Yesterday was my 30th wedding anniversary.
My husband and I met back to back at an Indian restaurant on Devon Street in Chicago. He was a cute grad student at the University of Illinois. I was a cute nurse newly deported from Pakistan. A week later I said to someone “I think I’m going to marry this guy!”
And I did.
We have what we affectionately term a “brave marriage.” By God’s grace it has weathered crises that most marriages never dream they will have to withstand. And some of those crises occurred in our life overseas. Because of this our anniversary is the more precious. Today I take you into one of those crises – and I ask for grace as you read it.
As I reflect back it feels like a lifetime ago – and in some ways, it was.
I sat outside in the Marriott courtyard, sipping a hot coffee. It was a warm winter day in Cairo, and the strong desert sun cast light and shadows across abundant plants. This was one of my favorite spots to sit, read, and reflect in a city of 18 million people and limited green space, but my mind was far from enjoying this time. Despite the warmth I was shaking with cold.
In this city of millions there seemed nowhere to turn. No place to go. No one to talk to.
My husband was director for a demanding study abroad program. 24 students were in our care and we had to answer for all of them academically, physically, and emotionally. Their home colleges and their parents had entrusted them to us for this semester in Cairo, an arguably safe city in the Middle East at the time. But with the media holding an upper hand on disseminating information about the Middle East in the United States, it was still considered a risk.
Along with the work responsibilities, we had four children aged three to ten and we were raising them in a context completely different from those of our peers in the United States. Daily they took a taxi across the busy city to a small school located in an apartment off a side street in Cairo. They studied and played with a handful of other kids. We lived in a neighborhood with no other expatriates. Cairo was their home and had been for the past six years.
But I sat there that day thinking about none of this. I was in a sea of pain, our marriage had been wounded and we were desperately in need of life support. And I didn’t know how to get it.
Living overseas brings tremendous joys and adventure; it also brings some extraordinarily difficult times and crises. And sometimes the extraordinary difficulty has to do with our marriages.
So what do you do when your marriage is wounded and you are far from professional counseling? What do you do when you need an intensive care unit and all that is available is a small clinic with unskilled staff?
You cast yourself on the author of marriage and pray for mercy.
And mercy came but with it tremendous loss. Because over the next few months, we realized we could not stay in Cairo. We realized that we would have to leave. We contacted trusted people in the United States and they were unanimous – leave, get help, don’t cling to a life overseas when there is no help available.
And during that time we were like burn victims, if anyone tried to get close we screamed in pain and pushed them away.
And my heart knew a depth of pain I’d not experienced before. Not in boarding school at 6 years old, not in college when home was eight thousand miles away; not at family funerals. It was the pain of a wounded marriage coupled with the realization I had to leave. How could I leave? How could I leave this place I loved with every fiber of my being? How could we give up this successful study abroad program that had been my husband’s baby – transformed from 7 pages of paper into a functioning, thriving 3 year old program? How could I, a third culture kid who had an angsty relationship with her passport country, go back to that country?
“Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs.”* The words from Jonah could not have been clearer – I was trying to cling to an idol – the idol of ministry overseas. I was willing to forfeit the grace that our marriage so desperately needed for a life overseas. How was it that I had placed living overseas in a higher position than marriage? Marriage – God’s design to show his Glory; marriage – God’s design to somehow in a mysterious way reflect God’s love and desire for his church; marriage – that hardest, bravest relationship we ever embark on.
Our crisis feels like a lifetime ago – and in some ways it was. As much as it hurt to leave Cairo, we would never have received the help we needed had we stayed. And the fall out would have affected everyone in our path, wounding in a way we could not imagine.
At the end of April we had the opportunity, through the Orthodox church, to receive a marriage blessing. At the time I wrote this on my personal blog and I close with it today: “….above all in this journey of marriage we have experienced the deepest mercy possible to humans. We have experienced the mercy of God that we can still stand, heads held high, certain of nothing but his love and grace to us. We have experienced the mercy of each other, so clear are we in knowing how much we have erred, how often we have sinned against each other. We have experienced the mercy of our children, gracious in their love and forgiveness of us. We have experienced the mercy of our families, standing by our sides through the awful and the wonderful. We have experienced the mercy of our friends who have walked this road with us. We are twice blessed.”
What about you? How do you respond to the words “the idol of ministry overseas?” Have you been through a crisis, whether marital or otherwise, where your desire to stay where you are has affected your willingness to get help?
Announcement: I have a book! The name of it is Between Worlds: Essays on Culture and Belonging and in it I explore the themes of home, place, belonging, and grief and loss. My prayer is that this can be a real resource for TCKs and their parents! It is available at Amazon and at Barnes & Noble. B&N has quicker delivery but is slightly higher cost. There is an accompanying discussion guide that I would love to send you if you purchase the book. Contact me through the comments below and we will go from there.