In the middle of that moment with the cold seeping into joint and marrow, in what felt like an endless night, we couldn’t imagine being warm ever again. We had been hiking down the mountainside all day. The expansive view of the Ozarks still fresh in our memories, we descended into the absolute opposite landscape. My family and eight others had been hiking for four days already. Bone weary, hungry, and exhausted we stood in front of the mouth of a wild cave with our hearts beating loudly in our ears.
We walked into absolute darkness and total silence, overwhelmed with the experiences of the past few days and all the emotions they stirred inside of us. That stillness was harshly broken the moment we stepped out of the cave to find a downpour had begun in the valley. We quickly got to work, easily falling into the teamwork we had built. Those best at building shelters set to work with the tarps, finding the few places of flat ground to stay for the night. As soon as one shelter was set up just high enough for us to crouch under, those who had gathered whatever wood they could began stacking it for those of us with knives. Quick but methodical, we shaved off the soaked bark until we reached something inside that was dry enough to burn.
Hours later we stood huddled near the fire, arms around each other as much for warmth as to keep ourselves standing. Together we’d succeeded in building a fire in the least ideal conditions. We devoured the food prepared over it, grateful for both the warmth and the sustenance the flames had provided. We coughed as smoke gathered in our tiny shelter. We alternated between keeping warm and turning our faces outward to gasp for clean air.
At three in the morning, we wept together as we recalled the past few days. We had done things we never imagined ourselves capable of. We had seen such darkness in ourselves as we grappled for certainty in the wilderness. We glimpsed such light in each other as we banded together as family to carry one another when we didn’t believe we could make it. We felt the deepest cold imaginable as the rushing waters flooded the valley where we stood. We felt the warmth of peace as we sang hymns together and reminded each other that God gave us the strength to press on. Whenever I stare into the flickering glow of a fire, I remember that night. I remember what it feels like to know I can overcome.
In the middle of this moment with the numbness of depression sapping the energy from joint and marrow, in what feels like an endless night, I can’t imagine ever being warm again. I have been stumbling through the day and finally have a quiet house to myself. The expansive view of a new adventure on the horizon fills my memory. My family had been working towards our international move for years. Bone weary, alone, and exhausted I have descended into culture shock that I never saw coming. You prepare for it. You read about it. But you don’t think it won’t shake your whole world. Then it does...
I'm at SheLoves Magazine today sharing how my experience in one valley mirrors another, how I know God gives us strength for whatever we are facing. Whatever challenge you face today, will you join me in choosing to believe God can overcome?
After eight months of slowly dipping my feet into the churning sea of my adopted South Asian home’s culture, I’ve barely gotten past the surface. This country is much less diverse than America in terms of a melting pot of many nations. Our white faces draw crowds wherever we go because seeing foreigners is less common than in other more touristy locations in Asia. Yet, the diversity within this single culture is so staggering, I can’t navigate it well enough to place my finger on generalities.
One friend was married at age 13, a common practice in many villages. Another is still single nearing 30, her parents constantly trying to arrange her marriage. This girl covers her head while another wears jeans and a t-shirt. That woman wasn’t educated past third grade and can only write her name while yet another runs a school teaching the language to foreigners. One fasted the entire month of Ramadan and has been on the pilgrimage to Mecca. Another casually claims Islam but isn’t really observant. She has never left the small radius of her village. She is one of the few women in the capital city to drive a motorbike. She attended a small madrasa. She studied at the top international school in the country. All of these women are just as “normal” as the next, breaking the molds that try to contain them as women, as South Asian and as Muslim.
A co-worker has lived in this country for nearly a decade and has been outside of her passport country for 20 years. I thought surely she would have a good grasp of cultural norms and so I looked to her for guidance...
"Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing." - 1 Thessalonians 1:5, ESV.
“You’re so brave,” she said admiringly as she slipped the receipt across the counter. I fought back the urge to laugh or cry, I wasn’t sure which. She saw me one side of me—the foreigner in her country, hopping onto the public buses that merely slowed a bit before one needed to jump off onto the cracking curb. In her eyes, there stood this NGO-worker leaving the familiar to serve the people of her country. It was something she didn’t dream she could do and she said as much.
She didn’t see me thirty minutes earlier, sitting in my quiet apartment before my family began to stir, fighting back the fear that was churning in my stomach like yesterday’s spicy fish curry refusing to go down quietly. She didn’t witness this formerly proudly independent woman trying to talk herself into just opening that door to face the world outside. She didn't see that version of me.
When I lived in my home country I had a weekly ritual. I would slip out of the house under the still dark sky and escape to a coffee shop to write. I wouldn’t emerge until the sun was rising high in the sky and I had explored the depths of my soul on the page. I would return home to my family just beginning their days while I was buzzing with caffeine and passion. I felt powerful, invincible.
When the sunlight hit my face that morning I sat straight up in bed reaching for my phone to check the time. I forgot how early the dawn comes here and I saw it is not yet six. I eased out of bed and got ready quickly only to then sit there staring at that menacing door. I’d barely left my house all week, hemmed in by culture shock and depression, a kind of fear and anxiety that were as unexplainable as they were unpredictable. After eight months in this South Asian Mega-city, I felt breakable, broken....
People think life overseas is one big adventure. It’s not.
It’s still just life, lived out in an unfamiliar location. You quickly forget the exotic and get into mundane patterns of existence. The rains that flood the streets whenever there is a downpour aren’t interesting anymore, but just an obstacle that makes the kids’ bus two hours late coming home from school. You make the mistake once of trying to go out before Iftar and learn the hard way that you should stay home after four o’clock for the entire month of Ramadan to avoid the standstill traffic. You trudge down the same sidewalks and past the same half-erected buildings day in and day out because going much farther than your small section of the massive city drains the remaining energy that the sweltering heat hasn’t already taken from you.
Many days you stare at the same walls as you stay inside, too tired to battle it all. You look out over a sea of green you noticed as beautiful when you first came but the beauty is lost on you. You see the exotic looking banana trees but only to notice they have all grown down into cracking sidewalks, pushing their roots through the bricks constantly in need of repair. You may be able to see a small, luscious yard but it is behind the gated walls of one of the few verandas dotting the sea of high-rise apartments. Your territory has become concrete walls and barred windows, looking out over a section of the earth that feels very small despite its millions of inhabitants.
Maybe the view out your window looks very different than mine but I have the sneaking feeling you might have looked at it in the same way at some point. I have literally and figuratively felt trapped a lot in the last few months. Our tiny space inside the vast city we inhabit has felt like it is closing in on me. My legs long for spaces to stretch out, my heart yearns for a place to allow my children to run. My soul too longs for room, for wider prayers and for someone to hold space for me.
I’ve had the joy of a few intimate friendships that have deepened over time and which fueled my life and kept me going. In their absence, I feel like the grinch whose heart has shrunk a few sizes. My mood, energy level, and prayer life all are evidence of a heart and soul that feels only the restrictions on my life and doesn’t see the beauty anymore.
The counselor I have been talking to over email tells me I am right on schedule, a textbook case of culture shock and that these feelings are normal. They don’t feel normal. They feel stifling and overwhelming with a side of shame. I have always been a proponent of asking for help when you need it. But it still took me weeks after I received the counselors email address to actually reach out to her. Feeling completely exposed in front of a stranger is a new place for me, an uncomfortable and messy one. A necessary one...
The sound of the waves has faded into memory by now and the story of deliverance threatens to dissipate right along with it. Free from bondage, witnesses to miracles beyond belief, we thought we’d be settled by now. As our feet dig circles in the burning sand we understand why. We are still living in exile. When will we finally be home?
A year ago everything about our path was unknown. Jobs in one country had fallen through but we pursued opportunities in another, little known to us. We were selling our home without another yet in place. We didn’t know when or where we’d land. It was in the words of Exodus that I found courage, believing God would part the sea for us.
I recently sat down at the prompting of a spiritual director via an online retreat I attended. We were instructed to map the last twelve months of our lives. We were to mark the high and low points in our journey. That was easy enough to do. But then as part of this “peaks and valleys” exercise we attached a color to each experience, representing an emotion. In each moment were we angry, scared, excited, sad, happy, or tender towards God, others or ourselves?
My sketch looked like the plummeting hills of a roller coaster, the kind that makes your stomach plunge into your throat with each startling twist. The last marker, like the “you are here” on a map was a low point, a blot of black ink indicating fear. I realized as much about our lives is as uncertain as a year ago. We thought, like the Hebrews, that past the sea we would find freedom. We found more questions instead. Six months into life in a new country we ask: When will the language start to make sense? When will we stop feeling so lost, make a friend who really knows us, feel settled or fulfilled, have expectations met? How long will we stay? A thousand questions remain and home seems an unattainable dream.
In full color, all the tiny transitions of the last year became a map of my journey of fear and faith. We were prompted to ask, “When have I felt this way before?” as we looked at our experiences. The green of new life and excitement contrasted with the dark points of fear and I realized in both excitement and fear, joy and sadness, we’ve been living in the wilderness. Yet sometimes I found joy in the desert of the unknowing and others I retreated into despair. What was the difference?
We're all wandering, on our way somewhere and facing transitions and unexpected bumps along the way. With what lens do you view the journey? Through fear or with the eyes of faith? Join me at SheLoves today and share where you are in this journey...
I see them every day on the streets—the hungry. They stretch out trembling hands and plead for something to sustain them. A handout is not enough though. It may fill them for the day but they are back at the same bus stop the next morning, empty-handed and asking for more.
I’ve been that person for many days. I come to God with open hands and I ask for more of who He is, some feeling of His presence to carry me. I can’t count the number of books on prayer and contemplation I have read in the past few years. I begin reading with a hopeful heart. This is the one that will jumpstart my prayers,I think, that will tell me where my heart has gone astray in its connection to the giver of life. But I close the book in sadness. I don’t see any changes in myself.
The Furious Longing of God by Brennan Manning has been in my kindle queue for a while and I opened it on a whim last month. When I finished reading it I felt more like that pleading pauper than ever. I saw so much of myself in the flawed character of this alcoholic ex-priest, this man both attracted to and repelled by God. I knew his heart in the way he was never settled, always searching. But he had something in all his wandering that I didn’t—this ability to accepted God’s love fully and not get bogged down in his own failures and attempts to earn the love of the Father.
I wept with longing as I read: “Is your own personal prayer life characterized by the simplicity, childlike candor, boundless trust, and easy familiarity of a little one crawling up in a Daddy’s lap? An assured knowing that Daddy doesn’t care if the child falls asleep, starts playing with toys, or even starts chatting with little friends, because the daddy knows the child has essentially chosen to be with him for that moment?”
I yearn for this kind of trust in God’s affection for me. I want to believe that my attempts towards Him are enough, that in all my lack He is still infinitely pleased with me. I kept coming back to Manning’s words, devouring his autobiography in a few days and then launching into Dear Abba. I didn’t yet see any kind of shift in my prayers but I was so taken with this ragamuffin that I kept reading.
I was invited to a two-day retreat with a few other expat ladies in the South Asian city I’ve called home for nearly half a year. I longed for connection to someone in a place where loneliness is my daily companion. I came again with trembling and empty hands, not sure if there would be anything to fill them...
It's such a small thing; it couldn't possibly have that big of an impact. It's just like the small bud of a flower, the ones we watch developing daily on the plants that grow in the nursery right outside the window of our fifth-floor flat. It's such a small thing—that negative thought. That complaint, that fleeting feeling of guilt or shame, that sideglance at the thing someone has done to annoy me.
But here's the truth about small things: They always grow. I find myself constantly admiring the vibrant pink tendrils of the bougainvilleas all over the city, which start small but take over whole verandas and sides of buildings. My thoughts have been doing the same thing lately. I started to notice it early in the month when my attitude turned sour and my insides felt raw. I was on the edge of tears whenever anyone said a word to me and couldn't understand why.
The next day I kept my mobile phone on me throughout the day and typed a quick sentence every few minutes. Wherever I felt my thoughts taking me, I took note of it. Reading over them at the end of the day, I felt as if I was beating my way through an overgrown path where thistles scraped at me and branches clawed at my skin. One negative bud had turned into a full-grown thought-life that brought nothing but death.
I was shocked at what I found when I took the time to slow down and look inside. Lies had woven themselves around my heart and crowded out the truth and joy of God's Word. Transitions are hard and painful things, to be sure. Five months into life in South Asia we are deep in the feelings of inadequacy and failure, of uncertainty and culture-shock. But I was letting all of those hard feelings define me and I knew it had to stop or they were going to choke the life out of me.
So even though it kind of felt like that old recurring dream of showing up in front of your entire class naked, I typed up a call for help on facebook. I brought the dark thoughts of failure and fear I was having into the light for all to see. I went to bed while most of my friends and family on the other side of the world were waking, into a deep sleep that never feels like enough these days. I woke with a vulnerability hangover. Ugh, should I have said those things? I groggily unlocked my phone and the tears that had threatened for weeks came tumbling down and continued throughout the day as the comments poured in. Over 40 friends in 6 different countries responded with messages of support, with prayers and encouragement, with "I've been there" and "Thank you for your honesty."
I'd love to say that one act of confession freed me from the shame that has wrapped itself so fully around my heart but it is a daily battle, a choice to speak the truth into the darkness and a discipline to find thankfulness in the midst of the monotony and loneliness that mark early expat life.
There's a simple exercise mentioned by Barbara Brown Taylor in her memoir Leaving Church and made popular again recently by Anne Bogel of Modern Mrs. Darcy who says: "Even though most of us can easily articulate what’s killing us, few of us pay attention to what’s giving us life." Taylor asks the question: What is saving your life right now?
In the midst of countless little deaths every day (the convenience of driving a car or easily getting around a city, the access to outdoor space to play, the access to friends and family, the freedom to write in a busy season of language school), I have to stop living in the grief of it all and finding little joys, things that are giving me life, saving my life.
This week it's been as simple as taking a few minutes to have cha at a roadside stand with friends from language school, choosing to not study for a night and watch a couple hours of TV with my husband instead, finishing that Easter watercolor so that there was something of the season in our home, listening to Elevation Worship's Do It Again on a loop, and making myself get out of the house and go to a church service in the local language. I didn't understand many words but I raised my hands to the beautiful beating of the drum and the chaotic and heavenly sound of a roomful of voices lifted in prayer all at the same time. I felt closer to God at that moment than if I'd known every word that had been uttered that night. It was not just choosing to do those things but stopping to notice them, to relish in them and thank God for them.
Today when the darkness feels like it is choking out the life that is but a tiny seedling, I have to make the choice again and again. Will I let this hope be smothered or beat back the darkness? Will I choose to let joy grow?
For a moment, as the sunlight filters through our red paisley curtains casting a warm glow across the tile floor, I forget. It’s just a split second though before the sounds of the city pierce the morning and I am plunged into the day ahead. I remember that I am simultaneously home and 8000 miles from home.
We’ve lived in South Asia four months now and our flat has a warmth to it that feels like a haven when we walk in from the crowded streets. It is home. But the teeming masses outside our door, the culture that surrounds us, and the language that engulfs us—it all still feels so far away. Our brains live on overdrive, trying to process all the newness and the words we know we have heard before but can’t place. Studying a complex and hauntingly beautiful language simply makes me tired…all the time.
For the first few months, I held onto everything I could because I’d let go of so much already—frequent calls to family and friends, TV, anything familiar. And I especially wanted to keep up my blog and writing commitments. It was my tie to home, to who I had been and wanted to still be. A couple months into full-time school there was a tugging at the back of my heart that I didn’t want to face. I was stress and overwhelmed. Instead of finding joy in what awaited me in the day ahead just managing normal life felt daunting. Writing deadlines on top of that felt like torture.
The tug wouldn’t go away. I knew what I needed to do. I needed to let go of something tethering me to a place that I wanted to be but was no longer. But I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I spent the last three years building my passion for writing into something that defined me. For a long time, I didn’t dare call myself a “real writer.” Each published piece gave me more confidence. Seeing my name on essays published in several books, I finally boldly claimed the title author, writer, editor. It is my writing that opened the doors for us to move to this particular job overseas and I will be working in communications down the road once we get some grasp on language. But it’s my personal writing, the places I show up every month and the communities I love (Mudroom, SheLoves, Ready Magazine, Redbud Writer’s Guild) that I didn’t want to loosen my grasp on.
In the middle of a particularly low week when I could barely lift my eyes to heaven, one of those online communities I love posted this blessing by Jan Richardson:
That each step
may be a shedding.
That you will let yourself
That when it looks
like you’re going backwards
you may be making progress.
That progress is not the goal anyway,
to the feel of the path on your skin,
to the way it reshapes you
in each place it makes contact,
to the way you cannot see it
until the moment you have stepped out.
Each word was a knife to my heart and a salve to the same wound. Through the tears I typed an email to all my editors and told them I need to take a step back for right now. It feels like a little death, letting go of my writing even for a time. It may be for a couple months. It may need to be longer. It’s another thing that I worked hard to build that I am tearing back down, like the home we sold, the people we left behind. It makes me feel so lost.
But maybe being lost isn’t such a bad thing. Perhaps this shedding of parts of myself is exactly what I need right now, to be fully dependant on God for who I am and what gives me worth. Not deadlines. Not readers. Not even the joy I get from telling stories. For right now, I need to just be present where I am and being obedient to just this one day. Maybe I need to live the story for a while before I have the space to write it.
You may not see my words in the usual places over the next few months. It feels like going backward. I have to believe it isn’t though, that it is progress to wherever it is God wants to take me…and you next. So thank you for showing up, for reading my words. I hope you will stick around and this conversation will continue soon. It will shift and change. Life always does.
But when you are feeling lost, maybe these words that spoke to me will be a comfort to you too. Know that you may not feel like you are accomplishing anything. But if presence is the goal, then be where you are. Be fully there and believe that someday…maybe not soon, maybe not when you expect it…but someday, you’ll step out into something new to realize God was accomplishing something great in you.
“Are you going to break up with me next?” she cried in frustration and anger. That anger should have been directed completely at me but it was also pointed at God.
I will never forget the look on my sister’s face when I told her I had broken up with my boyfriend. Disbelief mixed with pain and anger flashed in her eyes. I had caused that. Four years older than me, she was no longer in high school but we were in the same circles and shared a lot of friends. We shared a lot in common—except my faith in Jesus. There were other reasons this guy and I parting ways but my sister got around to asking me if it was because he didn’t share my faith and I admitted that was partly it.
It always came back to this with us. I pushed (hard). She pushed back (harder). Disagreeing never accomplished anything except for driving a wedge between two people who couldn’t see the world the same way. I thought I could argue her into believing. I think she would have stopped herself from believing just to spite me ... and she would have been right.
I cringe when I think back to the headstrong and arrogant youth that saw the world one way and expected to debate others into the Kingdom of God. I wish I could change this part of my history but what I can do is learn from it. Unfortunately, one thing I’ve learned is the fear of disagreeing altogether.
I spent so many years mending the damage from my ignorance and never wanting to harm another, especially in the name of the Jesus who never pushed His way into anyone’s life. I have taken the backseat of being a learner and I am more comfortable there.
I still have strong opinions. Just ask my small circle of friends close enough to hear my real political opinions. These are things I do not air publically. The thought of doing so recalls memories of that unkind girl and makes my heart beat faster than it should.
Enter social media and the fact that I am a writer in Christian circles—both of which these days means airing opinions and feelings, writing them out for all to see. I would say I picked the wrong vocation if I had actually picked it. Ask most writers and they’ll tell you it picked them, that they can’t help it. But that doesn’t negate the dread I feel about disagreement (especially about matters as deeply personal as faith and the way we express it)...
A gentle whisper in my ear broke through my early morning dream. I sat up quickly when the sunlight filtering through our red paisley curtains cast a crimson glow across my son’s face. The unwelcome light accused me and immediately my self-berating thoughts began:
"I did it again. I promised this day would be different. I would get up while it was still dark and spend time with God. I know I need it and it is a new year. I can’t do anything right."
“Play with me, mommy?” My six-year old's big brown eyes danced with hope as I was caught up in my inner dialogue of despair. My first instinct was to decline his request and send him on his way. My husband and daughter’s snores told me I could hand my son an electronic device and still have time to hit my yoga mat before they woke.
In the split second between his request and my response, there was a war raging inside my head. I thought back to the previous day when I sat at the dining room table with papers scattered all around. My half filled out bullet journal from last year sat there mocking me. You failure, the uncompleted to-do lists said. The daily gratitude page was half filled out, telling me I was ungrateful. You're lazy, said the books I intended to read but hadn’t. The pieces I needed to have already written because deadlines were looming, calling me: Procrastinator. And worse of all, the scriptures I hadn’t memorized, the devotional I was reading that I was weeks behind on said: Bad Christian.
I ripped out the accusing pages one by one. I stared at the crumpled mess on the floor and wanted to shout at them, "You don’t define me. I am going to change. This time will be different." After over three decades of living with this inner dialogue, I know my tendencies by now. I’m all or nothing. If I can’t follow through with every stroke of my schedule, the whole plan is abandoned. If I say I am going to get up and workout, read my Bible, and pray every morning and instead oversleep (again), then I will go the whole day without doing any of those things. I’ve already failed, so what’s the point in trying?
All those stories so ingrained in my early upbringing in the faith run through my mind. Meant to encourage us towards spiritual disciplines, these stories set a bar of perfectionism I have been trying to attain every since. There was the one about a certain man of faith who never once missed a day reading his Bible. When he got sick towards the end of his life, his wife sat by his hospital bed and read it to him each day. There is the man praised because he didn’t miss a single Sunday of church even when his child was sick in the hospital or the woman who showed up to rock babies every weekend for decades. I was always told faithfulness to a task proves faithfulness to God…thus I am unfaithful.
This bent towards perfectionism has been killing me for years, snuffing out a fire of intimacy with God that used to burn brightly. And I’m so tired of it...