could have had (a baby in their arms and a new sibling for their children).

So this is a journey that doesn’t just take place when she passes the baby or the bleeding stops. Grief will creep up around the corner when she least expects it. Even if she told you last week that she is doing better, ask her next week and next month again.

Surprise triggers may be her 3-year-old randomly asking “Mommy, why did the baby die?” She may start unexpectedly bleeding again within those first 6 weeks, and it will bring back the trauma and grief of the miscarriage that happened “a while ago,” and tears come up when she thought she was “done.”

She’ll see a friend or an announcement on social media that will remind her that she isn’t making that same announcement as she had anticipated. She may open her calendar for one reason, but then be choked up with grief when she sees that this was the week she would have gone for the ultrasound that would have revealed boy or girl.

I know that I don’t speak for all women. In fact, you may have gone through a miscarriage and disagree with some of these points. That’s fine. It’s common to not want to talk about it. For some, miscarriage is a very private matter and sharing about it will bring up the trauma all over again. You may not want to be bombarded with the condolences and/or open yourself up to people who may not take care of your raw feelings very well.

 

5. Avoid silence and/or unhelpful statements.

In this culture already, I’ve been told “Oh, you’ll be ok. You’ll have 10 more babies!” My heart shut down right there. It’s a sweet sentiment, but it doesn’t acknowledge my current loss, nor does the thought of 10 more babies comfort my recent pain. People hold back from sharing their pain because of dismissive comments like that.

Not saying anything isn’t the best either. So learn from this and be sensitive. Listen. For me, I needed to talk things out and be heard and cared for well. I share my experience here, because I want to help women going through this kind of loss and also help their loved ones know how to best support them.

 

6. Here’s the best piece of comforting advice I’ve received so far.

Someone told me, “You’ll NEVER stop missing your baby. You’ll NEVER stop wanting to meet him or her.” Sometimes you will feel the deep longing greatly and other times it will be small. But you’ll never stop. That felt so reassuring. Because there are days that I’m happy. And then I feel a little guilty that I forgot about my sadness. I don’t ever want to forget his or her memory. That’s my baby. Forever. And it feels good to know that I won’t ever forget him or her. And one day, I’ll meet this precious life. And when I do, all of my sadness will be wiped away.

One day, all of my why’s will ultimately turned into wow’s as I once and for all meet my Creator. Questioning His plan will be the farthest thing from my mind. But for now, I’m reminded of His love and sovereignty through His creation, my loving family and friends, and the hope that He is producing in me through my suffering.

 

“We also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our heart through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.” (Romans 5:3-5 NIV)

“For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” (2 Corinthians 4:16-17 NIV)

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Nikki Simpson is a certified nurse-midwife and family nurse practitioner from south Florida who serves with her missionary pilot/aircraft mechanic husband Steve and 2 young daughters with Mission Aviation Fellowship (MAF). They spent a year in Portugal for language school before serving with MAF in Mozambique for the last 3 years. Their passion and vision for medical missions has led them to a new assignment in the mountainous country of Lesotho (making the airplane a vital service for the clinics in the mountains to transfer patients to the city hospital). Once they settle in as a family in a new home, Nikki plans to get her local nursing license and find opportunities in the community to use her skills to serve others. Nikki enjoys running, spending quality time with her family, and drinking a warm cup of tea in the coolness of the morning. Read more about their adventures at www.thesimpsonscoop.wordpress.com

When You Experience Pregnancy Loss and You’re Far From Home

by Nikki Simpson

Last year my husband and I went to a local private clinic in our city of Nampula, Mozambique for an ultrasound. We were so excited to be expecting our 3rd child! We needed to check on the baby’s dating, because my 6-week ultrasound showed a beating heart but the baby measured quite behind. My midwife in the States encouraged me to get another one.

I was supposed to be 12 weeks that day. The doctor put the scope on my abdomen. We could all see the baby. But there was no movement or heartbeat. I suggested to him in Portuguese to try another view. I was trying not to be pushy and holding off my identity as someone in the healthcare field. 2nd view, 3rd view, 4th view. Nothing. He measured baby: 8 weeks. The baby had passed a month prior.

Devastated. Heartbroken. Surprised. The conversation immediately went to “Have you had any bleeding? Have you had a miscarriage before? Here are your options…” Whoa, whoa, whoa. Slow down, buddy! I was trying to hold it together and realize what just happened. Shock makes your brain numb.

All of a sudden, the Spanish accent of our Cuban doctor was thicker than before and I needed a play by play of each sentence. I so wish I had misunderstood him before when I was on the table and that this was all wrong and that there actually was a heartbeat. My husband Steve had to translate everything after that point, because I just wanted to make sure I really understood everything correctly. Unfortunately, I did and nothing could change what had to happen next.

We found ourselves waiting to pick up pills at the pharmacy and waited again after that to pay for the visit. Those 30-minute felt like an eternity. I just wanted to run away. What was supposed to be a joyful appointment turned into a gut-wrenching experience. We left the office with an ultrasound photo of our dead baby and pills to pass him/her at home. It was horrible.

As soon as I got home, I called my midwife back in the States. It was so nice to have someone I knew and trusted to guide me, even if she was so far away. But that day, I really wished she wasn’t so far away. I even phoned an OBGYN missionary friend of ours to discuss what the doctor said and confirm the next plan of care. It felt so freeing to ask her questions too. But, again, she was countries away, as well.

What I went through those next 72 hours was scary. I didn’t know what to expect. And, honestly, I felt bad for not knowing nor understanding. I’m a midwife… why didn’t I know this better? But it’s because I wasn’t usually on this end of managing care.

But, now? Now, I know. What I wanted right then was a midwife to midwife me through this miscarriage. It felt like an unassisted homebirth of death. Steve was right there with me, but he didn’t know what to expect either. As the days went on, I had some needs arise that I was able to go back to the local clinic to take care of.

But being able to talk candidly in my native language wasn’t an option, which felt incredibly isolating. So, in the upcoming weeks, I just didn’t go back. And the way things are done here without follow-up nursing care made me feel like I was kind of on my own for further issues, explanations, and plans of care. I hated feeling like I was my own provider. Despite popular belief, a midwife cannot midwife herself. With that in mind, here are some things that did help me:

 

1. Journaling.

This was so helpful and healing the next few weeks. Getting words out on my computer screen aloud me to articulate the pain that was in my heart. Sharing my writings with close family and friends provided a bit of relief from my heavy burden.

 

2. Letting others in: near & far.

Genuine tears and hugs could be felt through each FaceTime call, despite the 2, 6, and 9-hour time zone differences. One of our family members even offered to fly in from the northern part of the continent to be with us, but it would still cost a fortune because Africa is huge and we were on opposite ends of the continent. We were already scheduled for furlough in 2 months. Home was just around the corner. We yearned for family, but God still provided this in our community. He provided friends who cared for us like family to bring us meals, cry with us, watch our girls, and be supportive listening ears as we walked this path of loss and grief. Letting others care for us was healing.

 

3. Reading the book of Job.

What a source of encouragement to read of story of suffering… someone who’s been through unimaginable pain and made it out on the other side. Job was a godly man who was wealthy in every form of the word (large family, successful business, grand house, good reputation, health). Satan attributed Job’s faithfulness to God only because of how externally blessed he was. God gave Satan permission to take those things from him, first everything except his health, but then that too. All of his family died except his wife who told Job to curse God and die.

But Job didn’t. He stayed faithful to God. He did, however, grow incredibly discouraged and cursed the day he was born. His closest friends insisted he did something wrong. He defended his righteousness to God and had many questions for Him. And then God spoke. He never answered Job’s questions, but He did ask Job about creation and what it was like running it. He asked Job how it was controlling the largest creatures of earth, forming their young in utero, and making the earth supply its food.

Job’s WHY’s turned into WOW’s. “I am unworthy– how can I reply to You? I put my hand over my mouth. I spoke once, but I have no answer– twice, but I will say no more.” (Job 40: 4-5 NIV) Sometimes our horrible experiences can make us forget Who God is: sovereign, mighty, holy. He sees the WHOLE picture and controls it all. Thankfully, He is also a loving God Who is not far from us. In fact, not only is He always near, He is well-acquainted with grief. Jesus came to this earth and lived a human life that included loss, shock, betrayal, and trauma.

God knows innocent suffering. And because of it, there is grace. Thankfully one day, He’s going to heal this earth of its pain. This hope means more to me now after this experience, as well as after having lived in one of the poorest countries in the world for the last 2 years. But right now, starvation, corruption, and injustice still happen. But all of these travesties still have to go through Him to happen. And He IS working it into His greater plan for His Kingdom. I don’t want to know WHY my baby died. There’s not a good enough reason I can think of right now. But I know my God. He is Creator of all and He “fits [everything] into a pattern for good, to those who love [God] and are called according to [His] design and purpose” (Romans 8:28 AMP). He can redeem anything and He does.

 

(In my next post I’ll explain some ways you can support a woman walking through the suffering of pregnancy loss.)

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Nikki Simpson is a certified nurse-midwife and family nurse practitioner from south Florida who serves with her missionary pilot/aircraft mechanic husband Steve and 2 young daughters with Mission Aviation Fellowship (MAF). They spent a year in Portugal for language school before serving with MAF in Mozambique for the last 3 years. Their passion and vision for medical missions has led them to a new assignment in the mountainous country of Lesotho (making the airplane a vital service for the clinics in the mountains to transfer patients to the city hospital). Once they settle in as a family in a new home, Nikki plans to get her local nursing license and find opportunities in the community to use her skills to serve others. Nikki enjoys running, spending quality time with her family, and drinking a warm cup of tea in the coolness of the morning. Read more about their adventures at www.thesimpsonscoop.wordpress.com