Coming or Going during Turbulent Times

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In October of 2001, my wife and I boarded a flight and moved our family from the US to our new home in Asia. Nearly ten years later, in June of 2011, we moved back to our old home in Joplin, Missouri. Those dates may not jump out at you, but the first was one month after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The second was one month after an F5 tornado destroyed about a quarter of Joplin, killing 161.

When you relocate to a different culture, your world is turned upside down. How much more so when the earth itself seems to be tilted off its axis.

Some of you are making a cross-cultural transition right now, in the midst of a global pandemic, a global recession, and far-reaching upheavals confronting racism. So much emotional multitasking. So many unknowns. You’re not only tackling culture stress or reverse culture stress, but you’re trying to get used to a new normal when the old normal is challenging enough already.

There’s another term for new normal. It’s abnormal (at least for a while).

Speaking of culture, you have your own “cancel culture”: cancelled flights. cancelled church services, cancelled good-bye gatherings, cancelled welcome parties, cancelled support, cancelled camps, cancelled vacations, cancelled retreats, cancelled trainings, cancelled conferences, cancelled debriefings, cancelled classes, cancelled job opportunities, cancelled leases, cancelled assumptions, cancelled plans.

And when you get to make your trip, your first experience after you land is to self-quarantine for two weeks.

Please don’t just shrug all this off. Don’t dismiss the added stress that these increased challenges bring. Don’t simply put on a bigger smile as you push yourself harder. Rather, acknowledge the difficult circumstances and give yourself grace. And, as always, but especially now, understand the need for help in navigating your transitions.

“Every time there’s transition,” TCK-expert Ruth Van Reken tells Columbia News Service, “there is loss.” She’s talking about Third Culture Kids and Adult Third Culture Kids, but her words can apply to anyone moving between cultures. She goes on to say,

So when people are feeling strange about their situation I ask them, ‘What did you lose?’ Because where there’s loss, there’s grief. And when there’s no language for it, it comes out at your boss or in your marriage.

How wonderful it is to have someone to understand, to ask you the right questions. But sometimes you arrive into situations where everyone else is also going through some kind of transition, dealing with loss, and experiencing grief. Sometimes when you want to share your story, it’s as if those around you are saying, “Get in line.” Sometimes their stories seem more important than yours and you decide to hold yours in.

I’m a big proponent of intentional preparation and debriefing surrounding cross-cultural transitions. Skilled leaders know what to ask, how to listen, and what to say. They can start a conversation in chapter two, skipping the preface, because they’re already on the same page with you. And they give good, empathy-filled, heartfelt hugs.

But you may find that hard to come by right now. Groups can’t meet together. Ministries are postponing sessions. And hugs are extremely hard to come by. If that’s the case for you, I’d encourage you not just to skip everything until schedules are back on track. Instead take advantage of what’s available now—video sessions online, phone calls, or email conversations. I know from experience that it’s easy to put off things like this. Whether we’ve landed in our host or passport country, it’s common to want to hit the ground running and not spend the time needed for soul searching and soul care. So we wait for the day when getting together with someone will better fit into our schedules. But waiting can easily last forever as we become busy (overwhelmed?) with other aspects of life, as funds are spent elsewhere, and as we get in the rut of making excuses . . . until we decide it’s simply too late.

Even if you take part in something “virtual” now, you may still find it isn’t quite enough for you or your family members. If something seems to be lacking, don’t think of that as a deficiency on your part. If you’re suffering from Zoom fatigue, you’re not alone. Understand that while alternatives to face-to-face may be the best options available right now, they aren’t necessarily ideal for you. If you need more, something “with skin on,” I’d encourage you to commit to adding some kind of in-person version later, when that becomes possible. It won’t be easy, but if there’s a cost involved, set aside money for it or let your church know how important it is to you so they can help you afford it even if by that time your support has waned or funds have been diverted. Tell others how much you need it so they can help hold you accountable if your plans fade away.

And in between deliberate member-care events, recognize the opportunities to commune with fellow “travelers.”

When we transitioned back to storm-wrecked Joplin, we returned to a place full of transition, with people navigating their way down roads where the landmarks and street signs had violently disappeared. Some had lost family members, some their homes, some their jobs. Schools and a hospital were destroyed. Their losses were so much bigger than ours, but we joined the ranks of those affected by the storm. Across the road from our short-term housing, our church had erected a couple tents for distributing food and household items. I spent some time volunteering there, with instructions to help visitors “shop” but mostly to listen to them share about their tornado-caused wounds—physical and emotional—and to offer prayers. It was good for me to listen to their stories—and even nine years later, there are still stories to be heard.

Listening is a wonderful gift to give to others, and some people are able and desirous to return that gift. When you show that you care about the details of their lives, they want to return the blessing. They understand the shared emotions, even if the circumstances aren’t exactly the same. Praying for others is a wonderful gift, too. And some people will ask you how they can pray for you. They understand that prayer is a bridge to God and also a connection for those who pray together.

During turbulent times, the outside turmoil can disrupt your best-laid plans for inner calm. This is my prayer for you—that you’re able to engage in the grieving and the talking and the listening and the sharing and the praying and the giving and the receiving that you need to create that calm, no matter how long it takes.

(Peter Katona, “More and More Americans Consider Themselves ‘Hidden Immigrants,’” Columbia News Service, February 27, 2007 (archived at Wayback Machine)

[photo: “Storm Front 4,” by mrpbps, used under a Creative Commons license]

Mountains of Transition

“Beyond the Mountains, There are Mountains”

Northern Iraq is a place of mountains. From our front balcony in Ranya we looked across at the snow covered mountains of Iran. At the back of our apartment, beyond the mosque, were the rugged Kewa-Rash or “black mountains” famous in our region. Beyond those mountains were more mountains. We never tired of looking out over the mountains and seeing more and more mountains. As far as the eye could see, there were mountains.

Looking at those mountains and climbing them are two different things. They are beautiful to look at, but they are not easy to climb.

We have just begun settling after mountains of transition. As I have journeyed through this and lacked the energy to express publicly what I have felt, it has helped to look back at some of what I’ve written in the past. The words of God to the Israelites urging them to “Remember” are not lost on me. In our journeys, God calls on all of us to remember. Remember what came before, remember what God has done. Remember and Rest.

So today I am remembering and resting, trying to take in what I wrote a year and a half ago and follow my own advice.

I’m on a balcony in South Carolina looking across at a lake and then mountains. There are mountains, and then more mountains, and beyond that, there are even more mountains.

My view is stunning and soul-quieting; soul-quieting during a time where my soul deeply needs rest and my heart is beginning to feel the deep loneliness of transition. I feel it most when I wake up. A feeling of disorientation surrounds me and I am lost. It’s as though something or someone has died. I lie quiet for a moment, breathing through the panic. And then, it’s gone. I sigh and hold out my hands, the Jesus Prayer on my lips.

A Haitian proverb says “Deye mon, gen mon” – “beyond mountains, there are mountains.” This afternoon, as I quiet my soul and look out towards the horizon, I realize that transition is like this. One mountain after another to be climbed and conquered, or at least climbed. Mountains of change and mountains of moving; mountains of decisions; mountains of goodbyes and ‘see you laters’; mountains of letting go of what I hold so tightly and don’t even realize. Mountains of explaining and re-explaining; of prayers and laying all at the mercy of God.

And that mountain of loneliness? For me, this is the biggest mountain of all. There are both universal and uniquely individual components to this loneliness. I am humbled as I recognize those attributes. I realize that many in our world understand these feelings, yet they are still deeply personal, still difficult to articulate.

In a recent piece on “Going Home“, Tanya Crossman ends with these words:

Right now the best I can manage most days is just getting by. Take small steps toward building a life here. Celebrate tiny achievements. Look for little moments that encourage me, that tell me it’s going to work out and one day I’m going to find my feet here, in this new life. Transition is hard. It’s exhausting. But it’s also worth it.”

Small steps.

Tiny achievements.

Little moments.

It’s going to work out.

One day I’m going to find my feet here, in this new life.

Yes, beyond the mountains are more mountains. Taken all together, the view may be beautiful, but the steps are overwhelming. But taken one by one, reaching out to others in the journey, I just might make it.

What about you?

When Your Yes Impacts Other People

by Sarah Hilkemann

Last year, I wrestled with the Lord over what He was calling me to do. It involved major changes, shifts to what I thought I would be doing for the long haul. The process was unlike any other move of obedience I’ve experienced. I had to open my heart to say yes to whatever He had for me, which meant letting go of dreams and watching doors close. Slowly He showed me the next step, and little by little, what He had next for me emerged out of the fog.

Saying yes meant a lot of goodbyes. It meant closing out a house, selling furniture, and even the end of some really sweet relationships. It meant that some things were left undone. Promises of my return, of what I hoped to accomplish next were not kept. This was difficult.

My yes to the Lord, my obedience to Him, in some ways meant suffering for others. They didn’t ask for this goodbye. They didn’t ask for the challenge of finding someone to take my place, for the holes that were left and the projects they had to take on themselves. Perhaps these changes were for the good as they had to watch the Father provide someone who was an even better fit, or trust Him for their own next steps as things shifted.

I’ve been in their place too. I’ve watched others in my life obey God with their whole heart, seeking to honor Him and glorify Him. Sometimes this has meant a painful goodbye or a change I wasn’t anticipating.

We take these steps of obedience as we keep up the lines of communication between the Father and ourselves, but we are not alone in this life. Our decisions, our actions, impact those around us. This is the joy of life in community, but it is also the messy, crazy and sometimes painful part.

How can we encourage each other when our yes or someone else’s yes impacts the relationships with those around us?

God is their God, their leader and director too. I can trust that even as I take a step of obedience, He will also show them their next step.

We can be open in our communication about how our decisions might impact someone else. We can listen well and ask questions to invite honesty. Inviting others into our grief or joy over what our obedience means, and sharing in their grief or joy, can be a sweet gift we give to each other.

Allow the Father to take care of the things we cannot. I don’t need to control or micromanage every aspect of change. I can take responsibility for my part and trust God to work in the ways I can’t.

We can remind each other, challenge each other to look through eyes of faith and expect God to move. When doors close and we walk through painful goodbyes it can feel like God is finished with us. We can feel overwhelmed by a sense of abandonment. But God is still at work, even when things feel dark and still. He is at work in the foggy, murky middle of transition, and He is there when we come out on the other side.

Sometimes we need that nudge from a friend when we can’t see His goodness for ourselves. We can be that voice of truth for each other in each step of obedience in this journey.

Originally published here.

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In 2013, Sarah Hilkemann left the cornfields of Nebraska for the rice fields of Cambodia where she made her home in big cities and little villages. In 2018 Sarah sensed the Father’s push back to the US and transitioned to serving as the program coordinator for Velvet Ashes. She is grateful to be close to family again while missing iced coffee with sweetened condensed milk and her home on the other side of the world. You can follow Sarah on her blog and on Instagram.

When Debriefing, Leave Your Shoes—and Socks—at the Door

When we first moved to Asia, one of the customs we needed to learn was not wearing shoes in someone’s home. It’s one of those cultural things. But starting out, we had our reasons for wanting to leave our shoes on. It’s convenient. What about the holes in my socks? I don’t want you to smell my feet—and I don’t want to smell yours! It just doesn’t feel right.

But It didn’t take long for going shoeless inside to become our habit, and even our preference. Then we’d fly back to the West and upon landing we’d again be in the land of most-people-wear-shoes-in-the-house. Of course, we still could take ours off, and we often did. But sometimes it was easier just to leave them on. Then it was back on the plane (where, a recent headline proclaims, you should never take your shoes off), and we’d start to reset our minds about a whole range of things.

Back and forth. Back and forth. It can all get pretty confusing. Sometimes we need help sorting things out—things much bigger and deeper than clothing choices. A great opportunity for processing on those issues, whether you’re finishing a term, or a lifetime, overseas, is a set-aside time for in-depth, personal debriefing. And for that kind of debriefing, regardless of the location, shoes, and socks, don’t belong.

OK. Now I’ve moved to speaking figuratively, so let me continue in that vein and talk a little about feet. Most of us aren’t that crazy about how ours look. There are crooked toes, calluses, bunions, blisters, and unclipped or ingrown toenails. And then there’s that smell. Yes, missionaries may have the beautiful feet of Romans 10:15, but they don’t always seem that way to the ones who own them—thus the socks and shoes. Debriefing, though, should be about openness and trust, showing your feet, so to speak, as they truly are. But that’s not always easy.

Maybe you’d like to keep your running shoes on. Debriefing is just another mile marker in your race from agency to church to summer camp to appointment. You’re on a tight schedule, and while you’re tired and thirsty, the most you can do is grab a paper cup of water as you run by. Even when you stand still, you’re jogging in place.

Or maybe you don’t want to take off your work boots. You come to debriefing only reluctantly. This is your spouse’s idea or your team suggested it or maybe your agency told you you had to come. So you make phone calls during the breaks and answer emails until late at night. Mental multitasking keeps your thoughts half a world away.

Or maybe it’s your dress shoes that you don’t want to take off. You’re ready for the debriefing questions the same way you’d be ready for a job interview or performance evaluation. It’s like when your boss asks you “What’s your greatest weakness?” The trick is to come up with something that sounds honest but doesn’t reveal too much, maybe even sneaking in a strength, all the while avoiding the too obvious “I struggle with being a perfectionist” or “Sometimes I just care too much.” When you’re asked how you are, you say “fine” and tell how well your ministry is going.

That’s not the way debriefing should be. Effective debriefing requires barefoot honesty and vulnerability. But I do need to add here that that’s not solely on you (no pun intended). You need to be in the right environment, the right culture, to bare your feet. Not everyone can offer that.

You probably don’t share everything with your agency, church, supporters, or family, because they’re, well, your agency, church, supporters, or family. And that’s what makes the debriefings offered by independent member-care individuals and organizations so valuable. Yes, debriefing can cost money and time that you could spend elsewhere, but it also has so much to give in return.

It has experienced facilitators who know the right questions to ask and who know how to listen, even to words unsaid. They see beyond your status as a missionary, knowing how much your vocation impacts you, yet knowing that there is much more to your identity. They won’t decide your future but can help you figure out the path ahead. They are safe. They are encouraging. They won’t report to others what you tell them but, if needed, can guide you to those who can give you more care.

And if you join with a group of other missionaries for debriefing, you get the extra blessing of forming a community that speaks the same language (and I’m not talking about English here), that can relax around each other, that can laugh at shared jokes and cry over shared losses, that can find comfort in each other’s quiet presence.

No one can demand your trust, but your trust can be earned. No one can make you take off your shoes, but when the ground below you becomes holy, removing your shoes becomes a natural response. And it will invite those around you to a deeper level of honesty.

When you travel abroad, pick up on the cues where you are and follow their shoe-wearing customs. When you fly, you should strongly consider leaving your shoes on (seriously, here’s another article on that topic). When you go to debriefing—and I encourage you to do so—I hope you’ll be able to leave your shoes, and socks, at the door. It’s one of those cultural things.

[photo: “Shoes,” by Long Road Photography, used under a Creative Commons license]

Grounded in Transit

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When I moved to Uganda, I met the question, How is home? as part of the standard greeting. I could have easily given the expected fine without putting too much thought into the process, but the inquiry tended to get me thinking. Were they asking about my home in Soroti Town, or in Minnesota, or the others I’ve lived before? I took to redirecting the question by answering Soroti is fine, and referring to Minnesota as home-home. More recently I relocated to Pittsburgh and feel a kinship here, too. So what happens to home as I continue my wanderlust? Does Minnesota take on a triplicate moniker? Do my strands of place-connection trail out behind me, like the tail of an escaping balloon?

I’m a third-culture kid, having lived overseas for two years and a smattering of months in the formative, memory-making season of life. Because of those memories, I have never felt truly at home in categorical boxes as an American, a Minnesotan, a Ugandan, or anything else.

In response to the Where are you from? question I can answer nowhere and feel utterly alone, or everywhere and feel the need to pull out my passport as proof, but both of these separate me from the questioner in a quest for bragger’s rights. I personally feel less lost in the expanse of home possibilities if I explain where I’m going instead. My life, transient as it is, is a journey. Essentially, all of us are called to live into who God created us to be and to journey into a closer relationship with Him. If I tell people where I’m going, I have immediate companions.

Knowing we are journeying to a destination could be enough motivation to break into a sprint for the finish line, but it is the traveling process that enriches the result. A common third-culture kid trait manifests in a resistance to form lasting friendships because of overwhelming knowledge that at any second the suitcases could be in the hall, so what’s the use anyway? If we follow that temptation, we are not living the joy that God intends for us. We must find a way to be grounded in transit, in being fully present in the now while preparing for the what-will-come.

For me, grounding comes from delight in little things: waking up to lavender jacaranda blooms scattered across my jogging path, knowing how to spell and prepare rich foods from both sides of my heritage, hearing the neighbor down the street whistle the chorus – Hallelujah, thine the glory – as he limps to the bus stop.  I have been known to keep one-line journals, where I write down one amazing thing I notice each day. By waking up to the world, I wake up to God.

Grounding also comes from pushing toward, not away from relationship. I have found that the places I more quickly refer to as home are the ones where I have made a significant kinship connection. They are where my parents, mentors, or friends reside. They are places that I know I can revisit and find welcome, even after lengths of separation. They are rest stops along the road, where I lighten my pack by sharing a meal, but probably pick up a few pebbles to commemorate the moments together.

Grounded in transit. It’s an uncomfortable tension, but one that must be lived, for each of our efforts here approximates our true home yet-to-come. If we practice home-making as a form of communion, we become more fully aware of each other and of God’s presence in our journey.

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eh1Esther Harder spent six years in Uganda and Rwanda as an English / Math / Computers teacher, football coach, and peace facilitator. Currently, she works in a library where she is known as the computer literacy instructor, homework mentor, crocheted flower coach, and you-dream-it-I-make-it resident artist. Esther blogs at roamingpen.blogspot.com.

A Resource for Missionaries in Transition {and a give away!}

 looming-transitions_coverLooming Transitions: starting and finishing well in cross-cultural service, a book I wrote with you in mind, was launched this week. I love to hear the back-stories on books or movies, so thought I’d share with you how this book came to be. In 2007 I transitioned back to China after a three year study leave. About eight months into my transition being (mostly) over and life up and running in China, I was feeling (mostly) settled. My organization asked to lead a workshop on how to finish well, geared toward people who would be returning to the U.S. after having lived and taught in Asia. I jumped at the chance; fresh off my own Band-Aid ripping off experience, I figured I had help to share.

All I needed to do was conduct a little bit of internet research, read some articles, throw in a few personal stories, and voilà one basically ready-made presentation. My plan went off without a hitch until I did my first internet search. Almost everything about “ending chapters” in life was related to retiring. Retiring is certainly a major area for looming transitions and finishing well. But what about all of the transitions that we go through when an end is coming, yet life will still go on after the transition?

The first year I presented the workshop, I pulled together a few thoughts and told myself the problem was my late start in the search. Information was out there and I would find it. During the next year, I found little help for the workshop. I went back to the list of ideas I had created the first year, added more meat to them and the idea of a book began to grow.

This book is for those who will be going through a major life transition, either moving to the field or preparing to return to your “home” country. It covers all of the potential moves you might make: to the field, back to your home country for a Home Assignment or furlough, or if you sense for now your time on the field is coming to a close. Chance are you’ve been around someone who left the field without finishing as well as they could, either because they shut down too early or started too late.

Allowing parts of yourself to die in order to create space for new life and seasons is not for the faint of heart. But it can be done. The burning question this book answers is how can you keep your soul fertile and sanity intact during transitions?

There are no simple platitudes offered in Looming Transition. You won’t find “three easy steps to anything.” However, you will find suggestions for your soul, your stuff, and your sanity.

This book is intended for the 4-6 months before you move and benefits of Looming Transitions include:

  • 11 ways to stay connected to God through transition
  • 7 areas of your personal life that can experience revival in the midst of upheaval
  • 5 places to look for messes in your life (and ways to keep the mess in check)
  • 4 key aspects to know about yourself and loved ones going into a transition (one example is How to know if you are pre- or post-griever (and why it matters))
  • 5 significant arenas to start early
  • It’s not all about you: 3 important steps that allow others to end this season of your life well
  • Insight on how to grieve a transition that is slow in coming
  • How to identify and manage stress leading up to a transition

Looming Transitions is available on Amazon—both in paperback and kindle. In addition, I’ve created graphics you can use for blogs, newsletters, and social media as a small way to help those of you in transitions! If you could help spread the word to mission committees, organizations and people you know who will be transitioning to or from the field, you can be a part of helping more to start and finish well in cross-cultural service. This book can also be offered at a discount for purchases of 10 copies or more (messymiddle (at) gmail (dot) com).

Because I know many of you are in need of this book now, I’d love to offer three copies to readers of A Life Overseas. Leave a comment about the type of transition you’re in or who you’d give this book to and three winners will be drawn and notified on Monday.

With blessing, Amy

*** The giveaway is now over and the winners have been notified. I am blessed and humbled by this community! To slow me down and keep me grounded in your needs, for the drawing I wrote each of your names on a piece of paper and prayed for you. The outpouring of comments has reminded me of how very much we need each other, we need A Life Overseas, and we need resources. Very blessed to be a part of all that’s going on here as we know the truth that life is hard, God is good, and God is sovereign and do our best to understand and hold all three in tension.