When You’re a Struggling Overseas Worker

When I was introduced to *Sarah, a newcomer to Canada, and her son, Austin*, at the drop-in playgroup the other day, I’m ashamed to admit that I judged her a little bit.  Her son seemed a little bit out of control (or just hangry).  And Sarah was tired and appeared apathetic.  She was due with baby number two in a week or so and was in a relatively new country and culture.  There’s no way of knowing the depth of how affected she was by the trauma from her war-torn country and the excruciating pain and loss before leaving her beloved homeland.  There’s no doubt she was missing loved ones – whether they even still lived, I do not know.  I had a sense that she was generally just feeling numb.  And then I got it.  I understood.  

Though my own experience pales in comparison to that of any refugee, I do know what it’s like to live in a foreign country where culture and language, no matter how much I learned, still left me feeling like an outsider.  Sarah’s numbness reminded of my last several years in Thailand, overwhelmed with motherhood, and weighed down with anxiety and grief.  I was numb too.  I get it.  I really do.  My heart was moved with compassion and I felt prompted to pray for Sarah and think more about how I can reach out to her and her family. 

I was also reminded of other moms on the mission field who are in the depths of the numbing shame for not handling life better than they are.  I think of single friends who are struggling despite being called.  These women struggle despite having prepared for serving overseas, despite their numerous prayer supporters, and despite a caring husband, housemate or team.  

One friend shared incredulously that she had actually been told that living in her country of service was exactly the same as living in her passport country.  “Why are you struggling so much?” they asked her.  (For what it’s worth, the two countries were vastly different in both culture and language.  Just basic daily living overseas can be exhausting, not to mention any ministry work!)

If that’s you, if this is how you’re feeling and what you’re struggling with, what I want to tell you is that you’re not alone.  You’re not the only one who has been in your position and struggled.  You’re not the only one whose feet keep getting stuck in the muddy bog, who use up nearly all their strength each time you lift your leg and break free only to get stuck as soon as that foot aims to set firm again.  

To you, I say this:

Don’t let your suffering isolate you.  Tell even just one other person your biggest burden, and you may just find they say, “I’m thankful you shared that with me.”  Or even, “Me too.”  Far too often we think that we’re the only one who has struggled with something and, for the most part, that’s simply not true.  You can even e-mail me [ beth at bethdonchai dot com ] and I would be happy to pray for you!

Seek help or ask someone you trust to assist you to get that help. It may be found in a counsellor, or your physician or both.  Be persistent in getting the help that you need. Be your own advocate or ask your spouse or friend to be your advocate.  There are wonderful online resources like those at MissionaryCare.com to give you a start in the right direction.  There are also extremely helpful counselling services available for missionaries and expatriates in many locations around the world.  Many of the counselling centres that I’m aware of, even offer some follow-up counselling via Skype.  Cornerstone Counseling Foundation and The Well International are two fantastic foundations in Chiang Mai, Thailand who offer a wide variety of counselling services.  Feel free in the comments to make personal recommendations of other counselling centres.  

Give thanks to God – you’ll find that this alone will change your perspective.  This study found that “compared with the participants who wrote about negative experiences or only received counseling, those who wrote gratitude letters reported significantly better mental health four weeks and 12 weeks after their writing exercise ended. This suggests that gratitude writing can be beneficial not just for healthy, well-adjusted individuals, but also for those who struggle with mental health concerns. In fact, it seems, practicing gratitude on top of receiving psychological counseling carries greater benefits than counseling alone, even when that gratitude practice is brief.”

Paul wrote many of his letters when he was suffering or facing persecution and yet he was so full of joy and gratefulness to God.  I recognize and fully understand that this is NOT EASY but the same Spirit who empowered Paul lives within each Christ follower today.  

The people who I found to be most supportive and helpful when I struggled were the ones who had gone before me through similar challenges.  They had battled the same battles, sought the help and support they needed, overcame obstacles, moved to healthier ministry locations, made other healthy life changes and were able to now help other missionaries who were struggling.  

This was what Paul wrote about in 2 Corinthians 1:3-11 (ESV):

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.  For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too.  If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation, and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer.  Our hope for you is unshaken, for when we know that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort.

“For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia.  For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself.  Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death.   But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.  He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us.  On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again.  You also must help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many.”

So, whether you’re currently struggling on the missionary field, a foreigner living in an unfamiliar land, or one who has the capacity to support newcomers to your country, just remember that you’re not alone and that it will get better.  I pray that you, too, can get the support you need to not just survive where God has called you to be, but to thrive.

*Names changed to protect privacy.

Photo credit: John Silliman on Unsplash

Finding Healing in His Presence

It’s mid-afternoon and I stand in the middle of the grassy yard, eyes transfixed on the movement of light dancing all around me on the ground.  The maple branches are caught in a lyrical dance that fools and I cannot stop watching this masterpiece before me.  

My daughter runs past, asking, “What are you doing, Mommy?”  By this time, I’ve pulled out my phone to try to capture this magic.  It’s hard to explain that it’s not so much the shadows and light that I’m taking pictures of, but the feeling in which I’m enveloped.

This late summer trickery takes me to another backyard, another time period, and another mother.  It calls me in to reflect on time now lost and people now passed.  The dancing light lures me in like a cosy bed on a cool day.  It’s familiar, comfortable, mystical and it feels like time has stopped.  

My daughter stops and asks me again, “What are you doing, Mommy?” She peers at the screen on my phone and positions her feet and legs in the frame to capture herself.  “Look at me!” she exclaims.  Two and a half and full of life and joy and expectancy.  

The light draws me in and she pulls me out – a lifeline in the grief that has poured another wave over my head since returning to my hometown.  She leans over and presses the button to take a picture on my phone over and over again, except it’s still in video mode and the result is a small collection of millisecond videos.  She insists on playing each one.  She laughs and skips off to play with her big sister.

Why am I capturing light when the picture of beauty is in these two beings who grew in my womb?  Why am I so distracted?  Why am I entranced by the movement dancing from tree to grass to bush to shrub?  Its ethereal nature draws me in like the intimacy of the Holy Spirit nurturing my soul.  It’s like a gift from God, communicating His very presence with me.   

Henri Nouwen once wrote, “Each day holds a surprise.  But only if we expect it can we see, hear, or feel it when it comes to us.  Let’s not be afraid to receive each day’s surprise, whether it comes to us as sorrow or joy.  It will open a new place in our hearts, a place where we can welcome new friends and celebrate more fully our shared humanity.”

In this holy space, time stands still.  God’s presence is loud but gentle, His voice firm but loving. He picks up a little piece of my heart that had broken off and makes it whole, along with the rest of me.  

___________________

I often find that the Lord speaks to me when I’m out in nature.  How has God been meeting with you lately?

The Perspective of Returning Home

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I recently looked back at some of my early blog posts, dating back a little over thirteen years ago. I was in the middle of preparing to go to the mission field and, as I read, I was reminded of the many ways that the Lord prepared the way for me. I was single, young, determined, adventurous, and possessed a heart full of faith to follow the Lord where He was calling me. Now, all these years later, I am married with two small children, not as young as I used to be, just as determined, more cautious than adventurous, but still with a heart ready to follow Jesus as He prompts me through His Spirit.

We are heading back “home” to Canada this coming August and I am unsure whether to call it home or not. My mom passed away last year and my dad twenty years before that. My sister and her family live two hours away from where we’ll plant ourselves, and many of my close friends now live scattered across Canada.

Someone asked me recently about what was waiting for us in Canada, assuming we had jobs lined up and a place to live. “Oh,” they replied when my response was negative towards both of those things, “so you’re just waiting on God to see where He’ll lead you?”

The unknowns in my present are just as intimidating as they were when I was anticipating moving to SE Asia. But the difference now is that I have almost thirteen years of experience of walking through unknowns, following the lamp that the Lord’s provided to show the path in front of me, and the regular discipline of reminding myself of what is true.

I know He is El-HaNe’-eman – “faithful God” (Deut. 7:9 ESV). He never changes and, despite circumstances around us being uncertain, He is unwavering in His character.

I know He is Eliezer – “my God is help” (Exodus 18:4 ESV) – and Ebenezer – “stone of help” (1 Samuel 7:12 ESV). I’ve experienced His provisions countless times and often in the most surprising ways. Like Samuel in 1 Samuel 7:12, I have set up various stones – some real, some in my journal, and some through a picture or other creative means – in my life as a way to honour the Lord and remember how He has moved to help me and others around me.

I know He is Immanuel – “God with us” (Isaiah 7:14, 8:8, and Matthew 1:23 ESV). This has been the biggest reason why I’ve been able to persevere in serving the Lord. I have never had to tackle any task, assignment, follow-up visit, language and culture lesson, visa trip, immigration question, sickness, home assignment, dangerous road, sermon or annual reunion conference by myself. He has always been with me and will always be with me. Despite Satan’s attempts to convince me otherwise, I was never alone in that village in the wooden house, never forgotten in that mountainous assignment, never left behind when my husband went off to work and I was home alone with our children. His presence has satisfied my soul, calmed my anxieties and empowered my heart.

So, I anticipate returning home with great expectations of the Lord to remain the same. I know He will lead us through new challenges and adventures, He will provide exactly what we need (and sometimes what we may think we want) and when we need it, and He will remind me that He is with us and will continue to be with us through it all.

Home has changed. And I’ve changed too. I don’t know what home even really means anymore except for it to be the place where God invites me to be, too.

If you’re returning home for the summer or for longer, which testimonies of God’s goodness is the Holy Spirit reminding you of so your soul may be strengthened?

Five Minute Friday: Include #FMF

Ever since my daughters were born, as a part of our day, we would often call my mom via Skype while we were eating breakfast.  I’m sure it wasn’t the most thrilling conversation for my mom but it was such a normal interaction and it made it feel like she was close even though she was half a world away.

When my husband and I would see notifications on Facebook letting us know that Mom had “liked” or “loved” our most recent posts and pictures, we knew my mom was up late, favouring her night owl tendencies.  She would be faithful to leave a comment of encouragement on whatever we had shared.  We used to joke about how she “liked” everything but deep down we truly were appreciative of her efforts to connect.

Now that my mom is gone, having passed away last September, it feels abnormal to go through a breakfast without calling her.  It feels empty to not see her comments and likes on Facebook.  It feels sad that we no longer receive cards in the mail from her.  It feels strange that she’s no longer just half a world away but actually in heaven.

But we’ve found ways to include Mom in our everyday.  We talk about our visits to her in Canada.  We sing songs that were the old reliables that my mom would sing to my daughters on Skype.  My daughters draw pictures to put in a journal for Grandma.  I tell my daughters that this book or that toy or this stuffy or that dress was from Grandma.  I include extra details throughout our day that help us connect to the memories of my mom.  It doesn’t give the allusion that she’s still alive but the memories give us the full picture that she was both my mom and my daughters’ grandmother but, ultimately, the Lord’s child.

We include memories of my mom in the everyday so we don’t forget.

Unassuming Rebels

 

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Photo credit: @fotografie_thomaswilken

In my mom’s backyard garden, there was always a persistent patch of Forget-Me-Nots.  Those tiny blue buds were a happy sight each spring, bursting forth with jubilation and triumph over their successfully large plot in a non-garden area in the yard.  They were planted, with good intentions, in the middle of a grassy spot and they did their thing – they spread.

 Every spring after my dad died, my mom would dig up a fistful of Forget-Me-Nots, roots and all, and would take them to the cemetery where my dad’s ashes had been placed in a columbarium.  There was a small, orderly garden plot directly across from the plaque behind which my dad’s urn sat and my Mom would faithfully replant those Forget-Me-Nots in new soil.

The cemetery had strict guidelines for items placed at graves, in front of columbariums and in the garden plots scattered around the grounds.  They were firm that you were not allowed to plant anything yourself but you could pay the cemetery to plant trees in memory of your loved one.  We did that one year with a black walnut tree – much like the ones in the yard where my dad grew up on his farm, outside of Wallaceburg – and they stationed a small plaque at its base identifying that it was my dad’s tree.

While the tree and the plaque were nice, there was something to be gained that was satisfying for the soul through the act of replanting these flowers. My Mom would defiantly plant those Forget-Me-Nots each year, without fail.

Yesterday, was the anniversary of my dad’s death.  Twenty-one years have passed and my mom, after her own Cancer diagnosis, joined him in heaven last September.

I may not be in Canada this spring, but when I’m there in the future, I hope to continue not only the small rebellion of planting Forget-Me-Nots, but also little acts of love that will help me remember and honour my parents.  They were quiet protesters in their own right, advocating for the voiceless, the poor, the sick and the oppressed.  Their names may never enter history books, but they left a legacy of kindness and love and of sacrificial giving of themselves.

Those tiny blue blossoms.  No matter how hard the winter, they are resilient, persistent, and multiply joy.  May we weather storms of life in an equal manner.

Five Minute Friday: Stuck

I half awoke during an afternoon nap, where my two-year-old was asleep on a mat on the floor and my almost five-year-old was beside me, clicking a plastic container with pretend grapes inside.  All that I can remember now is that in that half asleep state, I had solved the problem that was gnawing on me when I originally drifting off.

The gnaw was a hurt that I had forgotten about; so why had it resurfaced?  I had remembered something that had happened before the hurt because of a number of familiar people I saw today.

I remembered that a season had ended with no opportunity to say goodbye to my teammates or to hear goodbye from them.  This ending was complicated but not, and my choice… but not.  And as I remembered this hurt that ate away at me, I felt simply stuck.  Like a broken record.  Like a toy train going around the same track. Like a lie that Satan had tried to convince me of.

Now that I’m writing these memories down, I also remember that my solution in my half asleep state was to reprogram the narrative.  Huh.  That’s actually a good start.

Day 27: Overcome #write31days

There were two weekends during Mom’s last summer when she declined so poorly that the doctors told us that she likely wouldn’t make it another day.  Twice she defied their words.  Twice she bounced back from death’s door.  Twice we said goodbye (let’s be honest, we did that countless times, each and every time we saw each other or spoke on the phone) for what we thought was the last time.  Twice she rallied on.

A month before she died, she had one of these weekends where it seemed very evident that she was dying.  Her doctor prepared us and explained to us what to expect, as did her nurses.  But Mom improved and surprised us all by living another three to four weeks.

It was painful to hear her say in those last weeks, “I’m trying to get better” because she couldn’t “get better.”  She had terminal Cancer and as much as I prayed for a miracle and believed God COULD do it, I didn’t know if He WOULD do it.

Mom’s efforts in small things like brushing her teeth on her own, or eating a full meal became the everyday miracles.  Pushing her around the gardens outside and sharing a blueberry muffin with her were miracles to me, to us.  Every day became a gift when we knew our days with her were finite.  Every day we conquered mountains.

Day 26: Change #write31days

I remember after my Dad passed away, twenty-one years ago, that I envisioned our family like a stool.  Initially, our family had four secure legs, but after my Dad died, and after some time to process the loss and grief, I could see our family as a three-legged stool.  It was different.  We had to reposition ourselves.  But after these adjustments (this makes it sound so easy), we would be able to stand.  My Mom, my older sister and me.

Now with my Mom gone, I don’t think that analogy works anymore.  Not because I feel like I can’t stand but because I can (although hurting and missing my Mom something fierce).  My sister and I both have our own families, but beyond blood relatives and married-into-the-family relatives, I feel that we have a stronger sense of the community that is also a part of our family.  If we were still a stool, we’d be one with more than a hundred legs.

We called my Mom’s support group, Team Becky – maybe that’s what we still are even though she’s now gone.

Day 24: Revise #write31days

If you could go back, what would you change?  If my Mom could go back and take care of herself more, would that have led to a different outcome?  If we had pressed for answers back in April when she was hospitalised twice within one week for pneumonia, would we have been able to do anything?  If I had returned to Canada sooner to live closer to my Mom, would we be aching in the same way from time that we never had but should’ve?

It’s easy to think of what ifs and assume that the outcome would’ve been different or perhaps better, but it’s too tiring to think about it all because the reality is here and my Mom is in a far better place, with no more pain or suffering.  Her faith was renewed.  The Lord graciously met our needs in ways that were… how they were meant to be met.  Of course, I would like to revise this last year, but at the same time, I trust that God is sovereign.  Am I really so presumptious to assume that I know better than my Creator?  Than my Mom’s Creator?

Day 23: Work #write31days

I’ve been tired and while there are many factors that could be, and probably are, contributing to my fatigue, I think the main culprit is grief.  I say this without any doubt: grief is work.

There was the grief we experienced when we knew my Mom’s days were limited, and when we thought she was going to pass that weekend, or that weekend and then when she finally did pass.  There’s the grief during the celebration of life service and the details that had to be arranged.  There’s the grief in the legalities.  Grief in the kind sentiments from relatives, neighbours, friends and sometimes almost strangers.  There’s the grief in the distance between when you last hugged her and were hugged back and now.  There’s the grief in the day to day tugs and pulls of little ones and your spouse and the life that you’ve gone back to that is supposed to be normal.

It’s tiring.  It’s work.  It’s hard.

[written Dec. 11, 2017 for #write31days in October]